station living is the best, but it does sometimes jade you. After
weeks of skiing on the weekdays, early and late season, the Sunday
crowds can become a bummer. Fed up, we decided that Sundays would
become our official touring day, sort of a Joy-Luck Club on Skis.
Using the vast lift system that is Verbier, we would pop up high,
move away from the crowds, and explore the vast backcountry in
this part of the Swiss Alps. Verbier, in the French-speaking
part of Switzerland, is perched perfectly on a sunny plateau
halfway up the Val de Bagnes (pronounced Baan) and
is ground zero for the type of ski adventures that we all dream
of, and in the end, deserve.. Thirty minutes by car to Italy,
and 45 minutes to France. With nearly 100 lifts that connect
numerous villagescollectively known as les 4 VallÈesaccessible
on one pass, Verbier is the perfect starting point for exploring
Getting off of work at 8am on a splendid morning
in January, I hurriedly got changed from suit and tie to ski
clothes and walked the five minutes to the Medran telecabine
for our Sunday rendezvous. Bernie, Ace, Falkiner and I got the
early jump on the crowds and three rides later; we were on the
Mont Fort deck at 3330 meters (10,922 ft). I never tire of this
viewpointit is one of the most breathtaking in the Alpsand
take pleasure in it every time I come here. Classic mountains
such as the Weisshorn, Dent Blanche, Cervin (Matterhorn), Dent
dHerens, Pigne dArolla, Grand Combin, Grand Jorasses,
Mont Dolent, Mont Blanc and Dent du Midi are all within ones
circle of vision.
The backside of the Mont Fort
visit to Verbier was in 87 and back in those days only a handful
of skiers were venturing off of the back, most notably John and
Ace. They pioneered various lines back then, mostly on free-heel
gear. A few years back, Bernie and I were showing a film crew
from Jackson around. One of the skiers had grown up and skied
all of his life in Alaska. This guy John was around to see the
whole Chugach-by-air thing develop and competed in the early
events. We were poking our heads over the edge of a couloir and
he turned to me and said, Damn Bob, this is Alaska terrainlift
served Alaska terrain! I told him, yeah, but with
bigger vertical and a croute au fromage and cold Cardinal waiting
at the end.
Verbier, along with Chamonix (an hours drive
away), offer perhaps the steepest, most varied lift-accessed
steep skiing in the world. Nowadays, with the help of shorter
and wider shaped skis, many people ski the normal route off of
We waited for everyone to start down the front side before we
dipped into the soft snow blanketing the back. A traverse off
left led us to the main bowl which opened up to concave delights
only a glisse rider can know. I was psyched on this early descent
in 92, to be with two guys who knew this area so intimately.
I couldnt believe what we were skiing downthe combination
of gravity fed steeps along with error forgiving powder certainly
made for the perfect blend. Twenty minutes later we came to a
stop on the Grand Desert (say with French accent), a huge glacier
that is another link in the famous Haute Route chain. Sunscreen
slathered, skins slapped on and poles lengthened, we started
up the Grand Desert, no one else around.
While everyone was queuing up at the lifts,
we quietly moved up the immense glacier, acres and acres of light
and dry all around us. After a few hours we skinned up to near
the summit of the Rosablanche. A short scramble later, we were
munching Ragusa (the best chocolate known to man
) and eying
various peaks, cabanes, and future descents with Aces Leica
The descent from 3336 meters to the village of
Siviez at 1730 meters (10,940 ft to 5674ft) took nearly two hours.
We followed John in tight fighter formation as he led between
barely perceptible dips that we knew were hidden crevasses. Farther
down the run we experienced snow crystals that had grown to the
size of small leaves, something that I had only seen in books.
Finally we stopped on a flat run out, turned and looked back
at our four tracks cut through the knee- deep diamond dust.
Top: Steve Hadik Bottom: Bob Mazarei. Photos: Mark Shapiro
Then we looked at each other, and no one said
anything. We could see it in each others eyes, and nothing
needed to be said.
I had heard of this really cool village up
the valley from friends and I wanted to visit but it was January
and snowed in until spring. Towards the end of the month we skied
Bernie, Ace, John and I had a new member with us. Abson was an
ex-Canadian freestyle member with a strong inclination towards
hilarious good-old-days stories sprinkled with tales of sexual
prowess. He was on a three-year snowboard kick at the time but
got talked into skis for this adventure.
On top of Mont Fort early, Ace and John decided
upon our route down to start the tour. Foolishly, I was expecting
straight off of the back, which had soft snow when we had skied
it last. I had brought along a pair of Tele Sauvage that were
perfect for the fluff but had edges as dull as an Economics class
at 8am. They decided on the SW face. We traversed high and sidestepped
up a bit only to look down this very steep and exposed face.
Bob Mazarei. Photo: Mark Shapiro
The pitch was magnified by the cliff band
that ominously traversed the face 40 meters (130ft) down. Steep
and soft is the ultimate situation where one can flow and gothe
steep and firm I was looking down had me shuddering in my boots,
heart trip-skipping in my chest.
It can be very dangerous sometimes to
do a complete jump turn from one stance across the fall line
to another that is across, one can easily trip on landing, leading
to a headfirst plunge. I took his advice about the jump J
turn and got past the cliffband. We proceeded down one at a time
so as not to get caught unawares.
Photo: Nigel Lumsden..
Anyway, the boys got into it, very gingerly sideslipping
into cautious parallel jump turns. This
was not a situation for telemarks as it was so steep and firm
that the parallel was the only solid turn to go for. I thought
to myself ok, control the breathing. No problem, I can do this
just sideslip down a bit then go for some turns. As soon as I
got in I realized that I couldnt control my sideslip with
the dullards that I had on. Terrifying stuff, considering the
man-eating cliffband. Ace saw my situation and as I sketch-slipped
up to him (thankfully it was a bit less steep here) he said,
Bob, plant your pole back by your heel, jump the parallel
but land the skis straight down the fall-line, then turn into
a controlled skid.
My heartbeat started slowing down sometime
after we started putting skins on. It started racing again after
looking back up at what we had descended. We were now on the
edge of the Grand Desert with views up and across the Val de
Bagnes that are as awesome as anywhere on Earth. We each fell
into our own rhythm-of-the-skin; attitudes well adjusted, rolling
up and down the terrain. The map was brought out for the benefit
of the novice in the group (me) while John pointed out passes
and peaks. We soaked in the surroundings, and like a hundred
more times in the ensuing years, I was awestruck at the beauty
and grandeur of it all.
After some time we reached the col that marked
the beginning of our descent. I sat and checked the route slack-jawed
as it disappeared out of sight. The run was basically an immense
gully that descends for nearly 2000 vertical meters (6500 v.ft)
all the way to the chalet roofs of Fionnay. As it turned out,
the gully was not basic at all, but a crazy, wonderful concoction
of varied snow conditions that had me reaching into the bag of
techniques the whole way.
First turns were by Bernie, who has one of
the most powerful telemark styles I have ever seen. He is hyper-vite,
as the Swiss say, and cat-like in his execution. Like a tai-chi
Snow Leopard, his athleticism comes fromand is honed byhis
years of playing professional soccer. His overwhelming desire
to just shred any condition is infectiouswe all ski better
because of him. Falkiner is one of the most stable, smooth and
complete skiers around. Economy of motion and experiencein
all the forms of mountain sport (as well as mountain culture)are
his trademarks. It is a bit of a cliche, but if anyone can be
called a guru, it is John.
He is my guru, anyway.
Abson in those days, was always jiveing us
about skiingsnowboarding is the best, he would proclaim.
He has since come full circle again dividing his time between
boarding, and the joys that the new generation of skis afford
(it is truly a great time to be a skier). We even see him on
tele gear from time to time.
And then there is Ace. Ever since I had first
skied with Ace I realized that he never believed the dogmaas
some dothat you must always try to use the telemark turn.
This type of thinking is especially prevalent in Europethat
making parallel turns are somehow cheating. I think this stems
fromat least in Europea racer mentality that a lot
of Swiss-German speaking skiers have. Ace believed the opposite.
He would try and ski the most difficult conditionsconditions
that heavily favored the telemarkalpine style. And he ripped
tele, no worries. I remember skiing with him in Telluridethe
Home of the Bumpin the late 80s. He would
just schralp the steep moguls alpine style. I could only shake
my head. Yo Ace, do some teles for me, I would
ask. Yeah, ok, as he flashed by, his upper body looking
exactly the same as when he were doing the alpine turns. This
kind of thinking had a large effect on all of us, and we would
find ourselves going parallel through the hardest carton
(pronounced French-stylemeans breakable crust) and the
heaviest powder. He constantly challenged us with his light,
and seemingly effortless skiing. When Ace turned it on, there
was nothing more pleasing to the eye.
I moved to Verbier for precisely this type
Bernie got old powder for his first forty turns, blowing through
it like he was late for his date with Miss February. We were
hooting like school kids playing socco in the yard. One at a
time, we worked that old pow, egging each other on. Then traversing
left of the gully; we each picked a different line. Firm carvable
snow in between the rock garden led to a fine, lightly breakable
"souffle" down below. Pitch variations and a thousand
different fall lines brought out creativity in our descent. There
were steep couloirs all around us, years worth of possibilities.
I wondered how often this stuff gets skied anyway. I have since
learned that people around here ski in some of the most unlikely
After descending for almost two hours, we
glimpsed Fionnay. Coming around a corner, we almost skied over
the dead carcass of a Bouquetin, an Ibex that is indigenous to
the Alps. From what we gathered, the poor beast fell from rocks
way the hell up above the gully. Bouquetins are among some of
the most surefooted of animals, but even they can get killed
sometimes, a reminder to the vulnerability of living beings in
the mountains. Towards the end of the descent we were forced
to the left of the gully, sideslipping next to big chunks of
avalanche debris where the gully got steeper and skinnier. A
talus cone traverse and minor bushwhack and just like that, we
were in Fionnay.
It was a white morning in this part of the
Pennine Alps in Western Switzerland. We wanted to go for a ski
so we decided upon a familiar plan, a plan borne of numerous
days of skiing in the Alps. This plan would involve trees. Ahh,
the trees. They are our best friends on these jours blancs. On
normal sunny days, not much attention is paid to the life giving
forest. Sure, we go by them skiing moguls or powder, looking
at the spaces between the trees. And we go by not truly appreciating
the forest until the weather turns. Not only do the humble trees
anchored firmly to our earth give us the gift of oxygen, they
give us skiers the gift of three-dimensional vision on the jours
blancsthe white days. They give us the ability to let loose
and go fast.
Friends from Colorado were visiting, everyday
tasting a bit more of what our mountains have to offer. They
live in the ski towns of Ski Country, USA, but return
year after year, like addicts that cant quite drop. It
has to do with the expansive, easily accessed terrain. Not having
to fight to get to the fresh snow first.Being able to ski anywhere
you like, be it tree skiing or glacier skiing.
Photo: Nigel Lumsden
Or anything in between. It is about, most of all, the freedom.
This freedom also relates to the equipment
we are using...telemark gear that is perfectly suited for anything
from excursions off of the ski lifts to heli-skiing, to first
descents off of Himalayan peaks. to powder and mogul skiing.
From terrain parks and halfpipes to simply skinning up with friends
to your favorite high mountain cabane to take photographs, drink
some wine, and have a croute au fromage.
We rode the telecabine down to the valley
floor heading for Bruson on the other side. Although I hadnt
really thought about the trees in a while, peering through the
blurry window at the forest beyond, I did now. I looked up at
Tom and he gave me a crack of a knowing smile. We both knew those
trees pretty well. Surprisingly, halfway up the lift, the clouds
started to break. There was untouched powder everywhere, a still
life canvas undisturbed by any skiers. We soon discovered why...there
were only 15 other skiers at Bruson.
Fifteen centimeters of powder covering the
smooth piste went first. We ripped fast round turns, sometimes
parallel and sometimes in a telemark, as easy and precise as
sharp scissors through fine silk. The powder piste gave way easily
to our tele gear. Fresh snow next to the piste fell next. This
was all very casual, mind you, as the fifteen other skiers would
have attested to. With a light heart, we skied knee-deep powder
all day without once crossing a track. I have always thought
that the tree skiing in this region is the best that I have ever
seen. This day didnt prove any different. As we skied yet
another exquisite lap through the steep, perfectly spaced trees,
I had to stop for a moment because I was cracking up. After calming
a bit, Tom asked me what was so funny. I said, oh, I was
just thinking back to the intro section in that American ski
magazine that proclaimed there was no tree skiing in Europe!
North Face Mont Fort
Being on the Mont Fort is truly breathtaking.
Besides the view, which one must see, and most photographs dont
do justice to, one is awestruck and just a little frightened
by the exposure of it all. The front side develops large bumps
and is steep. The backside you already know about, and then there
is the North Face. Ill never forget the first time I went
It was one of those spur of the moment runs that happen when
wondering what to ski next. Bernie, Canadian Doug, and I got
to the Mont Fort when we encountered Norbert. Now, Norbert is
a true local, meaning he is a Bagnard (pronounced banyard). Young
Bagnards are savages in there own special way, and I mean this
in a good sense. They grow up hunting mushrooms and wild boar,
are sturdy as the forest trees in the Val, and say, Ca
va ou Quoi a lot. Williamine, Fendant, and Bon Pere are
the drinks of choice, meat and fondues, the nourishment. And
they grow up skiing the big mountainswell.
Norbert was one of our best alpine bump skiersand
then he tried telemark. Most of the time nowadays, we see him
in knickers, long wool socks, and wool mittens, even on the coldest
days, slicing and dicing telemarks. Half the time I see him skiing
without any gloves on.
It was decided without my inputI had
never been up there beforeto ski the North Face. This descent
requires you to grab a rope with your right hand with skis over
your left shoulder while you work your way up this slick snow
arete. Then the rope is gone, and you have to make your way along
the snow spine that is a meter and a half wide but feels less
than half that width because of the exposure on either side.
Norbert was up and fairly running along the spine in his olive
knickers. Half way along the topI was feeling pretty anxious
at this pointwe came upon this big sloping rock cutting
the snow in two. Norbert takes half a step back and launches
over it like he was hopping out of a pick-up truck. I got on
all fours and made like a lizard to get past the obstacle. Bernie
was cracking up and told me he was the same way the first time.
Put skis on? Where, here? A 15 meter, way exposed sidestep was
the next heart-stopper. Gripped, I called out to Bernie asking
him to talk to me. He did as I slowly made my way down. Talking
to him as I went calmed me. The sidestep over, he related to
me the time he came in here with Powers, got all the way to the
face, only to find it iced up. And once you are in, you cant
really back out of it either. They had to ski it.
A hanging 90-meter traverse over the precipice got us to the
start of the descent. Looking down, I felt a slight twinge remembering
the icy face story. But happily there was powder. The fluff was
about 20cm (12 inches) deep and the untouched blanket was sprinkled
with ice chunks that stuck out of the surface like so many frozen
tiki-heads. Oh yeah, and then there was the cliffband.
Norbert jumped in tele-ing from the outset,
the soft snow permitting more outrageousness than slopes this
steep would normally allow. Bernie, Doug, and I followed his
lead, doing reachy pole plants right down the fall line. We skied
down as close as we dared to the cliffband then hooked left accessing
the lower part of the face. The second half was especially sweet,
knowing it was steep and soft with a safe run out in case you
did blow it. We did teles where we dropped a meter and
a half with each turn. Complete hero turns! Man, what an experience
that was. Pumped after our descent, we stopped to check it out.
Norbert then looked at me, and with a smile and a wink, pulled
out a bottle of Fendant from his pack
We then had the 1400 vertical meter (4600 v.ft) descent all the
way to Siviez.
Plateau du Trient
Big Tim was over on his annual pilgrimage,
and he had brought Salt Lake Brian and Dan-O with him, too. This
time of year is always a rocking time for meBTs arrival.
Hell, everyone in town looks forward to seeing the 100
Kilos (220 lbs) Of Telemark Fury. We always let the Big
Guy get first tracks when he is in town, as he is an awesome
gauge of how the snow conditions are.
If he is busting through the Weyerhauser
(le carton), it means we will probably stay on top. If he is
gouging the firm, it means we have to pressure extra hard. Light
powder or heavy powder; crud, glop, or candy shop, it doesnt
matter because BT powers through like a Peterbilt that has lost
it's brakes down Interstate 5's Grapevine Hill. Thats Power
with a Big P son. Hell of a football player in high
We had been skiing the classics all week, having superb weather
and lots of fresh snow. Well, in Verbier, finding soft snow to
ski is rarely a problem. A 15-minute hike here, ten-minute walk
there, and you can be skiing hundreds of vertical meters of powder,
sometimes weeks after a storm. It is so casual at times, that
stopping for a long lunch or a quick drink never makes you feel
like you are missing it. It was such a good week,
however, that we could only think of one other thing that would
make it bettera little heli-ski action. One phone call
to Hans and it was set.
I rushed out of work lickety-split the next
morning and by chance got on the same bus as the rest of the
boys. We met up with Hans and Big Tom from Telluride at the Savoleyres
lift station. Big Tom and Big Timthe Twin Towers of Trouble.
Big Tom (perhaps the best 67 mogul skier in the world)
along with his wife little Marie, live in Telluride, but ski
there maybe two days a season. Little Marie was born in Verbier
(a Bagnard). They spend two months of every year skiing their
brains out here. Why? Because they prefer it that way.
We all rode the lift up to Savoleyres and skied down to the airport.
This staging area is 100 meters from the piste and very convenient.
Airplanes land here, too.
In ten minutes the Lama swooped in, plucked Dan-O,
BT and Hans up, and deposited them on the Plateau du Trient 15
minutes later. The Plateau is one of four spots that helicopters
are allowed to land in the Val de Bagnes. The Lama then picked
Big Tom, Salt Lake Brian and I up. As we were flying over the
beautiful peak of the Catogne, the pilot let go of the joystick
and let the Lama fly by itself while he casually snapped pictures
with his Nikon. I couldnt believe it! I was like, dude,
conduisez lhelico sil vous plait!
The Trient is impressive to say the least. The giant glacial
plateau is surrounded by steep skiable faces on the French border
sidegems to be skied when conditions permitinterspersed
by wonderful spires of golden granite. And then there are the
couloirs and glaciers below the Plateau.
Handing me a radio, Hans led off down the Fenetre du Saleina,
the snow knee-deep but contrailing in swirls Space Shuttle-stylebehind
him to the point where we could only see his head.
Swooping big-mountain Alaska turns; he turned
the corner and disappeared.We realized then why Hanswho
was the first American to make the UIAGM grade in Switzerlandgets
hired for a month a year to guide the Chugach. The radio crackled,
yo, you guys ready? The snow is sweet! Come down one at
a time. Spooning Hans tracks, we worked turns at
a serious clip. And so it went, on and on, blower knee deep,
week old powder as light as anything you will find in the Rockies.
By the time we got past the lower-angled crevasses,
the snow covered car-sized granite blocks, and finally onto the
jeep roads, we had skied well over 2000 vertical meters (6500
v.ft). We reached the road going to Italy and were high-five-ing
in a farmers field, when I said, we have got to go back
for more! There wasnt any hesitation and no let up
with the high-fives, as Hans pulled out his phone and made a
Twenty minutes later the Jet Ranger touched down in the farmers
field. We loaded up the clean-machine, Hans in front, the five
us in back. Phillipe, who bears a striking resemblance to George
Clooney, took his time getting back up to the Plateau, giving
us the sweet aerial tour. Back up, we donned skins and moseyed
across the Plateau towards the Cabane Trient. A half hour later
we were skin-zagging up the face behind the Cabane, the light
just starting to turn golden. Regrouping at the top, we then
focused our attention to the task at hand
skiing the huge
Working south along the top of the Arpette,
we skied a small face heading towards our entrance as I worked
the tailgunner position. Hans hooked right through a not too
obvious col, slipped slick as could be through it, rolled his
knees left then right and came to a stop in a protected niche
next to a massive granite monolith. Done this a few times,
eh Hans? I joked. We got into position next to Hans on
the wave of snow extending up from the niche, and got a good
look at our couloir. I think we were all a little in awe of what
was in front of usthe couloir was steep as hell, and for
lack of a better word, was humongous.
Hans led off, hands tight as he laid over
turn after turn, his inside edges up above his knees at every
apex. The powder was just a bit heavier than earlier in the day,
but certainly deeper. Back and forth, 100 turns, 150 turns, before
he came to a stop, just a speck of red. The radio crackled, ok,
you know the drill, one at a time. He wasnt even
out of breath.
Dan-O went next, working his big Iggys
as he sent rooster-tails into the blue sky, no doubt helped by
his Skeg-edge. Tom, and I went next. I always joke with Tom saying,
oh man, that was the best run of the year! I say
this all the time. So when I said it now, he looked at me like
I was the boy who cried wolf. Salt Lake Brian then surprised
us by skiing the whole couloir parallel on his Mitos, an
awesome display to his Wasatch-honed prowess.
But in the end, it was Big Tims show.
He dropped in and we could all see that he was disappearing on
every turn. The snow was just exploding skyward and we knew there
was no stopping this train. Gigantor the Giant Robot was somewhere,
raising his metal arms to the sky, praising the Power and the
Glory that is BT.
We pretended we were snowboarders the rest of
the 1200 vertical meters (4000v.ft) to the Champex-Lac ski station,
working rolls and depressions, staying tight then splitting off,
finessing it. Snaking through the lower trees, we finally hit
Champexs piste where we proceeded straight to the restaurant
where the first round of beer was on me
Getting to Verbier is easy. Catch a flight
to Geneva, Switzerland. My guess is that with the recent global
situation, one can score great airfares with little effort. Zurich,
Switzerland is another option, but it requires a bit more train
time. Once you are at the airport, collect your luggage (you
can change money here also), go through the Green Zone (nothing
to declare) and hang a quick left, staying in the terminal. Keep
going straight until you reach the large revolving door. Go through
the door. Just ahead on the right-hand side is where you buy
your train ticket.
Ask for a 2nd class ticket to Verbier (credit
cards accepted), either one-way or roundtrip (roundtrip is cheaper
and is good for one month). When you have your ticket, ask when
the (this is important) next Direct train to Martigny (pronounced
Mar-tee-nee) is. (If you do not get on the direct train, you
will have to change trains in Lausanne.) Look up and you will
see the information board that will tell you times and which
track (Voie) to go to.
The trains, conveniently, are downstairs.
Look up at the signs and find the correct Voie. The
baggage carts work on the escalators, just roll onto one and
take the ride down. Find a car that says 2 (2nd class)
on the outside as well as the universal no smoking
symbol. Hop on, get comfortable and order a beer when the girl
comes around with the cart.
It is a two-hour ride to Martigny where you
get off. Look up and you will see a cute little train that has
St. Bernards and telemarking monks wearing robes painted on its
side. Get on the one that says Le Chable. Thirty
minutes later, you will be in Chable. Then get on the bus that
says Verbier. The bus will drop you off at the post
office at the Place Centrale. You will see the tourist office
straight across the Place.
The best deal going for the budget-minded
is specifically tailored to telemarkers. The Bunker in association
with Tua skis is offering Telemark Freeride Weeks,
this season which include accommodation in 4 to 8 person dorm-style
rooms; breakfast and three-course dinner; free entrance to the
swimming pool, Jacuzzi and ice rink; and best of all, demo Tua
skis, Garmont boots, and pole rentals included for the week.
No need to bring gear, if that is your inclination.
Better still is the same package plus two
days of being guided to all of the best spots with UIAGM telemarking
mountain guide, Stephen Hadik.
Low season prices are:
499 Swiss Francs per person, per week.
699 Swiss Francs with two days guiding.
One dollar=1.65 Swiss Francs at the time of
Lift tickets for les 4 vallees is SFr 56 per day, a bargain.
For more info:
email@example.com (That's me,