Algeria, Iran, Lesotho. When you're planning a ski trip, these places probably don’t come to mind. But the 15 locations below all have ski areas of one kind or another—some strange, some inspiring, many against incredible odds. Here are their stories.
Pakistan's "Switzerland of the East"
Photograph by A. Majeed/AFP/Getty Images
Malam Jabba, Pakistan
Though the mountains of northern Pakistan are some of the tallest and most impressive in the world, the country has only had a single commercial ski area. Developed with the aid of the Austrian government, the hotel and chairlift in the former British hill station of Malam Jabba sat at 9,200 feet in the Swat Valley of the Hindu Kush, an area once called the “Switzerland of the East” by Queen Elizabeth II.
The ski area attracted hundreds of tourists a day and economically supported many of the area's families. Then the Taliban invaded in 2007, razing schools, burning down the hotel, destroying the chairlift, and snapping the skis (or worse) of anyone who dared come to enjoy themselves. When the Pakistan Army managed to retake the region in 2009, the ski area was in ruins.
Fortunately Malam Jabba was the home of passionate skier and former national champion Mateeullah Khan. As soon as the army regained control, Khan revived his Pioneer Sports and Ski School and began bringing schoolchildren, many of them girls, onto the area's lone slope to brighten their spirits after two years of violence and terror. Many of the kids skied on wooden boards with old shoes nailed to them. Poles were cut from trees. Locals jerry-rigged a car engine to power a rickety single-car chairlift.
In 2011 Khan organized a Ski for Peace event, with many children eagerly participating in their homemade skis. Increasingly popular events have been held every year since. When asked why he was so determined to hook the valley's traumatized children on skiing, Khan replied, "There are certain sports that make you brave. The thrill of coming downhill at high speeds makes you joyful, but it also makes you bold, it gives you courage. It gives you vigor to go forward and do other things in your life too."
Thanks largely to Khan's unremitting efforts, the government of Pakistan recently announced plans to rebuild the hotel and install a non-car-engine-powered chairlift with multiple chairs. The local schoolchildren can't wait.
New Zealand's Trembling Volcano
Photograph by Mark Sedon, Corbis Images
Mount Ruapehu, New Zealand
If you could magically transport yourself to Tolkein’s Middle Earth with your skis or snowboard you’d probably head straight for the Misty Mountains—because if you could avoid the orcs and stone giants, they’d probably have some epic descents. The absolute last place you’d go is Mount Doom, home to spewing lava and Sauron, the most evil wizard in the world. Who would want to ski there?
Turns out lots of people. Or at least they want to ski Mount Ruapehu, the mountain that filled in for Mount Doom in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movie trilogy.
Like Doom, Ruapehu is an enormous active volcano. Unlike Doom, it has three different ski areas and an abundance of backcountry opportunities. The highest volcano in New Zealand and the highest point on the country’s North Island, Mount Ruapehu rises above lowland rain forest into a snow-smothered alpine zone where the Whakapapa and Turoa ski areas offer resort-style skiing every winter from June to October.
But what makes skiing in New Zealand special, besides the breathtaking scenery and terrain, are its dozen or so “club fields.” Unlike the overly commercialized ski areas common in North America and Europe—where a day of skiing can cost a family several hundred dollars—New Zealand’s club fields are simple, nonprofit places run by their members and open to the public. The Tukino club field on the eastern side of Ruapehu has a pair of rope tows accessing 1,115 feet of playful terrain and makes a great base for backcountry objectives higher on the mountain. Its three small, wood-heated lodges offer inexpensive ski-and-stay packages, all meals included—just be ready to chip in on the cooking and cleaning.
The entire mountain is within Tongariro National Park and offers dramatic views of four other snow-crowned volcanoes. Three of them, including Ruapehu, are active. People have been injured by flying rocks in past eruptions—or at least they think they were eruptions. Best to keep an eye out for stone giants just to be safe.
North Korea's Powder With Propaganda
Photograph by Jean H. Lee/Getty Images
Masikryong, North Korea
Global pariah North Korea is known for having one of the most tyrannical governments on Earth. And, as of 2014, it may also have the world’s most bizarre ski resort, Masikryong. Built at a total cost of $100 million, this sparkling testament to the inexplicable whims of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un features 11 runs, three lifts, and an array of billboard-size outdoor video screens playing nonstop propaganda. Lift tickets cost around $30, or the average monthly earnings of a North Korean. A luxurious base lodge with spas, pools, and 120 well-appointed rooms sits largely and unsurprisingly empty.
The skiing, however, is excellent. The runs are north-facing and, like Japan’s legendary resorts to the east, they catch dumps of feathery powder from the surrounding cold seas. Just don’t expect quick laps. European companies are barred from selling to North Korea, so Masikryong’s soporific lifts came from China and take an epochal 43 minutes to deliver you to the top of Taehwa Peak. But just as in the ski areas of other oppressive countries, there is a precious measure of freedom to be found on the slopes here—if only the locals were able to enjoy it.
Alabama's Weather-Defying Mountain
Photograph by Eric Schultz/AP Images
Skiing the impossible takes on an entirely different meaning in Alabama, where one undaunted family has created the only ski area in America’s sultry and snowless Deep South. In the state’s northeast corner, just outside the town of Mentone (population 360), the unlikely Cloudmont Ski Resort sits at 1,800 feet on Lookout Mountain. The skiing consists of two parallel thousand-foot-long slopes, one of which is often closed, with a grand total of 150 feet of vertical descent.
Trail maps aren't needed. Neither is natural snow—Cloudmont diligently makes its own every night that the temperature drops below 28ºF. In fact, Cloudmont may be the only ski area that doesn’t want it to snow (which it does here occasionally), as it means more work preparing their winding access road for white-knuckle Alabama drivers.
Cloudmont was created in 1970 by 26-year-old Jack Jones, who tragically died that same year when a snow-gun pipe he was working on exploded. His brother and sister have kept his dream alive, opening their slope as many days as possible each winter—only 12 in 2011 but 75 two years later.
For nearly half a century they’ve tangoed with the elements, creating a place where many visitors ski—and see snow itself—for the first time in their lives. It’s improbable, and in a changing climate it’s maybe impermanent, but as long as the Jones family can dance there’ll be skiing in Alabama.
Sweden's Arctic Frontier
Photograph by Scott Markewitz
High in the frozen mountains of Swedish Lapland sits Riksgränsen, the most northerly ski area on the planet. A full 125 miles north of the Arctic Circle, it’s a raw, frontier-style resort with a cultlike following in the global freeride community.
No roads were built here until the 1980s. A rail line, built in 1903 for the region’s coal mines, takes 18 hours from Stockholm and deposits skiers at the foot of the slopes. One of Riksgränsen’s more enticing backcountry runs leaves from the area’s lift-served high point and crosses the border into Norway before taking the train back to the resort’s low-key base area, where saunas and reindeer steaks await.
Riksgränsen may only have six well-worn chairlifts accessing 1,270 feet of vertical, but the dynamic landscape feels like a natural terrain park. Better still is the powder-blanketed backcountry, where skiers and splitboarders explore the vastness of the Arctic. The closest target is the 3,448-foot Nordalsfjäll, just above Riksgränsen’s top lift, where the 50-degree faces, cliff drops, and chutes host the annual Scandinavian Big Mountain Championships. You can also hire some of Europe’s cheapest heli-skiing, which accesses a Switzerland-size swath of rugged peaks riddled with 5,000-foot descents.
The resort doesn’t open until mid-February, because you really don’t want to be here for the frigid, daylong nights before then. But the days lengthen quickly in midwinter, and snow conditions are typically excellent until the resort closes in late May. For a classic midnight-sun skiing experience, Riksgränsen reopens for a few days over summer solstice every June, when the sun never sets and the lifts stay open until 1 a.m.
Afghanistan's Breathtaking Backcountry
Photograph by Massoud Hossaini/AFP/Getty Images
The remote and mountainous Bamian Province of central Afghanistan is today best known for its giant sixth-century Buddha statues, destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. But this formerly Buddhist region on the ancient Silk Road is also home to the western reaches of the Hindu Kush, glacially carved mountains that soar to over 16,000 feet and contain some of the world’s finest backcountry skiing.
We know this because a pair of aid workers from Montana wrote a guidebook to the area, Ski Afghanistan, in 2010 as part of a larger economic development effort. The next year Swiss skiers arrived with donated skis and partnered with a group of eager young locals to form the Bamyan Ski Club.
Now several young farmers are trained ski guides, the town of Bamian has a ski “lodge” with equipment rentals, and there’s an annual race in the snowy slopes outside town, the Afghan Ski Challenge. The race involves climbing as well as descending, and to date none of the visiting Europeans have managed to best the big-lunged local farmers, who have been hiking in these high-elevation mountains for generations.
Inspired, local children have started fashioning homemade skis and snowboards from wood planks and rope bindings and can be found gleefully hurtling themselves down the white mountainsides each winter. With regular flights available into this peaceful, Taliban-free region, steady trickles of tourists are now doing the same.
Lebanon's Lux Escape
Photograph by Bila Jawich/Getty Images
Mzaar Kfardebian, Lebanon
One of the ancient cradles of civilization, Lebanon has in recent decades become more known for its civil strife. But news of such conflicts doesn't offer a complete picture of life here. In fact, an hour’s drive from the capital city of Beirut delivers you to the highest reaches of the Lebanon Mountains and the largest ski area in the Middle East, Mzaar Kfardebian. Mzaar was started in 1960, when a few local skiers installed a lift from Switzerland on what was essentially a club hill. The area has been expanding ever since to its current 20 lifts, 50 miles of runs, 2,017 feet of vertical, and surprisingly bacchanalian slope-side hotels.
With a diverse cultural mix, Lebanon has long been one of the more liberal countries in the Middle East, which helps explain its embrace of skiing. But international visitors may still be surprised by the amount of designer sunglasses and fur coats adorning the lounging class at Mzaar’s base area, to say nothing of the regular fashion shows made up almost entirely of leggy women in string bikinis.
As for the skiing, it's sprawled across three bald, sun-drenched mountains, with a profusion of steep, untracked off-piste slopes for experts. The high point is Mzaar Peak at 8,087 feet, where top-of-the-world views stretch into Syria, Israel, and across the Mediterranean. An ancient Roman temple once sat on this summit, where signal fires were lit to communicate between the coast and the city of Heliopolis in the valley to the east. The mountain takes its name from this temple—Mzaar is the Arabic word for sanctuary, a fitting name for a ski area in this beautiful but troubled land.
Sicily's Active Mount Etna
Photograph by Alessandro Saffo/Corbis Images
Mount Etna, Italy
One of the world’s most active volcanoes, Mount Etna first emerged bubbling and steaming from the Mediterranean Sea 500,000 years ago, its cooling lava gradually building its mass until it joined with what's now the Italian island of Sicily. It’s been in a near continuous state of eruption ever since, building to its current altitude of 10,922 feet—though this can change with each eruption (it was 69 feet higher in 1981).
The lowlands of sunbaked Sicily routinely reach 110ºF, but the cold upper slopes of Etna are blanketed in snow each winter, rivers of flowing lava excepted, of course. Naturally, the Italians have installed ski lifts.
There are two ski areas on Etna—Nicolosi, or Etna South, at 6,312 feet on the volcano’s south side, and Piano Provenzana, or Etna North, at 5,905 feet on the north side. The primary tourist destination on the mountain, Nicolosi features a gondola and three chairlifts that access just over 2,000 feet of vertical. Piano Provenzana may be smaller, with a lone chairlift and two surface lifts, but it's the more scenic, with the summit of Etna rising dramatically above its uncrowded slopes.
Both offer views across the sparkling Mediterranean far below. They're also perhaps the only ski areas in the world with a section of their Italian-language website devoted to “volcanic activity.” And with good reason—Nicolosi’s gondola towers have been repeatedly damaged by volcanic activity, and the entire Provenzana site was destroyed by flowing lava in a 2003 eruption (and promptly rebuilt). No matter when you visit, at least one of the four summit craters, which make spectacular backcountry destinations, is likely to be smoking.
Algeria's Revived Runs
Photograph by Fayez Nureldiane/AFP/Getty Images
Morocco is known by exotic-skiing cognoscenti as the best skiing destination in Africa, but the high, snow-catching slopes of the Atlas Mountains extend from Morocco into Algeria as well. It was here, 43 miles south of the capital city of Algiers in the Tell Atlas subrange, that French colonialists established Africa’s first ski area in the 1940s. Sitting at 5,000 feet in what is now Chréa National Park, the Chréa ski area may have only had 295 feet of vertical drop, but the Atlas cedar forest was beautiful, a welcoming Tudor lodge awaited at the base, and every weekend its slopes filled with French skiers and their families.
But Chréa had a secret. Unbeknownst to the French, the mountain was also a clandestine base for independence fighters who were plotting for their country’s freedom. Their victory came in 1962, when Algeria won its independence. The French promptly left en masse, abandoning their beloved ski area. Algerians, however, quickly learned to love the foreign sport, maintaining the ski area and even installing a four-and-a-half-mile gondola to Chréa from the nearby city of Bilda in 1984.
Except Chréa’s time as a conflict zone wasn’t over. An Algerian civil war erupted in 1992, and the little ski area became a military base once again, this time housing the radical Armed Islamic Group. When the war ended in 2002, the lodge and lifts had been destroyed. Skiing in Algeria was over, or so it seemed.
Then the Algerian government and ski community began rebuilding. A rope tow on Chréa’s main run was restored. The rebuilt gondola from Bilda returned to operation in 2009. Locals built handmade tea stands at the base. Local youth signed up for the revived Algerian national race team, and one skier even went to the Vancouver Olympics in 2010. Today, Chréa is back and Algeria is a skiing country once again.
Bosnia and Herzegovina's Olympic Mountain
Photograph by Elvis Barukcic/AFP/Getty Images
Jahorina, Bosnia and Herzegovina
War-bruised Bosnia and Herzegovina was once a rising star in the skiing world, and its 15th-century, mountain-ringed capital city, Sarajevo, successfully hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics. Alpine ski races were held at the resort of Jahorina, 19 miles from Sarajevo in Eastern Europe’s Dinaric Alps. Skiing in the region flourished until 1992, when Bosnia declared independence from Yugoslavia. That’s when the fighting started, the skiing stopped, and a bloody, four-year civil war engulfed the region.
Jahorina’s hotels became housing for refugees. Bunkers and military compounds were built on the slopes. Serbian tanks roared through the streets of Sarajevo and mercilessly shelled its capitol building. It’s taken two decades to recover, but today the bullet holes are plastered over, the hotels have been rebuilt, and people are skiing again in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Mount Jahorina rises almost 5,000 feet above Sarajevo to 6,286 feet, and people have been coming from the city to ski its frosted slopes since the 1920s. Today, the mountain features nine lifts (three high-speed), ten runs, and a backside known for harboring backcountry powder. The vibe is relaxed, welcoming, and Old World—wrinkled men in ancient sweaters sell shots of local brandy at the base and slope-side restaurants serve food from giant pots on wood coals.
The terrain may be more sedate than in Western Europe’s mighty Alps, and skull and crossbones signs warn of possible land mines lingering off-piste, but the powder is reliably light, the slopes uncrowded, and for the cost of a day or two of skiing in Switzerland you can ski and dine here for a week. It’s good to have you back, Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Iran's 20th-Century Legacy
Photograph by Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images
Amid the deserts and sun-bleached oil fields of the Middle East there is Iran, a country of mountains. It was here, where the Alborz Mountains rise between Tehran and the Caspian Sea, that Iran’s monarch, Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlevi, built the Dizin ski resort in 1969. A passionate skier, the Shah had gondolas shipped from Europe and built a personal suite in the ski-in, ski-out hotel at Dizin's base.
Today, there are over a dozen ski areas in Iran—including one reachable by a 6,000-vertical-foot gondola ride directly from the capital city of Tehran—but Dizin is the country's largest and highest, and it receives the most snow. Its three gondolas and two chairlifts may be antiquated, but they carry you up 3,117 feet of treeless, open-air mountainside to a highpoint of 11,811 feet.
The groomed runs aren’t particularly challenging, but Iranians typically stick to them, leaving the abundant off-piste terrain blissfully untracked. Dizin also offers clear views of Mount Damavand, a spectacular, 18,406-foot stratovolcano where supermotivated ski mountaineers can enjoy 15,000-foot descents.
In 1979, only ten years after founding Dizin, the ski-loving Shah was overthrown, and Iran became an Islamic theocracy. The new government immediately shut down the country’s ski areas, until growing public outcry forced their reopening in the mid-1980s. Today, they remain places where fun trumps dogma, hats replace hijabs (they’re one of the only places women aren’t required to wear headscarves), and Iranians can still experience the exhilarating freedom of sliding on snow.
Greece's Home of the Gods
Photograph by Craig Calonica
Mount Olympus, Greece
It may come as a surprise to some that Greece’s Mount Olympus, the mythical home of Zeus and the 12 ancient Greek gods and goddesses, is actually a real mountain. Not only is it real, but this enormous, 300-square-mile massif also rises from near sea level to 9,573 feet and towers godlike over northern Greece.
Though the sun-soaked beaches of the Aegean Sea are only three miles from its base, every winter the mountain’s higher elevations are plastered in a deep, maritime snowpack. Here, numerous refuges for skiers and climbers offer access to the massif’s treeless alpine zone and its many summits, amphitheaters, and couloirs.
There's at least one heli-skiing business here and a small, mysterious ski area, Vrisopoules, on the mountain’s southern flanks. Operating out of a remote military ski training center and open to the public every Sunday, Vrisopoules has a single Poma lift; treeless, go-anywhere slopes; and an overnight refuge.
But this isn't why skiers come to Mount Olympus. They come for true big-mountain skiing on a legendary peak where, in good snow years, descents of up to 6,000 feet are possible. It’s enough to make them thank the gods.
Lesotho's High-Altitude Treasure
Photograph by AFP/Getty Images
You’d be forgiven for not realizing Lesotho is a country, surrounded as it is entirely by South Africa—much less a country with skiing. But Lesotho (pronounced Le-SOO-too) is not only a country; it’s also a high-mountain kingdom and the only nation in the world entirely above a thousand meters in elevation. A full 80 percent of its land is over 6,000 feet.
It was here, at 9,875 feet in the Mahlasela Valley of the Maloti Mountains, that a tiny but spirited ski resort, Afriski, was built in 2002. One of only two African ski areas south of the Equator (the other is the even tinier Tiffindell, not far away in South Africa), it’s also the best. And though that might sound like faint praise, Afriski wrings a surprising amount of charm and good cheer out of what's essentially one perfectly straight, 0.7-mile-long run with 1,001 feet of vertical drop.
Maybe it’s the unexpectedly excellent terrain park, which is the best in Africa (note: also the only in Africa). Maybe it’s the ebullient South Africans, who make up the majority of the area’s clientele and are thrilled to have a place, any place, to ski. Or perhaps it’s the lively base area, with its modern restaurants (including Africa's highest), slope-side pub, and resident DJs. Whatever it is, Lesotho just might be the most fun skiing destination you’ve never heard of.
Tasmania's Cliff-Walled Plateau
Photograph courtesy Ben Lomond Committee
Ben Lomond, Tasmania
A hundred and fifty miles south of Australia the volcanic island of Tasmania rises from the Pacific Ocean in a 25,000-square-mile mass teeming with marsupials. Above the rain forests and white-sand beaches, several mountains rise over 5,000 feet above sea level, making Tasmania the most mountainous state in Australia.
In the northeast corner of the island, 36 miles from the college town of Launceston, the massif of Ben Lomond climbs out of a eucalyptus forest to a high, cliff-walled plateau with a 5,157-foot summit. It was here, after a heavy snowstorm blanketed the mountains in 1929, that the Northern Tasmanian Alpine Club formed in a flurry of excitement. The club began leading ski trips to the mountain, building a chalet at tree line in 1932 and another on the summit five years later. A switchbacking road known as Jacob’s Ladder opened access to automobiles in 1965, and drag lifts on the slopes soon followed.
Today, the ski field at Ben Lomond operates from July to October, winter in the Southern Hemisphere. For many locals, who live primarily in the low-elevation valleys and near the coast, coming here affords their first glimpse of snow, and a nearby toboggan zone can be more crowded than the ski slopes.
Befitting its ski club roots, the ski village is a small cluster of basic buildings offering ski and snowboard gear rental, small cafés, and simple rooms for rent. The snow may be erratic and the area’s seven lifts—all T-bars and Pomas—may only access 367 feet of vertical, but there may be no other place on Earth where you can ski alongside wallabies and wombats.
Antarctica's Frozen High Point
Photograph by Danita Delimont, Alamy
Scott Base Ski Club, Antarctica
Antarctica has a storied skiing history dating back to the first successful expedition to the South Pole by Norwegian Roald Amundsen in 1911. A competing expedition led by Briton Robert F. Scott was notably less successful, with four party members, including Scott, perishing in the cold. Unlike Amundsen, they did not use skis.
Today, some companies offer boat-based backcountry skiing expeditions on the frozen continent’s myriad mountain slopes, but it’s the fun-loving New Zealanders at Scott Base on Ross Island who actually installed Antarctica’s first ski lift. The Kiwi scientists and their research station support staff founded the Scott Base Ski Club in 1961 and installed a rope tow on a slope a mile and a half from their compound.
It’s been firing up once a week or so during the Antarctic “summer” ever since, typically with a boom box blasting, sometimes running late into the night under the high southern sun. Americans at McMurdo Station two miles away are often invited over to join the festivities at the most southerly ski lift on the planet.
Ross Island is a volcanic protuberance from the sea linked to the main continent by year-round ice. Its high point is 12,448-foot Mount Erebus, the highest active volcano in Antarctica. Erebus was first skied in 2003 by Japan's Yoshi Wada, who inexplicably descended it on ski blades, and it has only been skied a handful of times since. Its ever steaming summit lies in wait for the next adventurous skiers to reach it.