VERBIER ROAD CYCLING WITH HAUT VELO

 Mountain biking is not the only activity that is increasing in popularity in and around Verbier. In recent years, lycra-clad road cyclists have been increasing in their numbers to, taking advantage of the numerous stunning routes on offer in the Valais region. Adam Sedgwick and Jonas Sundstedt recently set up Haut Vélo, a holiday and guiding service, to show visitors what’s on offer throughout the region.

Verbier draws cycling enthusiasts from around the world – having previously hosted the Tour de France and the Tour de Suisse, the likes of Chris Froome, Peter Sagan, Fabian Cancellara, Cadel Evans and Lance Armstrong have pedaled their way up the winding roads of the area. Within cycling distance of Verbier there is also the UCI global headquarters in Aigle, with its world class facilities including its Velodrome and BMX track. The Val de Bagnes has access to some spectacular cycling, from mountain passes climbing to France and Italy, to flat rides along the banks of the river Rhône through orchards and vineyards. Historic routes meandering through traditional alpine villages or adrenaline fuelled sweeping descents – there’s something for everyone. Passionate about cycling, Adam and Jonas decided to set up a road cycling travel company to share their experiences and the beautiful area with other cycling enthusiasts.

VL: When did you start road cycling?
JS: About 25 years ago. I had quite a few friends who did it and that was how we solved the world.
AS: In the summer of 2005, between my summer season and winter season, I thought it would be a great way to get fit for skiing. I used to head out on my old mountain bike on the local roads but I would regularly be overtaken by people many years older than me on road bikes. I thought I need one of those bikes… and I’ve never looked back!!

VL: Do you mountain bike too?
JS: Yes I used to be a mountain bike guide here in Verbier.
AS: Yes - I love the journey aspect of cross country and the challenge of technical climbs.

VL: You both work up in Verbier during the winter months, did you manage to bike at all earlier in the year?
AS: Yes absolutely, I try and ride all year. The mild winter last winter certainly helped. I also purposefully sign up to a long sportive in the early spring to give myself a target. This year it was the 275km Liege Bastogne Liege, Ardennes spring classic in Belgium.
JS: Yes, thankfully! It was a comfort during this winter, the warmest I have experienced in more than 15 years here in Verbier.

VL: Do you need all the gear to get started?
JS: No, not at all. I get the feeling people think it’s a complicated and expensive sport but it really doesn’t need to be. Just get out on a bike and ride! I recommend getting yourself a helmet, padded shorts, gloves and a puncture repair kit. Take it easy for the first month until you build confidence, but just get out and enjoy the experience.
AS: This is a question we get asked a lot by people who want to give cycling a go. So much so we are in the process of developing a course for beginners to gain experience and confidence in the basics of cycling. We’ll run sessions on how to complete simple road side repairs, what to carry when you’re out, how to set up your bike, how to ride the bike efficiently and most importantly what cakes are the best source of mid-ride nutrition…

VL: Where’s your favourite route to take beginners?
AS: That’s easy – through the stunning Swiss villages, vineyards and orchards along the banks of the river Rhône. You can also ride from Martigny along the cycle path to Lake Geneva passing the UCI headquarters and velodrome.

VL: And more experienced cyclists?
JS: When the snow clears, you can ride the big cols and passes in the area, for example the Col de Forclaz and if you have the energy, head up to Emosson dam. Other favourites are the St Bernard pass, Col de Lein, bike up to Champex Lac, Fouly or head out and take on as many of the local hills as your legs will allow!

For more information on holidays, cycle guiding and Haut Velo, go to www.hautvelo.com


Flying with Yael Margelisch

Local paragliding sensation Yael Margelisch invited Verbier Life’s Maev Cox on board her glider for a chance to understand what drives this young woman to such giddy heights.

Our feet begin to pound the ground but for a few seconds only. I’m diligently following the pre-take off instructions to press forwards, resisting the pull back, trying to keep traction with the earth, but before I know it we’re in the air and Yael tells me to sit back and as I do, a weird wave of emotion sweeps over me as I’m engulfed by the breathtaking tranquillity that exists up there.

“For me, flying is freedom”, Yael Margelisch tells me in an interview preceding our flight, “There is greater freedom in progression. I love it because you can always get better, you’re always learning”. It’s obvious that this 25-year-old who was born and raised in Verbier has a maturity beyond her years. Yael got her paragliding licence when she was 19, after a small problem with her eyes forced her to abandon her dream of becoming a helicopter pilot. “My parents didn’t want me to do it, I was always hurting myself as a kid,” she explains, but her dogged determination saw her progress from a first jump in 2009 to acquiring her licence just a year later. Since then, she has worked for local paragliding school Gravité 0 teaching and operating tandem flights and for the past two years, Yael has been competing seriously in distance flying. This has taken her to incredible locations around the world such as Mexico, Brazil and India where various stages of the World Cup have been held.

Yael describes the competitions as being like a sailing race with the difference being that the paragliding pilot flies a virtual course using GPS-enabled flight instruments to plot their route. At the outset, pilots are given a number of “turnpoints” (invisible vertical cylinders stretching from the ground up to the sky for an unlimited distance) which they need to enter into in a specified order before arriving at the end point, in the fastest possible time. Yael has improved her position each year achieving a second place in the female category this year. “Next year I will be seeking first” she tells me, “my goal is to be the best pilot in the world… not only in distance but in acrobatics”. This discipline, often referred to as ‘acro’, requires the pilot to perform an array of aerial tricks and is judged in a similar way to freeride competitions, with difficulty and realisation of manoeuvres as top criteria. Currently, Yael trains mostly by herself and has not taken to competing. She’s excited to tell me that recently she carried out her first Infinity Tumble, the holy grail of acro manoeuvres, so I figure it won’t be long before this determined lady is turning heads in competitions.

While she may sound like an adrenalin junkie, Yael’s persona is very measured and balanced. She’s had no serious accidents to date and can count a handful of tree landings which she assures me are “all part of the game”. The game, currently, is dominated by men. Out of roughly 120 pilots competing in the last World Cup, only ten were women. “For a woman to get really good, it takes more time, generally men do not have the same fear of risk that we do” Yael explains. “I am more cautious. When you force things, that’s when you make stupid mistakes. I believe that a woman who takes her time can one day compete in the top ten”. Having had an early entry to the sport, Yael has the huge advantage of youth on her side and the time to hone her skills and patiently work her way to the top.

Sponsorship is a big element and key to Yael’s ongoing involvement at a professional level. Sponsorship money is predominantly used to fund equipment and flights to competitions. In exchange, the sponsoring company’s logo is emblazoned on the glider which travels across the world. Additional incentives are tandem jumps for co-workers and business partners and the option to use paragliding images in corporate advertising material. Anyone interested in discussing this with Yael can contact her on margelischyael@hotmail.com.

Yael and I spend a good time soaring above the forests and cliff bands stretching down from Ruinettes, the mountains around us brought to life in all their stunning detail, clouds and their shadows dancing lazily, and the valley floor stretching out like a miniature model of idyllic rural life beneath us. Our landing is gentle and before I know it, we’re mere humans again, bound to the ground and limited. I have been mesmerised by the serenity of this whole experience and now I begin to understand how this whole paragliding gig might become addictive.

 


LANGUAGE LESSONS ON THE PISTE

Verbier Language School invited Verbier Life for a French lesson up on the sunny pistes of Verbier.

It’s not uncommon to hear people complaining there are never enough hours in the day. This is certainly the case for me, especially when I desperately grasp at reasons to explain why my French is still terrible after living in Verbier for so many years. It’s too easy for us to say we don’t have time, when the reality is, we could find the time. The truth of the matter is, my attention span in a classroom is limited – the inner child in me comes out and I start looking out of the window waiting for the lesson to be over.

The clever ladies at Verbier Language School have come up with the perfect solution for people who prefer to avoid classrooms by taking the lessons out onto the slopes. Eléonore Ribordy and Rosi Pickard started Verbier Language School 10 years ago, and have since been responsible for hundreds of happy students improving their linguistic skills.

“Combining a ski and language lesson is the perfect way for those who are on holiday and who want to make the most of their time or for people who don’t like being confined to learning at a desk” comments Eléonore.

When VLS invited me along to try one of the classes, I was keen to give it a go. A French lesson out on the sunny slopes, why not? I met up with their teacher Céline, a fully qualified Swiss brevet instructor and also an experienced language teacher who works for VLS throughout the year. Her warm happy smile immediately put me at ease. The class was about having fun, enjoying the slopes, and hopefully, improving my French along the way.

One of the main problems when learning a language is having the confidence to just talk and not feel embarrassed at making mistakes. Céline helped and corrected me when a phrase wasn’t quite right by suggesting different words or phrases as we chatted on the lifts and during pauses.

“This is a great way for children to learn a language”, smiles Céline. “They can just learn as they go along, what colour their skis are, pointing objects out. Then if we stop for a drink, they can order their own hot chocolate. It’s a fun way for them to learn a language. The same goes for adults; for some people, actually ‘doing’ is the best way to learn.”

After an hour cruising around the slopes it was time to head back down the mountain. I can certainly see how combining skiing and language lessons is a great way to make the most of your time and learn in a fun environment. For children and adults alike, it’s a fantastic way to introduce a language or improve conversational skills without even realising you’re learning. For once, the time flew by and I wasn’t looking at the clock. Now if only there was a microchip I could imbed into my brain so that I can remember all the grammar…

 

www.verbierlanguageschool.com


Don’t be that Guy - Avalanche Basics

Just when we all thought that winter had forgotten us here in the Alps, she blew in like a grand diva, dazzling us with her brilliance. With all the excitement of this late start to the winter, it’s so easy to overlook the dangers that our freshly white-washed landscape holds and venture out with reckless abandon. Maev Cox played it safe by attending one of Powder Extreme’s newly-launched avalanche safety and awareness courses.

Each year, the mountains remind us of their awesome power in devastating slides that claim young lives. It’s a fact that ninety percent of fatal avalanches are triggered by the victim or someone in their party. The intention to do an avalanche course was gathering dust on my ‘to do’ list so I felt great excitement at the opportunity to tick if off by completing the ISTA (International Snow Training Academy) Discovery course under the instruction of Antoine Blaizeau. On a breathtaking day, during the height of the arctic freeze in January, our group of learners assembled.

As we began, Antoine introduced us to the concepts of ISTA, the innovative Lausanne-based program which designed the course. Simply put, ISTA has created a universal language for learning that doesn’t bog learners down with jargon and specialised terms. The main aim of ISTA is to make their courses accessible to anyone who plays on the mountain.

The Discovery course is their entry-level course. Its objective is to provide an introduction to the fundamentals of avalanche risk prevention as well as providing practical knowledge of the snow pack and how best to handle an avalanche situation. The course is divided into three parts: before, during and after. The bulk of the learning is covered in the first section and Antoine took the time to discuss the various environmental factors such as, but not limited to, wind, temperature, aspect, incline, precipitation and visibility that act as our clues. Understanding the variables within these elements is essential when assessing avalanche risk. Of course, human factors play a role too, such as always checking equipment and entering into a gentlemen’s pact which agrees that all opinions be taken into account at the outset of any backcountry adventure.

 

Our day was a satisfying mix of time spent getting to grips with the material contained in the concise course manual and time spent on the mountain, analysing the terrain and getting hands-on instruction. During the afternoon session, we covered the second and third parts of the course. Antoine dug a snow pit which gave us incredible visual information on the various layers of snow on which we ski and helping us to understand what makes certain layers weak. Our team worked up a sweat despite the freezing temperatures as we mimicked a rescue situation, using our transceivers to search for a transceiver hidden beneath the snow. We learnt the patterns in which to search, to probe and to dig, in order to complete the most efficient and effective search.

As it turns out, our mind is the most important tool when it comes to avoiding danger on the mountain. Arming ourselves with knowledge is key and I’d recommend this course to anyone who likes to venture off-piste. The Discovery course is affordable (at CHF260 per person), concise and Powder Extreme are flexible on how and when it is run. Contact them on info@powderextreme.com or by phone on +41 76 479 87 71 or by visiting their desk at Surefoot for more information.

Antoine’s Top Tips:

  • Take the time. Avalanche risk is significantly reduced by creating space between individuals when moving about on the mountain.
  • “Don’t keep your tongue in your mouth”. In other words, trust your gut and don’t fear voicing your concerns, being outspoken could just be the thing that saves you.
  • Be mindful of changing conditions, what is true for the present may be altogether different later in the day.
  • Watch your ego and don’t let enthusiasm blindside common sense.
  • Don’t use a plastic shovel! In fact, invest in good gear all round.

 


Ice Climbing

Writer, Lee Fieldsend, shares an insight into exploring some of the more remote areas of the Val de Bagnes in search of Ice.

The ski pistes of Verbier may offer some fantastic skiing, but sometimes it can be a rewarding experience to escape managed areas with man-made constructions. Just a stones throw from the bustling groomed Verbier slopes is an incredibly beautiful part of Switzerland.

[quote_center]A place of magical untouched forests, frozen waterfalls and a peace and tranquility that is far removed from the rush of modern life.[/quote_center]

This is the part of the Val de Bagnes that I find myself in one winter morning. Only the crunching of snow under crampons and the sound of our exiting breath freezing in the surrounding air, betrays our presence. Our walk up through the snow laden forest brings us to our spot for the day. Nestled in the forest is a two stage frozen waterfall. As we climb up through the forest we glimpse parts of it through the snow laden trees and it fills us with excitement

Today parts of the waterfall are melting and in some places the ice is so thin that water can easily be seen continuing its flow. In places it spills out through holes and cascades down the ice making the only sound in the forest bar the clanking of our ice axes.

ice_climbing_verbier2.fpg
The climb is vertical, but as I gently tap in my crampon points and find a purchase for my axes, my confidence improves with the strength of the ice. After a few metres I pause to place an ice screw and then continue to climb. Above me is a steep ten metre pitch that finishes with an overhang. As I edge up I bridge my feet out to the left and right onto two ice pillars that jut out from the main waterfall. As I climb, ice and snow rain down on me. Bouncing off my helmet and the visor I wear to protect my face. All day we climb in this silent wilderness, until the darkness arrives. Our last two climbs are in the dark and our head torches illuminate the ice, throwing off amazing colours.

Eventually we are finished and with tired smiles and aching limbs we reflect on what we have accomplished. As we pack our kit we still have to descend through the forest and until that time we cannot let our guard down. Accidents are common on the return home as the tired mind and body drift in and out of concentration.

Exhausted, we begin our descent back down through the pitch black forest with only the lights of our head lamps to show the way. Below us, the twinkling of lights from a village in the valley, beckon us to safety. The black silhouettes of mountain ranges rear up on all sides, threatening or grudging in respect, it is hard to tell. As we leave the sleeping valley behind us the lights of home become a welcome sight replacing the brightness of the stars.