Ski resorts around the world offer exceptional opportunities for skiing and snowboarding. Many of them have areas that suit all ranges of skill levels. Resorts are not all created equally. Understanding how resorts and trails differ can help ensure a great escape into the snow.
What to Know About the different types of Ski Resorts and Ski Villages?
1st Generation Resorts
In Europe, you are more likely to find resorts built near or within villages or towns in the mountains. First-generation resorts support an existing village or summer resort, typically one that already draws a tourist crowd.
2nd Generation Resorts
Second-generation resorts exist near pastures or villages not geared towards tourism. Village resorts, or fourth-generation resorts, are built to purpose, like an integrated resort, but focused on traditional use and may be built around an existing village.
3rd Generation Resorts
There are some key differences between resorts. Most resorts in the United States are considered third-generation or integrated, which means they are intentionally developed resorts built for skiing. These are often built away from towns or cities.
You may also encounter the term ski station. These facilities are disconnected from any town or village, primarily used in Europe. A mountain resort is one that’s opened year-round, allowing visitors to play in its pastures when the snow has faded away into grass and wildflowers.
Size and Accommodations Impact Ski Resort as Well
For this distinction, I break up the different types of ski resorts into three categories:
Day skiing only
For example, I live in North Vancouver, BC in North Vancouver. We have three day-skiing resorts within 30 minutes. There are no hotels or lodges or any accommodations on any of the three mountains. These are Mount Seymour, Grouse and Cypress ski areas. These ski areas cater to local residents mostly. They are not destination mountains.
An example is a ski resort with a lodge or two owned by the resort itself. It’s not a village. The accommodations are typically very basic. It’s lodging so folks can stay a few days.
A full-blow ski resort is your four or five star hotel with all the fixin’s such as hot tubs, spa, suites, restaurants, etc. Usually these types of resorts are in popular ski areas that include a village (but not always).
What Can You Expect from a Skiing Resort?
Resorts have areas set aside for skiing or snowboarding. These will be marked for clarity and may be called runs, trails, or pistes.
Resorts will have a daily report that shows their trail map with all operational trails, lifts, services, and boundaries displayed. It will be updated with snow conditions throughout the day and note any changes to operating services.
In addition, most resorts maintain basic medical facilities to treat minor injuries and have a ski patrol to help rescue skiers injured on the trail. The ski patrol does more than rescue skiers, however.
They mark hazards and manage the opening and closing of runs based on ongoing conditions and hazards. The ski patrol also works enforcement and will remove anyone refusing to obey the established rules of the resort.
You may also find lodging within the resort; some even allow you to ski straight to your room. Many have eating establishments and saunas, swimming, or hot tubs on sight. You may find other forms of snow-related on the resort, like sledding, ice-skating, snowmobiling, and some even offer horse-drawn or dog-led sleds.
A particular diversion that can be just as alluring as the slopes themselves is Apres-ski. This French word means ‘after skiing’ and refers explicitly to the nightlife at ski resorts.
If the resort is near or within a village, you’ll often find additional entertainment like clubs, bars, theaters, cabarets, and similar nightlife.
Different resorts offer different methods for getting up the slopes
Different trails have different types of lifts or mechanisms to deliver skiers to the top of the trail.
Commonly reserved for more accessible slopes and bunny hills, the rope lift is exactly as it sounds. A rope meant to be held on to that rotates around and helps pull skiers up a gentle slope.
Your skis will remain on the snow, and you’ll want to keep them pointed ahead while you are being towed. It’s not uncommon for beginners to struggle with their first few attempts using a tow lift. If you fall over, dust off and try again.
Otherwise known as a Poma or Platter Lift, the Button Lift is most often found on beginner slopes.
These are another type of tow lift featuring bars hanging from cables meant to tuck between your legs and pull you up the slope while your skies remain on the snow while you hang on with one hand. The ‘button’ is at the bar’s base and will help secure its hold.
Another tow lift, this type features a T-bar hanging from an overhead cable, allowing skiers to grab hold for a tow to the top of the lift. They function similarly to the button lift, but you’ll simply hold the bar instead of being connected between the legs.
Conveyor Belt or Magic Carpet
Much like the moving pathways you might find at an airport, a magic carpet allows you to ski atop of and will haul you up to the top of the slope. They are usually used on smaller slopes.
More commonly found on intermediate hills, chair lifts dangle from a cable and typically have a board or bar to rest your skis while you rise. They often require that you hop off while the lift is in motion.
Cable Car / Gondola
Cable cars are similar to chairs but are semi or wholly enclosed cabins. Usually reserved for distant or higher slopes, the critical difference between a gondola and a cable car is how many run on the cable. A cable car will be the only one, whereas a gondola will feature many on a single cable.
There are many different types of cable cars, but their differences primarily determine how costly they are to the resort, how many people they can ferry, and how frequently they can get them from place to place. You’ll need to remove your skis or snowboard when using cable cars.
The funicular is a railway connected to a wire rope that can ferry skiers to a distant slope. Like cable cars, you’ll remove your skis or snowboard while in transit.
What to Know About the Rating Systems?
Several rating systems are in use around the world. These help skiers determine when a slope will be suitable for beginners or more expert skiers and snowboarders.
These rating systems are similar in structure and easy enough to understand. Green means an easy or beginner slope or trail. Black represents an advanced or expert run.
However, it’s vital to know that slopes and trails are compared to others nearby. If the difficulty level is higher in the area, the difficulty of the slope rating scales accordingly.
If you are not an advanced skier or snowboarder, it’s best to start below your level to get a test of the area. Don’t assume that a Blue slope in one resort will be the same level of challenge as a Blue slope in a different resort.
How Do Slopes Get Rated?
The primary determinant for slope rating is the grade, or angle, of the slope. The most difficult part of the slope determines its final rating. You may find a slope has a single challenge, but the rest is significantly easier. Other factors that play into how challenging a slope is determined to include:
- Width – The more narrow, the more challenging.
- Terrain quality – how rough or serene the ground is.
- Maintenance – How often a slope is groomed.
- The aspect – The aspect refers to which direction the slope is facing. Direction impacts the temperature and weather, influencing the quality of snow the slope receives.
Global Slope Ratings
There are different rating systems used in various regions throughout the world. Here are some of the most common.
North American Rating Systems:
- Green Circle – These indicate easy trails suitable for beginners.
- Blue Square – An intermediate trail suitable for average skill levels.
- Black Diamond – These trails are more challenging and reserved for skiers and snowboarders of skill.
- Double Black Diamond – Reserved for the most expert skiers and snowboarders, these represent the most challenging runs.
- Green – Found in France, Spain, and Scandinavia, these represent easy slopes with a gentle grade and are good for beginners.
- Blue – These easy trails are usually not particularly steep, but in some areas they can be.
- Red -These runs will be considered intermediate and should be tackled by skiers with some skill level.
- Black – These are the most advanced runs reserved for expert skiers and snowboaders.
Europe also maintains ski routes; these will be marked off and patrolled.
- Green – These are trails meant for beginners with gentler slopes.
- Red – These trails are designated for more skilled skiers and are of intermediate difficulty.
- Black – These trails are advanced and should be tackled only by experts.
- Green – Simple trails easy enough for beginners.
- Blue – Intermediate trails suitable for skiers of average skill.
- Black – Advanced advanced trails of moderate challenge.
- Double Black – More challenging trails that should be used only by experts.
- Triple Black – Reserved for the most challenging trails. Suitable for truly skilled skiers looking for a challenge.
About Trail Conditions
Beyond the difficulty level at each resort, it’s helpful to understand the terms used to describe the conditions of each trail. Understanding the terms used to describe different snow conditions and weather terms can provide a safe and enjoyable adventure.
Types of Snow
- Hard Park – Snow that has been compressed so much it cannot be compressed further.
- Powder – Just fallen and loose, if you move into powder, you will sink considerably into it.
- Slush – Melting snow that’s previously melted and frozen again. Instead of fluffy snow crystals, it’s loose ice crystals.
- Ice – Hard-packed snow with no recent coverage solidifies into ice. It’s harder to control your skis over ice.
- Moguls/Bumps – Formed as skiers move and turn on a slope. When enough people turn in the same area, it forms a pile of snow.
- Artificial Snow – The weather doesn’t always oblige a resort with a fresh layer of snow. Sometimes they use a snow cannon to create fake snow. This results in snow crystals that are more coarse and icy than those that form naturally.
- Death Cookies – Ice that’s formed into balls or blocks along the slope. When they dominate a trail, the run becomes difficult to ski. Some describe it as skiing on marbles.
Notable Types of Weather
- White Out – When the fog or mist is too thick to see any great distance, it’s called a white out.
- Flat Light – Thick clouds create conditions with no shadows on the slope. With clouds above and snow below, reflective white surfaces cause light to bounce off of every surface. This makes it quite challenging to see slight differences in the snow and increases the difficulty.
- Gust – Short bursts of high winds.
- Avalanche – When a section, large or small, of the snowpack breaks away from the slope and cascades down. These can be dangerous, even deadly. They can start from natural causes or start from skiers or snowboarders. The ski patrol keeps an eye out for conditions that may lead to avalanches and attempts to manage the risk—sometimes starting avalanches on purpose to control the outcome. Ski patrol will sometimes close a trail due to avalanche risk. It’s essential to obey the stated boundaries and avoid closed-off areas to prevent starting an avalanche.