No ifs, no buts, Verbier is simply the best ski resort in the World. Well, that was my first impression, even arriving in the spring of a pretty poor snow season in 2017. Guide Mikey Edwards from Powder Extreme Verbier still found us some great snow in spectacular terrain here at the spiritual home of European freeriding. – Owain & Carmen Price
Right now Verbier is enjoying the best season in 20 years so there’s never been a better time to go. The new Mont-Gelé gondola opened last week, a whole mountain of freeride opportunity with one lift to the top and no groomed runs off it at all.
What makes Verbier skiing so good?
Altitude helps, there’s lots to choose from in the alpine areas above 2,000m. So does attitude.
“Where else would they put a cable car to the top of a mountain with no normal pistes off it?” Mikey asked, pointing to Mont-Gelé, a 3,000m peak with just two designated freeride routes down, and no groomed runs at all.
The only place that sprang to mind for me is Big Sky’s Lone Peak lift in Montana, which we featured in last year’s Travel Bible issue.
It’s just not what bean counters running major resorts are likely to do, but in Verbier the bean counters must be gung-ho skiers too, as no major resort in Europe does more for freeride. In fact for 2017-18 season they have spent CHF 5.2 million to whack in a new Garaventa cable car to Monte-Gelé. Built in the 1960s, the Mont-Gelé cable car system was the oldest ski lift in the Verbier resort.
Constructing a cable car at such an elevation was considered a technological feat at that time. Its valley station is at an altitude of 2,734 metres, and its top station stands at 3,002 metres. Despite the new cable car, only a still modest 400 skiers an hour will be able to access the amazing terrain off it.
Some bottlenecks are inevitable at Verbier so if you don’t like waiting time your moves – there is no shortage of alternatives if you find a particular lift, especially key cable cars like Mt Fort, with a queue. With Mikey and Freddy’s assistance we kept skiing.
No wonder so many come to test themselves, from Freeride World Tour athletes here for pro freeride’s ultimate challenge every April, the Xtreme Verbier event on the super steep Bec des Rosses face, to the geared up general clientele of good skiers from all over the world. Ride the lifts to the main peaks and you’ll be sharing the cabins with some seriously well equipped fellow riders. Which you need to be to go off piste. The 11 designated freeride routes, shown in yellow on the trail map, are ‘marked and secured’, as safe as patrol can reasonably make them, but it’s a raw environment and you have to be responsible for your own safety.
To help that, Verbier is very pro-active on safety. They run three free 50 minute sessions every Sunday in the DVA Park, to teach transceiver use and other safety measures. The ski schools and guides operate under strict controls, so only those authorised to do so can take you into the many off-piste areas, or in the case of ski schools, onto off piste slopes steeper than 30°.
For skiers of any level getting an instructor or guide in Verbier for at least your first day or two is a no brainer. It’s a huge interlinked resort – 410km of pistes sprawling over four main valleys, with lots of side options, so an instructor who can show you round areas that suit your level and inclination, and knows conditions, is invaluable.
We did just that. Freddy Brugneaux, who took us out on day one, turned out to be the ultimate pro, able to teach us plenty as he showed us round. I mentioned how nice it was to have someone so skilled, and such a good communicator, for a change. We have spent the past 30 years exploring hundreds of ski resorts, often with instructors, and road tested plenty of lesson scenarios over that time, but Freddy truly was exceptional.
“The difference I think is it’s a real profession here, so you want to be the best you can” he explained, “whereas a lot of countries it’s just some fun when you’re young, be a ski instructor and party, then go back to a real job. Qualification is hard in the Swiss system, it take four years to get qualified and then there are different levels to achieve. Of course working somewhere like Verbier you have so much to show people and help them enjoy it.”
He helped Carmen in the morning and me later, after a magnificent lunch at Cabane du Mont Fort. Inside this Verbier icon a big signed poster from Sarah Duchess of York announces her thanks to owner Daniel Bruchet, and gives you a hint of the big British connection here. For CHF 120 we had lasagne for us, the amazing local sausage and chips for Freddy, desserts, coffee and a Gran Cru Swiss Pinot (most of the bill, it was a milestone birthday!), which is pretty amazing value. Menu prices at major Swiss resorts generally are similar or better than at big American resorts, without having to add 20% tip & sales taxes. In Switzerland the waiters are usually pros too, earning decent money. Sure, modest tips are appreciated, but it’s no big deal.
The scope of the skiing for all standards is unlimited, and the infrastructure expenditure is constant to keep improving things, like the new 6 pac lift at La Chaux, one of the main higher altitude areas for beginners and kids. You can access it and download on a combo chair/gondola that runs up from the top station of the main Médran double gondola line from the top of Verbier village.
By starting fairly early on the day with Freddy we scored first corduroy tracks in the Lac des Vaux area. Then, despite it being a week since the last real snowfall, the next day with Mikey we scored fresh powder tracks on the north facing line under the Col des Gentianes gondola.
After a big morning exploring a small chunk of the enormous freeride options we hooked back to another great restaurant, La Vache, part owned by James Blunt. Carmen came up to meet us via the gondola to Attelas and a short walk, and cutting the wine back to half a bottle we fed ourselves and Mikey for CHF 80 with great pizza, salad and coffee, not bad at all in a seriously good restaurant.
Outside on the deck a bunch of playboy bunnies caught our attention, actually some lovely English ladies, Mary Pratt and her friends, doing it to raise money for the @teensunitefightingcancer charity. Mary runs luxury travel blog @thecaviarspoon.
Yes, in Verbier the aprés can easily start at lunchtime and end next day, another essential for any World’s Best Ski Resort contender. Verbier delivers in spades for that. We managed live bands before dinner and some night clubbing to the wee hours at Le Farinet, and saw plenty more partying far harder than us.
The Brit influence comes to the fore even more at night. Apparently 40% of the beds in the village are in commercial hotels, apartments and chalets, and 60% private chalets. Of that 40% around 28% are British, so you hear as much English as French all over the place. Americans, Scandinavians, Dutch and Belgians are there in numbers, and Russians, for a big international experience.
Great restaurants, stylish shopping and some excellent hotels, mainly clustered near the village centre, complete the picture. The village is generally low rise and sprawling, but the free bus is effective to get around.
On a budget you can stay cheaper down at Le Chablé in the valley, with a 20 minute gondola ride up to Verbier in the morning. From Le Chablé you also have direct access to the small but picturesque Bruson area, which our instructors rate for the tree skiing when the snow is good mid-winter, and quiet family skiing otherwise.
It all adds up to pretty much the perfect resort for everybody, including non-skiers who can easily get up to the peaks and restaurants on the gondolas and cable cars, or walking through the forest, to meet with skiing family and friends.
Just make sure you allow as much time as you can here. At least a week is good. Or maybe a few seasons would be better to get a handle on all that freeride terrain..
Getting to Verbier
by train: to Le Chablé, 2 hours from Geneva and 3.5 hours from Zurich and Basel. From Le Chablé by bus within 30 minutes to Verbier.
by car: driving time to Verbier is 2 hours from Geneva, 3 hours from Zürich and Basel.
we enjoyed a fantastic few days at the Hotel Le Vanessa in the heart of the village. Great rooms, service, awesome breakfast, and Brasserie Le V.
Verbier Mountain stats
• Summit 3330m, vertical 1830m
• 5.5m snowfall
• 37 trails longest 15km; terrain 39% beginner, 44% intermediate, 17% advanced/expert
• 3 parks (skicross, funslope and snowpark)
• 34 lifts including 8 gondolas, 4 cable cars, 11 chairs, 11 drag lifts + 55 more in region