It took almost a decade of mental preparation before Anna Olson felt ready to edge her skis into the chasm of Corbet’s Couloir.
Since 1996, when she’d begun working at Jackson Hole (the legendary trail’s home ski resort in Wyoming), Olson had peered many times down Corbet’s opening chute—a sheer 20-foot drop down a vertical rock wall—before deciding, as most skiers do, “I don’t need to terrify myself that much.”
But one day, she finally decided to take, as she remembered, “that step into nothing.” And once she had, there was no going back.
“I think I had my eyes shut,” recalls Olson, who works in the mountain’s communications department, “and know I was screaming all the way down.” Still, once she’d arrived at the bottom in one piece, she at last understood what the fuss was about; there really was a unique exhilaration to conquering one of the world’s toughest ski runs.
To nonskiers, just the idea of standing atop a sharply pitched slope—any slope—while attached to a pair of slippery boards may seem frightening. But even among serious snowhounds, a few fast-paced spins down a gnarly black-diamond trail are often thrill enough.
For a certain sort of skier, though, the garden-variety moguls and steeps of most expert trails are just boredom on ice.
“Some people just seem to have different stuff coursing through their veins, at least once they strap on their skis,” says Samantha Berman, senior editor at SKI magazine. “I don’t know if it’s an adrenaline thing or what…but they just need something more.”
Those are the skiers, Berman says, who make pilgrimages to the world’s most famously challenging ski runs. Some get their fix catching “mandatory air” at storied crags like Corbet’s, or the tree-filled, triple-black-diamond Black Hole in Smugglers’ Notch, VT. Others travel overseas to tackle runs like Grand Couloir in Courchevel, France, which starts out as a terrifyingly narrow ridge followed by a sharply pitched chute.
Most of these fabled trails (compiled on our list, along with vertiginous video segments) are ungroomed, adding a layer of unpredictability to already super-difficult terrain. And a few aren’t even trails at all—just insanely high, reelingly pitched off-piste swaths where avalanches are almost as common as wipeouts. You want scary? Click through at your own risk.