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.

Inside Bramble Ski's Most Beautiful Chalets

(2010) Curiosity on what lies behind closed shutters is a trait of human nature. Bramble Ski invites Verbier Life to take a look inside some of Verbier’s most beautiful chalets.

Since the company began in 2005, Bramble Ski has been busy building a reputation as Verbier’s best-kept secrets.   From the beautiful wood and furs used in Nyumba to the exquisite art lined walls of The Dairy, their collection of chalets and apartments are some of the best Verbier has to offer.  Natasha Robertson of Bramble Ski explains, “We have always known that Verbier has some of the most beautiful homes in the Alps and now we are able to allow our guests access to these stunning chalets.”

As Verbier has become a destination resort for the worlds wealthiest individuals Bramble Ski has an increasingly international list of owners. This is reflected in the diversity of the chalet interiors across the portfolio. From the beautiful textiles used in the middle-eastern influenced Valentine apartments to the Italian green marble used to line the pool and spa at Nyumba.

How do they get their hands on these stunning properties?  “We are fortunate that our business has seen substantial growth, we now have over 20 properties in Verbier. In the last 5 years we have learnt that we must both have flexibility in our contracting process with owners and in tailored services we provide our clients. The aim of the team is to work in partnership with our owners to deliver maximum returns, while giving them the peace of mind that their homes will be cared for throughout the season.”

No detail is too small when it comes to the interior design of their Chalets with the use of natural stone and reclaimed wood.  “We are often asked to get involved at an early stage with the planning of these properties and work along side the architect and interior designers to come up with beautiful yet workable solutions for our owners.”

Natasha is keen to point out that there is something special about all of the Bramble Ski chalets but takes us through some of her favourite features.  “I love the stunning pool in the Victoria and Valentine complex where we have four apartments, there is a fantastic gym and it looks onto the most gorgeous grey slate pool, which is huge and so inviting. The craftsmanship in the carpentry of our flagship chalet, Maria Schnee in St Anton, blew me away. The whole place has the feel of a country manor but with a lightness of touch that you don’t expect in Alpine chalets.”

With their collection of stylish and elegant chalets and apartments we are sure Bramble Ski won’t be a secret for much longer.

Hiking the Haute Route in 8 days…

Wayne Hills takes on the spectacular Haute Route in 8 days…

I wasn’t exactly lazy when I was younger, but I was never one for walking further than I had to. Even going to the shops with my mum, I would always ask “can't we take the bus” or “why can't Dad take us in the car”. So, I'm not really sure why I enjoy hiking in the mountains or where the idea of doing the Haute Route first came from. Maybe it was fate, as my dad's surname is Hills and my mum's maiden name Walker! More likely, it was my need to prove to myself that, despite wrinkles and hair loss, I was still young enough to take on a challenge - and a challenge this definitely was.

Let's get the technical details out of the way. The walk took us 8 days (most guided tours take 12/13 days). We walked approximately 160 km in a total of 56 hours and 15 minutes, with 8,371m of vertical ascent, 9,640m of vertical descent and we crossed an impressive 10 cols (mountain passes).

[quote_center]The Haute Route is known for being very busy in the months of July and August, so I decided on a mid-September start, keeping my fingers crossed that the weather would hold.[/quote_center]

The Haute Route is known for being very busy in the months of July and August, so I decided on a mid-September start, keeping my fingers crossed that the weather would hold. I carried out some research online and came up with a route, bought the necessary maps, booked various accommodation and on September 14 set off on my little adventure along with two friends, Marco and Regine.

The plan for the first day was simple, leave Verbier on the first bus and take a train to Argentière and then walk to the Cabane d'Orny overlooking the Fenêtre d'Arpette. Everything was going to plan until Regine phoned to say she'd missed the bus. Fortunately she was able to get a lift from her boyfriend and join us on the train, we arrived at Argentière on time and started the climb to the Col de Balme. We reached the col in good time and stopped at the refuge for a coffee, where a dear, sweet, old lady laughed and wished us “bonne chance ” when we told her we were walking to Cabane d'Orny. My first mistake, I had underestimated the time and distance to the cabane. We continued on our walk to the refuge at Les Grand Dessus, where a lovely Swiss couple confirmed our fears and after a team talk we decided to alter our plans as we probably had an expected arrival time of midnight at Orny! We descended to Trient, where we spent an enjoyable night in the Relais du Mont Blanc.

An early start the next day and a pleasant uphill walk to Forclaz with great views of Martigny and the valley beyond. Onwards and upwards to Bovine before making a picturesque descent to Champex Lac. Here we took lunch before continuing our descent to Sembrancher and on to Verbier to spend a well-earned rest in our own beds.

Day 3 saw Marco leave us, but Regine and I were joined by Leah, who would continue with us to the end of our adventure. We cheated a bit here taking the lift to Les Ruinettes, from there we walked to La Chaux and via the Sentier des Chamois to the Col Termin. The weather wasn't the best, raining most of the day, but visibility was good and we saw plenty of chamois including one that had been recently caught by a hunter as we were now in the season of ‘La Chasse’. From the Col Termin we continued on to the Col de Louvie, the Col de Prafleuri, (our highest col at just under 3,000m) and to our home for the night, the Cabane Prafleuri. As cabanes go, this has to be amongst the best. After a long day and a hearty meal we retired to our dortoir, me on the bottom bunk, Leah next one up and Regine higher still, saying a small prayer as she went that she wouldn't fall out in the night!

The next two days were the longest of the trip, but we had to push on if we were to reach Zermatt in 8 days. We left the Cabane Prafleuri and had a short hike to the Col des Roux and our first glimpse of Lac des Dix, looking splendid in the early morning mist. We went around the lake and then began the slow and gradual ascent to the Col de Riedmatten, one that I had crossed four years earlier in the opposite direction whilst doing the Patrouille des Glaciers. I found it daunting then and nothing had changed this time, scrambling the last few metres, almost on my knees. Riedmatten conquered, we took the long descent to Arolla and then traversed along the scenic valley to the quaint village of Les Haudères, where we spent the night in the dated but comfortable Hotel Edelweiss.

Awaking to our best weather so far, we started the day with a three hour, 1,416m climb to the Col de Tsaté and then the descent to the incredible sight of the Moiry glacier and the blue water of the Lac de Moiry. We continued our descent from here through the gorgeous alpine village of Grimentz, where great effort has been made to maintain the village's original character and on to Mayoux, where our beds awaited in the Auberge de la Puchotaz.

Day 6 was possibly my favourite. A steady climb from Mayoux to the Meidpass, 1,600m of vertical ascent, but mainly through forest, following the river and the waterfalls appropriately named Les Cascades. Crossing the pass meant that we were now in the German speaking area of Switzerland and we dropped into the valley to the small summer resort of Gruben, closed during winter due to the avalanche risk from the srrounding peaks. Here, we stayed in the Hotel Schwarzhorn where a bed, breakfast and fantastic four course evening meal cost us CHF 56. Truly amazing!!

The next morning, after a hearty breakfast we set off for the Augstbordpass, our last col before reaching the Zermatt valley. We made our ascent in good time and, as we started the long descent to St. Niklaus, the valley gradually appeared below us with its backdrop of 4000+ m peaks - stunning! At this point, we still couldn't see our final destination, but we knew Zermatt was now within our reach. To finish the day, we had a 500m ascent on the other side of the valley to Gasenreid, where we would spend our final night. The village was small and we had the Hotel Alpenrösli to ourselves. We were made to feel very welcome and after a couple of beers, a glass or two of Goron (local red wine) and a homemade liquor, collapsed into bed.

Finally, day 8, our last, and by far easiest, day of The Route. We left Gasenreid and started a gradual descent through the forest to the valley. Following the river along the valley floor, we passed through the villages of Herbriggen, Randa and then on to Täsch, the satelite village for those arriving by car or coach, to board the train to Zermatt. No such luxury for us, we finished as we had started with a climb to our final destination. One last hour, 200m of vertical and there it was, Zermatt, sitting at the base of the famous Matterhorn. September 21 and the village was as busy as a mid-January day in Verbier, so after a celebratory beer we boarded the train and returned home.

If reading this inspires anybody to take on the challenge this summer, here are some tips for your trip: If possible, avoid July and August.

  • Plan your trip and book all your accommodation in advance (and don’t forget to phone if your timing changes).
  • Buy the necessary maps.
  • Pack light and take technical underwear that can be worn more than once. Take a towel.
  • Take the option of evening meals and breakfast at your accommodation, the food is good and very reasonably priced.
  • Pack lots of chocolate, muesli bars and dried fruit and nuts to keep you going between meals.
  • Drink lots of water and refill your containers at every opportunity.
    Take little notice of the route times shown on the markers, they are not always accurate, sometimes in your favour, more often not!
  • Finally, don't forget to take a camera and pace your walk so that you can stop often and use it. The scenery is amazing!