Verbier Keeps Freeride Spirit Alive in the Alps COVID Winter

Verbier is keeping the freeride spirit alive in the Alps. Europe has been smashed by COVID this winter, with most ski areas shut or severely restricted as the pandemic takes a tragic toll across the major alpine nations.

As we reported previously, France shut skiing down totally, Italy likewise, and Austria allowed re-opening for locals only.

But Switzerland left the local decisions in the ambit of their Cantonal regional governments, with the key ski region cantons mostly opting to let skiing continue.

Freeride Spirit off Mt Gélé Verbier
It doesn’t get much better than bombing a line off Mt Gélé © Yves Garneau / Verbier Promotion

That attracted plenty of criticism from their neighbours and other European states. Yet looking at the results now, Switzerland is doing as well, or better, than those same neighbours on the key COVID stats. For example, for new daily cases/deaths and overall deaths per million the figures for March 9 (source Worldmeters) are:

  • France: 23,302 / 316 / 1,366
  • Italy: 19,749 / 376 / 1,664
  • Switzerland: 1,378 / 9 / 1,157
  • Austria: 2,411 / 25 / 969

So the bottom line is as spring arrives in the Alps the Swiss open ski areas policy was not a disaster. Or any worse than those neighbours who did shutdown. Indeed case numbers and deaths now are much better then in any of the neighbours, so skiing can be safely managed – a lesson hopefully Southern Hemisphere governments will take on board as winter approaches.

The shutdowns left traveling skiers and riders (those who could still do so – EU and affiliate countries mainly could keep crossing borders) with not many places to go. For wandering freeriders Verbier became the #1 choice.

Verbier February 2021 © Felix Aradsson

Keeping the Freeride Spirit alive in the COVID winter

Our roving Swedish contributor Felix Aradsson and his crew were on a mission to freeski and ride the whole season. They gave up on Chamonix, took a quick detour to Engelberg-Titlis, then headed to Verbier for most of winter, part of an estimated 400+ contingent of Swedish seasonaires doing the same thing. He filed this update before heading home..

Freeriding is a phenomenon that has become huge in the last few years. Everyone seems to like it, no matter the age. We see videos of it on youtube, we can see competitions like Freeride World Tour becoming massively popular and we can read about it in various magazines.

Verbier is a really popular resort in both Europe and the World, one of the key reasons for that is the many freeriding alternatives that are so easy to access.

Their system has many so-called ‘marked’ off-piste routes, that can be accessed directly from the lifts.

An example is the very popular one down from the Mont Fort area to Siviez. There is another one going from the top of the gondola in Tortin to Siviez, where you can also ski the entire way, instead of being forced to use a lift.

A huge problem nowadays is the frenzy around powder skiing. People are not thinking straight on days when the snow is in the ”perfect” conditions in many eyes.

Verbier is a great place to do some training for freeride – know before you go © Verbier Promotion

The absolute biggest problem is the lack of knowledge that many of the people moving around the mountain have.

A lot of them think that the equipment is the most important part about safety. After they have bought that, they go out skiing all the big lines around the resort without even considering the risks.

But the most important part about safety around the mountain is the knowledge that you and your friends have about everything from the avalanche bulletin for the day and the past few days to what signs you can look after when scoping out your runs or planning a ski tour. 

An example of a To-do list before you go skiing :

  • 1. Check the avalanche bulletin in your area
  • 2. Bring your Transceiver, ABS, shovel, probe and the most important, your Knowledge.
  • 3. Do a group check with your friends to see that all transceivers are working
  • 4. Pack your bag with a first aid kit, an extra layer, water, some kind of food or snack.
  • 5. Scope the runs you want to do from the lift, to check if they are safe

Another important aspect is that you should never go out of the piste area alone, always bring people that you trust with you. If you are planning to ski out of the piste area you should buy a transceiver, a probe and a shovel. After you have bought the equipment, you should attend one or more education days about how to use it and how to think about the risks. And practice how to use it often. Another important thing to do is to put the emergency number on your phone, so if anything happens you are no longer a call away from help.

Mont Géle is another very well known place to go if you want to go off the piste. From the top of the Mont Géle gondola, there aren’t any fixed groomers, there are only marked off-piste routes down. After a snowfall, it’s nice to go down these routes. When it hadn’t snowed for a couple of days there is mostly slushy snow and bumps, but that is a really good opportunity to train yourselves on the off-piste.

There are two Mont Gelé itinerary runs marked on the official piste map. One run, “La Grande Journée”, descends to Tortin on the opposite side of the mountain to the cable car, and another one in the direction of La Chaux and cabin Mont-Fort.

But although you are skiing a marked off-piste route, you can’t forget the fact that there are risks. Always use your knowledge. On Mont Géle you can often find good snow on any given day no matter how strong the sun is or how the wind has been.

One of the most popular is the run directly below the Chassoure gondola, commonly referred to as ‘Tortin’. Proximity to the gondola means it’s often a big mogul field.

“This is generally considered to be the most challenging marked itinerary run in the Verbier, but compared to some of the proper off-piste skiing it is relatively tame” says the Freeride Verbier book. “Luckily, the north-facing bowl is exceptionally shaded, and the moguls well formed, so you can expect good skiing on firm but grippy snow.”

The descent from the Col des Gentianes to Tortin is another long sustained mogul run a lot of the time.

The officially designated off-piste routes are marked on the piste map as yellow lines, a single line of yellow poles in the snow marks the direction of an itinerary route. Itineraries are bounded 20m on each side of the yellow poles.

There is so much choice here, so a really smart choice if you are new to Verbier is to get yourself knowledge from a local guide that knows the area like their own back pocket. The guides always know how to find the best snow for the moment and most importantly they know a lot about safety on the mountain both on the piste and off the piste.

Days after any snow a good guide can still find you powder stashes.

There’s only one Verbier © Verbier Promotion

Apart from the awesome terrain, one of the reasons that Verbier is such a freeride mecca is that the Freeride World Tour finale goes off here every year. The face that they are riding on is the infamous Bec De Rosses that looks insane in every aspect. As you can see in this picture the face is full of rocks and really, really steep.

2021 is the 25th Anniversary, with the event window from 22-28 March, check free broadcast times on the link.

Watch the FWT action from the sundeck at Cabane Mt Fort © Owain Price / snowaction.com.au

There are also two very well known couloirs that you can see from the Mont Fort lift for the gung-ho to have a lash at when conditions allow.

Classic couloir lines on Mt Fort © Felix Aradsson

Quite simply you could spend a lifetime and still be finding new routes here. For the casual visitor guiding help is the best way to start, more details of guides and options on the link here.

All up despite all the naysayers it has been as successful a season as could be hoped for this year in Europe. Hopefully vaccinations have things more under control so more of us can get to, or back to, Verbier in 2022..

You can chek the latest updates on their site here.

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