TR: Chamonix 2013 – Verbier

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Nicole, Backside Mont Fort
Nicole, Backside Mont Fort

As Jerome had a long standing booking for the weekend we decided to pop over to Verbier to visit some friends and have a closer look around.

We timed this to coincide with the finals of the Freeride World Tour but unfortunately due to weather they brought the event forward by one day. We would have loved to have seen our friends Lorraine Huber and Stefan Hausl compete, but that would have meant missing a day of powder skiing. We explained this when we caught up with them and they understood completely!

It’s a pretty simple affair arriving in Verbier from Chamonix – we took the train from Vallorcine which is a stunning and precarious little single track line that spends most of it’s time skirting a massive gorge before the steep descent into the Rhone valley where you change trains at Martigny to Le Chable, and catch a bus or gondola up to Verbier.

Our good friend Julian Griffiths owns a great ski school in Verbier (gratuitous plug – European Snowsport) and he put us up in a great apartment right in the centre of town.

The main street was pumping with the sponsors of the FWT going all-out which further enhanced Verbier’s reputation as a serious party town.

Part of the reason we wanted to come back to Verbier is that we had spent a week there in 2010 but for a number of reasons left feeling like we hadn’t really explored it. I had also wanted to ski with Australian Mountain Guide John Falkiner for very long time and it was very fortuitous that he was available for the weekend. John began as a ski instructor at Mt Buller and was one of the first wave of instructors to become APSI certified and became one of the early examiners. During this time he became a strong freestyle skier and starred in many movies including being a James Bond villain in a couple of the classic ski segments. A telemark pioneer, he has made many first descents in the Alps on freeheel gear. He was the first Australian to become an IFMGA certified guide and has skied and guided all around the world.

Unfortunately the weather was not overly co-operative but we still made the best of it. The backside of Mont Fort was the pretty obvious first stop for exploration. The warm temps that clagged the snow on our ski yesterday had not missed Verbier either so the directive was to stay high and ski north facing slopes. So we made our way to Mont Fort, skied a small way down then made a short bootpack up to a col on the top of the Glacier do Mont Fort. The snow was lovely and we had an epic descent all the way to the dam.

John and Nicole, Backside Mont Fort
John and Nicole, Backside Mont Fort
John and Nicole, Backside Mont Fort
John and Nicole, Backside Mont Fort
Nicole, Backside Mont Fort
Nicole, Backside Mont Fort
Nicole, Backside Mont Fort
Nicole, Backside Mont Fort

You then push along a trail for quite some distance along the Lac de Cleuson until you reach the dam wall. There are some shady trees facing north below the dam so John thought we would drop in there to see if the snow was nice. The first 2 turns were.

Dam Wall
Dam Wall

The thing that struck us about Verbier in comparison to Chamonix is the endless terrain – where Chamonix is often restricted by enormous steeps, crevassed glaciers, overhanging seracs etc Verbier has much more wide open skier accessible terrain. Avalanche danger still needs to be front of mind but a lot of the objective hazards present in Chamonix don’t need to be negotiated.

Endless Terrain - Backside Mont Fort
Endless Terrain – Backside Mont Fort
Dam Wall
Dam Wall

After our adventure on the Mont Fort backside we headed for another Verbier classic the Vallon d’Arbi. This is easily accessed from the bottom of a piste that we skied many times in 2010 but due to inexperience and lack of avalanche gear/knowledge we left it alone. We found some nice shady north facing snow near the top and as we descended further we were in the familiar feeling for Australians of slush underfoot. Again this zone exemplified the amount of skiable terrain and Verbier’s standing as a freeride paradise.

Vallon d'Arbi
Vallon d’Arbi
Vallon d'Arbi
Vallon d’Arbi

After our descent to La Tsoumaz it was late in the day with not much left to explore so we had a fantastic traditional Swiss lunch with John in the Savoleyres area before skiing down to Verbier to end our day. It was great to see a couple of zones that we missed when on our own and we are confident that if we had a good handle on the avalanche conditions we’d be able to head back without a guide.

We woke to flat light and more cloudy skies in Verbier on Sunday, not really the day that you would ski by choice but as we were there and we had John booked we made the best of it. He wanted to take us ski touring on the ridge line that extends upwards from Bruson but the flat light would have made for a relatively ordinary descent, so we decided to try our luck in Italy. We never have to have our arm twisted to head to Italy – at the very least you will get a great coffee and an excellent lunch!

We weren’t in luck, when we crossed the border we were greeted with a thick fog, so that immediately ruled out the ski tour that was being considered. Another guide friend of John’s was in the area and reported that the snow that had fallen wasn’t deep enough to cover the underlying crust, so going into the trees was a far too energetic option with far too little reward for effort. However this little resort that I don’t think I’m going to name had about 10cm of fresh on the pistes and maybe half a dozen other skiers so we had a great time in the new snow either directly on or next to the marked trails. It was certainly not an epic day but very pleasant to have soft snow under your feet. However it was great to have a good look around this place as it has amazing potential as a little powder skiing gem in the right conditions, and not too far from Chamonix either. Plus the coffee is excellent.

It wasn’t a day for taking pictures. Here’s one:

Somewhere in Italy...
Somewhere in Italy…

After our day we went to a superb Italian restaurant lower down the valley, which I don’t think was a coincidence was full of Verbier guides & their clients, after which we wound our way back up toward the Mont Blanc tunnel where John very graciously dropped us at our door.

While the weather conspired against us we considered this an excellent reconnaissance weekend to check out some potentially fantastic skiing all within an hour or so of driving from Chamonix.

John has also asked for any of our readers who know him to keep in touch – we had a great time talking about ‘the old days’ at Buller and the various identities, and John would love the chance to ski with more Australians who head to this part of the world. You can check out his website and contact details at johnfalkiner.com

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