There comes a point in your ski career when you start to transcend cool. I don’t mean personally (I will never be cool), I just mean that you realise the hip and trendy places have their moments (usually at about 3am in some sticky bar) but that the small and out-of-the-way places are somehow… better!
Every cloud has a silver lining. While Brexit clipped my wings as a guide elsewhere in Europe, it gave me an excuse for further exploration of the quieter corners of Switzerland. This was already a bit of a personal mission, but I re-visited a few classics with renewed enthusiasm, and explored some new and previously unheard of destinations with fresh vigour.
When I interviewed local guide John Falkiner about skiing in Verbier (a place he helped to make famous for the awe-inspiring off-piste potential) he described the place as having “too many flies in the box” nowadays. I get it! If you like to make your own decisions, in your own time, based on the mountains and weather, rather than the crowds, then you start looking for places away from the madding crowds. And once I started looking, I discovered that I hardly knew Switzerland at all. So, here are some world-class locations, with very few flies – and no box at all!
Ever heard of the Diemtigtal? Me neither, until I got a tip-off from Alex Gisler at Montanara Bergerlebnisse (a Swiss Guiding colleague) about this quiet, and rarely visited, ‘locals-only’ gem. The Diemtigtal had been on my wish-list ever since, and a change of plan (due to a lack of snow further south) finally gave us our chance to visit this amazing valley.
We were given an amazing welcome at the gemütlich hotel Kurhaus in Grimmialp, where we were one of the first (if not the first) British team of ski tourers they had ever had staying there. The locals were super friendly, and more than happy to share info between the groups on where we had all been, and the conditions we had all had found at the end of each day.
The valley is home to a wealth of easy-access, early season day tours, with all grades of difficulty catered for, on every different aspect and gradient. With plenty of mellow terrain and forest roads available as well, there is never any need to get shut down on storm days.
The hotel can shuttle guests around, as well as a Swiss Alpine Club snow touring bus from mid-December to early March. The lack of glaciers makes for small light packs and straightforward, ski-as-you-find it descents.
Three small lift systems can be topped up with a bit of skinning to give maximum return for minimal investment. You could also combine time in Adelboden, or a trip to access the Lämmerenhütte for a bigger week. In fact…
Leukerbad is better known for its thermal baths than as a premier ski resort. But pull yourself away from the spas and you’ll find it provides easy access to acres of crowd-free off-piste terrain. Leukerbad has recently been discovered by BASI, who run many of their off-piste training and assessment courses there: quite an endorsement. We endured the icy starts of last season, but were rewarded with excellent spring snow and secluded sunny picnics.
As if that weren’t enough, the Gemmi lift gives access to the ‘nowhere-quite-like-it’ Gemmi Lodge. Perched atop the cliffs, the dining room has the most amazing view, as bearded vultures cruise past at breakfast. On the first trip, Graham and I were able to mop up the last fresh snow on the north slopes of the Daubenhorn. Just a week later, and we were savouring superlative spring snow on the same aspects.
When combined with a few days exploring the peaks and day tours around the Lämmerenhütte, this is a truly fabulous trip: the view from the summit of the Wildstrubel is one of my favourites with the whole alpine chain from Mont Blanc to the Oberland laid out across the horizon. All the better when the descent gives you c.850m of south-east-facing immaculate spring snow!
The area can also be linked with multi-day ski safaris across from Adelboden in the north; the traverse of the Western Oberland (a classic six-day tour); and by skiing over from the Lötschenpass Hütte above Kandersteg. We have only just scratched the surface here.
I first went to Bivio with Rob Collister (a legendary guide and mentor) over 20 years ago, when I was an aspirant guide. I had been wanting to return ever since.
Just below the Julier Pass, over from the Engadin, Bivio is the spiritual home of Swiss ski touring. On a busy weekend, scores of locals will scatter out into the hills, disappearing on the plethora of skin tracks available from this one base. During the week, with so many options available, you can always find solitude and fresh snow without too much effort.
Bivio itself is home to a small and simple ski lift system – just a couple of T-bars giving access to acres of cold north-facing snow at an amenable gradient. Great skiing, but always somewhere to go safely after fresh snowfall.
You can start many of the tours from the hotel door, or kick start the vertical from the top of the lift system to gain a bit of extra bang for your buck on the descent later.
We combined our stay with a couple of nights at the awesome Jenatsch Hut. Sadly, last season, the hut was in a valley almost stripped bare by lean snowfall and string winds, so we didn’t stay as long as expected, but heading back to Bivio never disappoints.
Bivio is usually known for avalanche-safe and mellow day tours. Despite the lean conditions this year, we followed our noses and bagged the gem of the valley – fresh tracks down the north face of the Columban.
I have a soft-spot for the Safiental. And not just because of the amazing array of ‘great to ski but just not steep enough to avalanche’ slopes. This means you need never get shut down, no matter what the weather. We often talk about hidden gems, but this one is more hidden than most. Sitting opposite Flims/Laax and tucked between the Vals and Splügen valleys, the white goods are hidden from view until you drive out into the upper valley.
There a ski touring world of wonder awaits: huge, open and east-facing slopes frequently hold powder long into the winter. With the valley base at c.1,700m and the summits between 2,800m and 3,000m, you can be sure of at least 1,000m vertical goodness. Almost all at a very skiable gradient, too. Without any glaciers, there is no need for a heavy pack either. Perfect!
You can reach the excellent Berggasthaus Turrahus at the last bust stop (and get about by bus). But with a smaller team, I prefer to stay in the utterly charming Gastehaus Wanna with Marcel and Regula. Each day starts with fresh baked bread and home-made jams. Then you put your skins on in the garage, flip up the door, and skin out for another great adventure. Just don’t expect to find any company on the hills – as you are likely to have them to yourselves.
Combine with the neighbouring Vals Valley to make more of a tour, especially if you need somewhere with kit rental and a few lifts to get started. Or head up there after a couple of days to warm up in Flims/Laax.