Hiking Heaven

When did you last venture out to explore a new hiking trail? With over 500km of signposted trails surrounding Verbier and the Val de Bagnes, there is an exciting menu of options to choose from…

IMG_0066If you’re in Verbier over the summer months, then there’s a very good chance you will venture up the mountain to enjoy a hike. Walking is an activity accessible to most moderately fit locals and visitors - surely you just squeeze your feet into a pair of hiking boots and head off down a path? Often, people choose a familiar route, or might feel comfortable keeping Verbier in their sight to reduce the chance of getting lost along the meandering trails. With hundreds of kilometers to explore, maybe it’s time to push your boundaries and try something new? The tourist office has a great section on their website which enables people to look at some of their suggested itineraries in detail. The time the hike will take, the degree of difficulty, a map, altitude changes, points of interest and suggested restaurants (if available) along the route are all listed to arm you with as much information as possible. An overnight stay in one of the various mountain huts in the area is a wonderful experience – enjoy a simple, hearty dinner with other fellow hikers at high altitudes of over 2,000m and wake up to pristine mountain views. Verbinet has a good, informative page on their website with prices and links for booking, or contact the tourist office for more information. The weather changes fast in the mountains, so always check the forecast with a reliable source and be prepared with additional layers, the right gear and supplies. Also, always inform someone about where you are planning to go, even better, hire a local guide to accompany you. A walking guide does a lot more than just show you the way safely – information on local flora and fauna adds immensely to the experience. There’s 500km to explore – so put those boots to use! _KJS7784


Beyond the Val de Bagnes to the Bernese Oberland

Text: Wayne Pope Photos: Mark Shapiro

As the snow melts, skis are put away for another year and walking boots are dusted off ready for the summer months ahead. The beauty and variety of our own region can make it hard to step beyond its boundaries. But from time to time we are reminded that this region is one of many in this fair country and this is just what Wayne Hill and his loyal band of Verbier walkers discovered last autumn. They share their adventures here, just in case you should ever feel the urge to journey further.

I made the decision to tour the Bernese Oberland because it was a part of Switzerland I had never visited and I had heard it was stunning. I was led to believe that this would be a walk in the park compared to previous trips (the Haute Route and the Tour du Mont Blanc). Wrong! Stunning, absolutely. Walk in the park, absolutely not. It took some time to come up with an itinerary as there are numerous trails along the way but no definitive route. After some deliberation, I put together a nine-day trip.

Once again kitted out in gear from Outdoor Research, Scarpa and Black Diamond, one damp morning early in September, Kevin, Conchi, Marko and I made our way from Martigny Station to Les Diablerets, our starting point. In hindsight, this was an error, we didn’t hit a proper trail until Gsteig (a better starting point, if you ever do this tour) to the Krinnen Pass with its magnificent view of the Lauenensee. Unfortunately, no time to linger at the lake as, to finish our nine-hour day, we had a major climb to the Geltenhütte. The impressive hike up followed a mountain river below and behind numerous waterfalls. We arrived just as dinner was being served. Perfect!.

After a good night’s sleep, we continued along the opposite side of the valley. A little rugged at first, with some narrow footpaths with steep drops aided by fixed ropes and ladders to Chuetungel, then rolling green hills, before a steep climb again aided by fixed ropes to the Wildhorn Hut. After lunch we descended a path of scree to another picturesque lake (Iffigsee). We spent the night in the showerless dormitories of the Berghaus Iffigenalp barn..

The following morning took us through rolling pastureland, woodland with fast-flowing rivers and waterfalls above. We then ascended through green meadows, but as we got higher the terrain became more rugged and the last 300m before we reached the Ammerten Pass was very steep and just a little bit scary. It was quite a relief to reach the windy pass, but our fear was soon forgotten as we walked down to the plateau of Engstligenalp, below the Wildstrubel, so green and maintained it looks like a golf course! Here we were well fed at the comfortable Berghaus Bartschi.


The next day was all about the Gemmi Pass. We crossed the Chindbetti Pass and the glacial remains of Rote Chumme and walked beside the steely grey waters of the Daubensee. The Gemmi Pass was once a major route for traders between Valais and Bern. Nowadays a cable car links Leukerbad to the pass, but in days long gone, traders would walk goods-laden donkeys over the pass. Once you have built up the courage to look over the edge, you see that this was not an easy feat as the route is almost vertical! There are also clear views of the distant peaks of the Matterhorn, Dent Blanche and Monte Rosa. Descending the pass the way we had come, but taking the opposite side of the lake, we arrived at the Berghotel Schwarenbach. Although obviously and recently renovated, this is one of Switzerland’s oldest hotels, dating back to 1742 and it's not hard to imagine Valaisan traders stopping there for a rest after their slog up the Gemmi Pass and of course several glasses of wine!.

Day five took us from the Schwarenbach via Sunnbüel and Kandersteg to the Blüemlisalphütte and started with a bit of a cheat; we took a cable car down to Kandersteg, which reduced our day by over an hour and pleased our knees! Kandersteg is breathtaking. The village stretches along the valley bottom and the river Kander runs through its centre, but what makes this area so spectacular are the surrounding valleys, glens and towering peaks with numerous waterfalls. Our trail took us alongside the river Oeschibach to paradise. As a Londoner, I have been known to use the odd expletive when describing something, but for Oeschinensee there just aren’t enough. It is a mountain lake almost totally surrounded by the peaks of the Dündenhorn and the Blüemlisalp, with waterfalls cascading in to it and pinewoods running along its banks. Truly, truly beautiful. From the lake our trail was rugged and steep but well maintained, ending with countless steps set into scree to the Hohtürli Pass, just ten minutes below the hut. The Blüemlisalp Hut is perched on a peak at 2,840m with tremendous views..

The first 300m of the descent the next day from the Hothürli Pass was steep and we were helped by steps and fixed ropes, but soon afterwards this changed to green fields. Later, as we approached the pass at Sefinafurgga, we crossed the remnants of the Gamchi glacier with its arches formed in ice by the river that flows from the melting ice above. At the pass, our first view of the towering peaks of the Jungfrau, Mönch and Eiger and to our left the Schilthorn with its famous revolving restaurant that featured in an early James Bond movie. From here we descended to Rotstock Hut, busy with weekend walkers making for a lively Saturday evening..

The following morning started with a three-hour descent through Mürren to Lauterbrunnen. In exchange for some of Marko's pictures, the Jungfrau Tourist Office kindly supplied us with our next two nights’ accommodation and tickets for the train to the Jungfraujoch, the highest railway station in the world at 3,454m. You should take the time to go on this railway which is a "scenic" railway in every sense of the word, but be warned, it is a real tourist trap and having spent so much time away from people, we found it a bit shocking to be surrounded by hundreds of them. The train tunnel has been carved through the Eiger to a remarkable station with cafes, restaurants, an ice palace and the obligatory souvenir shop! From the station we walked for an hour along a snow-covered path to the Mönchsjoch Hut, marveling at the Aletsch Glacier which continues for a further 23km to Valais. The refuge sits at 3,627m with magnificent views of the glacier and the surrounding peaks of the Schreckhorn and Finsteraarhorn. That night a tremendous storm with lightening, thunder and some fresh snow made the visit to the outside toilets an adventure in itself!
The following day the sun burnt away the cloud cover on a cold, but glorious morning and we made our way back to the Jungfraujoch without a single person in view. We took the Eiger Trail traversing the Eiger below its north face, some 1,700m below its peak, giving fantastic views of Grindelwald below. Our walk took us through fields and woods and across the Unterer Grindelwaldgletscher Gorge towards the Hotel Wetterhorn which was extremely comfortable and, after a beer and our first shower in four days, we were content..

On our last day of walking, a steadily rising trail took us directly from the hotel to the Grosse Scheidegg. We left the Lötschental Valley and its views of the Eiger, Wetterhorn and Grindelwald for the valley of Haslital. A four-hour gradual descent alongside the river through Schwarzwaldalp and Rosenlaui (below the Rosenlaui Glacier) took us to Innertkirchen where we were staying (quite conveniently) at a pub/hotel..

The return train journey from Innertkirchen via Meiringen, Interlaken and Visp took us back to Verbier in just four hours with thoughts turning already to next year's adventure and where it might take us.


Deep Powder in Argentina

Verbier resident and Independent Snowboard School founder, André Sommer, gives photographer Yves Garneau and skiers, Giulia Monego and Marja Persson, a lesson in ritual mechanics and deep powder skiing in Argentina.

André Sommer carefully guided his forty-year old beige and brown bus through the parking lot with a rumble that shook the windows of the bus terminal in San Carlos de Bariloche. The reverberating exhaust pipe, the diameter of a small pancake, created a sound wave fierce enough to set off nearby car alarms and liquefy the pin-sized snowflakes that were beginning to fall. Marja, Giulia and I gathered our bags and walked towards the sticker-covered bus, as onlookers dissected the scene with fascinated stares.

"Welcome to Bariloche my friends," André said stepping out of the bus. "This is Bondi," he continued, nodding towards his beast with the pride of a parent introducing a child. "This will be your home for the next two weeks.”

For many years now, the melting spring snow in Verbier has signified the beginning of André's annual migration to the southern hemisphere. His wife, Sofia Martin, grew up in Bariloche and still has most of her family living there. Over the years André has honed his Spanish and mechanic skills to a level where he can host groups in search of adventure and exotic skiing in the Andes. By the looks of Bondi, we were not the first to adventure in his comforts, nor would we be the last, but our tale is one that even André admits was special from the rest.

[quote_center]The biggest storm of the season had set in and was blanketing all of central Argentina in a thick white coat

Forty-eight hours into our stay in Bariloche, we had already skied about as much good snow as I had hoped to see in our whole trip. The biggest storm of the season had set in and was blanketing all of central Argentina in a thick white coat. We skied trees from beginning to end, barely crossing a track for the first two days. On the third, the storm paused and we were released into the high alpine by the patrol who were nervously controlling the access points. With the local knowledge of André and Sofia, we embarked on several of the most memorable laps through Bamboo-laden forests and alpine dotted with towering red rock spires.

Not long after we distanced ourselves from the bustling hub of Bariloche and the faint sounds of car alarms that we set off on the way out of town, the skies opened up again. We headed out onto the plateau where the heavens regained their vibrant colours and the desert boasted its infinite shades of gold and brown. Bondi was now towing a trailer André had built the year before to accommodate his two newly acquired sleds. Andre’s business is all about delivering people to the fresh lines in style and this was how he was going to ensure he never failed. With two twenty litre kegs of beer hooked up and a fridge full of food, we were a self-sufficient party bomb traveling through van Gogh's dreamland.

We became familiar with Bondi's routine maintenance stops about as fast as we got used to seeing André in his blue coveralls, hands covered in grease. None of it phased us though. In fact, the ritual preparations Bondi required to get on the road made us appreciate the adventure all the more.

As we approached the mountain oasis of Caviahue with the sound of Jimmy Hendrix blaring in Bondi's innards, we felt we were in luck. Thick storm clouds enveloped the little ski town littered with Araucaria trees, a species dating back to the Mesozoic period, giving us the feeling we were in the winter version of Jurassic Park. Two days later, when the skies cleared, we fired up the sleds and rode out into the backcountry, where we skied countless fresh runs on the Chilean boarder. It was one of the highlights of the trip.

For the final leg of our trip we headed towards San Martin where it was now nuking down. "This is the Santa Maria storm everyone's been talking about," André told us, as we pulled in and parked in the resort town of San Martin. After our second day of skiing bottomless powder in the trees, we hitchhiked down to where Bondi was parked and went through the ritual of preparing her for the final drive. The weather was looking good for the following day, our last, so André wanted to drive Bondi up the hill to the resort and sleep next to the lifts, to be first in line. With so much snow, André had to chain up Bondi to ensure a definite arrival. Every time André exited the bus, he'd open a new compartment that we didn't even realize was there. One for the generator, one for the 300 litter water tank, one for the gas bottles, another compartment with several drawers he'd built to accommodate the extensive tool kit he required for maintaining Bondi, three big holds to store the skis and bags, one for the kegs of beer, another for the waist water and finally, a hold for the chains and shovel.

For our final meal on the bus, Giulia pulled off the best Alfredo South America had ever seen, as Marja prepared a ruthless apple crumble. All the while, golf ball-sized snowflakes were burying Bondi in the empty parking lot of Cerro Chapelco at break neck speed. When I crawled out of my bunk the next morning and opened the curtain to let the sun shine in, I was dumbfounded to see that Bondi was enslaved in a sea of snow. A cornice fell from the roof as André opened the door to see how much was lying on the ground. He stepped off the last step and sunk past his knees with a smile. "It's going to be another chest-deep day in Argentina,” he said, transforming his smile into a sarcastic frown as he looked to us. I laughed, watching him head out into the snow wearing nothing but his shorts and a t-shirt ready to tinker with something in one of Bondi's compartments, knowing I had realized my dream of skiing deep powder in Argentina before returning to Verbier – ready for another winter.

Independent Snowboard School


Svalbard, a Journal of Arctic Skiing

Photographer, Yves Garneau, and other well-known Verbier characters head north on an adventure a long way from the comforts of home.

Part 1: The long ride out

Our crew was dressed and ready to head out by 2pm on the afternoon of April 26. We'd spent the last six months planning for this trip and now it was about to happen. Everything from satellite phones to solar panels had been purchased, tested and packed. We'd even spent an hour at the local firing range in Longyearbryn the night before acquainting ourselves with the WWII rifles we'd rented for the trip, in case of an unlikely polar bear encounter. [quote_left]We set off into the constant sun. The excitement was palpable and the sights made it all the more thrilling.[/quote_left]By 4pm there was still no sign of our snowmobile guides. It wasn't until 6:30pm that we were finally grouped up with one of our guides on the edge of town. He quickly scanned over our three pulks (towable sleds) and skis, looked at us with amazement, and said “is that all you have?”

By the time our load was secure, it was about 9pm. We set off into the constant sun. The excitement was palpable and the sights made it all the more thrilling. We rode 45km up the first valley, banked a hard left and traversed a huge fjord, where bearded seals hung out by the holes in the ice. As we crested the 1,100m ice cap and distanced ourselves from the shale mountains, we were greeted by an unforgettable sight, a flat, barren landscape that stretched as far as the eye could see. Without a GPS, we would have been lost within half an hour.

Eight hours later we finally arrived at what would become our base camp. We erected the tents and started digging a hole that would eventually become our kitchen. Our snowmobile guides had long gone to sleep, resting up for their return voyage the following day, but our group leader, Hannu Kukkonen (later dubbed The Admiral), insisted we get a head start with the camp set-up. It was only after we started talking funny from fatigue that we were finally granted permission to rest. The Admiral bid goodnight to everyone as he set up the trip-wire around our tent area. If any polar bears were to come sniffing around while we slept, the trip-wire would trigger a small explosion followed by a flare. A tactic which would hopefully buy us enough time to react.

Part 2: The first polar bear sighting

 

Svalbard
WWII rifle we’d rented for the trip

It was just after two o'clock in the afternoon on our first day of camping when the call was heard. All but one of the crew were enjoying a leisurely breakfast in our now-completed kitchen when American skier Kevin Grabowski suddenly screamed from just outside the kitchen area, “Polar bear! Seriously, come now. I'm not kidding, there's a polar bear.” Rifle in hand, ‘The Admiral’, followed by his regiment, squeezed through the exit tunnel to find Kevin, who'd just woken up, frantically pointing down the glacier towards two little black dots that were slowly moving in our direction. Barely needing to squint, we easily made out the skiers touring up the glacier towards us with pulks in tow. “No need to fire a warning shot I guess,” one of the crew blurted out, “get some glasses Kevin.”
With the initial scare out of the way, it was now time to explore. First, we summited the peak directly behind our campsite. When we reached the top, the terrain suddenly changed. We were no longer looking at big expanses of flat glacier complemented by mellow peaks, but at big rugged granite peaks with couloirs that seemed to go on forever. The valleys were tight and the razor-edged peaks daunting. We skied the untracked couloirs wondering just how many people had skied these before, if any.

Part 3: Crackers are not a lunch food

The satellite phone was working like a charm! We regularly gave updates to our support crew back home and received the most up-to-date weather forecasts. So, it was no surprise when a storm rolled in on our fourth day of camping. As the storm settled in, we took swift advantage of the downtime to catch up some ZZZs, read and celebrate Swiss freeskier, Ilir Osmani's 27th birthday. Once the booze was finished and we'd ploughed through most of our books, the discussions began. Politics, porn and food were but some of the many topics we touched upon. What I recall most from the endless banter that took place in the kitchen hole is that crackers are not a lunch food. What was originally purchased as one of a few breakfast foods was suddenly disappearing very quickly, threatening to leave us with nothing but oatmeal. That only goes to show the level of cabin fever that was setting in.

Svalbard
Svalbard

When we crawled out of our tents three days after the Arctic storm began, we were taken aback to see that the snow was still blowing sideways and that the temperature on Kevin's 50-centime thermometer still read -15°C. Our sources on the ground had told us to expect sunny skies and warmer temperatures, so the mood was sombre to say the least. It was time to leave the hole. After hot coffee/tea and oatmeal that tasted like last night's dinner, we forced ourselves back out into the squall to prepare our skis for a tour. There was no way anyone was going to sit around camp one more day discussing crackers.

Our crew set off to explore a zone we hadn't checked out before. We headed over the col, 700m west of our camp, descended and then banked north to a series of cirques that we'd seen on the map and that were hidden from view. As we neared two of the cirques, the skies suddenly opened and the wind dropped almost instantaneously. Unexpectedly, we found ourselves looking up at a colossal couloir in full sun that was begging to be ridden. It was hard to gauge how far away the couloir was, but it didn't take long to find volunteers who were eager to check it out.

The trip was coming together beautifully and the mood in camp seemed untouchable. Although we sat through one more storm on the tail-end of our two-week stay, instead of discussing cracker toppings, we now shared stories of what we'd seen and experienced on this unforgettable voyage. And we laughed at the insane topics of conversation that consumed us earlier, while cringing at the smells now emanating from our tents. But most of all, we relished the fact that we'd put so many tracks where few had skied before.


Iceland - In the face of “He”

A thousand metres above the farm house where our mountain guide, Jokull Bergmann, and four generations of his family have farmed sheep, I stand relieved, believing that we may just have outwitted “Him” and won the battle. Conceding defeat only days ago, I had surrendered to the notion that we may be going home from this ski trip empty handed. But something deep in my gut told me that the fight wasn't over and that we may still get the upper hand on “Him.” It's the last day of our ten-day ski trip on the Troll peninsula and my wager seems to have paid off. Text and photos by Yves Garneau

[quote_left]In Iceland they refer to the wind as “He”  an eternal, faceless, cunning and deadly opponent that many have tried, but often failed, to outmanoeuvre.[/quote_left]I shoot photos of Ilir Osmani and Romain Grojean overlooking Olafsfjordur inlet under calm blue skies, as Bergmann circles the summit of his private peak pounding in heli-flags to mark the landing zone for the two helicopters he now has in operation. For the first time since I met him, ten days ago, he looks at ease. Maybe it's the fact that the day ended without incident or just simply that it snowed for the first time in eight days instead of raining. Either way, it's a look that is mirrored in all of our faces.
In Iceland they refer to the wind as “He”;an eternal, faceless, cunning and deadly opponent that many have tried, but often failed, to outmanoeuvre. Driven by an insatiable gambler's passion, Icelanders are always keeping an eye on “Him” trying to predict his next trick. Bergmann, a man of chance himself, put everything on the line several years ago and bought his ancestral land back from the bank with a vision of starting the first heli-ski business in the country. It's been anything but a smooth ride for this 36 year-old self-made business man, but with new guest houses popping up on his land to host the numerous skiers he's now guiding, it's clear that something is going right.
When I finish shooting photos of Osmani and Grojean we ski down to the farm house. The last few turns are a bleak reminder of the poor weather we sat through most of the week. Relentless rain with hurricane winds gusting up to 120kph brought our team close to breaking point several times. Unfazed now, following the brilliant day of skiing we just experienced, we dodge tufts of golden grass and river banks that are unusually active for this time of year, scanning ahead for patches of snow that are linked up enough to assure safe passage.
The mountains are glowing and as I pack my bags for the trip home, I can finally understand what brought Bergmann, Iceland's only UIAGM qualified mountain guide, back to this isolated part of the world after years abroad. It's a nation defined by its sense of survival and adaptability towards an ever-changing landscape, one in which an indestructible union exists between the Icelander and his roots. An Icelander may leave, but very rarely will he not come back.
DSC_6457We rattle along the dirt road and wind our way out of the 20km valley en route for the airport in neighboring Akureri. I scan the marshy landscape wondering if I'll catch glimpse of the eight hundred-Euros battery that Will, our cameraman, lost from the heli on our first day. Flying gunner, Will was shooting a film segment for an up-and-coming pvs production when a gust of wind ripped through the heli and tore the battery straight off the back of his camera shortly after take-off. We were off to a bad start and our pilot's first impression of us was evident. “Keep ahold of your shit guys, that's not cool,” I can still hear Jon barking through the headset as he steadies the chopper and resumes north.
Not long after our clumsy debut we landed in an area pinpointed on the maps the night before, situated between two unpronounceable inlets where the ski-outs bring you right to sea level. The scenery, so breathtaking, made me lightheaded, prompting yet another fumble, this time my own. As the heli took off, I quickly realised that I'd forgotten my camera bag onboard, leaving me with only one lens to work with. Anxiety took hold, but as I clicked into my skis and made the first buttery turn across the corn snow, I loosened to the core. Might as well enjoy our first run, I thought to myself. The scope of the land was magnificent and the images Will captured stunning, thanks to his spare battery.
Jon spent the morning shuttling us up to several peaks along the Troll peninsula that is defined by the two unpronounceable inlets I mentioned before, Hédinsfjordur and Siglufjordur. These sheltered inlets have only recently become accessible by car and are now linked by one-lane tunnels that service the little fishing villages nestled at each end.  At the west, sits the picture perfect town of Siglufjordur. Once the herring capital of the world, it is now a quiet little fishing village that focuses more on tourism than fishing. Able to harbour huge cruise liners in its deep water inlet, it is a hub of tourist activity during the summer months.


We had put in an honest day of work but with the thinning spring snow conditions, we were not entirely pleased with the action images produced. The skiing was fabulous but we'd hoped for ten-foot powder trails suspended in the air against an Arctic sea backdrop to make the mouths of our sponsors water. Nevertheless, we indulged ourselves in a hot tub back at the farm house hoping that “He” might bring better conditions in the following days. After a traditional dinner of salted fish and roast lamb, seated around the big kitchen table with the other guests, we piled into Bergmann's cramped headquarters to get the latest weather forecast. With a look as serious as the one I'd received from Jon that morning, Bergmann looked up at us and said, “let's not talk about the weather”.
Halfway to the airport a gust of wind thumps us from the side, nudging the van onto the uneven shoulder. Only days ago, a transporter truck had tipped over on the same road, most likely from wind, closing it for several hours, as we made our way home from a failed backcountry freestyle session. We had spotted and skinned up towards a suitable feature to build a jump for Grojean, when suddenly the light breeze erupted into full gale force winds. Within minutes, we were forced to our knees clutching our gear as corn snow battered us like shotgun pellets from every direction. Trying hard to protect any exposed skin, we fought to stand up, put on our skis and make our way back to the car. The gusts, so fierce at times, made us immune to gravity and we even found ourselves being pushed back up the mountain at one point.

[quote_center]Limbered up, we climbed aboard and set off for one of the most unforgettable days of skiing we'd ever experienced.[/quote_center]
We crest the final hill towards Akureyri and as the airport comes into sight a feeling of well-being settles over me. We'd battled through the worst week of weather I'd ever encountered on a ski trip but our patience had paid off. Twelve hours earlier, we had woken to clear blue skies and fresh snow blanketing the entire peninsula. The thermometer read negative ten degrees Celsius and we were the only remaining guests on the farm. After a hardy breakfast of fresh-baked goods, the heli roared to life as Jon made his final checks, preparing for the long day to come. If ever there was any hope of salvaging the trip it was going to be on this final day. Nervously, we danced like boxers in the corner of the ring knowing that this final round would define our notion of heli-skiing in Iceland. Limbered up, we climbed aboard and set off for one of the most unforgettable days of skiing we'd ever experienced.
Our twin-propeller plane takes off into the air en route to Reykjavik. The mountains and valleys, where Icelandic ponies outnumber the trees, spread a fiery pink and orange glow below us. We coast south across the island's most uninhabitable land and back to the capital for one final evening of indulging, this time one that is well deserved.