How to Choose the Right Alps’ Grand Ski Tour

The Berner Tour, Switzerland

While most every ski tourer around the world knows the famous Chamonix to Zermatt Haute Route, few know the other big, multi-day grand ski tour options. These other big ski tours are really no less quality, in fact by some measures, they might even be better.

So why, each spring, do the countless herds just show up and do the Chamonix to Zermatt Haute Route? Because it is THE Haute Route. It’s famous, it has the name, it’ll look cool in your Instagram feed, and because it is a good ski tour. But is it good for you?

I was once skiing the Col des Ecandies and watched a large Scot, paralyzed with fear, fly into a rage at everyone stopping to see if he was okay. This guy was in way over his head. The Haute Route was definitely not good for him. He was probably there because it’s the Haute Route, and that is what every ski tourer should do, right?

First, what makes for a Grand Ski Tour? These are the tours typically done between March and May and are done as multi-day journeys, but maybe also include longer stays in individual huts, use the Alps’ hut system, and are in the higher mountain terrain. The classic Grand Ski Tours typically follow a formula that includes; up early at the hut, long slogs, big ups, big downs, and an agenda. Savvy guides and locals will know how to include variations, given the conditions, to make for the best skiing or peak climbing.

One major thing we‘ve noticed is that point to point tours, like the Haute Route, can be stressful. As a result, the vibe is very different compared to the relaxed atmosphere of a tour like the Ortler, where you aren’t pressed to arrive at a certain place in a set number of days, so your only stress might be missing out on the lemon tort because you stayed out late skiing.

In the last 20 years, we’ve skied most every Alps’ Grand Ski Tour, not just once, but twice or even three times. Spring ski touring in the Alps is an incredible experience thanks to the terrain, hut system, and what can be periods of great weather.

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Which tour is best for you? To help make this decision, we’ll introduce several of the Alps’ Grand Ski Tours in one list, and explain what makes each one special. We’ll even rate and rank them according to specific criteria to see which tour wins, at least by our standards. I have little doubt our list will draw criticism. Let’s look at the options…

The Alps’ Grand Ski Tours

Chamonix to Zermatt Haute Route

Leaving Chamonix on the Haute Route

Hands down the most famous ski tour in the Alps, if not the world. This is probably the ski tour to which all others are compared. And, deservedly so. It is a great experience through one of the Alps most dramatic landscapes, traveling on glaciers, climbing peaks, moving among 4000-meter peaks, and skiing huge vertical. Chamonix, and Switzerland’s Valais (Wallis in German) Region are the Alps’ biggest terrain. It’s the place you must ski. But, it’s also the place everyone else wants to ski. So, the Haute Route can be extremely busy, which greatly influences the experience.

We’ve done the Chamonix to Zermatt Haute Route twice, and by both versions, the “Classic” via Chanrion, and the “Skier’s” via Verbier/Lac des Dix. Being a point to point tour, the Haute Route demands that you stick to an overall agenda but with route variations possible. It is a complicated route requiring every skill in a skiers toolbox; steep skiing (up and down), fitness, navigation, glacier travel, and mountaineering.

Read all about the tour on our Chamonix Zermatt Haute Route page.

Berner Tour

The Berner Tour, Switzerland

An increasingly popular ski tour, especially for those who’ve already done the Haute Route, the Berner is a more dynamic ski tour that allows skiers to pick and choose what they want to do based on conditions.

The Berner Tour takes place in the Aletscharena, which is home to the Alps’ biggest glacier, the 23km long Aletschgletscher. Skiers can enter and exit the Aletscharena in several places. To start at the highest point, most parties go in at the Jungfraujoch, from Grindelwald or Lauterbrunnen, and ski down into the arena. Once within the massive region, there are numerous huts and countless ski lines, most of which are accessible from that initial descent to the Konkordiaplatz, a huge flat glacial plain where four glaciers merge.

There are also several 4000-meter peaks to climb, though not all completely by ski. One disadvantage (some may see this as an advantage) of the region is the enormity of the terrain. Part of the itinerary is guaranteed to include long slogs skinning up low angle glaciers. Also, in poor weather the options are more limited for travel, and GPS use becomes mandatory on the featureless glaciers.

Like the Haute Route, this is a tour that, for most skiers visiting the Alps, requires a mountain guide.

Read all about the tour on our Berner Tour page.

Berner Haute Route

Ski touring on the Berner Haute Route
The Berner Haute Route, Switzerland.

Not to be confused with the Berner Tour, the Berner Haute Route is entirely different. In the Central Swiss Alps, just east of the Berner Oberland, this tour starts from the Susten Pass. It’s a five day point to point tour through a wild and remote feeling landscape. The terrain is not nearly as big as the Berner Tour or the Chamonix Zermatt Haute Route, but you are still on very real glaciers and have a grand finale descent in majorly dramatic terrain.

The beauty of the Berner Haute Route is that most every other skier is on the Haute Route or Berner Tour! It’s a quiet place, with smaller, very friendly huts, and yet the ski terrain is no less impressive than some of the other options.

Read all about the tour on our Berner Haute Route page.

Bernina Tour

The Bernina High Route, Switzerland

As much a mountaineering experience as ski tour, the Bernina Tour is very much a dynamic agenda. This is big, alpine, glaciated terrain that requires absolute knowledge and skills for much more than skiing. The starting point is just above Pontresina, at the Diavolezza lift. You’ll gain your first 900 meters quickly and get dropped off at one of Europe’s most impressive “huts,” the Diavolezza, which is really more of a hotel and fine restaurant, complete with arguably one of the best views in all the Alps. The tour usually begins with an ascent of the Piz Palü before heading to any number of options which allow for a bouncing around the Bernina Group. Climb the Bernina itself, the easternmost 4000-meter peak in the Alps, or head south into Italy before crossing back to the Swiss side to Sils Maria or the Coaz Hut and out the Rosegtal.

Read all about the tour on our Bernina High Route Tour page.

Ortler Tour

The Ortler Tour, Italy

The Ortler itself is a major Italian peak straddling the Swiss border. But the standard ski touring terrain is positioned more in the mountain group east of the Ortler. The area has become very popular with American mountain guides as it seems to strike a balance between great skiing and not too big mountain terrain. Or, maybe it’s the Italian food… In addition to great ski terrain, the Ortler has the most friendly, relaxed, and fun hut system.

Accessed via Solda (the Italian Solda!), Santa Caterina or the Val Martello, the Ortler is another dynamic tour without a strict agenda. Visitors can research what they want to ski, have a tick list, then as conditions permit start to move around and ski the favored lines and peaks. Classics include the Cevedale, the Punta San Matteo and the magnificent Gran Zebru, or Königspitze in German.

One issue with the Ortler is the requirement to exit where you started. This is only problematic as the nature of the place requires crossing some big peaks and passes. Get stuck on the wrong side during a storm cycle and you may be in for a complicated journey to reach your car.

Read all about the tour on our Ortler Ski Tour page.

Silvretta Tour

The Silvretta Tour, Austria

Beginning in Ischgl, Austria, on the north end of the Silvretta Group, this ski tour sits on the Swiss Austrian border and can either be done as a point to point, or a dynamic tour with multiple nights spent in the same huts. Unlike some of the big, Swiss tours, the Silvretta’s terrain is a bit more tame, and with shorter days, making it an ideal intermediate level tour. Arguably the nicest hut on any ski tour in Europe is on this tour, the Jamtal Hut; complete with wi-fi, small climbing gym and luxurious, private rooms. The tour is typically started in Ischgl with a tram ascent before a short tour to the first hut, the Heidelberger. From here it is possible to move through the range east to west, essentially making a big circle connecting huts and ending just up valley from Ischgl at the village Galtur.

Read all about the tour on our Silvretta Ski Tour page.

Ranking the Ski Tours : The Criteria

For ranking, we considered the following factors: the views, the huts, the skiing, solitude vs crowds, ease of logistics, and the overall experience. Details to rank are below. My choice for best in each category sets the standard, then the others are compared to the best.

Things you’ll see in the Alps.
The Trift Hut, Berner Haute Route, Switzerland.
Everyone would like to maximize time spent doing this.

Views: Will you be blown away by the views? Does the landscape make this tour a completely unique experience? This one is simple: how dramatic and impressive is the landscape?

Huts: Undoubtedly all the huts (see our Huts Info page) are going to impress an American visitor and be a big part of the overall feel. But truly, some are a lot better than others. Food is a big factor. Remote alpine huts get their food flown in and it might be a little less refined. Others, closer to villages get fresh food daily and the quality can be much higher. Some huts even offer private rooms and showers, others only dorm style rooms and no running water.

Skiing: This one is tricky as they all have great ski terrain. And, if it snows 30cm overnight and you get fresh tracks, you’ll be loving what otherwise might have been a carved up mess. The point is, the nature of the tours can affect how you get to ski, or how easily accessible good turns are, based on the tour itself. For instance, the Haute Route requires you get from point A to point B. You don’t always have the time to ski a line you want to ski vs. what you have to ski to get to where you need to be. We’re measuring this against tours like the Ortler, where you wake up and base your objective on the conditions, the crowds, and your energy.

If you are at the Ortler, you go ski a line you saw the day before because it’s untracked and the aspect is right. If you are on the Haute Route, you keep on chugging along to Zermatt. For some flexibility on a set itinerary, the guides can tap into what other guides are saying, and they might modify the route a little to seek fresh snow.

Solitude: Can you get away? Can you get some terrain all to yourself? Or, are you going to be marching in procession in a trench only for the joy of riding a carved-up descent?

Logistics: This is one of the big ones for a visiting American skier. Relying on huts, glaciers, weather, and knowing how and where to find the escapes, all make for logistical issues. Some more than others. Researching information about these ski tours is overwhelming if you are a first time visitor. Meanwhile, the huts are both blessing and curse, complicating matters by having to decide when you’ll arrive, booking, and dealing with potential changes. You must make reservations at all the huts (see our Huts Info page) and you can’t just not show up. Hut keepers consider no-shows a possible emergency situation. If you get weathered-in at a hut and wait it out, you then have to adjust all your other reservations. Now you’re booking on short notice and may run into availability issues. All of these factors are what we looked at for the rating; How easy is it to “deal” with the tour’s logistics.

Experience: It needs to be said, EVERY one of these tours can be a great experience. For someone learning to ski tour, the Silvretta is going to be as stunning as the Haute Route is to the expert. But again, the standard I have set is according to which is potentially most rewarding, overall, for the average ski tourer. Countless other factors influence the overall; the weather, the snow, the group, the season, effort, etc… Basically, this is all very subjective and each tour gets high marks.

The ranking: 5 is the highest, 1 the lowest.

The Alps’ Ski Tours Conclusion

Be happy with your choice!

So what does this chart mean? The Haute Route sucks? Not at all, it means the Haute Route has the potential for the biggest experience and best views, but it’s difficult to pull-off without some logistical help and some luck. And the Berner Haute Route is the best? But no one has even heard of it! Maybe, for me… I had great conditions when I was there and it is consistent across the board. But if I had to choose, the best all-around ski tour is probably the Ortler. I love the huts, the place, and the vibe. The Haute Route is something every skier must do, the Berner Tour is an amazing place with great skiing, the Silvretta is an easier version of the Ortler, and the Bernina a place for real ski mountaineering.

Point being…. they are all great. But if you are going to choose just one, then I hope this method helps you determine which tour is best for what you are after.

Using a Mountain Guide

Using a guide in the Alps can greatly improve your chances of fun.

The decision to use a mountain guide for these tours is highly recommended. With a guide, the logistics issue is solved, the ability to escape is a possibility, and the overall experience will probably be much better. Also, if the weather is bad, instead of playing cards all day, a guide will likely have an entertaining backup plan. With regards to a guide, I have heard people say, “How hard can it be, get in the trench and go”. There is just so much wrong about this thinking when it comes to moving through crevasses, or when the sky closes and you are in a whiteout on a glacier. The Alps are not to be taken lightly, they may be crowded at times, but they are not tame – it is serious terrain.

These aren’t the only reasons we recommend guided tours… Read our Why Hire a Guide? for 10 advantages of going with a mountain guide.


Comments 1

  1. I’d recommend also checking out the “Urner Haute Route” from Realp to Engelberg. It’s got some great skiing terrain and is not very well travelled.

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