The Bec Des Rosses, Verbier, holds mythical status in the world of skiing: 3,223m of snow and rock, angled at over 60 degrees; it’s one of the toughest mountains on Earth and hosts the final, deciding race of the Freeride World Tour (FWT) every March.
“The FWT and easy access to off-piste skiing means that Verbier has a deserved reputation for big-mountain riding,” says Tom Waddington, resort manager of New Generation Ski School, “But that doesn’t mean it’s inaccessible to beginners. There’s plenty of terrain for new skiers, and the progressions here are as good as anywhere.”
Jon West, director of Altitude Ski School, agrees. “Learning to ski requires a steady increase in steepness of slopes, lots of mileage under your skis and, of course, good teaching to build skill and confidence. TéléVerbier [who operates the lifts and pistes] has worked hard to make the resort more accessible to beginners and it’s become a great place to learn.”
Tom and Jon reassured me, as I was about to take my girlfriend, Dre, for her very first lesson. Fortunately I’d been an instructor in Verbier for six winters, so I was hoping to avoid the cliché of the boyfriend shouting “bend your knees” to a shaking girl at the top of a black run.
“Everyone who skis can’t get enough it,” says Dre. “The beautiful mountains, hot chocolate on the slopes, après-ski – they’re all things I can’t wait to experience. As a non-skier you're like an outsider to the club, and I really want to join.” At least she was a willing student.
After getting kitted out at Ski Service we took the number two bus to the beginners’ slope, Les Esserts. After talking about how the ski works, we walked around on the flat wearing just one ski, to get used to the sensation of sliding and edging. Within half an hour Dre was sidestepping up the shallow incline – sliding to a stop, then learning to rotate the legs to develop the “snowplough.” We practised this before stopping for a hot chocolate at Restaurant Esserts.
In the afternoon Dre learned to turn to a stop and, once she felt confident, we moved onto the magic carpet, a sort of conveyor belt to the top of the green slope. With the same incline, but more distance, she could start linking turns together, at which point she was effectively skiing.
“That made a big difference,” she said when we’d finished, “If we’d just gone straight to the top it would have been scary. But by building up steadily, I learned everything separately, so I knew I could cope with it.”
Dre had earned the right to hit après-ski; and the only place to do it in Verbier is the Farinet. With happy hour from four till five and live bands playing cover tunes, this legendary spot is always rammed with dancing crowds. Dre took to it with as much enthusiasm as her skiing; by closing time she was dancing on the bar and playing guitar on stage with the band.
Après-ski closes around 9pm, so there were no sore heads the next morning. After a run on the magic carpet as a refresher, we moved onto the adjacent blue run. The top can seem steep, and the bottom a long way, so we gradually built up to it. Dre had a few minor falls, but was soon going from top to bottom with confidence. By the end of the day, I knew she had the technique for longer runs.
Day three was her first trip into the mountains proper, which can be an overwhelming experience. As the gondola accelerates out of the station it feels like a fairground ride, with the ground falling away and the mountains opening up all around. Dre’s fear of heights kicked in, but the gorgeous views across the valley to Mont Blanc were a fine distraction.
At Ruinettes mid-station we changed onto the La Chaux Express gondola. We stayed on at the first stop before we walked over to La Chaux 2, for Dre’s first ride on a chairlift.
Unfortunately, this didn’t go quite to plan. As we slid up to the gates, my skis got stuck whilst Dre sailed on through. Dangling solo on a chairlift wasn’t much fun so whilst the blue run, Chaux, was well within her capability, she was nervous from the start. Despite a few tumbles, she kept on going, and by the time she reached the bottom, her skiing was flowing nicely.
An appetite built up by a long day’s skiing was rewarded with another first: fondue at Le Caveau. Gruyere and emmental cheeses are melted in a pot, and eaten with cubes of bread on long forks. Le Caveau does a great chilli version, and it was all washed down with Williamine, a pear schnapps produced nearby.
On day four we skied Etierces – the long “road” that winds back and forth across the mountain. The gentle incline makes it easy to control speed in the snowplough, so it’s great for building mileage and confidence. It crosses a few red pistes, giving beginners “exposure” (being near a steep edge) and practice negotiating their way through a ski resort. There are two trickier pitches at the very end but, with her confidence high, Dre handled them without difficulty.
Alpine food can be a blur of cheese, ham and bread, so we headed to the W Hotel for a change. The Eat-Hola restaurant serves its signature dishes in the tapas style, so we tried everything from black pasta with calamari to tender pork in smoked paprika. The bar overlooks the kitchen, meaning we could chat with the chefs whilst they prepared our dishes, making it entertaining as well as appetising.
Our last day dawned with blue skies and fresh snow. Dre wanted to try Etierces on her own, so I borrowed a set of Faction Candide 3.0 skis from Ski Service and raced up to Chassoure-Tortin. This itinerary embodies Verbier’s reputation, as the moguls (the bumpy slopes formed by skier’s turns) are some of the most challenging in the world. But when covered in fresh snow, it’s a dream.
I ripped down, grinning madly as snow sprayed my face, then took the gondola back up to meet Dre. By the time I caught her, she was almost at the bottom.
After dropping our kit at Ski Service, we jumped on a pre-booked AlpyBus for our transfer to Geneva airport. Even with a full morning on the slopes, we easily made our five o’clock flight and, as the mountains fell away to the rear, I showed Dre the video of Chassoure-Tortin.
“That looks ridiculous,” she said, “I’ll stick with the blue runs and après-ski for now, but who knows – I might be joining you on those powder days eventually.”
Sounds like she’s been bitten by the skiing bug. Mission accomplished.