This was my 3rd skiing trip to Europe with prior trips to Zermatt, Switzerland and St. Anton, Austria. I choose Verbier because of the combination that I could get there on a train from the airport after a direct flight from NY or Phila and it had the reputation of being a very big resort that had plenty of expert skiing available. It didn’t let me down.
My ski partner and I took the 5:30pm Thursday EWR flight and arrived in Geneva Friday at 7am. Two escalators down and we caught the 3 hr train after with only one change. We arrived in Le Chable at 11am and were on the hill at noon.
The resort we skied is generally referred to Verbier, but technically Verbier is a town that is the largest base of the 80 lift connected ski area known as the 4 Valleys. Verbier is an expensive ski town that obviously caters to the very rich. Le Chable is another town in the inter-connected 4 Valleys with it’s own gondola and a couple more lifts that access a separate mountain.
All the lift types are there, including 4 cable cars, a bunch of gondolas of all sizes, chair lifts (detachable and not), T-bars and single button lifts and escalators too. I don’t know why some skiers don’t like trams/cable cars, I love riding up in the box, I’m with “my people”.
The train arrives at the gondola station where you can either access the Le Chable skiing area called Brunson or ride it the other way to Verbier. I chose Le Chable because we could stay at a reasonably priced $150/nt hotel yet have complete access to the entire 4 Valley ski area. The hotel, advertised as only 100 yds from the gondola/train was actually a 250 yd (with hill) “slugfest” from the train and gondola. My new ski bag with wheels came in very handy for this trip. If you ski Europe with train connections, I highly recommend packing as a light as possible! Even so, there will be plenty of hauling and lifting that is tough even if your body is in good shape. Although I love my 97 underfoot skis next time for the sake of weight I’m going to bring my older narrower but much lighter skis.
We were on the hill at noon, which to our bodies was 6am EST, but we felt no ill effects from being up for 24 hrs and we were excited to get going. In Verbier there was about 6 inches of snow on the ground but on top the base was reported to be over 75 inches. From Verbier - a gondola, a chair lift then two cable cars will take you to the top to Mt Fort for it’s maximum of 5500 skiable vertical feet. It’s been an irregular snow year in Europe. There was very little snowfall through December then in early January the gods smiled and in day after day storms for 2 weeks they received about 6-10 feet which provided good coverage and opened up 95% of the runs aka pistes on the mountain.
The first afternoon we hit it hard and skied most of the lifts in the Verbier area getting our bearings and learning the layout, but we tried not to wonder too far so that when the lifts closed at 4:15 we wouldn’t be stuck somewhere where we wouldn’t be able to ski down to Verbier. That happened on my trip to St. Anton and I was stuck trying to figure out the bus schedule then wait for it. Luckily it was just a short, cheap ride back to my hotel. In the 4 Valley’s the base villages are separated by geography such that an expensive couple hundred dollar cab ride would be necessary to get back to your hotel.
The next day the plan was to try to ski to the other side of the ski area and work our way back. That’s hard to do unless you have that as your single purposed plan. We ended up sampling other lifts and mountains on our way and unless you are going to ignore what looks like good skiing you just won’t have enough time to make it home. We made it about 2/3rd across before we decided it was time to work our way back.
European ski resorts are quite different than the US. We have marked ski area boundaries with named runs and in most of the Western resorts you can otherwise ski the areas in between except where the patrol has marked dangerous areas. In Europe the runs don’t seem to be named and are called pistes which are marked with orange poles on each side. Outside of the orange poles you can ski wherever you want and there are no warning signs to mark dangerous or un-skiable areas (which are plentiful). It’s interesting that during my four days of skiing I didn’t see one ski patroller nor did I see any skiing accidents or sled rides, although we did see a few Swiss helicopters which might have been evacuations. When we purchased the lift tickets they give you the option of $5 extra for insurance. I’m not sure if you get ski patrol services w/o in the insurance for accidents on-piste. I asked a local if the $5 covers evacuation for off-piste accidents and I got an unsure answer that “I don’t think so”. The trouble is that apparently most of the evacuations are by helicopter, and I read it’s a couple thousand dollar ride, but all of that is fuzzy. So if you are skiing a little mogul field outside of the orange poles and get hurt you could be stuck with a big bill to get down. Something to keep in mind.
There are plenty of pistes which are all groomed and many of them are quite steep, comparable to say Regulator Johnson at Snowbird. The off-piste can be dicey. The trouble is that there are tons of small, medium and enormous rocks and boulders all over the place. I don’t think the resort does any summer maintenance to clear them out, the resort is just too big. For our first two days of skiing it had been 2 weeks since it had snowed with warm day-time temperatures which made the pistes quite hard and the off-piste moguls steep, hard and icy. On some of the steeper piste’s it was a challenge to trust your edges and hold on, turn after turn, for dear life hoping not to fall into a long, smooth slide. But the Europeans love their pistes and groomed terrain and they ski them quite well. There were many areas right of the lifts which looked like they hadn’t been skied at all, but usually for good reason with plenty of rocks above and below the surface.
For our third day weather was turning our way for the better. 15 inches of new snow was predicted but it was still warm. In Le Chable. It started raining the evening of our second day which we thought had to be snow higher up the mountain. As we rode the gondola up on our 3rd day the rain changed to snow about 1,500 ft up and we were hoping for a European powder day. Yes and No! The pistes were in good shape and hadn’t been groomed so the 6 inches that fell put them in very good shape. Off-piste the 6 inches only made the moguls more difficult to ski because the low visibility covered moguls and made the lines very difficult to see and you still ended pushing off the new snow and turning on unseen icy old moguls. Venturing off-piste where you couldn’t see moguls beneath the snow was out of the question because of visibility and the fact that no moguls meant very likely it wasn’t skied because all kinds of rock hazards awaited under the fresh snow. The visibility deteriorated throughout the day which eventually made hanging on while skiing down unfamiliar pistes difficult. I fell down a few times while not moving because I was just completely disorientated and couldn’t tell if I was going up or down. Sadly, the upper third of the mountain was closed due to visibility and probably avalanche hazard.
At Verbier there is a 3rd category of runs called Itinerary Runs. These are named, ungroomed expert slopes which are marked on the map. Most of them are on the highest parts of the mountain. They are all well-traveled, steep with interesting but skiable moguled-up terrain. And because it’s Europe most of them are quite long giving you at least a 1500 ft drop. One problem with them is that you can’t see most of them from any lift so you don’t know what you are getting into. I ski steep terrain and I love the right moguls, but my first goal is to stay out of no fall zones so I can continue on into the future with my 45 years of skiing! In the US we have steep slopes where if you trip up and fall you are going to slide down the run, maybe 200 ft. But it’s a big difference if slip up and end up falling down 700 vertical feet on hard packed snow or moguls, so it’s important that you know what you are getting into and if you are ready for it. You have to be very careful about skiing by my motto “let gravity be your guide”.
I consider myself a fitness skier and I generally hit the blacks and moguls all day long catching the last lift up. The lifts close at 4:15 at Verbier so I got plenty of skiing in each day. What I found interesting is at 4 there were still plenty of skiers getting their last runs in, in contrast to the US where at 3:30 the hills quickly empty out.
It continued to drizzle in Le Chable the evening of our 3rd day but sadly it got even warmer and much of that fell as rain to the very top of the mountain. Weather is always biggest factor in the anticipation of a ski trip. If you’ve skied long enough, you’ve tasted that bit of nirvana of a powder day, we are always hoping, but we seem to forget those many days in between. To me, Snowbird is the BEST, because when I usually go in February, even without new snow, the slopes are almost always in fine, chalky shape. Verbier, like Snowbird, mostly faces North.
On our fourth and last day we wanted to tackle Mt. Fort which is an iconic run starting from the top in Verbier. On our first two days we were hesitant because it looked so moguled up, long and generally nasty from the bottom - and with no new snow I was worried about the fall/slide risk. At least this is one itinerary run where you can see the whole thing from the bottom, although from quite a distance. But with the fresh snow we hoped it had softened up, even though we had word it rained (and then re-froze) right to the top the night before. I was also worried a little bit of the rumored “drop-in”, because of the likelihood of a long slide if missed. My stomach was nervous on the way to the tippy narrow top of the mtn, but all for naught. The drop in was nothing and fresh snow completely covered whatever moguls were there and although a bit steep and a little cruddy there was no chance of a slide and I had an easy fun run surfing down the fresh snow. With those powder puff conditions, I’m not even sure I earned my Mt Fort “badge”.
The rest of the off-piste, lower down, was very tough that day, because the new snow, rain and sleet had refrozen over night creating a 3 inch layer of refrozen crud on top of 5 inches of powder snow. There were many untouched lines to ski but you would break through the crud barrier into the powder but have to turn into that 3” of hard boot level crud. I’m a competent powder skier and early in the day, before I knew what was going on, I was riding up a lift chuckling at someone flailing away in it, so I did the same run and I was going to show how to do it, but I was immediately completely bogged down and even the traverse out of it was miserable. Seriously, I bow to any man or woman that can look good in that kind of crap!
But at least on our fourth and last day the piste’s were in excellent shape with rooster tails instead of scraping ice. There were some moguls runs where the crud was skied out and the two itinerary runs I did were well-skied and sweet. We skied until 2:30 and did a quick packup at the hotel and caught the 4:10p 2.5 hr train ride to our Geneva airport hotel. We didn't suffer any jet lag on the way there even though we hardly slept a wink on our way over and were on the slopes after being up over 24 hrs. On all three of my trips the planes were mostly empty both ways which allows you to claim 3 seats and stretch out.
Right now I’m suffering through a 9 hr plane ride back home, so that speaks to the length of this report, it’s helping to pass the time. For anyone looking to mimic this trip, we stayed at the Hotel Gietroz in Le Chable, which was fine and I think the closest hotel to the train/gondola. Rooms in Verbier proper are much more expensive. It was $150/nt divided by 2 but I think they over charged me. I originally book the room for $100/nt as a single, but changed the reservation when my long time ski pal decided to join me. I see now I have email confirmation for $130/nt for 2 after I changed the reservation. But I settled up with the bar lady who didn’t speak English while rushing to catch the train and didn’t have time to argue. The hotel provided a decent breakfast of breads, yogurt, cereal and a meat cheese platter each morning. What you find in Europe is that most of the people skiing can speak very good English. Just say excuse me and they either reply in good English or give a shrug or say no English. Verbier is close to France and the common language is French, but there is also a large part of Switzerland where they speak German, like in Zermatt. The higher class people can speak all three languages.
Everyone was very nice to us and you do need help from the locals, because there is quite a bit to figure out on a trip like this. I have no negatives except the Gods gave us some rain instead of all fluffly powder, but the skiing overall was still quite good. I also would’ve like to ski Mt Gele which is a very mean looking experts only peak with 2 long itinerary runs down, but we didn’t make it.
You Need a Guide – You’re Going to Fall Into a Crevasse or Get Caught in an Avalanche. This is silly!! A little bit of experience and common sense goes a long way. In Verbier I think? the crevasse danger is close to nil in the resort area. There is a glacier marked on the map coming down from Mt Fort, skiers right, but there is no need to go over there. Other euro resorts will have much higher crevasse danger. In St. Anton and Verbier there were dozens and dozens of slopes in front of you with off-pistes that are well-skied. Read the map. On a couple day trip there should be no need to go wondering off the beaten path(w/o guide) to enjoy skiing of all types. It would be plain stupid to be following tracks off into the unknown like I would do in the US. You have to know where you are going and what you are getting into and follow the well-trodden path. In Verbier there are the itinerary routes which are heavily skied and challenging enough. It would take a number of days just to get through them while making your way there and skiing other slopes. Exploring and taking chances is for the locals to do. I saw a guided group going down an itinerary run, not necessary for me. I think there is more chance of getting in trouble with a guide exploring than skiing what you see in front of you. In my research I came across plenty of "guided" avalanche and crevasse accidents. If there was a big snowfall to deal with, I would be even more careful. I think it is going to run you well over $200/day with tip. If you want to spend the money, it could be certainly worth it to get off the beaten path for the once in a lifetime experience of skiing in a slice of heaven, but it’s far from necessary to have an enjoyable experience. It all depends on your budget of course.
Late Jan is a good time to go. In Feb there are holidays which apparently can make the European resorts very crowded. We had no crowds and minimal lift lines. In my 3 euro ski trips I’ve never seen the rumored pushy euro behavior in lift lines. You need late Jan to ensure good coverage on the hill. I read that December can often be dry but January usually brings huge multi-day storms, which is exactly what happened this year before our trip.
Costs per person 4 days
4 nts Hotel - $300
Lift Tickets - $300
Train - $130
Lunch/Din - $180 ($20/lunch & $25 dinner – all excellent, esp the resort goulash)
Airfare $900 - i was able to use freq flier miles
If you live on the East cost and regularly make trips out West you have to give Europe a try. It’s only a couple hundred dollars more expensive and there is nothing like these enormous resorts and long verticals in the US. Also, it’s a big cultural experience. Just like skiing is diving into the unknown and dealing with variable conditions, so is dealing with transportation, and skiing in a foreign country where a different language is spoken, although English speakers are easy to find. Sometimes you do need a translator though, generally readily available. Also, regard to culture, I looked up on Wikipedia and both Switzerland and near-by France have a smoking rate double the US, yet they have a longer life expectancy. Why is that? The biggest factor is probably the obesity in the US. I never saw so many super thin, skinny legs in my life as I did looking at the people in the couple dozen train stations we passed through. The same goes for a huge pack of high school students at the train station in Martigny where we transferred. Not one of those 100 kids was fat. Not sure why, but maybe because on our 200 mile train ride passing through many towns and cities I didn’t see one fast food sign.
Another note - very few snowboarders. We estimated about 1 in 30 snowboarders on the hill, although there seemed to be more the one day we had new snow, maybe just because it was Sunday. A snowboarding restaurant owner, who had spent a few seasons at Whistler, said it was because the snowboarding type “culture” doesn’t exist in Europe. We only saw one rasta guy during our entire trip, he was running a lift. Whatever its’ worth – just my observation compared to the US. I always enjoy chatting on gondolas wherever I ski and you find out quick Europeans know much more about our culture and politics than we know about theirs. They even know about Trump!
The train stops in Le Chable after a 3 hr ride from airport w/ one transfer. That building to the right is the gondola which takes you either to Verbier or up the hill to ski the Brunson area - known for it's tree and powder skiing.
The town of Le Chable.
One of the 4 boxes.
Looking up Road to Torin - an Itinerary aka ungroomed steep experts run.
Can't beat the looks.
A nice feature is that there are trees lower down, as opposed to some euro resorts which are completely above tree line.
Cow Power - MOO!
I found my bumps.
Looking down to Verbier
The clouds came right down to the valley floor.
Bathroom sign for Jumbo cable car - what's that arrow all about?
Look up to Mt. Fort - the tippy top.
Steep groomer similar to Snowbirds Regulator Johnson. There were lots and lots of steep on-piste groomers.
The iconic Mt Fort run - on the right. I'm sure it can be wicked on the wrong day.
First time up an escalator in ski boots.
From the train. Every building in Switzerland looks just like these
The author with his daily dose of goulash.
Edited by SnowbirdDevotee - 2/10/16 at 3:40pm