PHOTO | Maarten Wijsman

 

 

The Alps | A Swiss Roadtrip

It’s turning dark and the wet snow on the improvised parking lot is freezing up when I arrive in one of the highest villages in the Suisse Alps. After a long solo-drive I’m glad to see my friends, Maarten and Martijn, who arrived just ahead of me. With the last light disappearing we see some bad weather rolling in so we grab our stuff and head out to our hotel. We are at the start of a road trip in the Valais, Switzerland.

Legendary Arolla

 

The village in question is Arolla in Val d'Hérens at 2000 meter and about an hour’s drive from the

 

nearest city Sion. It’s a small and isolated village, so don’t expect big après-ski parties or dance

 

clubs. It does however have a couple of nice hotels like the iconic Kurhaus which was constructed

 

in 1896. We are staying at the Hotel du Glacier and after our long drive we end up in its cozy hotel

 

bar. We’re welcomed with a cold beer and, strangely enough, with some oysters. Not the first

 

food you’d think off when visiting the highest village in a land locked country. But it tastes good

 

nevertheless. At this bar we meet our guide for the next day who happens to be no one less then

 

Dédé Anzevui. This Suisse mountain guide’s most renowned feat is to be the first too ski the north

 

face of the Matterhorn in 1989. If you ever visited Zermatt or Breuil-Cervinia and have seen the

 

Matterhorn you’ll understand how extraordinary this accomplishment is. Besides the Matterhorn

 

he has many more ‘steep first descents’ on his name. He is seen as one of the pioneers of steep

 

skiing in Switzerland. So it is no surprise that he is featured in this years Red Bull video production

 

La Liste.

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Enough about the legendary Dédé, we are here to ski. Unfortunately our first day in Arolla is a bit

 

of a disappointment. We had studied the altitude-maps before and planned some nice lines but

 

the weather gods are not in our favor. Clouds are all around us and we can’t distinguish up from

 

down, it’s so disorientating. Even Dédé doesn’t want to go too far off the piste as the visibility is so

 

bad. There are moments when we think the weather clears a bit but they are short lived, and so

 

the day ends.

 

So although the first day is a major bummer, the terrain is great and there is a lot of fresh snow.

 

We eagerly hope on better weather tomorrow (even though the forecast looks grim). Despite our

 

fears the Arolla weather, unexpectedly, delivers the next morning. The mountains are still

 

surrounded with dark clouds but there is a gap in the cloud deck giving us some much needed

 

sunlight. Dédé doesn’t hesitate and takes us directly to La Roussette peak where we’ll ski the

 

backside. When we arrive at the top, the full potential of this area unfolds before us. There are

 

lines all around us and there are a lot of different routes you can take to ski from 3200m down to

 

1800m, fully out of bounds. Our guide delivers and gives us some great powder runs. Once we

 

enter the forest the clouds start to block our vision again. We had some great runs but we’re not

 

satisfied yet, there is more to be experienced here. So, besides deciding that we have to come back

 

with better weather we take the car and drive to the nearby village Evolène. Compared to Arolla

 

this village is a little bigger and has its own ski lifts and ski area. The visibility is a bit better here but

 

unfortunately not good enough to get a real taste of the area. So we stick to our resolve to come

 

back another season when the weather is not acting against us and start riding those lines which

 

we saw and briefly experienced.

Freeriding in Zinal and Grimentz

 

How different to Arolla is Zinal, which lays in the “next door” valley Val d’Anniviers. Zinal is a much

 

bigger and well-known ski resort and one of the first villages who truly embraced freeride skiing. It

 

has several avalanche beacon check points and even a dedicated freeride zone. This large part of

 

the mountain is patrolled and controlled but no snow cat will ever touch it. Think of it as a ski route

 

times ten. When we arrive at the village the weather clears and we get a good view of this freeride

 

zone. From here it looks like most of it is tracked out but it sure looks impressive. The next day we

 

meet up with our guide Christophe Rey for breakfast in our Hôtel de la Poste. He tells us not to

 

worry about all the tracks we saw because he knows of some untracked spots he can show us.

We head up the mountain and start traversing the freeride zone. Soon enough we have to put on

 

our skins. We are no touring rookies but neither experienced and hardened randonneurs du ski. So

 

this first “tour” of the season starts off a bit clumsy. Putting on the skins, the first kick turn, etc. But

 

after about 10 minutes of walking it starts to come back to us and we pick up the pace. We don’t

 

need to go too far though, because after half an hour of ploughing through the crisp snow we are

 

at our destination. We are on a small ridge with the tracked-out ski area on our left and virgin

 

snow fields on our right. The terrain in front of us is an untouched playground. It has ridges, little

 

drops and small couloirs. Christophe leads the way and I drop in right behind him. The snow is

 

deep and dry, perfect! I feel confident and open up the throttle. I link turn after turn, slide of a

 

little spine and incorporate a couple of small rock hops in my line. This is fun. Christophe is waiting

 

at the bottom and my run comes to an end. It felt too short but was actually quit a lot of

 

altimeters. Maarten and Martijn are right on my tail and when we meet, with a big smile, we

 

unanimously agree we all want to go again! And so we do...until the closing bell.

 

For the next day we would have signed off to do it all again but there is more to discover. Zinal Is

 

linked to Grimentz by ski lifts but also by a spectacular backcountry route. Our guide takes us op to

 

the Corne de Sorebois at 2896 meter and we ski off the backside. The face before us is not too

 

difficult so we choose to challenge ourselves a bit. With some traversing we arrive at the top of

 

three small chutes. We all pick our own chute and charge down. Once we meet up at the bottom

 

we are facing a huge dam. It is a truly incredible sight to see this huge weir and Lac de Moiry locked

 

in between the rugged mountains at 2250 meter. We cross the dam and ski down just alongside it,

 

even touching the concrete with the back of my ski’s in some tight turns. Maarten, the

 

photographer, is mostly pleased with this because it gives him great angles and contrasting

 

scenery. For me, when I’m skiing down, it’s just impressive and awesome, no better way to

 

describe it. After the dam the “experience” isn’t yet finished. We ski down over a summer road

 

and through a tunnel. The road in the tunnel is covered with ice so we can keep strapped in to

 

cross it. After the tunnel there is some more forest road to cover until we reach Grimentz.

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Grimentz is a real family ski resort with not to many runs. As a matter of fact I’ve learned to ski

 

there when I was young. But don’t let this fool you, there is a massive amount of easily accessible

 

terrain for freeriding. Too much for us to all explore in only one day, unfortunately. Christophe

 

takes us up to Roc d’Orzival and has us drop in the valley behind it. The perfect wetter we had in

 

the morning starts to turn and for once we are glad a couple of skiers had dropped in before us so

 

their tracks give us some much needed contrast. The run starts off pretty steep but mellows out

 

quite fast so I’m not too concerned about speed. I drop in and the snow feels soft and easy so I’m

 

not going to put on the breaks, but suddenly a patch of ice catches me off guard and throws me in

 

the backseat. I struggle to maintain control and luckily manage to stay on my feet. Throughout my

 

run the snow keeps changing from soft to firm but since I’m warned now it doesn’t give me any

 

more problems. When I reach a save spot I look at Martijn setting himself up for a nice run. He

 

found a wide couloir with a bit more snow in it and starts charging down. He executes the line

 

perfectly, without any patches of ice whatsoever....hmmm should have taken that line as well.

 

With the steep part behind us we still need to ski all the way down to the bottom of the valley. This

 

part is not technical but there are enough terrain features like gully’s and rocks to keep us

 

entertained.

 

When we end our run the sun is setting and we unfortunately have to end our skiing day. We grab

 

a drink and thank our guide for the great two days in Zinal and Grimentz. Now it’s time for our next

 

and final stop.

Hidden treasures in Lötchental

 

The following morning we cross the Valais and drive up its northern side into Lötchental. We’re

 

staying in Hotel Edelweiss in the village Blatten. Imagine a traditional picturesque village in the

 

Alps covered in a meter of fresh snow, well that image is probably very close to how Blatten looks

 

to us when we drive into it.

 

From Blatten it’s only a 5 minute drive to the Lauchernalp ski area. There we take the ski lift to the

 

Hockenhorngrat at more than 3100 meter. The last couple of days there was a lot of snowfall so

 

this could become a perfect day, if it was not for the fact that once again clouds and fog make it

 

difficult to orientate. The lack of tree-runs doesn’t help either, but luckily there are moments when

 

visibility improves a bit and we, and a handful of other skiers on the mountain, can start ripping It

 

up. Lauchernalp doesn’t have a whole lot of lifts and ski runs but the skiable area is quit big. So

 

with a couple of short traverses we can start exploring the powder filled gullies and side valleys.

 

We take a short lunch break and the weather seems to be improving, so our guide Simon wants to

 

take us a bit further out of the ski area. We are always down for a tour so we put on our skins and

 

start walking up to the Lötschenpass. During the skinning, however, the wetter turns bad again. A

 

storm picks up and visibility drops to almost zero. It gets so bad that we’re having difficulty to keep

 

on our feet and even the local guide gets disoriented. Because of the cold winds our faces get

 

covered with an ‘ice-mask’ so it’s important we quickly start to decent. But that isn’t that easy. The

 

strong winds that are pounding on the mountain face are creating a hard and icy surface and due

 

to the low visibility we take a wrong turn positioning us on a face which is actually too steep to ski

 

in these conditions. With a short hike we luckily find a safer route to descend. We’re now at an

 

altitude where small trees are giving us some contrast so we can finish our run in a more relaxed

 

way. Because of our cautious way of skiing we couldn’t really take in the potential of this run but it

 

definitely was a fun adventure.

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How different is the next day on the Lauchernalp. We wake up to at least 50 cm of fresh snow with

 

a bluebird sky, the perfect conditions! We grab our stuff and get ourselves up on the mountain as

 

fast as possible we just miss the first chair. But we’re not far behind and there are more than

 

enough first tracks to go around. On the previous days the lack of trees was a problem because of

 

the bad weather but with these sunny conditions, who needs trees? Just give us wide open and

 

steep lines. At some spots the snow is almost chest deep. I’m tailing Maarten and his spray is flying

 

over my head. He takes a wide turn to the right and I decide to take the turn a little sharper and

 

steer clear from him but that turns out to be a slight mistake. Maarten took that turn the way he

 

did with a reason, something I missed being behind him in his spray. When I start my turn I’m

 

suddenly in midair and make a 4 meter cliff drop. Totally surprised I somehow manage to keep my

 

balance and land on my feet, nice!

 

When most of the easy accessible stuff is tracked we put on our skins for a short hike towards

 

Spali. The day before we had seen some amazing and spectacular photos of Spali and we definitely

 

wanted to see it for ourselves. It is a small peak, halfway a hill, which is spilt open creating a small

 

gorge. When we arrive the peak is towering above us and the gorge is filled up with untouched

 

snow. This is almost surreal. I have the luck to go first. I point my ski’s downhill, the snow feels

 

perfect and deep enough to cover all the rocks beneath is. Everything goes easy and I’m able to

 

keep my speed and fluidity in my line. This truly is as perfect a run can get for me. There is enough

 

snow in this little gorge that I didn’t totally scrape the line bare so Maarten and Martijn also have a

 

great run down in deep snow. Still these first tracks though...they were amazing.

 

We end our run back in the village and say goodbye to the wood carved Tschäggättä (local

 

demons). It’s time to head back home and start making plans on how we’re going to top, skiing

 

powder through gorges, skiing over huge dams and meeting ski legends.

THE ALPS

A SWISS ROADTRIP

SPINE AT THE BACKSIDE 

St. PAULI 

THE  DAM

FRESH POW RUN