OVER THE HORIZON: In Europe there’s always something different just one hill away
Story by Ryan Stuart
THIRTEEN DEGREES AND SUNNY IS NOT the forecast you hope for when heading to the Alps in early March. But in the age of climate change, the only way to stay sane as a skier is to adapt a happy warrior motto: there is no bad skiing, only bad attitudes.
So as the van careens around another hairpin turn on the final climb to Verbier, I choose to look past the grassy slopes, the flower baskets, the road cyclists in shorts and the paraglider flying by, and instead focus on the possibilities: The sun-warmed chutes high above the village that must be perfect corn right now. The freezer power of almost 2,000 metres of vertical above me. The perfect Swiss chalets lining the road promising cheese fondue and meticulous order. And most of all, the gondola racing towards a ridge high above and still carrying passengers. Like a mountaineer, I dream about the possibilities of what’s over the horizon, the one after that and beyond to the next resort. In the Alps, it often seems like there is a resort over every ridge. By some counts, there are more than 3,000 ski areas in Europe, ranging from mega resorts with 170 lifts to tiny local hills with a T-bar. There’s overwhelming variety even in the better-known destinations. During a week skiing at Verbier and Courmayeur, I realized that the differences go way beyond scenery and ski terrain, extending to the culture, the architecture, the whole experience. A different valley and an international border can change a lot in the Alps.
VERBIER: HIGH-SPEED HIJINKS
“Okay everyone, follow me. Stay close and let’s go.” Normally I’m pretty nonchalant with that kind of instruction – my sense of direction is pretty good and my independence even stronger – but at Verbier, I’m tailing my guide like my life depends on it. Even before we load our first lift, I almost lose the group in the on ramp to the gondola. The village of Verbier perches on the side of the mountain, nestled into a giant bowl. It’s part of the 4 Vallées, one of the largest ski areas on earth. What this means slowly emerges as we leave the village, climbing stairs, ramps, elevators, gondolas and more. Lift after lift, peak after peak, valley after valley, every time it feels like I’ve reached the boundary, another lift appears. I’d be lost on my own, struggling in my grade-school French, disoriented and jet lagged. Instead, I’m part of a group mindlessly following a local guide. We spend the morning skiing away from town, flying down firm groomers at speeds that leave my eyes watering and jacket flapping. The terrain is rolly and fun and fast, perfect for chasing friends and popping airs and, with the cloudless sky, Instagramming the view every time we stop. The lifts are mostly new and high speed. The runs are immaculately groomed. But there’s also a hint of tradition, a nod to skiing heritage: stone shepherd huts where summer meadows are good, timber frame chalets serving beer and food, a St. Bernard dog at the top of one of the lifts, and the old cable car that sways and bounces in a decidedly non–21st century way.
Eventually, we reach the edge of the resort at the 3,300-metre summit of Mont Fort. In the distance we can see the bulk of Mont Rosa, the slopes of Zermatt and three other resorts, and in the other direction the hulk of Mont Blanc. Somewhere along its flanks are Courmayeur and Chamonix. We turn away from both and arc down the Glacier de Tortin. The 1,500-metre run, mostly on moguls, leaves my travel-and-altitude-weary legs crushed. I’ve got just enough left in the tank to finish the day with a ski down a technical chute and then a slush push through a sun-baked bowl right into town and the après pub, Mont Forte. A pint settles into a few and then in a blur we’re hiking up a cat road in the dark towards La Marmotte, a traditional restaurant high above the twinkling lights of Verbier. I stumble into the fire-warmed restaurant with rosy cheeks, the warmth of the day quickly fading outside. Before long, the waiter is cutting raclette cheese off a huge wheel warming next to the fire. As is traditional in this part of Switzerland, there’s a bucket of potatoes and some pickles to eat with it. Just as the simple meal has me heading into a coma, it’s time to leave. I’m handed a luge to toboggan down the pitch-black road into town and somehow survive the high-speed return trip – it’s all in the positive attitude. The next day I ski tour to the summit of Rosablanche, a classic peak and glacier run, to find boot-top powder, despite the heat.
COURMAYEUR: PERFECT PIZZA – AND NEARLY PERFECT TURNS
We leave Verbier behind, driving over a pass into Italy and up a long valley to Courmayeur. As we prepare to load the lift up to the ski resort, it’s obvious we’re not in Switzerland anymore. Cars jam into the parking lot at the ski hill’s base. Stone buildings with raw slate roofs replace the neat timber frame lodges and chalets of Verbier. Mobs shuffle towards the gondola instead of standing in orderly lift lines. The skiing’s different too. It’s more North American in feel: more contained and simple. It’s a network of chairlifts and gondolas spreading out across both sides of a ridge, runs cut through forest of evergreens and larch. The view, though, is all Alps. The resort stares across at the south face of Monte Bianco (Mont Blanc), a towering rock wall dripping with ice and topped with glaciers. Even though the conditions are loud – edges scraping on the firm snow leaves a hum – the morning sun on Mont Blanc makes the turns some of the most memorable of the trip.
By the time the day starts to warm and the snow turns from rock-hard to perfect corn to slush, I’ve got Courmayeur figured out. I’m skiing solo with no fears about my ability to find the tiny rock building where I’ll rendezvous with friends for lunch. Of course, being Italy, the food is amazing. I chow down on simple but perfect pasta and oven-fired pizza. All the wine comes from vintners in nearby valleys. And at breakfast, the pastries are almost worthy of France – no surprise since we’re only a 15-kilometre tunnel away from Chamonix. Skiing to Chamonix is the next day’s mission. In addition to the main Courmayeur ski area, a spectacular two-stage tram climbs high onto the flank of Mont Blanc. The Skyway Monte Bianco is the most expensive cable car in the world, costing 110 million euros when it was rebuilt in 2015. It gains more than 2,000 metres on the way to Punta Helbronner, the station at the top. From here skiers can descend glaciers and snow back to Courmayeur or ski the Vallée Blanche into Chamonix and catch a bus back to Italy. I opt for the latter and spend the next four hours sliding 24 kilometres down the Mer de Glace, the largest glacier in France. The skiing is easy. The biggest obstacle is other skiers and the odd crevasse, which is harder than it sounds since I spend most of the run looking around at the walls of rock and ice banking the glacier.
As I wait for the shuttle bus back to Courmayeur, I realize it was a completely different skiing experience from anything else I’ve done on this trip, anything else I’ve done in Europe and anything else on earth. And from where I sit, I can see lifts spinning up three other ski resorts. More lie out of sight over the horizon and the one over that. As the bus pulls away, heading back to Italy, I start scheming and dreaming.