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Pascaux’s Playground

I do love to explore. Sure, today’s globalized GoogleEarth world has left few never-skied places in North America or Europe. But that wondrous renewable resource known as snow restores the mountains in a way that, when you crest even the first ridge away from lifts or roads, you can feel like the first person on Earth to gaze upon that scene. On nearly any longer trip, the lure of surveying new terrain is irresistible. But there are some special places I go back to again and again – even at the cost of exploration time. I kick myself for having waited so long to return. In a very few, I wonder why I ever ski anywhere else.

Switzerland’s Val d’Anniviers is one such place. If you crave the authenticity of traditional mountain culture, this is your place. In my view, the Val d’Anniviers is Switzerland’s most authentic mountain valley – one of a bare handful of such regions I’ve found across the entire Alps. The Alps have no shortage of old buildings. The Val d’Anniviers is an entire regionof lovely heritage architecture, with just individual modern concrete structures here and there.

 Last March I returned there to kick off a three-week trip that would be a mix of exploration and reconnection. Just the drive from Zurich International Airport was incredible, the cornucopia of stunning scenery through the Swiss lowlands, along the Rhône River, past the terraced rock walls of ancient vineyards – some worked since Roman times – ancient castles and villages creating a nearly overwhelming feeling of awe and excitement before we even reached the white world.

The Alps are full of curvy roads, but the main access route ascending the Val d’Anniviers from the beautiful city of Sierre is on another level. Narrowing at times to one lane over an arched stone foundation looking like it had been laid by hand 200 years ago, the whole structure cantilevered over a 2,000-foot abyss, I had to dodge our tiny rental car into the occasional pullouts to make way for a heavy truck or a tour bus. There were dozens of switchbacks over massive drops or beneath overhanging cliffs, tunnels, sections strewn with rockfall and more coming down. Actually arriving felt akin to bagging a major peak on a ski tour.

Picture Verbier, Switzerland, circa 1850: a forgotten village of dark timber chalets and small hay-barns dappling a hanging basin above a long, steep-sided valley. Over time, add a few vintage lifts and marked pistes (runs), dozens of square kilometres of untouched touring terrain and a few charmingly low-key hotels and restaurants. You roughly have Verbier, ca. 1970. That also gives you a pretty good picture of modern-day St. Luc.St. Luc sits many switchbacks above the floor of the Val d’Anniviers, which holds four other skiing villages: Chandolin, Grimentz, Zinal and Vercorin.

It’s a long, dead-end, north-south valley parallel to and about half-way between Verbier and Zermatt. It lies gloriously flanked by Switzerland’s “Imperial Crown” of multiple 13,000+ foot peaks, topped by the 14,800-foot Weisshorn. It’s not merely beautiful and authentic, but decidedly off-beat: remote location, complex and unusual terrain, a still somewhat rickety lift system of only partly interconnected ski areas, and villages with not just 18thcentury heritage buildings but Medieval fortified watchtowers from the 1200’s.

The valley’s areas hold immediately accessible off-piste terrain by the square mile, numerous huge sidecountry descents requiring only short ascents, longer day tours, hut-based touring plus access to the Alps’ all-time classic, the Haute Route from Chamonix to Zermatt. On this visit, I found the best snow I’d ever encountered here, perfect coverage from base areas and valley runouts up onto every peak. On the downside, too much burly weather, including a day of peasoup fog when leaving the groomers would have been suicide. All the more reason not to be hut-bound. Although I wasn’t able to bag the bigger tours I’d been hoping for, I skied every day and did some shorter tours.

Despite the crazed drive in, I managed a few dazed laps on our arrival afternoon. I skied like a 90-year-old, but it shook out the jet lag, and I even found a couple of nice powder pitches. Back in my digs for this visit, the utterly amazing Grand Hotel Bella Tola, I slept 10 hours like a dead man and awoke ready for action. Not having my usual crew of touring cronies, I’d booked in with the local mountain guides’ bureau. I met up with Pascal “Pascaux” Zufferey and his colleague Bernard. The local duo was guiding a large group from the Ski Club of Great Britain, who had generously allowed me to join them for the day.

We headed up St. Luc’s old-school funicular railway, then a brand-new high-speed chairlift, skied a bit and stepped into another world: two nearly mile-long, 60s-era metal-bar Poma lifts. You ski in, grab hold of a bar and, after an ominous pause, are launched forward and briefly into the air entirely via your groin. Thankfully, the bright morning provided dazzling views of over 10,000-foot-high mountains all around. Riding up the first lift, the Pas de Boeuf (literally “Beef Pass”), I gazed southward at Le Tournot, an impressive isolated rocky peak with several technical and extremely steep couloirs accessible through a three-hour tour. Enticing, but a bit beyond some of the group’s members, plus today’s avy hazard was at 3, considerable.

The next Poma, the Bella Tola, topped out at over 10,000 feet, meaning we had come nearly 4,500 vertical feet. On my last visit, my crew and I had ridden the same lift. Discarding the Pomas one-by-one, we did a leftward U-turn then traversed around the peak’s upper flanks. Swinging from southerly via westerly slopes the snow changed from slush to crust to what we were aiming for: settled north-facing powder dropping into an empty alpine valley. It hadn’t snowed in two weeks, but there was just one set of tracks down the Bella Tola’s pocket glacier. The slope ended in a long reverse wind-lip that we’d been told had claimed lives, so we stayed to either side of this brutal terrain trap.

The stellar opening pitch gave way to gentler slopes bottoming out at Meretschialp. Skins were slapped on and we ascended to the Schwarzhorn. We could have skied back into the lift system around Chandolin, but we were after something more serious: a steep rock-lined couloir that we could just make out dropping away into the now-murky light. We didn’t dare rip it in fast new-school turns. But the snow was superb, so our virtually blind turns made in the old, slower way were great.

After the run-out we again skinned up and ascended to a col overlooking a funky slope rolling away to a half-empty hydroelectric reservoir perched over the Rhône Valley far below. Here the springtime snowpack wasn’t fully formed and we each plummeted through the trap door at least once, the mishap’s exact timing depending on our body weight and skiing style. Brutal. We were happy to find a flat bottom. We pushed across the top of the towering concrete dam, and then began our final ascent, to the Illpass. From here we cruised Chandolin’s groomers to the red-roofed, stone-and-wood Cabane de l’Illhorn. Lunch was a great Euro-style deal, with the valley spread beneath us like a museum diorama.

As my mind wandered, I recalled local poet Lilyane Melly calling this region “a valley that I carry in my heart.” It has a way of entering and being carried in other hearts. My great friend Vincent Delogne and his family long had a small chalet in St. Luc. Vincent had an almost mystical attachment to the Val d’Anniviers and brought his kids here summers and winters throughout their childhood. He found St. Luc such a perfect family destination that he convinced himself the valley held no off-piste or touring terrain whatsoever. I insisted that all places in the Alps have at least some-off-piste. In 2001, we came here together and both had our eyes opened.

OK, back to the present. Today Pascaux led us to the right off the Bella Tola lift and across this mountain’s single groomed piste. One of the region’s premier off-piste runs descends off the Bella Tola from French-speaking Valais eastward into German-speaking Wallis. After 17 years, I was getting my wish to do this classic. Alternately called the Schwarzsee route, the Vallon Tartignan or just “the route to Oberems”, it would be 6,000 vertical feet of mainly north face. This was Pascaux’s playground and Bernard’s backyard.

One great, rolling alpine pitch was followed by another, all of it nice powder, right to treeline. Much of it was dominated by a huge peak to our right, bisected by a truly incredible couloir that ran at 40-45 degrees for what had to be 2,000 vertical feet. Unskied. “We could get to it with barely an hour on skins and then another 40 minutes in our ski boots,” Pascaux commented. “So what are we waiting for?” I replied. “Well, em, I don’t think most of zee group is interested in so much walking, hein?” I felt a stabbing pain. Such is the grim toll of a solo trip without one’s crew. But, another reason to return.

At treeline, the terrain steepened into pitches of nicely spaced bare larch trees dappled with dozens of natural pillows. More incredible skiing gradually giving way to heavy wet snow. Lower still we found nice open meadows bringing me the season’s first turns of crisp corn. The exit to tiny Oberems was a long snow-covered backroad. A large taxi-bus awaited us for the hour-long drive back to the Val d’Anniviers.

The weather was closing in, so after one more long off-piste descent to Pascal’s home village of St.-Jean, I headed back to St. Luc to regroup and clean up. Built in 1859 and lovingly operated by hoteliers Anne-Françoise and Claude Buchs-Favre, the small and intimate Grand Hotel Bella Tola is splendid in every respect. Imagine the singular ambience of oiled-wood ceilings, carved beams of local pine, traditional furnishings and unique touches like a main entrance arranged into a small stand of birch trees. Plus, astounding cuisine. That evening we dined onmedium-rare sesame-encrusted poached Atlantic salmon, an array of great local cheeses and a carb-laden though irresistible dessert.

I get that all this sounds way too soft and chi-chi for most Ascentreaders, so just know the Val d’Anniviers has plenty of options. The hotel’s nearby sister establishment, the Grand Chalet Favre, is less expensive, draws a younger, sportier crowd and provides solid bistro-style food. The Hotel Beausite is even simpler, with small and modest rooms at a good price, and also with great food. Great food is a baseline here. That, and great wine. Valais’s Rhône Valley produces dozens of varietals, many with a unique character found nowhere else. Beyond that, the valley offers multiple hotels and lodges and a vast array of rentable chalets. In St. Luc, virtually everything is within walking distance of the funicular. There’s also a frequent village shuttle, and mostly free buses running throughout the valley (although a car is faster).

Vercorin lies low on the valley mouth’s western shoulder and looks like absolutely nothing on the trail map. Its very isolation should be a strong hint. In fact, it’s the beginning and end of three great off-piste routes and one of the area’s longer, hut-based tours. Whenever snow and weather allow, I’ll skin up above the highest lift, then descend to Grimentz. There’s plenty to do there, including the great tour via the Cabane Becs de Bosson to the deliciously named Sex Marenda peak and couloir, from where one can do multiple day tours. From Grimentz, one can return to Vercorin via the great Vallon de Réchy, which can hold untracked slopes for two weeks after a storm.

Farther afield, you can also get into the “Imperial Haute Route” from the Bella Tola, via a five-hour ascent to the Cabane d’Arpitetta or the Cabane Tracui, accessing tours around the aforementioned Imperial Crown. One last mention: a heli-assisted trip that starts just behind Zermatt, followed by two hours on skins, giving access to over 8,000 vertical feet of north face with two rappels descending to Zinal.

The Val d’Anniviers generally has somewhat higher than average avy hazard for the Alps. The cool air, dry snow and often boulder-strewn slopes combine for a fair amount of depth hoar, which can persist into late season. A warning to all. Newcomers especially would be well-advised to hire a local guide.But with care, this amazing region offers the imaginative, inquisitive ski tourer a lifetime’s worth of return visits.

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George Koch

George Koch

What is high on your backcountry list for the coming winter?
For me it's not just about where I go or what I do, it's who I do it with. So for this season my foremost backcountry goal is to reconnect with some dear friends who live far away -- and do something, somewhere.

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