Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Ski Verbier

Easter saw us on a mini-break in Verbier with friends. Or Le Chable, rather, a less rich & famous village just below it. We seemed to hit the jackpot, with oodles of powder, blue skies and acres of off piste to be had for the price of a bit of boot packing or skinning. Switzerland really is amazing. Expensive, but amazing. The second-accurate train runs from inside the airport terminal, and stops (on the second, naturally) two minutes walk from the hotel in Le Chable. We flew from East Midlands, and met Chris and Nana at the airport, coming from Heathrow. Tom and Tasha, the boarders, had arrived earlier, hoping to maximise the snow time. Lorne, a friend from Bristol lives in Le Chable, working as a ski instructor, and her partner John was out, too. They have a lot of local knowledge between them.

Our hotel was basic, but clean and functional. Le Chable isn't really a ski resort in any way - just a local village that happens to have a gondola running to the top of its more famous neighbour. The weather forecast said that our first ski day would be the most stable, with masses of snow to follow. John suggested that this may be our only opportunity to tackle one of the many celebrated ski tours available in the Valais. He proposed an ascent of Rosablanche (3336m).

The following morning we were greeted with blue skies, and Sarah and I quickly packed tranceivers, shovels, probes, lunch, water and skins. The ascent would take somewhere between 2.5 and 4 hours depending on fitness and snow conditions. We met up with John, and took the lifts as far as we could, and after a bit of a traverse, donned the skins and set off. Skinning is sweaty work, but usually not super-strenuous - you settle into a kind of hypnotic rhythm, more like hill walking, rather than fell running. The first bit took about 20 mins or so, and from the top a traversed descent took us into a different world, away from lifts and any sign of other people. The views were out of this world, and untouched powder everywhere for the adventurous. The next climb was longer, but gentler, and before long we reached a ridge at 3000m, finally revealing the full extent of the glacier that would form our descent, and the main objective, the summit of Rosablanche. We could now see other parties approaching from all sorts of directions. The Rosablanche summit is on the Chamonix to Zermatt Haute Route. Another long traverse, and then the final 336 meters of ascent.

Something weird happened here. Suddenly, all other parties were overtaking us. Instead of the previous 100 steps, 5 sec breather, 100 steps, I was now on 10 steps, 1 minute breather, 10 steps. I'm obviously rubbish at altitude. Getting to the summit ridge rewarded us with breathtaking views of the Swiss alps - with the Matterhorn poking through the clouds. It was now desperately cold - I was unable to retain the heat in fingers and toes. We quickly peeled the climbing skins, and scrambled up to the summit cairn for the full tick.

The way down was over all too quick, with wonderful powder on top of the glacier. We are thinking of doing some touring for the honeymoon, but Sarah offed that idea on the way up. It was on again on the way down though.

On the Sunday we did the full 4 Vallee traverse, that is we tried to cover as much of the piste system as our lift passes allowed. Chris and Nana came with us, and they did a remarkable job on some of the steep blacks that need negotiating. We ended up in a lovely slopeside restaurant, devouring some of the local dried meats. And a cheeky pint.

A lot of snow fell, and due to the fact that we had the advantage of local knowledge, we got plenty of fresh tracks and crazy drops. On the last day we climbed up the Stairway to Heaven, a quick boot pack up to a hidden, powder-filled bowl of magic.

Verbier really is an off-piste heaven - skins open up amazing terrain, and even short walks gets you away from the crowds in minutes.

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