Ski Resorts of Valais
The Valais region in Switzerland has more high mountains than any other region in the Alps and is home to some of Europe’s best ski resorts including Zermatt, Verbier, Crans-Montana and Saas-Fee.
If Switzerland, one of the most important “cradles” of skiing, epitomises the once eccentric holiday tradition of wintering in the mountains, the Swiss canton of Valais in South-western Switzerland, and largely French-speaking, provides the crème de la crème of Switzerland’s mountain peaks. Separated from the Bernese Oberland and Jungfrau region by the Rhone valley, its Pennine range has almost 50 peaks over 4,000m (29 of them in the Zermatt area) and the range rarely drops below 3,000m.
Crans-Montana exemplifies and embodies the unspoken luxury of traditional “Swissness”. Leukerbad is the most famous spa resort in Switzerland’s – but that shouldn’t obscure its qualities as a ski resort. Saas-Fee, overlooked by the Dom, the highest peak entirely within Switzerland, achieves the seemingly impossible by superimposing and maintaining an impressive ski area on one of the most awe-inspiring glaciers in Europe. Verbier is renowned world-wide for exhilerating skiing off-piste and for partying. And the Matterhorn in Zermatt is an iconic symbol around the world. The Val d’Anniviers region is one of Switzerland’s least well-known ski areas and something of a cult location; its five resorts – Grimentz, Zinal, St Luc, Chandolin and Vercorin – are regarded by the cognoscenti as hidden gems.
Anzère, although purpose built in 1965, is an attractive chalet-style village (1,500m) 100 miles from Geneva, with a traffic-free main square, not far from Crans-Montana, with outstanding views across the Rhône valley. The ski slopes, approximately 50km served by 11 lifts, are pleasant but limited, and there’s little to interest advanced skiers or boarders, although there are a few black runs including a 5km descent run from Pas de Maimbre (2,362m) back to the village.
Champéry (1,050m) is one of the main ski resorts that make up the Portes du Soleil, the huge system of resorts spread out across the Swiss and French borders near the far end of Lake Geneva (Lac Léman). The attractive village, just 80 miles from Geneva, sits beneath two of the most dramatic mountain vistas in the Swiss Alps – the glorious Dents du Midi and the Dents Blanches. The big 125-person Planachaux cable car provides the main route to the slopes at 1965m. These are wide open and often sunny, and link with some 12 other resorts which dot 14 valleys between Lake Geneva and Mont Blanc, with a grand total of 650km of runs.
Crans-Montana, twin-resorts with a joint ski area overlooking Sierre and the Rhone Valley not far from the Valais capital, Sion, are less fashionable than they once were, but still ooze tradition, charm and good taste. Crans-Montana claims extra-sunny slopes and “the purest air in Switzerland”. It has excellent long cruising runs, reached by gondolas serving some 100 miles of pistes from each village. Crowned by the Plaine Morte Glacier at 3,000m, the area has 1500-metres vertical drop, much of it above the treeline, particularly above the three focal points of Bella Lui, Les Violettes and Petit Bonvin, which dot the mountain at around the 2,300m mark. From Plaine Morte, a single red piste with off-piste variants, makes for a challenging descent down a steep-sided valley to link up with Les Violettes. There are other good off-piste areas lower down in gladed areas beneath Chetzeron and La Tza. More information – Crans-Montana Resort Guide >>>
Leukerbad, a spa resort renowned for its fresh air, along with its skiing and ‘wellness’ holidays, nestles at the foot of the Balmhorn (3,699m) and Torrenthorn (2,997m), and dates back to Roman times. The Gemmi Pass, which links the resort with Kandersteg, is an ancient travel route between the Bernese Oberland and the Valais. Many outdoor enthusiasts combine the pleasure of the thermal waters with skiing: steam rises from the pools, and snow crystals sparkle in the late-afternoon sun. A special ‘mountain and spa’ pass gives you the best of both worlds. Leukerbad has a total of 22 thermal pools (some private) making it Switzerland’s largest and most important spa centre. The process starts high in the Torrent massif, where snowmelt sinks 2,500 metres before emerging as thermal water in Leukerbad. Every day around four million litres of hot thermal water flows into the public baths, helping skiers and snowboarders relax after a day on the slopes. The largest spring gushes out at the town square (St. Lorenzquelle). More information – Leukerbad Resort Guide >>>
Nendaz is a comparatively little-known and somewhat under-rated resort. For a start, Verbier’s celebrated Mont-Fort – the highest slopes in the area, at 3,330m – turn out to belong to Nendaz, although it allows Verbier to include it in its portfolio. And if you really want to impress yourself with the skiing and boarding in Nendaz, just try returning to your Nendaz base from a day out on the slopes of Verbier. There’s some pretty tough mogul skiing between Plan-du-Fou and the Nendaz base area, some of it unavoidable unless you take the cable car down to Prarion. But of course there is no need to cross into Verbier territory. There’s a feast of good red-run skiing in Nendaz’s home slopes, and indeed the Tracouet gondola from the main base area accesses a nice selection of runs both above and below the treeline. Siviez (Super Nendaz) provides a link between Verbier and some other resorts in the 4-valleysincluding Veysonnaz and Thyon 2000. More information – Nendaz Resort Guide >>>
Saas-Fee, it’s said, is like Zermatt used to be: with its rustic old chalets it still has a quaint rural ambience, which has almost vanished from its more famous neighbour just across the Pennine range. The so-called “Pearl of the Alps” area may not be the most exciting skiing in Switzerland (though you can ski on the glacier there during the summer months too), but the way some of it has been superimposed on a vast sea of cascading ice criss-crossed with crevasses is quite breathtaking. One enterprising way of negotiating this kind of terrain was solved many years back with the introduction of the highest underground funicular in the world, the ‘Metro Alpin’, which takes you from Felskinn (3,000m) to the Mittelallalin. The views from the revolving restaurant at the top (3,450m) are simply outstanding. The pride of Saas-Fee’s peaks is the Dom, at 4,545m the third highest mountain in Europe and the highest peak entirely in Switzerland. More information – Saas-Fee Resort Guide >>>
Val d’Anniviers, above the Rhône Valley, not far from the Italian border, is dotted with a handful of resorts that are quiet and picturesque backwaters with enviable snow records and backcountry terrain. The area was once so isolated in winter that its inhabitants virtually subsisted on cheese and wine. The region has five ski areas all covered by one lift pass. The Val d’Anniviers ski lift system covers 210 kilometres of skiing, and the area has an excellent snow record. The scenery is majestic; it’s frequently bathed in bright sunshine and is a favourite with ski tourers. Compared to bigger and better knnown resorts in the Valais, the five resorts of Grimentz, Zinal, St Luc, Chandolin and Vercorin have limited accommodation, so the larger tour operators don’t operate here. It’s uncrowded, open pistes make it ideal for beginners, while its off-piste terrain is ideal for adventurous experts. More information – Val d’Anniviers Guide >>>
Verbier is something of a parvenu, having only really been a ski area since just after World War II. It has since achieved a reputation as one of the great resorts of the world, attracting hard-core skiers from all over the world. Having acquired near-cult status, the glitterati began to come to the Val de Bagnes regularly, prompting a flurry of new hotels and luxury chalets. Although Verbier’s network of pistes is bolted on to a larger, four-valley system, its own slopes provide the most challenging skiing. Intermediates thrive here as well as advanced skiers and boarders, particularly on the network of lifts around Attelas, Ruinettes and Lac de Vaux. Bump skiers are tested on such arduous descents as Gentianes down to to Tortin, or from the top of the Mont-Fort glacier which, at 3,330m is the highest point, providing truly spectacular views across countless peaks, including the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc. The off-piste permutations are what really put Verbier into the highest echelons of ski resorts. Vallon d’Arby is a classic run, and Attelas is the starting point to reach the legendary Mont Gelé (its front face is extreme, but it has easier skiing on its backside). Stairway To Heaven – reached from the top of the Jumbo cable car at the Col des Gentianes – leads to some powder-fields which even intermediate off-piste skiers should be able to manage quite easily. The back of Mont-Fort is a much more serious proposition, with couloirs of varying difficulty. More information – Verbier Resort Guide >>>
Zermatt is the most famous mountain town in Switzerland – largely because of the astonishing Matterhorn – probably the most recognisable and sought-after mountain shape in the world. At a “mere” (4,478m), it’s by no means the tallest mountain in Switzerland, but its epic and tragic conquest by the British alpinist Edward Whymper in 1865 brought extra notoriety, and almost every mountain region in the world claims to have its own version. Zermatt’s three main ski areas are Sunnega, on the “sunny side” of the valley, and the gateway to skiing at Unterrothorn (3,103m), Stockhorn (3,405m) and most famously, Gornergrat (3,100m) which provides one of the greatest panoramic views anywhere, including Monte Rosa, at 4,634m second in the Alps only to Mont Blanc in altitude and the Klein Matterhorn, reached by Europe’s highest cable car. Furi, at the far end of the village, is the gateway to the Trockener Steg link to Klein Matterhorn and Theodulpass, close to the Italian border, and Schwarzsee, near the foot of the Matterhorn. Some of Zermatt’s most challenging bump runs are encountered below Schwarzsee, on the way back to Zermatt via Furri. But intermediates can take the Weisse Perle, a nice roller-coaster red as an alternative route. This gives skiers and boarders a wonderful opportunity visit some of the mountain restaurants for which Zermatt is so justly famous. More information – Zermatt Resort Guide >>>
Getting to Valais
Many of the ski resorts in are accessible from Rhone Valley towns of Martigny (Verbier) , Sion, Sierre (Crans Montana) Leukerbad, Visp and Brig (Zermatt and Saas Fee) which are all linked by rail from Geneva. A new snow train leaves Geneva every Saturday at 13.40, stopping at all these stations. You can take the car to all the resorts except Zermatt, where you must leave your vehicle at Täsch, 6 km from the resort, and continue your journey by train or cab.