At the height of winter, I find myself in Verbier—a place many impassioned ski travelers rightly dream of visiting—sending out a call for aid. “Need rescue,” I message by text. “Can you help me?”
But I’m not issuing my distress signal from one of Verbier’s precipitous couloirs, powdery sidecountry bowls, or thrilling backcountry steeps. I have not been caught in an avalanche, nor have I fallen into the abyss of Verbier’s late-night clubbing, dancing, and whooping-it-up scene. No, I’m texting for help from the ladies’ room at L’Olympique, a renowned on-mountain restaurant, and what I need rescue from, or rather whom, is my guide, the man who is ruining a dreamy, against-the-odds powder day with what may well be the most stifling ski itinerary in all of Verbier.
Under normal circumstances, boring and stifling are precisely what Verbier is not. Sexy, lively, adventurous, bacchanalian, and highly scenic are much more like it. Located in the French-speaking part of Switzerland’s Valaisian Alps, above the Rhône Valley, it is the rare mountain resort beloved equally by serious off-piste skiers, groomer-cruising gentry, outdoorsy internationals, and Londoners making the scene. With a vision for strategic, methodical improvements both on-mountain and in town well under way toward reality, already popular Verbier is poised to become the most smartly dynamic place to ski in the Alps.
Its strengths are many: The town rests on a high, open, southwest-sloping plateau that is kissed by the sun, enjoying a roomy brightness many Alps resorts lack. The encircling vistas are stunning, notably the roosterlike crests of Grand and Petit Combin, glaciated, sculpted, and bathed in moody light. The history of passing travelers is long, due to the proximity of the Great St. Bernard Pass, where monks (who became famed for their rescue dogs) established a refuge in 1046 for pilgrims en route to Rome. Today history and modernity rub shoulders easily. Cheese-making locals still pasture their herds in the high alpine in summer, festooning the Queen of the Cows (a serious honor) with floral garlands before herding her and her sisters home under a zippy network of high-speed, terrain-vaulting lifts.
Lift access starts from within town itself, rising more than a vertical mile to the panoramic heights of Mont-Fort, just under 11,000 feet. The ski resort of Verbier proper is compact enough to be readily navigable with a lift map, on-piste signs, and eyeballing of clear visual markers in the landscape, yet it’s the keystone in Switzerland’s single-lift-ticket “4 Vallées,” the country’s largest interconnected system of lifts and slopes. Off-piste skiing is accessible, diverse, exciting, and abundant—Verbier’s core claim to ski fame. “There’s always something good to ski,” says Warren Smith, a well-known British ski pro who lives in Verbier. “It’s like a linked-up Chamonix.”
Beyond the skiing, living is good. Slopes are dotted with eateries ranging from ski-up umbrella bars to white-tablecloth gourmet ateliers. The après-ski scene is varied and vibrant, dining options superb, and nightlife—when it hops—over the top.
While some have criticized Verbier in recent years for becoming too British, too expensive, too busy (it draws well over a million skiers every winter), and too posh (Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin chalet rents for up to $160,000 per week, not including door-to-door helicopter transfers from the Zurich or Geneva airport), it remains one of those exceptional mountain places that thrum with authentic heart and soul.
Service with a smile at La Cabane du Mont-Fort.
Skiers have felt Verbier’s irresistible pull since its lifts started turning in 1946, but it was during the mod ’60s, freestyle ’70s, and extreme ’80s and ’90s that Verbier’s ski scene took off—with its social scene in hot pursuit. Discos? You bet. Sex and drugs? Oh, yes. Naked royalty swinging from dancing poles? There are tales.
Still, skiing is what Verbier is all about, its true north. “When you want to be seen, you go to Gstaad or St. Moritz,” explains one ex–New Yorker now living in France. “When you want to ski, you come here.”
And in fact that’s what I’m here to do: ski. Ski as much of this magnificent mountain as I can manage in four short days. Ski hard and ski fast. Ski deep and ski steep. Sure, I’ll also socialize, linger over lunches, mix it up at après, soak up local culture, eat terrific dinners, and sleep someplace truly divine. But most of all, I am back in Verbier to experience its best from the clicked-in position on my all-mountain skis. After all, I live and ski in Whistler. I did not fly across North America and the Atlantic Ocean and schlep my ski bag through Vancouver, Schiphol, and Geneva to ski only groomers.
Yet here I am, skiing slowly and methodically along groomed trails, with lots of long pauses for talking midslope—all while fresh powder and exciting terrain lurk just feet away.
Once, in the late ’90s, I skied Verbier in a cloud layer so thick I saw little of what we skied save the weird black dots of whiteout vertigo swirling before my eyes. Even so, there was something that grabbed me. I found myself nursing a dream of spending a winter in “Verb.” I wasn’t even sure why. I later learned it’s a common response. “This place gets into your blood,” says Michael Constant, a British investment banker who has been frequenting Verbier since the early ’80s. “People say there’s a magnetic draw.”
This time around, my trip to the Alps has been all about high winds and low visibility everywhere I’ve skied, including Verbier. But this morning the plush curtains in my suite at the Chalet Adrien part to reveal blue sky and a blanket of sparkling fresh snow. A powder day in Verbier? Yes!
The free local bus, which stops just outside the Adrien, drops me at the Medran gondola, Verbier’s prime access point, where I rendezvous with my guide, a “freeride specialist” from the Swiss Ski School. Verbier—in a forward-looking departure from the Alps norm—does avalanche-control work, using handheld charges and air cannons on some popular ungroomed routes, but knowing where and when the snow has been controlled is a Rubik’s cube. A certified off-piste instructor or mountain guide, appropriate safety equipment (transceiver, probe, shovel, and perhaps an air bag), and knowledge of how to use that equipment are all necessary for powder runs off-piste—and I have been assured this guide is up to the job.
We board the gondola and I notice his skis. Carvers: 172 cm, 72-mm waist. He has a solid six inches of height on me, and at least 50 pounds. I’m on versatile all-mountain boards: 177 cm, 98-mm waist. Hmm, I think. Uh-oh.
Still, he has the right ticks on his résumé. At 35, he has been working for 13 years as a ski and snowboard instructor at Verbier’s L’Ecole Suisse de Ski , acquiring higher and higher levels of certification along the way. He is wearing a large, well-equipped backcountry safety pack over his bright red Swiss Ski School uniform. He clearly is fit, passionate about both skiing and Verbier, and experienced. But on our way up the mountain, he answers each of my questions in the format of a mini-lecture on basics. My unease grows. This would not be the first time for me in the Alps that a tour guide from the “official” ski school turned out to be overly focused on protocol at the expense of client satisfaction.
Our first run is a groomer. So is our second, and our third, and our fourth—broad, intermediate cruisers that roll and yaw through Verbier’s scenic basins. It’s lovely skiing, actually, but not at all what I had in mind. Around us I see well-equipped freeriders—powder skis, helmets, and backcountry packs—cavorting down ramps, shoulders, and faces through glittering, untracked fluff. “Let’s go ski some powder!” I say.
“It’s not safe today,” says my guide.
“Well, what about that?” I say, pointing to a pitch about 50 feet away, where hooting skiers are laying down beautiful tracks.
“Uncontrolled slopes are dangerous,” he says. “There may be avalanche hazard, as well as other dangers you might not be able to see. Also, the light is too flat here. Skiing in flat light is unsafe.”
I’m beginning to feel like I am trapped in a Monty Python episode where some blockheaded bureaucrat repeats the same statements over and over. Still, I am not entirely surprised. Throughout the Alps, the dominant ski culture is piste-based. This is in part because the marked, delineated ski trails have traditionally been the limit of what Alps lift companies control for safety. As a result, skiing even five feet off the marked trail at many Alps resorts can be seriously hazardous. (By comparison, U.S. ski areas generally implement snow-safety measures across their entire footprint, from boundary line to boundary line.)
I try reasoning with him. “That’s why I’m skiing with you today—to ski off-piste wisely,” I say. “Can you take me somewhere off the groomed, in the fresh snow?”
Instead, he resumes his safety diatribe, adding a little lecture about the right color goggle lenses to use, staying hydrated at altitude, wearing sunscreen, even using the correct ski wax. But I can’t just peel off and explore off-piste by myself. That really would not be safe. My one chance in a decade to ski Verbier is slipping away.
Le Chalet d’Adrien’s sunny terrace overlooks the town of Verbier and swings with a laid-back, sophisticated apres-ski scene.
In truth, the Verbier experience is not the same for everyone hooked on this place—and that’s the real key to the resort’s strong appeal. Gentleman cruisers spend their mornings carving top-to-bottom laps on corduroy in the sunshine of the Savoleyres sector. Fitness fanatics ski-tour with their dogs in tow. Elegant, trim older women ski a few runs and then meet, with a triple cheek kiss and a lilting bon jour! for a leisurely, multi-course, on-mountain lunch at Le Dahu or L’Olympique.
But for many, Verbier will always be about the adventure skiing—trees, steeps, powder, chutes. “Freeskiing is a bit responsible for Verbier, and Verbier is a bit responsible for freeskiing,” Warren Smith tells me over a quiet, foggy-day lunch in La Cabane du Mont-Fort, a gingham-curtained on-mountain hut. Smith, an affable redhead, came to Verbier from England as a young ski instructor because he had been inspired by the “extreme skiing” photos of John Falkiner (who is perhaps best known for the ski stunts, filmed by Willy Bogner Jr., in the James Bond movie A View to a Kill ). Now 40, Smith has made a strong career combining classic ski techniques with the biomechanics and physicality of all-mountain freeskiing. His Warren Smith Ski Academy teaches ski instructors to be better teachers and guides freeski clients around the world—but especially in Verbier.
So a few days later, after the sun comes out on that dazzling powder day and my Swiss Ski School guy starts talking about safety even over dessert of île flottante with croquant de caramel at L’Olympique, I suddenly excuse myself, duck into the ladies’ room, and text Warren on my phone. I know he’s busy with clients, but he’s my only hope.
“Watch your step here,” Smith says in his charming British accent as the two of us billygoat across a precipitous rocky ridgeline, making our way into a frontside couloir. It’s like walking downhill in spike heels, but I don’t mind. His private client had to catch a flight back to London, so he and I are headed for a couloir called Number One, a steeply pitched, powder-filled, classic alpine chute. When we get to its entrance, we see it has been cut by a few ski tracks, so we drop to our right and slip into an offshoot couloir called Three Amigos. It is narrower but entirely pristine. This is the Verbier I came for. Smith looks back at me and nods. I spot my line and go.
Drop a big powder turn, stick to the fall line, drop another, let the skis ride, drop another, like a metronome sluicing down a waterslide. Powder billows with each drop. I hear Warren shout something like, “Yeah! That’s the way!” Below, the couloir opens up into a broad fan of steep fresh snow—like a heli-ski run, without the heli. I emerge from the chute and then open things up, banking big, fast powder turns, experiencing the total freedom of the Alps.
Below, afternoon sunlight kisses Verbier’s rooftops; around me, the snow sparkles like diamonds. Consider the S.O.S. answered. Diamonds—particularly at this jewel of a mountain—really are a girl’s best friend.