Photography by Kari Medig

Sex, drugs and rock and roll is a phrase that’s been used to explain away more than one hazy past. However, when someone like Verbier Switzerland legend and ski photographer Mark Shapiro says it, you tend to believe it.

It’s après hour at Vinabagnes on Rue de Médran, Verbier’s narrow main street that winds gently downhill from the upscale W Verbier, a tony property where my turn-down service last night included a snifter of homemade vermouth, made from local white wine, macerated pine needles and gentian roots, fortified with absinthe. Things are a little less refined down the street at the elbow-room only Vinabagnes, where the only things Swiss-French about the place are the beautiful barkeep, the wine list and the name.

Cockney accents dominate the three-drinks-in volume of excitable chatter. And there’s good reason to be excited. Two days ago, it was full-on spring in Verbier, by far the best known of Les 4 Vallée resorts. The green pastures belonging to local dairy farmers, whose cows produce the milk for the region’s famous Raclette, were starting to emerge on the subalpine slopes of this sprawling ski area that overlooks Val de Bagnes a half hour’s drive from Martigny. Suddenly it’s winter again, with all suggestion of springtime buried beneath twenty-five inches of mid-winter light snow. Add in some sex, drugs and rock and roll, and the recipe for a few days exploring the soul beneath the sass of Verbier Switzerland would be complete.

Verbier Switzerland Apres Ski
Verbier Switzerland Apres

Shapiro occupies a secluded table in the back of the bar. He has a grizzled salt and pepper beard, and the ruddy complexion of someone who has spent many a day in the mountains chasing light and powder snow. Immediately, I get the sense of a guy who is both firmly at home in his castle, and also slightly tinged with the cynicism of someone who deep down inside thinks, “You should have been here in the 70s and 80s.”

Though born in Hamilton, Ontario, Shapiro’s as Verbier as it gets. Barely out of his teens, he met a Swiss kid skiing Ontario’s diminutive ski hills, followed him back to Europe for a winter season, and landed in Verbier. That was 48 years ago. He needed money, so got his hands on a Minolta SR1 and started shooting slides of his buddies shredding. After selling an image for five hundred Swiss Francs (back then a king’s ransom on which a ski bum could have survived for months), his professional career began – a journey that would make him a household name in ski photography long before the dawn of the digital era.

“We’d go skiing and take photos that were sold all over the world,” Shapiro says about his early days shooting in Verbier, when big mountain freeskiing was exploding as a genre.

Verbier’s steeps and bountiful terrain attracted the attention of Ace Kvale, John Faulkner, Scot Schmidt and many others who would go on to become ski legends in their own right, skiing royalty who would share the lifts with actual royalty, and other elites who developed an affinity for Verbier.

“The wealthy who came here back then came to ski. Now they come to pose – they’re tossers,” Shapiro says.

There’s a reason, however, that he never left. Verbier still delivers in a big way – scrape beneath the resort’s legendary party scene and royal sheen, and it remains at its core a skier’s ski resort.

“Freeskiing is in our DNA. It doesn’t matter if you’re Prince Harry or James Blunt, it’s still about adventure, sports and fun,” says Warren Smith, another local expat Brit who first skied Verbier in 1997 and went on to start the Warren Smith Ski Academy, the go-to ski school for visiting princes and princesses. “This place is still about people who want a free ride experience. They come here for the terrain, and that’s what keeps this place exciting for me.”

The next morning, I’m riding the Ruinettes Telecabine with Heidi Blum, my mouth watering at the barely skied forest glades below us that only two days ago were deep in spring green. Blum is another devotee who discovered Verbier long before it became shorthand for skiing and partying, and also never left. If America had a monarchy, then Blum would belong to that family tree.  She comes from an elite pedigree but is as down to earth as Shapiro is wry. And, as I quickly discover when we drop into a Mont Gelé warm-up couloir, is also a ripper to be contended.

“I’m not as bold as I used to be,” Blum says, halfway down.

I’m not convinced.

Shin-deep dry snow covers firm moguls, and I’m feeling the nearly 10,000-foot elevation. After a few late morning runs from the airy Mont Gelé, we stop at historic Cabane du Mont Fort for a lunch of roast chicken and chips, and a glass of red wine beneath a warm and sunny blue sky on the patio. Situated on a knoll with rock star panoramic mountain views, this solid stone-walled structure is a favorite lunchtime destination for skiers and mountaineers. Beyond her ski racing background, Blum is also an accomplished alpinist who has summited several Himalayan giants, and helps run the American Himalayan Foundation, a charitable organization that her father founded.

“Verbier has this reputation as a place to party, but there’s a real solid community here, and a sense of adventure that runs pretty deep,” Blum says as we sip espresso after lunch and watch a trio of skiers side-stepping into a steep bowl on Bec des Rosses. From Cabane du Mont Fort, they look like ants on a vertical desert.

In the afternoon, we board the Mont- Fort 2 cable car for the breathtaking ride to the almost 11,000-foot summit of Mont Fort, the high point of 4 Vallées’ inbound terrain. Up here in the lofty Alpine, springtime feels like a distant thought. A brisk breeze greets us when we off-load and clomp across a metal deck seemingly bolted to the mountainside.

“This never gets old,” Blum says, leaning on the railing that hangs over a vertical void.

The combination of thin air and the view leaves me speechless. In the distance, we spot heli-skiing tracks etched on the flanks of Rosablanche. Beckoning to the south are the whipped cream summits of the Grand and Petit Combin, the latter of which was first skied by longtime Verbier guide Denis Bertholet, another local legend.

Verbier Switzerland Heidi Blum
Verbier Switzerland Heidi

When Blum talks about Verbier Switzerland and it’s deep skiing adventure cred, she might as well be speaking about Bertholet – he’s the sort of local character about whom a biography could be written, or at least a great tale that would shed some light on the roots of Verbier’s free-spirited, freeskiing soul. Not only did Bertholet tag many first ski descents in the surrounding mountains, he started one of Switzerland’s first private ski schools, organized Himalayan expeditions, and married a Nepali woman.

After fifteen minutes atop Mont Fort, we traverse into a steep black run beneath the cable car. A couple of deep breaths and I ease into the vertiginous surroundings, sink into a comfortable turning rhythm, and watch Blum disappear beneath a cliff band below.

Verbier Switzerland can be so attention-demanding that it’s easy to forget that there are three other vallées in 4 Vallées. In fact, if Verbier has an alter-ego, then it must be Nendaz. Though easily connected by ski lifts that are accessible on a single lift ticket and just a couple of mountain ridges away, in some ways Nendaz may as well be on a different planet. It’s like traveling between worlds, from a place where celebrity-spotting has almost as much cred as skiing steep and sinuous couloirs, to a place where tidy Swiss clichés like cuckoo clocks and cow bells stack up together in a staid and traditional Swiss ski village experience.

Raclette Verbier
Raclette Verbier

I came to Nendaz to meet up with ski instructor Valerian Pahud (adding to the list of Swiss clichés, he works summers for the family business importing components for the watch-making trade), as well as dual Canadian-Swiss citizen Florian Bouvet-Fournier, a former pro snowboarder who calls Nendaz home. Ask the average cocky expat Brit swilling beers at Verbier’s Fer à Cheval and they’ll scoff at Nendaz, slighting it as a resort on the wrong (read, dry) side of the mountains that isn’t worth the effort to visit – a prejudice that works in Pahud and Bouvet-Fournier’s favor. Less international freeriding cachet means fewer crowds, less Verbier attitude, and a big reason Pahud’s planned one season at the Nendaz ski school turned into six.

The deep snow that pasted Verbier a few days ago came in lighter quantities on this side of the mountains. With two hours of exploring ahead of us, Bouvet-Fournier has an agenda.

“We can hike up Chassoure and drop into the Banana. It looks vertical but it’s not,” he tells me reassuringly.

To get there we have some traveling to do. I follow my two guides, dodging bare patches on south-facing Tracouet through a forest of ancient larch trees. Some of them have trunks twice as thick as wine barrels, and Bouvet-Fournier tells me they are among the oldest trees in the Alps.

We ride Les Fontaines T-bar that feels almost as ancient as the trees, then transfer to the Plan du Fou cable car, slung diagonally across a steep mountain face to a notch in the ridge above. Fifteen minutes later, I’m boot-packing with my two local riding buddies above the Chassoure gondola top station toward the Banana. It’s time to peel back my inhibitions, and shake off the lingering stupor of last night’s fondue feast. Facing almost due north, the Banana holds dry and fluffy ankle-deep fresh snow atop a firm base that thankfully takes an edge. Pahud and Bouvier-Fournet make it look easy, dispatching the steep entrance with a few sweeping turns. I’m more tentative, jump-turning at first before summoning some steep skiing moxy.

Verbier Switzerland Dining
Verbier Switzerland Dining

That night I stay at Hotel Nendaz. The village is dormant in that end of season way but that suits me fine, and provides a little respite before returning to the bustle of Verbier. I indulge in the hotel’s outdoor spa and infinity pool, watching the pink of alpenglow fade over Val de Bagnes.

With one day left to play in 4 Vallées, I spend much of it lapping the Ruinettes Telecabine and the lower elevation forests above the village of Verbier, still finding untracked boot-top snow. The fact that such easily accessible, low hanging fruit remains three days after the storm speaks to the nuances of international skiing sensibility. While we North Americans are in our comfortable happy place, shredding in tight trees and hidden glades, it turns out the freeskiers of Verbier still have a thing or two to learn.

Satiated by day’s end, I stomp along streets turning slushy to that Verbier institution, Fer à Cheval, where a couple of sunburned Brits hoover on cigarettes on the sidewalk out front. Inside, I meet up again with Heidi Blum and her old friend HP Gubler, the unofficial “mayor” of Verbier who owns several ski and outdoor shops in town and elsewhere. Blum had a non-skiing work day and is anxious to hear about my explorations at Nendaz, as though I had just returned from some obscure corner of the globe.

Every minute or so, someone breezes past our table to say hi to Gubler and Blum, who seem to know everybody in this town. The volume increases as this storied watering hole fills up with the après crowd.

“Sure. This is a British party town, but then you can go down the street to a place like the Laterie de Verbier (an award-winning local cheesemaker) and you’ll find people still connected to the land and the mountains,” Gubler says. “At its heart, Verbier Switzerland is still a simple Swiss mountain town.”

Simple perhaps, but with an international attitude.

Verbier is located in the Swiss Canton of Valais. It belongs to the six-resort mega ski area 4 Vallées, which includes Verbier, Nendaz, Veysonnaz, Thyon, La Tzoumaz and Bruson, and offers more than 260 miles of on-piste skiing.
WWW. 4VALLEE.CH

WHERE TO STAY:

Verbier: Check into W Verbier, boot steps away from the main cable car, with six bars, and nightly DJ beats. Each April this stylish Marriott hotel hosts Haute Cuisine, a culinary festival that attracts chefs from around Europe, as well as demos and cooking classes. MARRIOTT.COM/HOTELS/TRAVEL/GVAWH-W-VERBIER/

Nendaz: Don’t be fooled by the Hotel Nendaz’s institutional façade – this property’s Spa des Bisses offers up hot, warm salt water pools, as well as coldwater plunges, all with a mountain view.
HOTELNENDAZ4VALLEES.CH

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