When is off-piste not off-piste?
When it’s an itinerary. Ski Verbier Exclusive founder Tom Avery reveals his favourite Verbier descents ….
For many years, Verbier has had the reputation for the best lift-accessible off-piste skiing in Europe. Most of that is unmarked, uncontrolled backcountry mountain terrain, but the resort also has a number of runs called itineraries, marked in yellow on the piste map. They are officially described as “marked but not maintained or controlled routes intended for experienced skiers and snowboarders only”. Effectively they’re a grade above a black run, but they serve as a great introduction to off-piste or backcountry skiing.
They’re dramatic places to ski. You’re surrounded by big mountain terrain – hidden valleys, glaciers, high peaks (such as the Matterhorn to the east of the ski area, Mont Blanc to the west). And they’re remote. There’s not a requirement to wear full avalanche safety equipment, but I always do, as a matter of course. The routes have been chosen to go through less exposed terrain, but avalanches can (and do) happen if the conditions are risky. And, although there are poles as a rough guide to the itinerary, there aren’t two sets marking the boundaries and they’re less frequent. I’d advise going with a guide to get the most enjoyment out of an itinerary run, but it doesn’t have to be a specialist high-mountain guide – an experienced ski teacher can take you and help you progress as a skier.
There are a number of itineraries which finish at Tortin, a flat little area at around 2,000m with a cafe, but this is the classic route people mean when they say, ‘Let’s do Tortin’. From Verbier, it starts at the top of the Lac des Vaux two-chair. It starts with 200m of piste, so it lulls you into a false sense of security, then suddenly you find yourself at the top of a wall. It’s incredibly wide and covered in giant moguls. The trick is not to leap like a lemming off the first pitch (which is the steepest part, with bumps as big as Southern Ocean waves!) but to continue traversing to the right to find a better line. It’s north-facing so it keeps its snow in great condition, but it can be tricky if it hasn’t snowed for a couple of weeks. At the end, there’s a lovely exit through larch trees down to the cafe.
This is a real contrast to the Tortin. You peel off from the bottom of Lac des Vaux and negotiate a trench they carve out of the snow – it’s quite something: 3m wide, with 2m high walls of snow and rocks on either side. You emerge into a beautiful tree-lined valley. You don’t see any lifts and barely any sign of human civilisation and yet, two minutes ago, you were on a crowded blue run. Once you know the run well, apart from the yellow-post route there’s a great variation if you head skier’s left, where it’s more open, with old-growth forests – I’ve seen a herd of chamois on this route. Towards the end, you pass a few pretty cabins before arriving in the village of La Tzoumaz.
Generally known as Gentianes, this is one of the longest runs in Verbier – particularly if you start at the top of Mont Fort (at 3,330m, the highest point in the ski area) instead of the official start off the red Gentianes run. Don’t be fooled by the gentle opening piste – It’s an unrelenting mogul field, with no respite – the lactic acid certainly builds up. But it’s an iconic run and your legs will be like steel after a few laps of it. It really is a great run for building up enough fitness so you can tackle anything afterwards. But my recommendation is to take a few stops under the guise of taking photos of the epic views!
Until last season (2017-18), the cable car up to Mont Gelé (see above) was the oldest lift in the resort. But a faster, larger replacement was installed, with two cars, so the queues are significantly reduced now. When you get out at the top you’re perched on a peak with no obvious way down. But once you’ve picked your way round the corner, it opens up. But don’t rush off – let the majority of people go, and soak in the dramatic views of the Grand Combin in front of you, and the Mont Blanc massif beyond that. You can peel off right to go down the south face to La Chaux and that’s good in the morning. But the longer, more rewarding route is another way down to Tortin. It’s a really mellow pitch for most of the way and is a bit of a hidden gem of a run – it feels like proper backcountry. Just keep some speed up at the end – the run-out is a bit flat.
This is the most remote of the itineraries and is at the furthest end of the Four Valleys from Verbier. You reach it from the Greppon Blanc drag lift, followed by a five- or 10-minute hike up in your boots, carrying your skis. Believe me, it’s worth the effort – it is absolutely stunning from peak to valley floor, and that little hike weeds out a lot of people, so there are rarely bumps and it doesn’t get entirely tracked out. You’re looking towards German-speaking Switzerland, the Matterhorn and the Grande Dixence dam. It’s a big, open, rolling valley with a 1,200m vertical descent, so it could take you an hour. You end up on a road and can either wait for a bus back to the lifts at Les Masses or, if you’ve booked lunch at the excellent Le Bois Sauvage, they’ll come and pick you up. This is the perfect run to lead into true off-piste skiing – you’ll be ready for the backcountry after this.