Grafted on to a thin rock spire towering over the historic mountain town of Chamonix is the cathedral-like top station of the Aiguille du Midi cable car standing sentinel below Mont Blanc. The two-stage lift soars from 1,035 m to 3,778 m, over forest, glaciers, ice cliffs and predatory crevasses, offering the highest vertical ascent of any lift in the world. The 20-minute journey rewards light-headed tourists with high-altitude panoramas and offers alpinists access to the wilds of the Mont Blanc massif.
Skyway Monte Bianco, Courmayeur, Italy
Climbing into thin air from characterful Courmayeur is the slick new Skyway Monte Bianco, a 360-degree rotating aerial tramway from valley floor to Punta Helbronner (3,466 m) in just 10 minutes. The 110-million-euro ($116-million) lift, which opened in June 2015 to replace an older gondola, breaks its journey at the Pavillon du Mont Frety (2173 m) before soaring like a speck of dust through the imposing scenery on the south side of Mont Blanc.
Valluga, St Anton, Austria
It sounds like a brand of caviar, and the skiing off the Valluga lift can be equally luxurious in the right conditions. Strictly speaking, it’s Valluga II, rising to 2,811 m, that has gained a notorious reputation. Only groups accompanied by a mountain guide can access this five-person sardine above the Valluga I cable car. But the reward for investing in professional know-how is to leave behind the patrolled, groomed ski area and access some of the Alps’ best off-piste.
La Grave, France
The lifeblood of the off-piste paradise of La Grave is a creaky old cable car in the shadow of La Meije mountain (3,984 m) in France’s Ecrins National Park. The quirky lift, more than 40 years old, rises from the 12th-century village at 1,480 m and trundles, via two intermediary stations, to a high point of 3,200 m amid a wild and tumbling mountainscape of glaciers, cliffs and crevasses. There’s only one rudimentary run up here, and no ski patrol. This is skiing “sauvage”. Anyone venturing from the cable car station must trust their skills and their mountain guide to get home safely.
Peak 2 Peak, Whistler-Blackcomb, Canada
Two iconic mountains, one steep, forested ravine in between. The challenge was how to connect the ski areas of Whistler and Blackcomb in British Columbia without causing environmental damage, or creating a long series of lifts going down one side of the valley and back up the other. The answer, opened in 2008, was the record-breaking Peak 2 Peak gondola, a 4.4-km aerial tram that allows skiers and boarders to access both mountains in a single day. The lift was a record-breaker: the longest unsupported span at 3.024 km, and the highest lift above the valley floor at 436 m.
Titlis Rotair gondola, Engelberg, Switzerland
The world’s first fully rotating gondola carries visitors to the 3,208-m summit of the Klein Titlis mountain far above the town of Engelberg in central Switzerland. The revolving Rotair bubble makes one complete spin during the five-minute ride from the mid-station at Stand, offering 360-degree views of steep ice fields, crumbling crevasses and the surrounding Uri Alps. Engelberg has 22 lifts in all and 82 km of groomed ski runs on mostly north-facing slopes. Experts flock here, for the lengthy off-piste powder runs in a high-alpine setting.
Lessieres Express chairlift, Val d’Isere, France
It might seem like an ordinary chairlift when you get on, but the Lessieres Express packs a stomach-churning punch. It’s not called the “up and oh-ver” for nothing. When the two-way chair crests the sharp ridge between Solaise and Le Fornet and then plunges down the other side, your stomach tends to end up in your chest. Somehow the sense of exposure is much worse going downhill. Plus, often one side is in the lee of the wind—popping over the top gives you a face-full of spindrift-laden alpine air.
Ski bums have been known to jump off the chair halfway down the Le Fornet side to access fresh powder but it’s a highly dangerous manoeuvre and likely to result in serious sanctions.
Jackson Hole tram, Wyoming
Nicknamed “Big Red” or the “Red Heli”, the Jackson Hole tram is a skiing institution. The lift, revamped in 2008 after 40 years of service, scoops up 100 people from Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and plonks them on top of Rendevous Peak at 3,190 m in nine minutes. At 1,2662 m, it’s the largest vertical of any ski resort in the US, with views of the Tetons, Jackson Hole and the Snake River Valley spread out far below. The tram also flies past the infamous Corbet’s Couloir with its mandatory 36-m cliff drop into the chute.
Lone Peak tram, Big Sky, Montana
The Lone Peak Tram revolutionised the expert ski scene at Big Sky when it was built in 1995. The 15-passenger aerial tramway climbs 433 m up a sheer rock face to land skiers and boarders on the summit of Lone Mountain at 3,403 m. The tram tripled the amount of expert terrain on offer, and gave the leg-strong the chance to complete a 4,350-m-vertical m, six-mile descent in one run. To prevent nerves on the way up, the inside of the two tram cabins were originally painted pink to have a calming effect on passengers.
Jungfrau railway, Kleine Scheidegg, Switzerland
What could be more extreme than a train that bores up through the inside of the feared and revered Eiger? The Jungfrau railway, which was completed in 1912, is a rack railway running from Kleine Scheidegg above Wengen and Grindelwald to the Jungfraujoch at 3,454 m, the highest station in Europe. For most of its 9.3-km journey, the railway runs through the Jungfrau tunnel, up through the Eiger.