Off-Piste & Button Lifts

During Herbstmesse, while sharing a bag of roasted chestnuts and magenbrot with friends, I made the mistake of saying that Switzerland’s mountains are designed for skiers, with nary a friendly piste for a snowboarder. Untrue, came the reply from a knowledgeable Swiss snowboarder. I was on the wrong mountains. Instead of Grindelwald and Zermatt, he said, try Verbier, Gstaad.

With that in mind, Melanie and I set out on a Wednesday in January for an adventure in what we thought was Verbier but actually turned out to be a mountain about an hour away called Veysonnaz. I had typed “Verbier” into the search bar on Booking.com and the results all clumped together: warm wooden chalet-type hotels with checkered-curtained restaurants serving up hot fondue, location indicated in terms of the nearest gondola. We settled on an affordable, cute place nestled right at the foot of the gondola, boasting “ski in/out” and a nearby parking lot.

We left Basel around 6:30am Wednesday morning and drove three hours through cloud, snow, and eventually a misty rain that spewed up from car tires ahead and made visibility a struggle.

After expertly navigating winding mountain roads – well done, Mel! – we arrived at a parking garage with a sweet view of a large valley, where an airport runway sent up the occasional airplane every once in a while. (Sion, if you’re wondering, whose website offers flights to St. Tropez and maybe two other ritzy destinations.)

I geared up and Mel rented equipment from InterSport. We bought gondola tickets – 140 francs for ski passes for the both of us – and headed up the mountain. Skimming the ski area map, I realized that Verbier was indeed a part of the 4 Valées, but that we had chosen the left-most mountain on the map, Veysonnaz. Still, it promised some gentle blues to cruise.

The issue was that there were only two gondolas: Veysonnaz and Piste de l’Ours. If you were to snowboard down one of the appealing blues, you would be deposited at the bottom with a choice of a T-bar or button lift to get back up again. My one experience with a tow rope – albeit a decade ago – was not an encouraging one, and everyone knows those sorts of things are made for skiers. But the map seemed to suggest that a chairlift was also available, just a short walk away. So up we went.

Coming down was doable. The blue was okay, if a little icy, and Mel as a beginning snowboarder with only an hour of lessons under her belt made impressive work getting down the mountain. Once at the bottom, we unclipped our bindings and studied our map. But the chairlift was not to be seen.

We decided to try to find one of the ski buses we’d seen shuttling people from one mountain bottom to the next, and found a small kiosk staffed by a French-speaking woman.

“The bus?” we asked. “Ou est le bus?”

“Where are you going?”

“Veysonnaz.”

She took our ski map and a highlighter, and proceeded to shade in the button lift, the T-Bar. She pointed our way back – by way of red pistes and inaccessible lifts.

This left us wondering if maybe our best bet was the T-bar or the button lift. Feeling gamely, we approached the T-bar.

“What’s the plan if one of us falls off like halfway up?” I asked. “Because we should have a meeting strategy.”

It turned out we didn’t need a strategy. I went first, and made it just a few feet up the mountain before the board went crazy and I tumbled off the T-bar. Mel shot me a thumbs up and I trudged back down.

“If you can’t make it, I can’t make it,” she said.

Undeterred, we examined the map again and decided we could surely walk to the chairlift. According to the map, it was just a short stroll through some trees, and the tree path was marked with a hiking sign, so off we went.

Minutes into the trees, we found our boots sinking several inches into the snow on each step. Were we climbing up a river? A small waterfall? Was there ice underfoot? Who knew. What I did know was that my health insurance does not cover me when I’m adventuring off-piste, and also, there was definitely not a chairlift in sight.

Cue Google Maps. Mel tapped in the chairlift and was instructed to backtrack, walk out through the parking lot, then continue down and around to the road for 11 minutes. Unwilling to trudge back downhill half-sinking in the snow, we did the next best thing: sat down on our boards and tobogganed down. This was perhaps the best run of the day.

We slip-slid across the long parking lot – glistening beneath a smooth layer of ice – boards in tow, big boots awkwardly moving us forward. Then Mel checked the map again, and it showed that we were on the wrong road; to reach the road we needed, we’d need to travel an additional ten minutes for a total of 20 minutes walking to the chair lift. Or we could catch a bus to Piste de l’Ours, which would arrive in 5 minutes.

Back across the icy parking lot to the kiosk, which was now abandoned.

The bus arrived as promised, and we waddled on, parking our boards against the windows and unwisely choosing backwards-facing seats. As the bus careened around the same sharp mountain roads we’d chugged slowly along that morning, I found myself wondering what would happen if I puked into my neckerchief. Quietly dying inside, Mel and I both stood up and faced forward, gripping our boards and praying that the next stop was just around the corner.

We made it, got off the bus, then tried to find our way to the gondola, which was hidden behind a little village of sorts. By the time we reached it, it was nearly two in the afternoon, leaving us about two hours of boarding time before the lifts closed.

We were deposited at the top of the mountain by a teepee that was blasting Euro-rave music, and Mel found herself a little bunny hill there that she wanted to explore for a bit. We decided we’d meet around 3:30 and I’d explore some other pistes, which was a great idea in theory, but somehow I ended up on a nice blue that promised a descent to the bottom but instead dumped me at – you guessed it – the foot of a button lift.

I told myself this was different, and allowed the attendant to pull the bar down and hand it to me. I placed it between my legs, wobbled up a few feet, then wiped out. But there was no other way up this time, so I tried again and – voila! Talk about a quad workout, though. The entire way up, all I kept thinking was that if I fell off, I’d have to start the whole process over. I made it to the top, though the dismount was laughable (I fell).

I am not sure where I dismounted, but it wasn’t by the gondola, so I had to make it down by way of Piste de l’Ours, a famous ski slope that’s rated red and was very icy. It wasn’t the most fun, with the ice scraping loudly beneath my board the whole way down, but I made it. On the way back up in the gondola, I texted Mel. The teepee was in full swing, and she’d already had a Baileys and a hot dog.

After a beer so cold it grew icicles, and a hot gluhwein for Mel, we took the gondola back down and checked into the hotel. It was then that I realized that I hadn’t eaten anything all day except a slice of banana bread with my third mug of coffee in the morning. We booked a 6:30pm dinner slot at the restaurant, unpacked in our rooms, and bundled back up to take in the view from Mel’s balcony while sipping this amazing beer that Blair supplied.

That view, tho.

Dinner was fondue and a cheeseburger, which the waiter seemed visibly appalled by, but we were hungry after all that off-piste walking, so we ate it all up with no issue.

In the morning, Hotel Magrappé offered a delicious breakfast buffet where you dip your eggs in boiling water until they’re done the way you like them, and there is also lots of springy bread and tangy fruity jam.

We were heading back to Basel later that afternoon, but first, we decided we’d give the slopes one more try. This time, we drove 20 minutes to the next mountain, Nendaz, whose trail map offered what looked like a handful of dreamy blues – the kind that meander down the mountain through trees and gently guide you to the bottom.

Nendaz was absolutely mobbed, which was joyless at first, but once we reached the top, we found a beginner ski area for Mel, and I journeyed down a fabulous blue that I discovered was partly closed, forcing me down a red. I gondola’d back up and played on the beginner hill, which was also a connection between the gondola and another blue called Jean-Pierre, which brought you to a button lift but if you continued downward, you’d find your way to the bottom.

LIES. Jean-Pierre was a beautiful, wide, easy blue that ended at a button lift. As in, END OF PISTE. So I waited in a very long line of child skiers to ride the button lift back up. Again, success. If nothing else, I conquered my fear of button lifts this week.

Back at the top, my map told me that next to Jean-Pierre was a red trail that would lead down, so I figured I’d give it a go. But when I got there, it was closed. This meant I had to take a different red, which led somewhere completely different, but it was okay. I ended up at a chairlift and, due to a thinning crowd, I managed to score my own little chair.

Me and my shadow

There is nothing wrong with pulling your mask down in an exposed chair lift, gulping fresh mountain air, and enjoying the ride back.

Mel had headed down at this point, so I went down by way of the first route I’d taken, which was much more fun now that I had some more confidence.

After sandwiches at a tasty cafe, it was back to Basel for us.

We’ll be back for Verbier. (And the button lifts.)

Mel’s dazzling board and equally dazzling photog skills

Categories: Switzerland

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