Is East or West best? Patrick Thorne tests his nerve on the biggest 'lift-served verticals' on either side of the Atlantic

Last winter, I was fortunate to ski the biggest lift-served verticals on both sides of the Atlantic. In the Alps, this means the long-standing leader by this measure, the Vallée Blanche above Chamonix. At approaching three vertical kilometres, it is the world's largest. However, across the Atlantic a new contender, the resort of Revelstoke in British Columbia, in its second season of operations, has wrested the crown from Whistler. It boasts the biggest rise from base station to highest lift on the continent. So how do they compare?

The Vallée Blanche

Being a hardened skier of three decades experience, I know I shouldn't have been alarmed by the prospect of the infamous arête – a narrow icy, windswept ridge – at the start of the Vallée Blanche run. But I was scared.

This off-piste descent is a global magnet for experienced skiers, perhaps attracting too many of us, with an estimated 80,000 tackling it each winter. The run begins with an ear-popping ascent, by two successive cable cars, of the 2,800m vertical you are to ski down. There is an excellent view of the thousands of metres of Aiguille du Midi cliff face you'll fall down if you go off the side of the ridge you are about to shuffle down, roped to your fellow adventurers, hanging on to your skis with one hand and a rope with the other. I had finally decided to invest in a ski helmet for this trip, although what protection it might provide I wasn't sure.

I plucked up my courage, buoyed by the news only one person had died on the arête (although several have died falling into crevasses once back on their skis). I was less cheered by the advice that if one of us slipped the others should throw themselves to the left or the right side of the ridge to balance the weight on the rope.

On the upside, I was roped to the comedian Marcus Brigstocke, in town promoting his Altitude Festival in Méribel in March. As we edged out, the howling wind drowned out any words he may have uttered to lighten the mood, but at least, I thought, he is quite a big bloke so would be a good counterbalance if I slipped.

Of course, we made it, taking the best part of an hour to do so. (Or so I was told; I was concentrating so hard on inching one foot after the other I had no idea of time.) Now began the "greatest descent in the world".

Given great powder conditions and a blue sky, the glacial scenery as you descend the Mer de Glace is truly spectacular. We had the good weather but we didn't have the powder, just wind-blown slab. And four hours of teeth-rattling, metal edges trying to grip concrete-like snow, were about to ensue.

We left the descent, as many do, at Montenvers (1,913m), to complete the journey by railway after a good meal in the atmospheric Grand Hotel, built in the 1880s to accommodate the first climbers in the area. Getting to the hotel and rail station was the final challenge of the day, however, as this involved clanking up 350 metal steps with weary legs, carrying our skis.

My helmet came in useful in the end: as I climbed on to the train behind Brigstocke, the ski poles sticking out of his backpack thwacked me squarely on the head.

The snows arrived next day. Another ski journalist, Nicky Holford, reported fresh tracks every day when she skied the Vallée Blanche a few days after me. She did, however, fall into a crevasse, fortunately escaping unscathed with the help of her guide.


Before we begin, I should point out that if 1,713m of vertical descent is not enough for you, you can extend the run by hiking up the ridge towards Mount Mackenzie. This does not hold quite the fear factor of the arête at the start of the Vallée Blanche, but does offer a ridge from which you can descend in to the super steep chutes of the North Bowl on your left, or begin your long descent on blacks with those telling names North American ski areas are so good at, such as Jalapeño or Roller Coaster.

Either way, there are many ways down, which is one of the beauties of Revelstoke's superb slope design. The longest route must be the gentlest descent, and that is the 15.2km Last Spike Run, which winds slowly down the mountain face, crossing dozens of steeper trails en route.

If you prefer, you can do almost the entire vertical on black runs like Snow Rodeo, Cannonball and Pitch Black, or there's everything in between.

Revelstoke's ski history stretches back almost as far as that of Chamonix. The town was created more recently, in the late 19th century, by the arrival of the railroad, but early settlers from Europe soon began skiing and in particular ski jumping. There are similarities to Chamonix. The mountains may not stretch as high as Mont Blanc but the scenery is spectacular nonetheless, and you can recognise a classic ski town anywhere in the world.

The modern ski resort development is very new, though, established for the 2007-8 season, and the only resort in the world to offer heli-skiing and cat-skiing as well as its huge lift-served vertical, opened up by the Revelation gondola.

The result is state-of-the-art lift and piste network design, immaculate grooming and North American service standards – several aspects of which contrast directly with Chamonix where the Vallée Blanche is, of course, not groomed and the run was first skied more than a century ago.

Which is best? It depends who you are, and, in the case of the Vallée Blanche in particular, what the snow conditions are like. So long as you have a head for heights, the Chamonix descent remains an incredible and, for me, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Revelstoke is more of a regular resort, blessed with a very, very big vertical that's easy to access and with dozens of different ways to descend it, whatever your ability level.

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