European trails are marked green for gentle, red for intermediate, and black for the toughies. The green really means easy to low intermediate. However, the European concept of intermediate (red) runs includes those we’d mark as blacks. As for the actual blacks? They’d be double blacks at your favorite American ski area.

While there are always miles of green trails, most skiing is in the easy intermediate to low expert range. There are enough tough slopes, both on marked trails and “off piste,” to challenge the most adventurous extreme skiers. For off-piste skiing it’s wise to employ local licensed guides. Getting lost in a sudden mountain storm, or dropping into a glacial crevasse, is not conducive to either happy or healthy skiing.

The longest ski run in the world - actually on a face of the redoubtable Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe - reachable by lifts is the Vallee Blanc at Chamonix. Two cable cars, in sequence, carry skiers to the summit of the Aguille du Midi, at about 13,000 feet.

I was with a group of three other skiers who arranged to hire a guide for this dynamic trip. In the guide office, a slender, friendly girl with a beautiful tan asked about our skiing skills: “Are you the good intermediates?”

We each assured her we were. That’s when I discovered that when the French say a “good” intermediate, it’s a polite way of referring to a skier who can handle low expert terrain.

Our Vallee Blanc experience was awesome. Getting off the cable car at the Aguille du Midi, we walked through a tunnel carved through the mountain’s eternal glacial cap, strapped our skis on our backs, and roped up for a trip of a couple hundred yards down a narrow, icy incline to the snows. Then came every kind of skiing that a tremendous mountain can challenge you with. The steeps. Flats edging past vertical drops of several thousand feet and hundred-foot-deep icy crevasses. Wind-packed stretches of snow harder than ice. Slaloming through 6 inches of fresh powder.

Hours later we skied to an easy end to our trip at around 2,000 feet. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, the snow was dripping off the trees. I looked up at an impossible 11,000-foot vertical, grinned, and muttered, “Been there. Done that.”

European skiing is generally on terrain of sloping glaciers heavily coated with winter snows high above the valley floor. The usual way to reach it is via a 60-to-150-passenger cable car - with skiers crunched shoulder to shoulder, holding onto their skis and wreathed with anticipation - then take chairlifts to the various trails on the snow-covered glaciers. The steepest pitches are usually on the tree-covered lower slopes below the glaciers, where the mountains plunge precipitously down to the valley floor.

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