Swiss Cheese - guest post by Tucker White
Throughout my 25-ish years of skiing, I have been extremely fortunate to explore many of the goldmines around North America. As a kid, my parents prioritized outdoor activities for family fun, and skiing became our go-to avenue for family bonding. This is something I am forever grateful for, something that I will carry with me for the rest of my life, and something that I will pass on to my own family one day. Ski trips are still one of those things that I prioritize most in my “adult” life, and I make it a goal to go on at least one big adventure a year. This year there was something new on the docket. Time for Annie and I to cross the pond and see what the Alps hype was all about.
After college, my roommate of three years took a job at a tech company based in Paris, France, where he would reside for the foreseeable future. As a French-speaking Swiss native, he fit right in and would become the perfect tour guide for our adventure. Going into 2019, Pierre’s time in Paris was drawing to a close and it seemed like now or never to make this trip happen, so Annie and I packed up our gear and headed for Logan International to grab a flight to Paris.
We spent the first couple of days in Paris exploring the local attractions, eating a few too many baguettes, and repacking our gear into fewer bags for the trek to Switzerland. After a few days of Parisian indulgence, the last member of our party, Jack, arrived, and we were poised for a long day of train rides across the French countryside and into the mountains to arrive in Verbier.
For those not familiar with the area, Verbier 4 Valles is made up of several resorts that, combined, form the largest ski area in Switzerland and one of the top in all of Europe. We would spend the majority of our time on the vast terrain of Verbier with some outings into the other valleys as the days went on. Even after spending five very full days on snow exploring, we barely scratched the surface of what this locale has to offer.
We arrived in Verbier under the cover of darkness, with a week of beautiful sun and warm weather predicted. With this forecast and the volume of snow that had fallen earlier in the winter, we knew that conditions would be extremely variable on different aspects and timing would be of utmost importance to get the goods safely. The morning of day one rolled around and Verbier delivered with bluebird skies and snowy peaks as far as the eye could see. We spent the morning ripping steep groomers and playing at lower elevations while we waited for the goods to soften up. By about 11 am some of the upper gondolas started rolling, and it was time to enter the gnar for the first time. We spent the late morning and early afternoon lapping the couloirs of Mont Gelé (3022m), where we all got a healthy dose of the puckering steeps and mountaineering challenges we would face for the rest of the trip. Stepping off the gondola onto a high alpine ridgeline with jagged rocks and foreboding narrow chutes quickly reminded us we were not in Vermont anymore and that the bar had been raised. With the highest summits on hold due to high avalanche danger from solar radiation, we finished off the day with a late lunch in the shadow of the legendary Bec des Rosses and a long traverse to the village complete with the spectacle of paragliders providing entertainment.
Verbier is known not only for its vast technical, steep terrain, but also for its vibrant community and wild nightlife. On day two we arose to another picturesque day, all of us nursing hangovers from the previous evening's festivities, which started with a few pints at Pub Mont Fort and ended with a sweaty dance party at Le Farinet followed by some highly questionable tuna pizza on the way back to the Airbnb. Needless to say, waiting for the snow to soften up high was a welcome reprieve as we hammered espresso and water before taking some park laps to ease into the day. Once we had our legs literally and figuratively back under us it was off for more steeps and hair-raising boot packs. Throughout the afternoon we continued to explore the various faces on Mont Gelé and ventured over to Col des Gentianes (2950m). While there hadn't been any new snow in Verbier in a week or so there was still plenty to play with, and once it warmed up we were regularly plowing through boot-top high corn. The lack of precipitation on our trip was a blessing in disguise. While it would have been awesome to rip some blower pow, doing so would have meant sticking to the lower elevations and being faced with days of extreme low visibility. The sunny, dry conditions we encountered turned out to be just what we needed to cover the most terrain and make the most of our time. That being said, the lack of precipitation did not mitigate all the risks in some of the areas we were skiing. Avalanche risk was very low in the morning; however, the amount of solar radiation we were receiving meant that by early afternoon this risk was bumped to considerable or high depending on the aspect. Nearly every morning our gondola commute was accompanied by spotting a new natural point release slide that had ripped down the mountain the previous afternoon.
Over the next few days, we pushed further to the highest peak in Verbier - Mont Fort. At 3330m above sea level, stepping off the gondola onto the small unloading area gave a feeling of being on top of the world. From there, we clicked into our bindings and headed off the back side of the mountain for what would become a 2+ hour downhill and traverse out. With nothing but mountain ranges for miles and miles it was vital that we plan our routes out in advance and use various mapping apps to stay on course. The terrain off the back side of Mont Fort ran the gamut, from steep technical couloirs to mandatory airs to open chargeable faces. Upon getting to the bottom of this run we encountered a picturesque chalet on the side of the mountain, where we would stop and regroup with lunch and drinks before heading off on the harrowing traverse out. Some of you may be thinking...a low elevation traverse...harrowing...I must be missing something... This traverse was a mixture of high speed single track and sweaty skating that took us beneath some of the most sun affected faces and through slide paths with death cookies the size of a small horse. While the way out was somewhat gut wrenching, the experience itself was all-time and the risk was definitely worth the reward in this case.
While the runout from Mont Fort was truly unnerving, it paled in comparison to the technical ascent we encountered enroute to the duly named Banana Couloir on one of our later days. Pierre had followed some locals into Banana some weeks ago and was keen for a repeat performance. That being said, he had only been there once before, so we would need some support in finding our way. On the way up the gondola, Pierre used his native tongue to chat up some young locals, who agreed to show us the route. I remember thinking to myself sarcastically, “Great, I’ll follow this guy's instructions - instructions in French, which I understand very little of, it’ll be great…” So here we were about 3000m up, starting with a narrow traverse just below the ridgeline. We came to an abrupt stop, and our guide started taking his skis off. Now, it's important to know that I do not do well with heights; I am very confident on my skis, and the edge control makes the fear manageable, but take those edges away and I am immediately on all fours clinging to the snow. Moving on, we proceeded to hike, or in my case crawl, straight up to the ridgeline. From there we picked our way across a rib of variable, jagged rock with dramatic drops all around. Finally we came to a knife-edge patch of snow where we finally put our skis back on and traversed down to the top of our destination, the Banana Couloir. Now I may be a ninny when it comes to high alpine bootpacking, but I would do this adventure again in second, despite the anxiety that overcame me the entire way in. Once we dropped into this extremely steep chute full of shin- and knee-deep snow that was out of the sun's harmful rays, I remembered why I had endured the previous terror. What came next was a high-speed descent through soft snow in a couloir just wide enough to fully open up the throttle and carve. When things widened out a bit, the run was far from over, as we continued on to the next ridgeline, where we dropped into a similar powder field full of perfect natural drops and hits. This process continued until we finally reached the base at a completely different resort a couple hours later. This is a memory that will stick with me for a long time and was certainly a highlight of the trip.
After 5 days of hard charging, apres goodness, and delicious Swiss cuisine, it was finally time to reverse course and catch the train back to Paris. Remember when I mentioned repacking into fewer bags for the trek to Verbier? Well, this resulted in the ski bag Annie and I used weighing somewhere in the 100-150 pound range. On the way to the train we had a number of extremely close connections that left us biting our nails and sweating profusely under the weight of our gear. All in all, we managed to successfully make every one of our connections and made it back to Paris for one last night. The next day consisted of a long flight back to Boston, a late-night drive north, arrival in Burlington, Vermont, at about 2 am, and a return to our desk jobs by 8 am.
With great memories made, we push on to bike season here in New England with next year’s adventure lurking right around the corner. What it will be, we may not know yet, but the planning and dreaming never stops. Cheers!