The majestic snow-capped peaks of Verbier in the Swiss Alps.
From the massive ski area of the Graubuden we headed across Switzerland to the French-speaking area of Lausanne and the overwhelming runs at world-famous Verbier. Before that, though, it was considered a good idea to do some warm-up runs at stops along the way such as Leysin and Les Diablerets, writes our travel editor Al Auger.
When you enter the village of Leysin you have left the “outside” for a time and place reviving the quiet lost in the world today. At the Leysin ski area itself low pressure, moderate skiing is the norm. Excluding a long run from the 7,100-foot peak to the base station, the runs are relatively short by Alpine standards but interesting in their many configurations. The weather is mild and snow conditions consistently good.
For Louise and me it was a moment of sad reflection remembering our days of close comradeship with the founders of the truly unique Club Vagabond in Leysin. Carol and Alan Rankin were the epitome of a world of freedom and happiness. For a virtual pittance they wrapped you in a warm down comforter for the night after a bountiful dinner and music and tall tales spiced with fruity Swiss schnapps. Alas, Alan and Carol and Club Vagabond are gone, but never forgotten.
Leysin skiing is very similar to Homewood on the west side of Lake Tahoe favored by families with vast easier and intermediate runs. One of the most challenging is Choux de Mont with exciting ridge runs and deep forest experiences ending 7,216 feet later in town. Again in the Homewood sense, Leysin has a large snowboarding following and is the host site for the European Championships.
At the eastern end of the long valley, divided by the Pic Chaussy, are the resorts of Les Moses and Glacier des Diablerets. Eight lifts stretch from both sides of Les Mosses to the peaks of Mont D’Or and Pic Chaussy. The Mont D’Or runs are wide, intermediate and only slightly broken by stands of tightly packed trees.
The other side of the valley is another, indeed. No trees here, just giant fists of solid rock jutting upward, forming deeply cut crevasses and ridges that will keep you on your toes all the way down.
Les Diablerets is the unique station of the Leysin complex. Its two lower runs are for beginners and therefore hardly spoken of apre ski time. But the top – ah, the top! – glacier skiing at its best. It suffers only from the usual malaise of all glaciers: very few good skiing days. When Les Diablerets glaciers are right though, it is so right, – a thrilling schuss that has to be experienced at least once during your stay.
The dark moniker is a fitting one. The village legend claims a long lost folklore tale of devils that play skittles among the bleak glaciers. Les Diableret has a connection with its neighbor Villars and the added experience of skiing the glaciers in summer. Les Diablerets, as isolated as it seems on the surface, is a sophisticated ski resort with six cable cars, 18 lifts and 4-miles of tobogganing trails plus 19-miles of cross-country trails. Most intermediate it has one gut-sucker directly under the gondola.
Solacyre is the unique for trail skiers as all runs begin at the top of the tree-line and take you through the lush forest below. It’s not unusual for the skier to begin at Leysin in the morning then drive the short two miles to solacyre for the afternoon – or vice-versa.
Because of the proximity of Les Diablerets and the other rugged mountains, mountaineering, rock-climbing and hiking are actually bigger sports for Leysin than skiing. There are a number of professional schools available with a full curriculum of climbing from the standard courses of ice, rock, mountain and rescue to ski mountaineering. Instructors advise early on any prospective student should take a hard, long look at his – or her – physical condition before applying.
Our final target, Verbier, waited for us with all its massive skiable area and notoriety of fabulous choices of runs. The village of Verbier was built around skiing and it is the home of some of the finest skiers in Europe, both amateur and professional. What we found most delightful is one could spend a week at Verbier and never repeat a run. As a delicious dessert after a day of being overwhelmed by the daunting mountain, we enjoyed the sybaritic pleasures of the hamlet’s many varied treats. And being fundamentally French, the food, from the tidbits to full dinners were exceptional.
Spoiled by the bucolic visuals of abundant forests of green towering over carpets of white surrounding Lake Tahoe, the forbidding tableaux before us brought second thoughts as we were sped up the mountain. The visage of Verbier is a vast architecture of rock warriors standing watch. On our right were steep, narrow runs closed in by walls of rock. We watched with wide-eyed awe as skiers violently twisted and turned their way followed by flowing clouds of disturbed powder. Such a scene made our choice look for the intermediate blue markers for starters even more reasonable. What we found was, once the chill of the mountain settled down, we headed for the Tortin Bowl with wonderful moguls, overlooking the steep runs of Les Attelas. It came as no surprise the trail map included no beginner slopes.
As the day wore on, we followed the maze of lifts and cable cars, we discovered the misused term used so often by skiers “we conquered the mountain,” is even more ludicrous here. Unlike Tahoe skiing, the Verbier map ranks as mainly advanced and expert with an enjoyable choice of mid-range runs and bowls. One of the most dramatic experience is reach the 3300m Mont Fort summit and feel like you’re at the top of Everest. In practically ever direction are massive peaks covered with deep blankets of snow.
Snowboarders are also treated with a wide landscape of spectacular runs, a terrain park and a circus of areas to put your talents to the test. An example of the theater waiting is Verbier hosting Europe’s unique freeride competition, the Xtreme. Held on the north face of the Bec de Rosses with drops of 54 degrees. This competition is so extreme, only 30 of the best skiers and boarders are invited.
Verbier sits on the throne of the Four Vallée Ski Area, but is surrounded by a number of linked ski resorts that make it the largest such areas in the world. With proper conditions, there are available nearly 10-miles of trails dropping over 8,000-feet. A unique lift feature not found anywhere is the “Le Jumbo” cable car that carries 150 people.
The time we spent traveling over the vast ski area from Leysin to Verbier is, without a doubt, one of the most stimulating ski experience in our long and varied life as ski gypsies. The warmth of the people in the hamlets, ski memories that will be remembered forever. You want to return again, again and again. If we only could.
When You Go:
Verbier/Four Vallé e Ski Area:
Lifts: 17 lifts at Verbier; 92 lifts at all the valley ski resorts. Please check skiverbier.com for complete information and various lift prices that are accepted at all the ski areas.
Leysin Ski Area:
There are eleven surface lifts and one gondola. Lifts prices: Adults, chf 48; junior, chf 43; child, chf 32; seniors, chf 43. For information go to www.leysinski.ch.
Les Diablerets Ski Area:
The three ski areas that make up the Les Diablerets circus has 18 surface lifts, two cable cars and one gondola. For the various lift prices go to firstname.lastname@example.org or its Website www.diablerets.ch.