Rough Guides writer Lucy Pierce explores the best runs, off-piste skiing and touring in Verbier’s 4 Valleys, Switzerland.
Switzerland’s largest ski area – the 4 Vallées – is known for its epic off-piste, marked itinerary runs and touring opportunities, as well as a refined town with top tier dining and a vibrant après ski. No surprise that it’s a popular playground for European royalty, as well as Richard Branson and James Blunt. As a keen skier, it’s long been on my ski wishlist, alongside Whistler, Banff and Niseko.
Together Verbier, La Tzoumaz, Bruson, Nendaz, Veysonnaz and Thyon offer an impressive 410 km of runs (24 blue, 39 red and 10 black), all easily connected by 80 speedy ski lifts. The summit of the highest peak, Mont Fort, reaches 3,330m making the resort relatively snow sure throughout the season.
I thought my legs were ready for a busy three days of exploring. Starting with perfectly groomed corduroy pistes, weaving down moguled itinerary runs and testing my balance off piste in the crusty powder. A little over eager, the night hike after a day on the slopes was maybe a step too far.
Ready for first lifts, I met local guide and instructor Eloise Favret from Adrenaline, who lives in Verbier. After a couple of runs around La Chaux it was straight up to Mont Fort – nothing like a black mogul run to get the ski legs back! The view at the top is sublime and stretches across the big-name mountains, like the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc.
As the run is steep and ungroomed all the fresh snow had been scrubbed off the first section of the run, making it a slip and slide. Once we’d popped over the moguls, the piste cleared into a wide cruisy run. This geared us up to practise our carving, so we did a couple of laps around Gentaines to do just that.
The sun was beaming down, the air was crisp and we had the slopes to ourselves – the perks of mid-week skiing in January. After a coffee refuel, Eloise suggested the marked itinerary run, Vallon d'Arby.
A 1,000m vertical down a gully, around the cliffs to what had become a mogul field as the snowpack had hardened. Our skis carried us through the Tzoumaz valley, where the light dappled through the pines and a stream trickled alongside.
It was time for lunch on La Marmotte’s terrace, the perfect suntrap. It was a tough call between cheese fondue, croûte and röstis. In the end I opted for a baked rösti with tomme from Bruson – a buttery cow’s cheese from the valley next door.
After a quick swap to touring skis – that are a fraction of the weight of piste skis – we met our guide Gilbert Crettaz. My legs were weary after a full day, so we decided on a shorter tour to Le Marlénaz. This wooden chalet-style restaurant is only accessible by skiing off piste, tobogganing or touring, so it’s a well-kept secret.
We attached our skins to the underside of our skis – a little like a carpet – and began our ascent. Normally letting the chairlifts do all the hard work, this role reversal was invigorating. We turned off our head torches and looked down over Verbier and Le Châble, lit up and ready for the night’s entertainment.
I inhaled deeply, breathing in the nostalgically sweet smell of conifer. It was completely silent – magical. The long arms of the pine trees were drooping with the weight of the hardened snow, then, lights appeared between them. There was Le Marlénaz.
We were treated to a bottle of the Petite Arvine – a soft local wine with fruity notes – and a Valaisan cheese and meat platter and foie gras topped with blackcurrant chutney. This was followed by beef tartare with sweet bone marrow from nearby Swiss cows and a ski favourite of wild blueberry tart.
Light-headed from the Petite Arvine and laughter of the evening, we slid down the route we walked up in a tenth of the time. The next morning, my guide showed me a video that his friend – a piste basher – had taken the night before. It was of three rather large wolves roaming around Savoleyres where we had done the night touring…
The Freeride World Tour was founded in Verbier, and it’s a key resort on the circuit. Freeride skiers choose their line down the most challenging alpine faces, between rocky outcrops, crevices and couloirs. I had no intention of backflipping off rocks on the Bec des Rosses, but I did want to suss out the best runs. My freeride guide Nico Lyonnaz was just the person to show us around.
With my backpack, shovel, probe and transceiver at the ready, we did a couple of practice runs under the Lac des Vaux chairlift. Then it was up to Mont Gelé, where the view – and wind – quite literally blew me away. We could see perfectly carved s-shaped turns on practically every corner of the mountain, so it was going to be tough to find a first line.
Due to the wind and gradient, the first section was pretty bare, but as we made it down into the sheltered part of the slope where the snow was plentiful. Although a little heavy, it was a joy to ski down. I felt like I’d done 400 squats, but equally high on adrenaline and dopamine.
My last half day was spent on-piste in Bruson with Alex Weir from Alpine Mojo. It was another gorgeous bluebird, and hardly a skier in sight. The cruisy blues and reds made it the perfect spot to practise short turns. And, our synchronised ski turns – inspired by viral reels from Swiss ski instructors. Who did it better? (Probably them!)
The Shed is just off Place Central and is well located for ski hire shops, après and a 10-minute walk to the Medran gondola. Opened by three Swedish friends who were looking to bring a boutique sport-hotel to Verbier, it has been renovated with modern features. My room was spacious with a balcony that caught the sun in the afternoon, the perfect spot to reminisce about the day’s slopes. Breakfast was buffet style with juices, cereals, meats and cheeses, plenty to fuel you up for a day on the slopes.
The hotel’s restaurant, Caffè Goomah, is Scandi-chic with a large bookcase filled with records separating the tables. The menu has a selection of cocktails, cicchetti and New York style pizzas, all using seasonal ingredients. I shared the chicken parmigiana, Kale Caesar salad and saltimbocca – veal wrapped in prosciutto – marinated in wine and oil, the jus was very spoonable.
Considering the much-publicised lack of snowfall across the Alps this season, I was extremely fortunate to have great snow and well pisted runs. Verbier’s altitude and the cold snaps have kept the resort snow-sure. It’s an ideal spot for a variety of skiing, as well as memorable off-the-piste entertainment. Don’t miss an evening of singing and dancing at Hotel Farinet’s après ski bar!
I wore Planks’ Women's Roamer 3-Layer Jacket in Navy with the Green Bib Pants. The set is durable and lightweight making it easy to breathe, perfect for off-piste and touring. When the temperature dropped to -12, I opted for Columbia Bugaboo Omni-Heat Salopettes that have thermal-reflective lining and kept my legs warm. My goggles were Sungod Vanguards – the low light lens was great for visibility on overcast days.
For ski hire, I used Xtreme ski hire shop, who provided me with Faction’s Dancer 1 and last year’s Dictators to try out. If you book an off-piste instructor with Adrenaline, you can book a rucksack with shovel, probes and a transceiver.
Return direct flights from London Heathrow to Geneva Airport cost from £90 with Swiss. A seven-night stay at Shed. HOTEL in Verbier, starting 13 February 2023, costs from CHF1,761/£1,549 pp based on two sharing (one king-size bed). Breakfast is included.
The Swiss Travel Pass offers unlimited travel on consecutive days throughout the Swiss Travel System rail, bus and boat network. It also includes 500 museums and exhibitions. Prices start from £186 for a three-day second-class ticket. For more information about Verbier visit www.verbier.ch
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Lucy looks after the Rough Guides social media and is a freelance travel writer specialising in adventure travel, culture and lifestyle. You can follow her on Twitter @LucyPierce