Downhill Mountain Biking in Verbier

Lee Fieldsend charges down the Verbier slopes in the quest for adventure…

The sun had been up for a few hours yet it was still early and surprisingly cool. Across the valley lingered thin, remaining wisps of morning mist, reluctant to relinquish their hold on the stunning landscape of Verbier. Around us, massive, snow-laden peaks reached skywards like one large, white Toblerone. Below, lush, green forests stretched down into the Val de Bagnes.
_KJS1925There were three of us and, like knights before a battle, we had donned our armour with meticulous preparation, inspected our trusty steeds for any signs of fault or weakness and now we sat astride our downhill mountain bikes, making final adjustments and discussing our intended route - a vertical drop of just under 2,000 metres of twisting dirt tracks, single-track tarmac roads, quaint Swiss villages, forests and flower-filled pastures. We closed our helmets and put on our gloves to complete our armoured shells.

A quick check, a push forward and we were off. The first 500 metres down to Verbier were to prove the most difficult. The resort was days away from closing and there were still large patches of snow and ice. Where the snow had melted the ground was still sodden and muddy which meant a lot of peddling through boggy ground. Great sprays of mud shot up behind the bike and into my face, covering my goggles as I struggled to gain some momentum on the flat start.

The lift area and signs of man became a haze in the background as the fall line steepened, freeing my thoughts from bills, work and responsibility for forests, speed and enjoyment. The ground became drier and firmer as we neared the first forest track. We stopped peddling as the fall line took the bikes and riders into its embrace. From the edge of the piste I could look over and see the path, about the width of two tyres, disappearing into the seemingly impenetrable tees. The path itself was not so much a path as an established route. Exposed tree roots and rocks presented constant obstacles that were negotiated with subtle braking, good balance and continuous forward momentum. Deeper into the woods the trees got closer and the track seemed to tighten. I was totally focused, one mistake could mean a punishing fall, or hitting a tree. At times the track opened into a clearing requiring great care when crossing fields of pine cones with their hazardous tendency to roll out from under the bike wheels on the steep mountain side. The track zigzagged through the forest for about ten minutes of glorious, uninterrupted, challenging riding, until we came across the piste once more and joined it.

Here we picked up speed again, I could feel my bike’s suspension constantly working, taking out the bumps and shocks. Our first big sweeping corner was taken smoothly. As the other guys pulled level, I pushed ahead slightly and leaned over into the corner, taking it fast and stable and setting myself up perfectly for the next one, as it approached rapidly. After a couple more corners I built up quite a lot of speed, and the surrounding trees blurred into a kaleidoscope of greens and browns.

The next part of our route saw us pass through the resort, then through the middle of a picturesque village The streets were narrow and twisty and it was great fun to be on stable, smooth ground. The tyres gripped to the dry, solid surface like they were glued to a racetrack. At the end of the village, a grassy, single track opened out and stretched into the distance. I left the houses behind in a cloud of dust, peddling hard to squeeze every last bit of speed possible from my bike, the combination of speed and incredible views across the valley was intoxicating. Ahead were more corners. I attacked these switchbacks as fast as I dared, applying just the right amount of brake whilst leaning into the corner and hanging a leg out so as not to over-slide and fall. When you get the timing right it is the most sublime feeling of control. However when you get it wrong the results can be laughable or painful or both. I threw a dust cloud up at every corner. As I pulled away, I saw the other riders bursting through our collective dust clouds in a ferocious cavalry charge.

_KJS1930As on my snowboard, I kept an eye out for terrain features to play on and, as we neared the start of the next wood, I looked to the right of the track, and there was a jump going up the bank which landed back onto the track. Needless to say I hit it at full speed. The bike’s suspension soaked up the landing and it gave me just enough breaking time for the last corner before we hit the next forest track. This one was dry and wide with tall conifers on either side. Hot sunshine was now streaming through the gaps, creating a dappled camouflage of shadow and light on the forest floor. The pattern ebbed and flowed with the light summer breeze, giving the impression that the forest floor was alive.

This last part of the forest was the hardest pitch with a sequence of steep switchback corners in relentless succession. The only way to navigate them all was to keep attacking aggressively, with lots of well-timed breaking and good balance. Sliding the bikes between tightly-packed trees gave such an intense feeling of power and control. Eventually the track spat us out down some steps onto a quaint chapel courtyard.
The chapel interior was cool and peaceful, outside, the birds chirped and a large fountain bubbled away, begging us to kick back and relax. The heat by now was intense and we lifted off our dust-covered helmets and rinsed our sweaty, dirty, smiling faces in the water. The difficult riding was behind us now and what lay ahead were the last roads and tracks down to the lift station in the valley below. We laughed and joked about our near misses, jumps, speed and scenery.

The remaining twenty minutes of riding on firm, dry, wide roads gave us plenty of opportunity to enjoy the scenery, as the trees opened up and the track once again stretched out across the side of the mountain. We had ample time to view our route ahead for hazards and open up our speed, as we screamed down the tracks between flower-filled pastures. Civilisation brought a much-appreciated cold drinks machine, then a comfy lift back up to the top of the mountain, a rest, and time to discuss our next route and recount our daring, adrenaline-fuelled escapades. We all had the feeling we were going to enjoy the rest of the day. Hot sunshine beat down over the magnificent scenery and birds flew overhead, as free as we had been for those few hours, a gift, given and taken with appreciation.

Mark Shapiro's Favourite Verbier Hikes

Photographer Mark Shapiro shares his enthusiasm for the numerous walks in the area and introduces a small sample

I first came here in winter 1970/71, like everyone else, for the skiing. During that winter I made friends amongst the local Swiss people,which gave me the opportunity to stay and work in the summer. [quote_left]During my days off I discovered that Verbier in summer was another world to Verbier in winter.[/quote_left] Of all the different activities, it was trekking that interested me most. There were so many places to go, so much beautful mountain scenery to see, plus mountain refuges for lunch or overnighting. Anyone with a pair of trekking boots, a back pack and protective, summer outdoor wear, no matter what their age, could participate; all spring, summer and autumn long.

To mention just a few of the possibilities, all on well marked, signposted routes; St Christophe to Pierre-Avoi and all across to Médran; Lac des Vaux; Cabane Mont Fort to Gentianes etc. Dozens of short day treks just within the Verbier inner mountain plus La Tzoumaz and the Vallon d’Arby.

Try the Sentier des Chamois; a big, early-start day trek, starting at La Chaux, across the south west face of the Bec des Rosses, where your chances of seeing chamois and ibex (mountain goats) are pretty good. Cbn-Louvie Lac Louvie Sentier des Chamois Cbn-Mt. Fort-43-2Stop for lunch at the Cabane de Louvie then head down to Lourtier for a beer or two, the post bus back to Le Châble for the lift back up to Verbier followed by a well deserved hot bath.
In 2005 I did the Tour des Combins, an awesome five-day trek with a bunch of 12 year-olds and a mountain guide, organised by the local Rotary Club. We spent nights in the Cabane de Col de Mille, hiked up to the top of Mont Rogneux, down to the Cabane Brunet, across the Corbossière Glacier to the Cabane de Panossière, up to the Cabane de Chanrion, then on the last day, lunch at the Grand-Saint-Bernard Hospice. There are variations from all these mountain cabins in all different directions. The variety of treks just in Verbier, and the Commune du Bagnes is simply endless.
Should you want to be really adventurous there is always the summer Verbier-Zermatt Haute Route in all its variations or the Tour du Mont Blanc, starting and ending in Orsières.

Cabane Louvi- Lac du Louvie & Santier du Chamois-0887
The Tourist Office provides an A5 size randonnee/trekking brochure with simple route maps, names and addresses of all the mountain cabins, guide services etc. and Topo-maps can be obtained from most sport shops. You can contact Verbier Sport Plus and La Fantastique guide services for information and guided tours. For mid-level treks and those interested in horticultural exploration the best option is to go with an 'accompagnateur/rice en moyenne montagne’/Swiss Mountain Leader, available through Verbier Sports Plus or Cherries Walks

Snow Shoeing - A Thrilling Non-Skiing Adventure

Cherries von Maur, an International Mountain Leader, writes about one of Verbier’s lesser-known winter activities, snowshoeing.

Here we are in one of the extreme sports capitals of the mountain world! Some might question why you chose to go snowshoeing?

Firstly, what is snowshoeing?

Many people have the perception that snowshoes are those antique wooden things hanging off the wall of a rental chalet as decoration. Well yes, you are correct. Those were invented by people living in snowy, flat areas as a means of getting around in the arctic winters. Originally they were made of birch wood with whale guts to strap them on to boots. You could compare it to today’s ‘dawn of the snowmobile’.
DSC_0898Today’s snowshoes are modern, technical pieces of equipment. They are super lightweight, with serious teeth for grips, and come in a range of wild colours. I often describe them to people as giant flip-flops with big aluminium teeth for walking around in the snow. The teeth of the snowshoes allow us to access areas without fear of falling over or slipping.
They are designed to prevent you from sinking through the snow, of course you still go through a bit, but much less than if you were not wearing them. They are comfortable and many are surprised that they barely feel them at all.
Before heading up onto the mountain I make sure that everybody is wearing an avalanche transceiver. Snowshoeing is often perceived as just ‘wandering around’ in the forest or on the lower flat terrain, but this is not necessarily the case. Thanks to the magic of modern equipment we can go anywhere. Snowshoeing takes people out into the wilderness, like off-piste skiers, thus we have to take similar precautions.
A little-known fact: a snowshoer is more likely to set off an avalanche than a randonnée skier.

Who goes snowshoeing?

Anyone who has waterproof boots with ankle support; this prevents the straps from cutting through ankles. Other than that anyone who can walk is a snowshoer.
Since I am on the topic of what to wear, make sure you take layers that dry fast and keep you warm – one can get hot on the way up and quickly chilly when stopping for breaks.

When does one go snowshoeing?

The great thing about this activity is that you can do it no matter what the snow conditions. The build of the snowshoes allows you to enjoy yourself regardless of whether you are in powder, on ice, wet snow or even on frozen tree roots!

Why go with a mountain leader?

Of course you can go on your own, but the advantage of going with a mountain leader is an extra-added value to your outing that cannot be refuted. Mountain leaders have the ability and knowledge to guide you where skiers will seldom be found. While you are enjoying the incredible scenery, they will point out the wild animal tracks you almost stepped on. As the ground is covered with snow, it is ideal to discover what these animals are eating, as well as demonstrate how alpine plants survive throughout the harsh winter. Chamois families are often seen among the tracks of wild, alpine hares and the elusive rock ptarmigan. Did you know that ptarmigan grow a new pelt and feathers of pure snowy white as camouflage to deter predators during the winter months?
Snowshoeing is an easy passion to have, regardless of your age or fitness level. The advantage over skiing is that the snow can be fresh or hard, and the weather can be sunny or cloudy, it makes no difference – the outing will still be a success. The gear has been modernised and the day spent away from the hustle and bustle of the pistes is a welcome alternative for anyone who enjoys doing fun things! So don’t be afraid to try something different in Verbier this winter, you’ll see your skier friends will want to join too.
If you are buying a pair of snowshoes, make sure that you get a pair adapted to your weight, as that is how the sizing works. If you are not sure, look on the snowshoe websites. It is worth buying the best pair, as you will have them for life. As far as I can tell with the ones I lend out, they are indestructible!

For more info: Cherries Walks +41 79 239 2161

All ski schools have mountain leaders working with them, so just ask at their main desks. La Fantastique, SportPlus, or any guides can take you too.

Mountain bike verbier

Mountain Biking in Verbier with Bike Verbier

This summer, Lucy Martin and Philip Warham celebrate the tenth birthday of their company, Bike Verbier.

Like many people, Phil and Lucy first came to Verbier on holiday and like many others, they never left. A mutual love of biking was the foundation stone for their relationship and Bike Verbier. Lucy had previously made a business plan to set up a biking holiday company in the UK, but after her first summer here, the plan Bikeverbier-10changed. The first year the couple hired a chalet in Verbier and welcomed 57 clients. In their second year the number of guests roughly doubled and in the third year they had 150 visitors, many returning guests from previous years. Now they welcome over 200 visitors, mainly from the UK, but also from South Africa, Canada and Scandinavia. Several awards and numerous articles in Biking Magazines have certainly helped spread the word that Verbier doesn’t only offer some of the world’s best skiing, but also, some of the world’s most impressive mountain biking.

How was biking here when you first started the company back in 2001?

Untapped, it was amazing. Many locals were riding, but not many people were coming to the region for an actual biking holiday. We were the only company back then, now more holiday companies are operating in the area, bringing in more summer business.

How has it changed over the years?

There was no ’Bike Park’ ten years ago. We have seen this develop over the past few years and hopefully it will continue to do so, to include trails to suit all abilities. There are also more bike shops now, restaurants and bars open for longer periods over the summer which is great. The lifts are now more user-friendly to bikers and the commune and the Verbier Tourist Office are more open to summer sports for younger people. Verbier has become a world-renowned destination in the mountain biking world. Ten years ago bikers spoke of Chamonix, the Portes du Soleil, Moab and Whistler as the places to go, now Verbier is among them.

What is the best part of running the business?

Being outside in the fresh air, seeing the faces of our clients after a great day on the mountain riding some challenging tails, seeing their reaction to the stunning scenery. People who have only previously visited Verbier in winter are amazed at how the slopes look in summer.

What is one of the worst parts of the job?

Mainly when the weather is bad. When it’s cold and miserable outside and you’re really tired it’s sometimes hard to find the energy.

How many days a week do you bike?

Five days a week, out from 10am until 6pm, we take packed lunches or eat in the restaurants up on the mountain.

How do you prepare for the biking season?

We try and keep biking through the whole year. We go out and explore new trails and then, of course, we get fitter throughout as soon as the guests arrive and we’re biking all day, five days a week.

Any new plans for this season?

Two-day rides with an overnight in a mountain cabin. We’re looking forward to taking advantage of the extended lift opening, this year they are open until September 19 which is great for us, and for the Verbier region in general .

Any long-term future plans for Bike Verbier?

To keep exploring new trails. We hope to work more closely with Verbier Bike Park and the commune to create and promote a positive image of mountain biking and explore further developments for biking in the region. We would love to see a biking trail built from Verbier to Le Châble, to take the bikers away from the roads and small villages.

Phil and Lucy would like to thank Scott Sports, Eugène Eugster and the Verbier Bike Club who have supported them from the beginning.

Off-Piste in Verbier

Adrenaline Guides invited Johan Westrin to enjoy a day of powder and sunshine…

'No friends on a powder day' is splashed on the front of a T-Shirt worn by the person standing next to me as I wait at the Médran lift station. I’m waiting for mountain guide Antoine Brenzikofer, who has invited me to come along with today’s off-piste group. It’s 9am and conditions look favourable for a great powder day -- after recent snow falls this could possibly be one of the best days of the season. The skies have cleared, revealing a perfect white blanket over the peaks surrounding Verbier.

As our guide arrives with extra backpacks and additional safety gear, I get a feeling that everyone here is looking forward to the day ahead with the expertise of a guide. Recent reports of avalanches in the Bern area and Italy have been a wake-up call to the power of Mother Nature.  Our guide, Antoine Brenzikofer, points out that early season can potentially be a risky time for avalanches due to various factors, but here in Verbier there is plenty of powder snow to enjoy without taking unnecessary risks.

DSC_0255Antoine discusses safety equipment as we ride up the mountain in the lift before he assesses our level of skiing on the first run of the day. Russian girls Olga, Mariana and Alla have brought their own fat skis along with them on their long-awaited visit to Verbier. Last time they were in Switzerland, the girls spent four days with a guide, “it’s a great way to find places that we never would have found on our own” comments Olga. However, after saying this, they tell me about their adventures getting lost the previous day. Without a guide for the day, the girls decided to head to Mont Fort and then follow tracks left in snow by a previous skier, not knowing where this would take them or what conditions and terrain they would encounter. They just assumed it would be at suitable level for returning them to Verbier piste. Perhaps not the wisest plan… The girls ended up on the valley floor a long way from Verbier and had to take a taxi back to the lift station.

Today, with the knowledge of our guide, we head towards the other end of the 4 Vallées and the Greppon Blanc. Antoine points out how the conditions have already changed since we took off from Verbier this morning; the South West facing peaks above Siviez and Thyon are much more windblown and, as a consequence of this particular wind, we see big wind lips looming over us as we descend north in knee-deep powder -- Antoine steers us well clear of any risk of being in their path should they fall.

To join a guided group like this, you should be a confident skier and in good enough shape to sustain yourself for a long day on the mountain. It is biting cold and we have no time for any toe-warming coffee breaks today. There is no mistaking this for a picnic: everyone here wants their money’s worth of aching legs, new discoveries and deep powder.

DSC_0235Antoine has been a guide for 8 years and considers himself lucky to be able to guide all year. Summers are spent climbing mainly in Zermatt and Arolla or on expeditions around the world. Later this year he will head off to Nepal to climb an 8000 m peak. When discussing the risks involved with his job, he points out, “it’s hard on the body, and it’s easy to get injured. Even though the chances of getting caught in an avalanche are incredibly small, we must remember that they do happen… with so many people skiing off-piste these days, the chances of getting caught in an avalanche created by someone else have increased too.”

Heading back towards Verbier after a long day, the group is quiet in the Chassoure lift. Everyone is tired but also very happy for the great skiing and beautiful scenery we have enjoyed today. I ask another member of the group Andrey, if he will also go with a guide tomorrow. “I’ve been twice this week. Going with a group is not as expensive as a private guide, so I’ve been able to go more often - I unfortunately have to go home tomorrow”, he says with dismay.

If you’re unfamiliar with the area or want to take advantage of expert knowledge, it’s a good idea to hire a guide, or join a group led by a guide, making the most out of the precious powder days up on the slopes.

For more information about guiding in Verbier visit:
La Fantastique - Bureau des Guides
Swiss Guides
Les Guides de Verbier