Is it possible to have “safe” and “freeride” in one sentence? Usually I would say that this is not wise or possible.
Every time you head off-piste you take a big risk. Whether you know this or not is a completely different question.
But safe freeriding is something that fits in with Verbier. This is even the case, though there were and also will be fatal off-piste accidents in the location.
What makes Verbier unique is that they offer 11 safe free ride slopes. Those slopes are checked all the time and if they're marked as open, you should go and enjoy them. You should NOT drop in if they are closed, as there will be the risk of avalanches and that's a reason for future accidents. Should you still choose to do so, it’s completely at your own risk.
I know what it's like to look onto a super fresh powder run and it’s tough to say no to it. In the past I was so ignorant and dumb and would have dropped in, just to take some wonderful powder turns.
Fortunately, luck was on my side and all turned out as fun.
Recently I was in Verbier and I attended the ISTA (International Snow Training Academy) Discovery course. This 1 day course costs around €215 + guide expenses and it gives you a really good step into understanding your freeride surroundings.
What I really liked about the course was, that it was focused 90% on prevention of avalanche risks. You seriously don’t want to use the last 10% in real life.
It’s not enough to buy an airbag backpack, beacon, shovel and probe.
I realized this the moment 5 of us in the course were asked to search for a hidden beacon. You don’t just drop into the avalanche area and start digging. First you need to understand your equipment and find the person (hopefully with the beacon). Even then, it will still take a few minutes until you've been able to dig the person out, and that's if they're only covered with just 60-90 cm of snow.
Just for the digging it’s good to have a strategy, as you otherwise will lose lots of life saving time. The person who's been hit by the avalanche might not have been able to cover their nose and mouth with his/her hand, and their airways may be full of snow. Every second counts and shoveling hard pressed snow gets tiring very quickly.
Then once you've reached the person, maybe you've only uncovered a leg and you need to keep digging until you reach the head, which might be even deeper in the snow.
The course was fun and very interesting, but I also realized how damn serious the topic is. Sure, you hear warnings about the danger of avalanches all the time. You hear them in the news or even see them on video, but the realistic estimation of the situation, before dropping off-piste, is completely different.
You don't want to get yourself into an avalanche or have to save someone out of one!
The slope might have some tracks already, but this is not an indication that it’s safe. There are several indicators that you need to look out for.
Avalanche risk management:
This is only one section of 11 very important areas (18 in total), that the ISTA discovery course covers.
Treat the ISTA like the PADI for scuba diving, only for freeriding. Would you rent dive equipment and a boat and simply drop into the water? Definitely not, if you don’t have a license. And if you are not very experienced you would choose to go with a guide. That’s what I would recommend for freeriding as well.
Local guides know the terrain and conditions very well. They are professionals and if they decide not to choose a slope, then you'd better trust them, no matter how inviting it might look.
The ISTA Discovery Avalanche Course covers:
The ISTA was founded by Dominique Perret, a freeride legend. He gets support from many international experts, ski resorts and companies. Over 40 experts have helped to develop the courses.
There are 4 courses in total:
Discovery – 1 day
Introduction to the ISTA program. You like freeriding, but have no proper knowledge.
Snow Training 1 (ST1) – 2 day
Basic risk prevention skills. You get a bit of backcountry experience and knowledge, but also with the aim of increasing your safety.
Snow Training 2 (ST2)
Consolidation. This is an improvement course, based on and followed after completing ST1.
Snow Training 3 (ST3)
Autonomy. The most advanced training, for everyone who has done ST1 & ST2.
Verbier Guide – Freeride Paradise
After learning a bit about safety, it’s about time to get into the powder.
I landed in Geneva and took the train to Bagnes, which takes around 3 hours and provides beautiful views onto Lac Leman and afterwards of the Alps. You have to swap trains in Martigny and usually there should be a connection train waiting for you. To drive the distance will take you around 2 hours from Geneva airport.
When I arrived in Bagnes I took the gondola up to Verbier, as I couldn’t find a proper bus schedule. Though there are also buses running up the hill, which would definitely be the cheaper option. The gondola does give you a good start and awesome views though.
Verbier itself lies on a plateau facing South. It's simply awesome, as it provides far more sun than staying at the bottom of the valley, and the panorama of the Alps is stunning. The surrounding mountains are steep and offer maaaany backcountry options. 11 freeride slopes get checked for avalanche danger all the time, which is unique (I think) and if there are other resorts providing a similar service, I doubt that they have this amount of safe freeride slopes available.
Still, I would recommend going for 1-2 days with a local guide, as there are a total of 4 valleys to explore and the guides can get you to the best spots, as they know the conditions best.
I stayed at the Hotel La Rotonde, which is situated right in the center and just a 5 minute walk away from the ski lift station Medran. The rooms are fine and the staff helpful. Obviously they offer a ski locker room for your equipment. There is also free parking and free WiFi.
The 4 valley lift pass costs around €65 for one day. You can also choose only specific areas of the resort and there is also a 10% discount for families. Find all the options here.
If you don't bring your own snowboard/ski, then you can rent them. A snowboard/ski rental starts at around €30 per day. There are far more options and you’ll find them all here.
I explored the region with Guide Verbier, who I can recommend. If you want to see how a freeride professional is living her life in the mountains, then you should watch Geraldine’s (Fasnacht) video. She is nuts… in a positive way. I had the pleasure of her showing me her “living room” and she took me to a few very nice spots in the Verbier mountains. This day of freeriding was awesome, though next time I'll make sure to come with a higher level of fitness and 2-3 days of a snowboarding warm-up before.
What else is missing…. The food and nightlife of Verbier!
You should NOT miss trying the Swiss cheese fondue! I had 4 Swiss cheese meals in 4 days and do not regret a single one of them.
Restaurants in Verbier I can recommend:
Restaurant Le Caveau; it’s right in the city center and here you can get some traditional meals in a traditional atmosphere.
La Channe; if you see a bull outside of a restaurant, that’s the place to enter. I couldn’t resist the cheese fondue with champagne and truffle. Expect yummy traditional meals in a nice atmosphere.
Le Millenium; if you can handle the metal menu, you will be treated with very delicious meals, no matter what you choose.
Restaurants on Verbier's pistes I can recommend:
Restaurant le Dahu a la Chaux; good food (especially the pizza) and a good spot for heading further down the slopes. They have a restaurant and a cheaper bistro.
Chalet Carlsberg; a smaller place, but with a nice terrace, which can be enclosed. The chairs have comfy sheepskin and the views from the terrace are great. I had the Tagliatelle pesto and would go for it again.
After a day out in the snow, you'll deserve a drink in one of the cool nightlife spots.
Nightlife in Verbier:
Fer a Cheval; most folks come here for a drink, as it's close to the ski lift, but there is also a seating area and the meals are good, too.
Pub Mont Fort; only a few meters from the ski lift station Medran. This is a must-go, best still in gear and right after leaving the track. It’s been there for ages and offers a terrace, bar, lounge and good parties.
Tbar; another good place to enjoy live music and drinks after dinner. It’s popular with both locals and travelers.
Bottle Brothers; if you fancy a cocktail, that’s the place to go. The restaurant is stylish and serves modern cuisine.
Farinet Lounge Bar; end your evening in style with some good music. There is also an Apres Ski bar and the South nightclub.
Enjoy the powder turns, enjoy Verbier & stay safe!