A quaint village, wide meadows and gritty freeride terrain have put Zinal on the map
The funny thing about ostensibly small, under-frequented, little-known ski hills is that in practice they tend to be none of the above, other than not very much visited. Take Zinal in Switzerland’s Val d’Anniviers. It might have been little-known a few years back but locals and afficionados are now worried by the amount of column inches the place is generating (here we go again). As for ‘small’, that’s only when measured by lifts and piste-kilometres. And even visitor numbers have their moments: a sunny winter weekend with plenty of fresh snow brings the hordes in. Thankfully, they seem to get bored by mid-January and anyway, they’re all about long lunches on the sun terrace, so not too problematic in terms of tracking lines or taking up lift space.
The concept in Zinal is simple. It’s a tiny, quaint village with not much to do – though you really ought to stroll between the vintage chalets and barns on the main street at the end of the day. Head up the cable car – 800 vertical metres in seven minutes in a panoramic cabin – and you get your first real inkling of what this place is about. Look south and east as you rise above the steep forest, for views of the Imperial Crown – the five 4000m peaks that ring the head of the valley – and of the Matterhorn beyond.
Now swivel round as the cabin rises above the tree line. The main bowl is in front of you. To your left, east, you’re looking over to a ridge that splits the domain, beyond which is another bowl – a mix of long piste and lots of ungroomed stuff. Further still is the freeride area. Originally set up as a controlled area with a gate, which only opened if you were wearing a functioning transceiver, the entrance is now simply netted off when conditions are dodgy. To the other extreme of the main bowl is the north-facing Chamois run, taking you all the way to neighbouring Grimentz.
Out of the cabin, you’re faced with a sum total of two chairs and three drags, not including the kids’ installations, officially serving 70km of piste. But that’s irrelevant, right from the start. The ultimate warm-up is to ski the lift line – more fun than the piste and an amazing taste of what’s in store.
The wide, gentle meadows are cut by a cat-track that gets you to the Chiesso chair, the lower limit of the main domain. But if you keep well left you can head instead for the Tzarmettaz drag – check you can see it running before you commit – which is the thing to do early season after a bit of snow. What becomes a piste when they finally get round to it, is in the meantime a fabulous undulating ride, flattening off past the transceiver park, then rolling over again for a steep finish, back to the same lift.
As with the domain’s other long drag, you half wish they made this a fast chair but know in your heart that such a lift would kill it with the numbers that it would bring. Next is the top chair. The red ridge-run is essential. Good views all the way, to most points of the compass, but you’re likely to be going too fast for studying anything other than the way ahead. Lap it to follow the ridge in the other direction: the whole bowl is yours.
Head now for the Combe Durand drag and the east of the domain. It’s long but worth it. Great laps to be done here or strike skier’s right and drop down to the lower chair or even across the meadows and all the way to the village, for about 1400m of vertical.
At this point you’ve had an overview of the domain without beginning to explore the real stuff – the freeride area and beyond, the legendary dam run off the back or the endless options in the Chamois – but you’ll have already realised this is something special. So too do the powers that be – so special that they’ve turned this ‘little hill’ and neighbouring Grimentz into a medium-big hill to rival significant mainstream resorts, by linking them with a huge lift (Switzerland’s third biggest).