The steady, rhythmic beat of our skis is a “clip-clop-claaaack” as we lift and slide them up the slope, heading for the ridge and what lies beyond. The terrain is steep in places: “look ahead, don’t look at your feet, stand tall, stay balanced and breathe,” says our guide, Hans Solmssen, coaching us along.
It isn’t “fall-and-die” terrain, but it is quite icy, making it “fall and slide a fair way and have to climb up all over again” terrain. No thanks. We are ski touring the Swiss Alps and having hitched a ride on the lift system of Verbier to gain some easy altitude, we free our heels, fit climbing skins to our skis and leave the resort boundaries for the Hidden Valley.
Over the ridge, with heels clipped in and boots set to ski mode, conditions are unbelievably good. It hasn’t snowed for 10 days, but as the area is inaccessible to lift-only skiers, among the bowls and faces of this vast valley we are skiing on untracked powder snow up high and silky spring snow in the lower reaches. Hans’s tip for the steeps on the way down? “Don’t sit back, reach out for it and say ‘I’m going to grab that’.”
It’s about a five kilometre run and we have it all to ourselves, skiing past Swiss summer cabins and ending up on a forest track for our sandwich jambon-fromage (why can’t we have baguettes like they do in Europe?). We make a seat on the bank, larch trees towering above, spring bulbs bursting from the forest floor, and recount the run in all its glory, chattering like children. The cover is patchy down this low, but we eventually make our way back to the ski lifts at Thyon and work our way home to Verbier.
On day two, with our small group of four plus guide in the flow of touring, we can cover a bit more ground. After a long morning run from treeless summits through tree-lined villages, we take a few lifts and then make a brief climb to a grassy island in the snow, enjoying the picnic amidst the alpine bonzai and marmot holes; views of the Alps stretching away in the distance.
We are at the top of a regular off-piste route, where skiers take a long and winding run to the tiny village of Heremence to buy a sandwich and maybe a beer at the concession and then for five francs catch a bus to Le Massis to rejoin the ski-lift network.
It is well into spring, so the bus has stopped running, but Hans knows Serge, who runs the concession and has the van. A few phone calls (“oui Serge! Oui! Merci Serge!“) and when we get to the point where the snow runs out, Serge is there in his van to greet us. For CHF50 all-up we got the taxi ride, a beer and delivery right to the ski lift.
We’ve skied 35 kilometres for the day, but Hans hasn’t finished with us. Despite the signs saying ferme (I was sure that mean “closed”?) we make our way along a moto-cross of a traverse to Col des Mines for a run over spring snow into a fairytale of a pine forest all the way home to Verbier village.
Verbier is a seductively smart Swiss mountain resort in the Valais region and has long been home for Hans and family. “The thing that’s unique about it is that Verbier is in a south-facing bowl (the sunny side in the northern hemisphere) and it’s above the valley floor.
“That sets it apart from most other ski resorts, especially the popular ones like Zermatt and Chamonix. Almost all the other resorts sit in the valley floor where it’s really cold, whereas Verbier is up at 1500 metres and facing south, so it’s really mild,” he says.
Once the destination for Australian ski bums and young Brits (anyone remember the Sloan Rangers?), Verbier has captured the smart set, a vault of celebrities and European royals. Want to rent Richard Branson’s nine-bedroom chalet? That’ll be $250,000 for the week, thanks.
But beyond the headline acts, the challenging terrain hereabouts attracts skiers and snowboarders of exceptional ability; hence the resort’s position among the big mountain freeriding fraternity. The extent of the terrain is another feature – the combined 90-plus lifts of the Four Valleys, of which Verbier is a part, gives access to 410 kilometres of marked runs.
But it’s the unmarked runs we have our eyes on and it’s Hans who will bring us to them. For a Swiss mountain guide, he has unusual beginnings, growing up riding horses on the windy, grassy hills of Hawaii. He thought he might be a cowboy, he so admired their gear. In the end he opted for a different profession, but there’s no lack of gear.
Hans was one of the first non-Swiss to pass the country’s demanding guiding courses and be granted the licence. “You know, culturally, if you’re from a different (Swiss) valley there’s a lot of jealousy. Whereas for me, I was coming from Hawaii and I was just so far off the radar they just kind of forgot about all that.”
On his home ground, out in the Alps, he moves like a gazelle and sticks to the mountainside like a gecko. But he tempers his pace to suit ours. Day three with Hans breaks the mould; we ski Bruson across the valley from Verbier, but as we take the lift up its slopes, we see the resort runs have been groomed overnight and there isn’t a soul to be seen.
So, before our longer tour beyond the lifts, we drop our packs at the lift station and make three or four runs on the piste, just the five of us, carving the steep, smooth terrain like Olympians (or so it feels). He promises us skiing without the crowds and once again he delivers.
So why ski with a guide? Some of these tours are well-known itineraries, why not just check the notes on the blogs and find your way? The key reasons are snow safety and local knowledge.
Hans spends a lot of time educating us about aspect: “on the southern, sunny aspects, you usually have good bonding between the layers of snow because the sun acts as a glue, it warms the snow up, new snow falls, and it bonds,” he says.
“Whereas to the north, the shady aspect, that’s where all the good skiing is, it’s powder snow and that’s where everybody wants to ski through most of the winter, but that’s where we have our higher, unpredictable avalanche danger… you get a weak layer in there and it just sits there until it gets a jolt, and that jolt is usually a skier coming by.
“So understanding slope aspect is super-important to know where the danger is… and it’s kind of cool because if you’re in a white-out, you can still tell what the aspect is: if it’s crusty snow you’re on the south, if it’s beautiful light powder you’re on the north.”
Another plus with a guide is their depth of experience. “You know that valley we skied, Hidden Valley – it’s well-known but you have to know the conditions, you have to know how to get in there and how to get out. There’s a lot of places you can get to here with a short skin or a hike that remain relatively untracked for days, if not weeks after a snow storm.”
We find more than our fair share.
Ski touring is one of the fastest-growing segments in snow sports and the new equipment is all about lightweight and versatility without sacrificing performance.
Hans Solmssen is also a test pilot for the US ski manufacturer, K2. “When we designed the (touring) ski for K2, we were most importantly looking for a ski that would run really well downhill, but was also light.”
Touring boots are lighter than resort-style boots, with a walk mode for the uphill work but a firm flex in the shell for downhill performance.
Engineered to cut weight on the uphill, good touring bindings retain strength and safety release for the downhill runs.
It’s all about layers – Merino first; maybe twice if it’s really cold, then shell pants, a shell jacket and a down jacket to wear under the shell when it’s cold or windy.
The essential safety kit includes an avalanche transceiver, a shovel, and a probe to help find the victim/s after an avalanche. You’ll also need water and food in your backpack.
FLY + TRAIN
Emirates has regular flights from Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne to Dubai with connections to Geneva (see emirates.com/au). There’s a station at Geneva Airport with regular rail services to Martigny, connecting to Le Chable at the foot of Verbier. Fares for the 2 and a 1/2 hour journey start at CHF 20 ($A30). The route is spectacular, through the mountains and skirting Lake Geneva. See sbb.ch/en/
Verbier has a vast range of accommodation, from self-contained apartments to catered chalets and five-star hotels. The Experimental Chalet is a newer option with a central location, sharp interiors and a funky bar within or the notorious Farm Club downstairs. Rooms in spring from CHF210, see experimentalchalet.com
Guiding costs depend on the itinerary and the group size. We supplied all our own gear and for our group of four, three days’ touring with Solmssen cost CHF500 each, including a tip, as is the tradition; see swissguides.com. We also needed a lift pass for Verbier (from CHF49 to CHF71 per day depending on the area covered). See verbier.ch/en and 4vallees.ch/en
Jim Darby ski-toured at his own expense and visited Verbier with some assistance from Verbier Tourism.