Extreme Skiing in Valais, Switzerland
The stunning Valais region has more than 40 ski areas and 2,500km of slopes; of 45 mighty summits above 4,000m, including the famous, pyramid-shaped Matterhorn; of glorious panaromic views; of 50 grape varieties (best enjoyed chilled in a glass on one of the region’s many sun terraces) and one UNESCO World Heritage Site. When the first thing you say about a Swiss ski region isn’t the fact that it’s probably the most snow-sure in a country pretty reliable for its snow, you know it’s got a whole lot more going for it. Valais is one of the most spectacular ski regions in all of Europe.
Région Dents du Midi – Where Switzerland meets France
The Région Dents du Midi comprises six charming villages – Champéy, Morgins. Troistorrents , Les Crosets, Champoussin and Val-d’llliez – nestled at the foot of the iconic Dents du Midi mountains, and makes up the Swiss side of Les Portes du Soleil, one of the largest ski networks in the world. It encompasses 12 resorts between Mont Blanc in France and Lake Geneva in Switzerland and covers more than 600km of pistes, offering a huge variety of skiing. This vast skiing paradise has some demanding slopes, not least the 2km-long Didier Défago run, named after the 2010 Olympic Downhill gold medallist and world champion, who hails from the area. The runs can get marvellously tricky in Les Crosets as well (regiondentsdumidi.ch/en).
Some pistes are so steep they’re graded black. Others are so steep they’re just plain scary. One goes beyond all that to ‘legendary’ status. The informous mogul field at Chavanette fits that moniker comfortably – but that’s the only comfortable thing about it. The run, known as the ‘Swiss Wall’ because it starts on the Swiss-French border, is reachable from <Avoriaz> in France. Champéy or Les Crosets, and then Plummets back into the latter. The slope not only has continuous moguls but starts on a narrow passage with a 40-degree gradient. It opens up a little after the first 50m, but this is one is strictly for experts skiers or snowboarders. It lasts a whole kilometre, dropping 331m on the way, and has been judged so challenging in the Swiss/French grading system that it surpassed black grading and received the notorious orange rank. Did you know there was an orange rank? Yup, it’s that hard.
Nendaz 4 Vallées
Nendaz is the lesser-known neighbour of the snow sports powerhouse Verbier – the cliff-dropping, powder-puffing venue of the freeride World Cup. Nendaz is linked with Verber, Veysonnaz and Thyon, making 4 Vallées the biggest ski resort that’s solely in Switzerland, with more than 400km of pistes. You can easily hop between resorts whenever you like. The terrain in Nendaz is similar to its neighbour – sublime. It caters to all abilities, sure, but where Nendaz really excels is in the off-piste, freeriding fun. It has seven free tracks: secured, unprepared routes. And the fact that Verbier is so close by means that when the fresh stuff does fall, you’ll be a lot more likely to ride fresh tracks all day in Nendaz, because the crowds are in Verbier. All the snow, all the terrain, but without the queues.
The seven freeriding areas in Nendaz are the big pull for expert riders. The runs on Mont-Fort, in particular, attract a lot of attention from accomplished skiers and snowboarders. On the front face you’ll find steep riding, while on the backside you’ll find a far-flung valley run made for adventurous backcountry dreamers. Gentianes is a 3.5km freeride run which is incredibly physically demanding, and if you make it out to the challenging freetrack L’Eteygeon, further from the lifts than many of the other options, you’ll be staring into a great white wilderness. Beware, though, this is expert skiing. Book yourself a mountain guide and they’ll no doubt show you the best of the mountain. There are 300 days of sunshine a year here, so you should be able to top up your goggle tan as you float along the powder (nendaz.ch).
Zermatt - Where Switzerland meets Italy
The resort in the shadow of the mighty Matterhorn mountain, one of the most distinctive rock formations in the world, Zermatt is often rightly lauded as among the planet’s most beautiful ski destinations. And it’s safe to say the piste map matches the scenery. Connecting to Breuil-Cervinia, a resort on the Italian side of the Matterhorn (or ‘Cervino’, as it’s called across the border), the combined 360km of pistes – 200km in Zermatt and 160km in Italy – offer endless runs of all grades, and nearly always look on to either the north, east or south face of the Matterhorn. As a result, Zermatt is incredibly photogenic. The views from the top of the Monte Rosa glacier are particularly special, with frozen mountain lakes visible beneath the peaks. Just make sure you don’t miss the last lift home if you do go to Italy, as it’s a three and-a-half hour drive round the mountain to get back once the lifts stop for the day.
The option of heading into Italy for an expresso and a bowl of pasta for lunch isn’t the worst add-on for a ski resort, but what’s great about Zermatt is that the hefty 200km of pistes situated in the resort itself are enough to keep you comfortably entertained for a week-long stay. There are three main areas in Zermatt: Rothorn, Gornergrat and Matterhorn glacier paradise. The glacier delivers what it says on the tin; it’s a paradise. And the cable car trip to get you there will sit nicely on your Instagram. It reaches the highest cable car station in Europe at 3,883m. If you want something a bit more off the beaten track, then Zermatt also has a full 36km of freeride slopes, denoted with yellow markings, just waiting for your tracks (Zermatt.ch).