Ski Europe 2005: Comparing stateside with European skiing
Where’s the best skiing — in Europe or the United States? Both have their fans. It would be tough to say one is better than the other, because they are different and each has advantages and disadvantages.
First-time skiers to Europe, accustomed to polite and civilized lift lines in the States, might be shocked at the aggressive behavior on some European slopes, where pushing and trickery to get ahead in line is the modus operandi. Some skiers resort to using their poles to block others from getting past them.
“Be prepared to sharpen your elbows and poke them out,” advises Cindy Beger, a ski instructor at Deer Valley, Utah, who lived and skied in Europe for five years. “People will scoot ahead if you are used to a leisurely lift line.”
And, don’t expect to find tissue dispensers or tool kits for binding adjustment attached to the posts at lift lines in Europe, amenities that are common at many U.S. resorts.
Bob Leatherman, who used to live and ski in Europe and now works in guest services at Aspen, Colo., says Aspen has containers at the top of slopes from which employees dispense water for skiers while providing trail information. Free coffee and cookies are also provided at the bottom of the Aspen gondola, he says.
“People in the U.S. like being pampered more than Europeans, who expect to be more on their own,” he says. Aspen even has “ski ambassadors” who will ski with you and show you the mountain at no charge.
But to ski Aspen or Deer Valley, both upscale U.S. resorts, costs big bucks. A one-day lift ticket in high season costs $72 in both resorts. Compare that with the lift ticket prices in some of Europe’s top resorts this season: Zermatt, Switzerland, (international ticket including the slopes of Cervinia, Italy), 74 Swiss francs (about $58); Verbier, Switzerland, 61 Swiss francs; St. Anton, Austria, 39 euros (about $49.50); and Three Valleys, France, 41 euros.
While European resorts may not be flush with amenities, they offer more freedom. U.S. resorts must carry personal liability insurance, Leatherman says, and as a result restrict where you can go and how fast you can ski.
“In Europe you can just roam. If something happens, it’s your fault,” he says.
Indeed, on European mountains you are free to ski off-piste, and it’s a big attraction for many expert skiers. If you dare to ski off-piste in the United States, you lose your skiing privileges.
“The U.S. is so safety conscious,” notes Kathy Pitner, an Aspen ski instructor who lived and skied in Europe for seven years. “Europe is more open. I like the ability to ski wherever you want.”
As most European resorts are above the tree line, there’s not much skiing through the trees on these slopes. Even where there are trees, skiing is usually limited, Beger says.
“Generally in Europe they don’t like you to ski through the trees. It’s an environmental thing. Yet it’s common in the U.S. That’s where the best powder is,” she adds.
As to food, scenery and atmosphere, European slopes outrank their American cousins.
“You can always find really good food in Europe,” Pitner says. “Wander into little huts on the mountain and find really good meals.”
In the States, most resorts have cafeterias on the mountain where you get “food in Styrofoam, burgers from under a warmer,” adds Beger. Deer Valley is an exception, she says.
Beger calls the scenery in the Alps “pretty amazing. … You stand on the top of the Alps and the mountains go on and on. It’s beautiful [in the States], too, but different.”
She and Pitner both praised the ambience of European resorts “There’s so much charm and atmosphere in the cozy little huts and the little Alpine villages,” says Beger, who skied mostly in Austria and Switzerland and rated St. Anton her favorite European resort.
Pitner, whose favorite European area is Verbier, likes the way European resorts are incorporated into towns so you can ski in and out easily. Beger especially likes the “ski circuses” in many European resorts linking the slopes of different areas. Both like the umbrella bars found on many European mountains. These watering holes don’t exist in the United States, they say.
But for lift systems and snow conditions, the United States is ahead, according to the ski instructors. Pitner points out that U.S. lifts are mostly chairs and gondolas, while most European resorts have lots of T-bars and poma lifts.
Beger gives the States better marks for snow. In the years she skied in Europe, only once was there enough snow to ski to the valley floor. “There are lots of rocks,” she says.
The slopes are different, and so are the folks who ski them. “Europeans are more social skiers,” says Beger. “They take a couple of runs and then take a break to eat or drink. They go to get the fresh air, sunshine and exercise. Americans go to ski. They are extremists. They go all-out. Europeans are more moderate.”
Beger has a word of advice for those planning to ski Europe: “Never go on a German holiday.” The slopes will be crowded and you’re apt to get stuck in a major traffic jam before you reach the ski area.
Pitner, Leatherman and Beger all have fond memories of skiing Europe. While they like skiing in the United States, they love to return to this side of the Atlantic to ski and enjoy the differences — the great food, atmosphere, scenery and freedom.
Leah Larkin, a member of the Society of American Travel Writers, is a journalist and skier living in France