Heli skiing

When asked about her favourite moment of the day, Jo had to pause and think whether it was the helicopter ride, the silence, the fantastic untouched snow or the incredible views.

British born teacher Jo Caldwell (36) presently lives and works in Hong Kong. She came to Verbier with fellow teachers Kevin Claus (35) and Chris Calvert (25) with a group of students staying at Les Elfes International. They decided to indulge themselves in one of the ultimate alpine experiences – heli-skiing.

"For a great day heli-sking you need to organise a guide, the helicopter and have good weather," says guide Jean-Marc Krattiger, "Getting all three on the same day is the hard part." Jean Marc met with the group of teachers the evening before the big day. The group were excited and enthusiastic, but took time out to ask Jean-Marc important questions for any heli-ski novice; what should they bring, what should they expect, what will the conditions be like? After checking the weather forecast, the group were told about various essential safety elements with regards to equipment and conditions. Relaxed and at ease they left for a good nights sleep confident they would be in safe hands the next day.

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Jean-Marc has been a mountain guide in Verbier for the past 17 years and is an example of someone who truly dedicated to the mountains. In the early years of his career as a guide Jean-Marc, who was brought up on a farm, would wake at 5am to milk the cows, drive an hour and half to Verbier and then spend the day guiding up on the mountain. Once the days skiing was over he would then drive an hour and a half home in time to milk the cows in the evening.

[quote_center]The next morning was an example of all the ingredients coming together perfectly - blue skies, fresh snow, a guide and a helicopter.[/quote_center]

The next morning was an example of all the ingredients coming together perfectly - blue skies, fresh snow, a guide and a helicopter. The helicopter was to meet the group at ten o’clock up on the Croix-de-Coeur. Whilst waiting, Jean-Marc explained more avalanche safety techniques, pointing out that there is an avalanche training centre at the bottom of la Chaux for everyone to learn or practice the search process. "This is a great way to get more familiar with the search process."

As the sound of the helicopter approaching intensified so did the smiles on the teachers’ faces. "It’s our first time in a helicopter," shouted Chris, over the sound of the whirling blades. The snow was spun up into a swirling cloud as the group boarded. The helicopter smoothly lifted from ground, climbing up into the air with unbelievable ease as Verbier passed below. The destination, Col des Plines. "This is already worth it!" yelled Kevin whist he took photos of the valley and villages beneath.

DSC_0130After ten minutes of spectacular views the group arrived at the incredible Col des Plines. The fields of Virgin snow in contrast to the sculptured towering rock faces were surreal. After soaking in the view, it was time for the main event- skiing and snowboarding through perfect powder snow. With each turn a flurry of snow flew up in the air, snake shaped tracks carved into the virgin snow fields. A few tumbles added to the fun, the whole time Jean Marc making them feel confident and safe in an environment that shows no mercy to the reckless and unprepared.

There was no rush, each section of perfect turns was followed by time to reflect, take some photos and to relieve burning muscles. The serenity and beauty of the area was outstanding and a shock for a group only used to the hustle and bustle of the piste.
The snow dusted turquoise blue boulders of the glaciers continued to amaze the teachers, who usually spend each day in the concrete jungle of Hong Kong.

"Once the other guys had skied down a bit, I just sat there and enjoyed the total unbelievable silence" said Kevin. "That was soon ruined when Chris shouted abuse at me!"

With each turn the bottom of the run became an impending end to an incredible experience. The terrain started to change, instead of cruising through open plains of snow the boarders found themselves weaving through pine trees more familiar to lower altitudes. The taxi waited at the bottom of the run. Grinning, the group took off their boards and reluctantly got into the minibus for the short drive to Le Châble knowing that this was the end of their heli ski experience, for this year at least. Jean-Marc easily cheered them up again, "Ok, so now we can go and find some more great snow off piste up in Verbier."

"Verbier is a fantastic central location for heli skiing. If the conditions aren’t quite right in this valley, then it’s a short drive to somewhere where it is possible. And if the weather doesn’t allow for heli-skiing then there are numerous great off-piste options in the area to explore," explained Jean-Marc.

Heli-skiing is surprisingly easy even for intermediate as well as expert skiers. The guide will take into account your wishes and ability, planning the route accordingly.
"It was amazing, an experience of a lifetime!" said Jo as she eagerly followed Jean-Marc on the next adventure.

Thanks to Jean-Marc and the Bureau des Guides, Swiss Mountain Spirit, Jo, Kevin and Chris who let me tag along and to Faction Skis who lent me a pair of skis which allowed my weak legs make it to the bottom in one piece without too many tumbles!

www.guide-verbier.ch
www.verbiersportplus.ch


SNOW-SHOEING IN VERBIER

If you are reading this article because you think snowshoeing might be a nice distraction for Grandma when she comes to visit - think again. It’s more than just a refreshing plunge in the snow and its certainly not a tedious plod; it’s a cardiovascular sport that anyone can do, has little risk of injury and is relatively inexpensive compared to most alpine sports. Text by Carla Webb

So on a beautiful December morning with fresh snow glinting in the sunshine, we give it a go. Standing at Medran, I look wistfully at the skiers heading up for a day of powder but it didn’t take long for me to realise that they are the ones that should be feeling jealous. Our guide, Nadja Schmid from Verbier Sport Plus, made sure we were kitted out properly and within ten minutes we couldn’t see a person or a ski lift. [quote_center]The only tracks preceding us were those of deer, foxes, hares, squirrels, mice and grouse.[/quote_center]

The mountain seems to be ours alone to wander over and the panoramas are that bit more breathtaking than usual as we pad silently through the deep fresh powder. What a fabulous way this is to escape the crowds in peak times and to enjoy a sport that all ages and abilities can do together. As I stare over the valley, I imagine other hikes discovering areas generally only reachable in the summer, or a full moon trek with a bunch of friends to a mountain restaurant. And with up to 600 calories burned an hour – the fondue would be guilt free!

DSC_1047_CMYKNadja is a mine of information making the hike both fun and informative. As well as knowing the name of every mountain peak we can see from Italy to France, she points out the different types of animal tracks and I find myself like a school kid suddenly asking her questions about how they survive the winter and what they find to eat. At one point she rummages around in the snow to find some recent hare droppings which she dissects with interest all whilst explaining the rather complex digestive habits of the wild hare in the winter.

Guides can organize half or full day tours, or even overnight trips staying in mountain huts but you don’t have to have a guide to enjoy a day out snowshoeing. With its recent rise in popularity, many new paths have been signposted around Verbier, Le Chable, Bruson and the Haut Val de Bagnes. Maps showing the routes, distance, gradients and the time it should take are available at the tourist office or on www.sentiers-raquettes.com

Snowshoes can be rented from most ski shops and we’d like to thank Mountain Air for ours. Remember to dress in layers as it is hard work and you may feel the need to remove a layer or two. Comfortable footwear such as waterproof hiking boots or snowboard boots are important and waterproof gaiters are a good idea when the snow is deep.


Husky Sledding

Crisp fresh air, blue sky and a fresh blanket of snow made the perfect back drop to experience one of winters’ most enchanting activities, husky sledging.
I arrived at Les Ruinettes in time to meet the dogs before heading out on the mush. Organiser of the excursion, Caroline Ponti, had informed me I would find the dogs below the Ruinettes kiosk. The sound of the husky’s excited barks led me to their location where they were waiting, eager to be harnessed impatient for their next run. The dogs first had to rest, as it’s important for the dogs to acclimatize to the high altitude before becoming over exerted. The dogs didn’t seem to mind as they sat basking in the winter sun.

DSC_0045The dogs are owned and trained by Dominique Decombaz, World vice-champion (1999) and multiple Swiss and European Musher Champion (1997-1999). He introduced me to the team of thirteen dogs made up from two different breeds; the familiar grey huskies, all of which raced with Dominique and two shorthaired brown Alaskans. I said hello to all of the dogs who were friendly, but not overly interested in my attention, only the proximity and commands of their master.
At last it was time to harness the dogs up to the sledge. As the two lead dogs, Valium and Dixon, were taken to the lead position, and all the other dogs barked and howled with excitement at the impending trip. Once all dogs were attached, Dominique shouted his commands and the team sprang into action. The late afternoon light and the views of the Petit Combin were spectacular as I relaxed watching the scenery pass by whilst the dogs did all the hard work. Dominique has total control of the dogs just with his verbal commands and encouragement. The warm fur lined coat Caroline kindly placed on my lap as we departed had at first seemed unnecessary, but was appreciated as it protected me from the chilled air as we sped back along the route from la Chaux. On returning to les Ruinettes some 40 minutes later, the dogs traversed across the busy junction, Dominique shouted a couple more commands and the sledged came to the perfect halt in the exact departure spot. Curious skiers looked over at the dogs as they skied past, others came nearer to check them out. If you want to meet the dogs or enjoy the husky sledge experience yourself, then contact Swiss Mountain Spirit on + 41 (0) 27 771 83 00 or pass by their office in the Place Central.


A Sunday Morning Sayolyres Hike

(2006) A brisk walk on a Sunday morning is great way to work off any excess food and drink from a weekend of socailising in Verbier. Nadia, our guide from Verbier Sport Plus met us at the Médran at the civilized time of 9 o clock. To our relief, the first part of the journey was by car, weaving our way up towards Savoleyres. Normally, we would be able to use the cable car, but for us it was still too early in the summer to take advantage of this convenient, time saving option.

[quote_right]The walk from Sayolyres to Pierre Avoi is a relaxing scenic route with impressive views down to Verbier and across to the Petit Combin.[/quote_right] Clear blue skies and a forecast of a warm day ahead made perfect conditions for a ramble to Pierre Avoi. The walk from Sayolyres to Pierre Avoi is a relaxing scenic route with impressive views down to Verbier and across to the Petit Combin. Climbing the steps up the rock to the cross might challenge those shy of heights, although the accent is definitely worth the effort once at the top. At a height of 24 70 meters Pierre Avoi offers a spectacular 360 degree outlook, with incredible views stretching out for miles down the Sion Valley and towards Martigny. The decent down the rock tested our balance before continuing past a group of children who had walked to the steep face to enjoy some rock climbing.
Although early in the summer, an array of bright flowers decorated the edge of the narrow path. Throughout the walk Nadia took time to point out any plants or flowers of interest including a flower used to make tea, wild spinach and other edible delicacies.
"We of often bring groups of kids on walks and then cook a meal using some of the ingredients we find," Nadia informed us whilst offering us the petals from a cowslip. One of our group was reluctant to try the local nibble but was surprised to find it to have a gentle sweet taste and even went on to take a second helping.
Although it is very easy to follow the trails and paths around Verbier, going with a guide offers a new element to the whole experience, stories from the past and information about the local fauna and flora can be a great insight into the area that might otherwise be missed.  Heading down towards the  "Chutes du Bisse" we watched numerous marmot’s enjoying the summer sun, running for cover whenever we got too close.  A harmless snake slithering across the path was also out enjoying the mid day heat and happily posed for a photograph.
verbier backgroundThe flat gradient of the Bisse was a welcome relief for our tired knees. In the 15th century, the retreating glaciers caused a water shortage in the Valais region. The bisse was built to transport water from above Ruinette to Le Levron to provide water for the farming community. The last time the Bisse was used for this purpose was by the people of Le Levron in 1923. After World War II, there was serious talk of reactivating it, but modern techniques developed in 1965 provided a long-term solution for the to the lack of water. Today the Bisse is provides a beautiful route for hikers to enjoy and for our thirsty dog to cool off and enjoy a drink.
At the end of the bisse we continued out walk under the shade of the trees past the ruins of the old chateaux down to the grass clearing and small chapel St Christophe, the perfect spot to enjoy a picnic of fresh bread and local cheeses.
There are numerous fantastic walks around Verbier, going with a guide can opens up new routes and areas as well as providing information on the local fauna, flora and history.

To find out more about walking with a guide contact Verbier Sport Plus  0041 27 775 33 69 info@ sportsplus.ch or for information on local hikes check out the Verbier Tourist Office website www.verbier.ch