3 October 2012 by Alex Stewart
If you're itching to get to the slopes already and want to know where to go skiing in December that has reliable snow and some decent downhill, read our round-up of the best pre-Christmas destinations to descend on.
The benefits of early season skiing are myriad: much quieter slopes and cheaper accommodation are just two. On the downside, days are shorter and not all resort facilities are necessarily open. Essentially, at this time of year, although the number and variety of runs, resort ambience and ease of access to lifts still matter, what's most important is snow.
Resorts in Europe tend to open in mid-November although the true season doesn't start until December and even then low and medium altitude resorts aren't assured of snow. In the Alps, climb high, or consider the US and Canadian Rockies for the most snowsure conditions.
With snow the essential factor in December, head to Europe's highest resort, Val Thorens. There are two peaks over 3,000m and the permanent Péclet glacier to tackle, whilst the resort itself is fairly attractive, has a range of lively après-ski options and boasts a number of gourmet eating choices.
Tignes is another high altitude base well worth considering, as the 3,455m Grande Motte glacier and L'Espace Killy ski area enjoy good early snow and some of the world's most reliable conditions. There are pistes for all abilities but experts and those looking for off-piste, powder and ungroomed slopes will be especially well catered for; a number of national ski teams train here such is the quality on offer. Neighbouring Val d'Isere shares many of the Espace Killy slopes but is lower and far more expensive.
Alternatively, if you're worried about the reliability of snow, head to Chamonix where there are 11 separate ski areas, all covered by a single lift pass, meaning that you're bound to find some white stuff somewhere in the valley. Les Grands Montets is the most reliable for both on- and off-piste runs, but check out Le Tour and Les Houches as well, whilst the legendary Vallée Blanche usually has sufficient covering to descend as far as the train station, even if it isn't quite at its best yet. An added benefit is that Chamonix is a great little year-round town in its own right, full of character and atmosphere.
For a gentle introduction to the season, head to Breuil-Cervinia on the Italian-Swiss border, in the lee of the majestic Matterhorn, known as Cervino in Italian. Slopes here are suitable for beginners and intermediate skiers and extend up to 3,480m. There are also connections to the Klein Matterhorn ski area over the border, adjacent to iconic Zermatt.
Whilst glamorous Zermatt provides access to the Klein Matterhorn ski area and other high glacier slopes, nearby Saas Fee offers similar skiing but in a more low-key, traditional setting. There's also a world-class freestyle park in which to play.
Head to the small resort of Hintertux to ski one of Europe's best glaciers. Popular year-round due to the north-facing slopes that are protected from the sun, it's great during December ahead of the main season. If there's enough snow coverage you can also access Mayrhofen, which opens up a vast area of slopes and runs.
With one of Europe's best snow records, the traditional resort of Obergurgi offers an authentic Alpine escape although the runs err on the easy side. Pay a daily supplement though to tackle the tougher Sölden glacier close-by.
Head north to either Hafjell or Kvitfjell, close to Lillehammer to find quiet, quality slopes where the snow at the start of the season is plentiful, even if daylight isn't.
The country's best ski area though is Hemsedal, which is sufficiently far north to ensure snow even though it's only at 1,450m. There's a range of slopes available, but also a great set of snowparks and some superlative cross-country trails. Beitostølen and Geilo are also good destinations for skiing in Norway and can readily be reached from Oslo or Bergen.
If you're going to fly all the way to the States, you want to know the conditions will be worth it - Colorado is the best bet for early snow, with the fun town of Breckenridge, which boasts the world's highest lift at 3,915m, a good bet.
However, high winds can cause slopes to be closed here, so consider Keystone, which is lower but has tree-lined pistes, meaning they're more protected. There's a wide variety of slopes, with quality cruising and plenty of expert areas as well.
Due to its proximity to the coast, the popular resort of Whistler in British Columbia is often damp and slushy at the start of the season, so head inland instead to Big White, where you'll find tree skiing and good powder, in addition to lots of manicured slopes, making it a good choice for skiers of all abilities.