Valais is a winter playground located in the south-west corner of Switzerland which is surrounded by the majestic Alps and bordered on three sides by France and Italy. I was lucky enough to spend ten days there in mid-March experiencing the culture, gastronomy and of course backcountry skiing. After landing in Geneva, it was only a three-hour journey by train to Valais, there are train connections directly from the airport about every 30 minutes so a rental car is not required. With 45 summits above 4,000 metres, Valais landscape is ideally suited for resort and backcountry skiing. There are 40 ski areas in the region providing 2,000 km of pistes (ski runs) with a network of 446 lifts. Most notably of these are Verbier, Zermatt and Crans-Montana along with the legendary Haute Route running through the heart of the region from Zermatt to Chamonix. With all this to offer it’s no wonder they say Valais is ’Where winter comes to play’. Both resort and backcountry skiers are guaranteed not to be disappointed.
Unlimited views of the Alps and terrain to explore, my future to-do list is neverending.
In addition to skiing, Valais provides the optimal micro-climate, soil diversity and wine-growing terrain which produces 50 grape varieties. With over 5,000 hectares of vineyards, Valais is the premier wine growing region in Switzerland. Ideally paired with the quality wines of Valais is the region’s Raclette AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protégee) cheese which is best served melted by a wood fire—if you are lucky enough to experience this. Alongside the vineyards, there are a large number of orchards which climb high up the valley slopes capturing the sun’s rays to produce mainly apricots along with apples, pears, plums, cherries and strawberries. This is why Valais is known as the fruit basket of Switzerland.
My ski touring trip of Valais began in Verbier and the 4 Vallées, then continued onto Crans-Montana to experience their newly opened Rando Parc before wrapping up at the historic Grand St Bernard Pass.
Verbier is known as a world-class ski resort in its own right (and for good reason), but also encompasses La Tzoumaz-Savoleyres and Bruson and is part of the 4 Vallées which makes it one of the largest ski resorts in the world. Verbier 4 Vallées has more than 70 lifts and 400km of marked and freeride runs. From beginner blue runs to ungroomed freeride routes there is literally something for everyone and more terrain than you could ever ski in a week. Come late March, Verbier plays host to the finale of the Freeride World Tour (FWT). The venue is the ominous Bec des Rosses which is steep, rocky and tops out at an elevation of 3,222m. Athletes from all over the world come to compete and test their mettle against each other and the mountain itself.
If you’re interested in exploring Verbier under your own power and earn your turns, then exploring one of the uphill touring, snowshoeing, cross country or walking routes is what you’ll want to do. With 35 marked multi-use uphill trails ranging from beginner to advanced, along with many ski mountaineering objectives just outside the resort, Verbier is a ski touring Mecca.
On my first day in Verbier, David Perraudin of Perraudin Sports in La Tzoumaz was gracious enough to show me the La Tzoumaz to Savoleyres ski touring route which starts at 1500m and climbs to 2354m covering 4.2km with 797m of elevation gain. Given that he’s a long time local he knew of a few secret stashes just off the marked route that we could enjoy on our way up to lunch at the Le Croix-de-Coeur. Since it had just dumped 25cm of snow the night before the trail breaking was not the easiest but the reward of fresh powder turns was a more than adequate reward.
Day two started with a leisurely gondola ride down to valley bottom and the town of Le Châble where the Le Châble - Mayens de Bruson Gondola rises up the other side of the valley to access the ski terrain of Bruson. Here the Moay-La Pasay ski touring route takes you up 515m in about an hour and a half. Starting at 1713m the route rises to 2,157m over 3.2km and provides access to terrain serviced by the Grand Tsai lift along with immense views of Verbier 4 Vallées. This route is a relatively easy uphill ski that starts out in the forest and eventually gives way to south facing sunshine and views.
With two days of ski touring inbounds, it was time for a backcountry skiing adventure to summit the Rosablanche which sits just outside the Verbier Resort boundary. With the knowledge and skill of longtime Verbier based guide Francois Perraudin we took the Médran and Funispace Gondolas and Jumbo Tram to where we would leave Verbier’s Resort boundary. With pre-public lift access, we were able to leave the resort just after 8:30 a.m. and would luckily be ahead of the masses that would follow us up to the summit that day. At an elevation of 3,336m, La Rosablanche not only provides spectacular views but is also one of the stops on the Patrouille des Glaciers, a bi-annual skimo race put on by the Swiss Military. The Rosablanche is a moderate ski tour and a local favourite that culminates in a long, mellow ski down the Grand Desert Glacier to Siviez where you can hop on several lifts to get you back up and over to the town of Verbier itself.
My final day in Verbier was again spent ski touring inbounds, this time with Arnaud Gasser who is a member of the Swiss Skimo Team and a Verbier ambassador. After meeting at the Médran Gondola Station we toured uphill to La Chaux which is at 2260m. The route followed a summer road before connecting with a ski trail and cat road. Once at La Chaux we stopped for lunch at Le Dahu which not only has great food but also the best views around. This ski tour is a popular one with locals as it has a consistent, yet mellow grade and an efficient up and down route from the Médran Gondola Station.
With the popularity of ski touring growing rapidly over the years Crans Montana wanted to capitalize on this and offer its guests the ability to tour uphill on secured routes. They turned to Séverine Pont Combe who’s a Swiss ski-mountaineering champion, four-time winner of the “Patrouille des Glaciers” and Crans Montana ambassador, along with her husband/coach the two spearheaded the design and layout of the Rando Parc. For the 2017/18 winter season, Crans Montana Rando Parc debuted with 15 ski touring routes which consist of 4 blue (green in North America), 6 red (blue in North America) and 5 black, totalling more than 40 kilometres of marked/secured trails with a total of 8,000 vertical metres of gain.
What makes the Crans Montana Rando Parc so unique is not its sheer size or vertical drop but that it’s designed for all level of skiers—from those that are training for skimo races to the slower paced beginner or retired locals. The trail network is designed to keep ski tourers away from lifts and with as few trail intersections as possible. The Rando Parc has three access points, one in Crans, another in Barzettes and the third in Aminona where an old lift was located. The routes often end at the top of lifts so you have a way back down if you don’t know how to ski or at a restaurant so you can relax and grab a bite to eat.
On my first day in Crans Montana, we ski toured up route #1 called ‘Zamoureux’ to route #3, aptly named ‘Summit’. The finish was located at Bellalui which is at 2,543m and has an elevation gain of 1,010m and a total distance of 6.1km. This tour was for a good portion in forested terrain and once in the open, it provided stunning vistas of the surrounding alpine peaks and valleys below. Day two had us take a more leisurely route called ‘Petit Loop’ which was rated blue and was only 2.9km in length with 325m of elevation gain. The route finished at a very quaint yet modern restaurant called the Relais de Colombire where we had lunch while looking over the Swiss Alps including the infamous Matterhorn. A day pass for the Crans Montana Rando Parc costs 5CHF / $6.60 CAN per day or 50CHF / $66 CAN for the season.
Starting from Bourg-St-Pierre the ski tour up to the Great St Bernard Hospice takes approximately 2-3 hours for moderately fit skiers to cover the 5km. With an elevation gain of only 500 metres the route is neither challenging in elevation gain nor to follow as it (more-or-less) mimics that of the summer access road. Situated at 2,469m The Grand St Bernard provides access to unlimited alpine terrain, baggable peaks and ski touring lines—it’s also part of the famed Haute Route which runs from Chamonix to Zermatt.
With 160 ski resorts, Switzerland is a country with skiing firmly entrenched in its culture and this is no more evident than in the region of Valais where I spent ten days exploring. The fun-filled vibe of Verbier and its expansive ski resort (when you take in the surrounding La Tzoumaz-Savoleyres, Bruson and the 4 Vallées) is truly impressive and provides more pistes and vertical than you could possibly experience in a week. The inbounds up-hill touring while not as extensive as Crans Montana was easily accessible and very convenient when a longer out of bounds backcountry ski tour was not an option.
Crans Montana provided a more laid back vibe compared to Verbier and while the ski resort is not nearly as large, the marked uphill routes in the Crans Montana Rando Park were like nothing else I’ve seen before. The signage was easy to follow and helps keep you on route while providing vital information like distance and elevation gain. The Rando Park maps detail each route and are very helpful in choosing which route is most appropriate for current conditions and skier ability.
The Great St Bernard Pass combined history, culture and unlimited backcountry options. While there were no marked routes the surrounding peaks and valleys provided lots of choice within striking distance of the Great St Bernard Hospice which is an ideal place to base a few days of ski touring from.
With a good mix of inbounds uphill touring, out of bounds backcountry skiing and resort skiing, Switzerland’s Valais region delivered on all fronts. While the snow was not as plentiful as I’m used to in British Columbia the views of the Alps at every turn were beyond impressive and are something that stays with you long after you’ve left. I can now see why their tag line is “Valais—Engraved on my heart”.
Verbier 4 Vallées: $90 - $101CAN / 67 - 76CHF
Crans Montana Ski Resort: $91 / 69CHF
Crans Montana Rando Parc: $6.60 CAN / 5CHF per day, $66 CAN / 50CHF per season
Great St Bernard Hospice: $42 - $62CAN / 32- 47CHF (Dorm or Private room with breakfast)
Ski Touring 2/2
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