Dancing with the mountain

A white carpet for early risers in Verbier

Above Lac des Vaux, Verbier, looking towards AttelasIt’s the skiing equivalent of stepping out of a limousine onto a pristine red carpet. The door of the gondola clunks open, and stretching out in front of you is a perfectly groomed white carpet of snow, a mile long, unblemished by tracks, for you and your companions to glide down.

You have the luxurious feeling of having the mountain to yourselves – all because you have ridden up on the lift half an hour before it officially opens. And until all the other skiers and snowboarders come up, your select group has its own private ski resort. It’s a bit like being a Russian oligarch – only without needing the money.

A number of resorts in the Alps and beyond offer an experience such as this, but they usually charge a fee. This season, the Swiss resort of Verbier is offering the adventure free to skiers and snowboarders who hold a lift pass; the same deal is on offer in Avoriaz in France, Livigno in Italy, and Formigal in the Spanish Pyrenees. According to Nissan, which sponsors the deal, this is the first time such an experience has been on offer in Europe free of charge.

A couple of days ago I joined the “Freshtracks” group and found myself doodling giant sweeping Ss across the piste. And I realised that ever since I learned how to carve turns, I had been longing for conditions such as this: acres of perfectly groomed snow all to myself. I had the feeling I was dancing with the mountain – and reached the bottom of the run with a huge grin on my face.

Not all the lifts open early. In the case of Verbier, it is the Funispace gondola that you get to loop two or three times before others arrive. But by coming up early, you also can be the first to ride the connecting lifts as soon as they open – and be the first to skim across the freshly groomed pistes that they serve.

In addition to enjoying early skiing at any of the resorts twice in any given week, you can also have a free two-hour afternoon group lesson. In the case of Verbier, the “Coaching Sessions” are with the Swiss Ski School and the Swiss Snowboard School.

The easiest thing is to book from home, before leaving on holiday – but there are also computer terminals you can use at the top and bottom of the Médran gondola.

It’s all free. I read the terms and conditions to see if there were any catches, but I couldn’t find any. You are asked if you would like to receive information by phone or email about Nissan or the resorts, and you can tick boxes requesting not to.

Nissan, apparently, wants skiers and snowboarders to associate the feeling of grip and control you get riding an untracked, freshly groomed piste with the way its vehicles handle. It’s all explained on the website. I am hardly the target market, though: I am no great car fan, and given a choice will always opt for public transport. I do, however, have fond memories of learning to drive long ago in a Nissan Micra – but that could be also because of the soothing aroma of my instructor’s pipe. I doubt if that would be allowed these days.

Whatever your attitude to cars and car makers, Freshtracks offers a wonderful high, and the ski and snowboard lessons are with professional, qualified instructors. Plus it’s all free – and you won’t read that about many treats on offer in ski resorts.

Looking towards Verbier from the Savoleyres pistes

  • Freshtracks and coaching sessions are available for the 2011/2012 season in Verbier, Avoriaz and Livigno from Monday to Friday, and in Formigal from Thursday to Sunday. Register and book at www.nissan-extremegrip.com.
  • Further general travel information: the Switzerland Travel Centre (00800 100 200 30, www.MySwitzerland.com) and the Verbier tourist office (www.verbier.ch).
  • Train tickets from the UK to major Swiss cities are available through Rail Europe (0844 848 4070; www.raileurope.co.uk); onward travel within Switzerland through the Swiss Federal Railways (www.sbb.ch)

Aline Bock’s top 5 resorts

The Womens’ Snowboard Freeride World Champion for 2010 picks her favourite five spots for snowboarding

Snowboarder Aline Bock

© Daniel Zangerl

Interview by James Bedding 

“When people ask me the best resort to ride, I always say: it’s the place you know best. You know the danger points, you know what it looks like in summer, you know about all the cliffs, what’s underneath the surface of the snow.

For me, that would be the mountains near Lake Constance, where I grew up, and around Innsbruck, where I live now.

I totally recommend the Arlberg  – places like St. Anton and Lech. The whole area is amazing to ride. It has everything – tree runs, steep faces, gnarly faces if you really want to go crazy. I’ve been riding there since I was a little kid – it’s just an hour away from Lake Constance and an hour from Innsbruck. I know the danger zones, I know which cliffs are kind of gnarly, and where I should take care.

If it’s really safe and stable, there’s always a lot of lines to do, but if it’s just dumping with snow, you can always hide in the trees – where there’s a good feel, and it’s not so dangerous because it’s a lot less steep.

If friends come to visit, and there’s not a lot of powder, I love going to one of the parks. We often go to Mayrhofen – I really recommend the Mayrhofen Vans Penken Park. I’ll still do some kickers and rails – it’s like going back to my past.

Snowboarder Aline Bock

© Daniel Zangerl

Before freeride, I started with competitions in the half-pipe and slopestyle. In fact, I think it’s important to do all kinds of riding. You shouldn’t be just a freerider, or a freestyler, or do just boarder cross – being an all-round snowboarder is what makes a snowboarder good. So every time friends come to visit and we go riding in a park, I’m totally stoked.

One place that is special because it is so close to the city – Innsbruck – is Axamer Lixum. It has really nice, steep slopes, but it’s also a great family resort. If there’s powder you can also go in the trees. It’s not super-gnarly, but the mountains are amazing – you feel like you could be in Chamonix, the views are like – wow!

Outside Europe, I have been riding quite a lot in Squaw Valley lately – but I would recommend the whole Lake Tahoe area.It’s not known for super-speed gnarly lines, but it’s great fun to ride there. It has super-nice mountains with an amazing view down to the lake, and tree runs all over the place.

If they have a storm, it goes on for three days, and you can have a metre of fresh powder – and then you can be sure that you’re going to have a week of sun, because it’s California. It never gets that cold, either – here in the Alps you have sometimes minus 20 degrees; over there, minus 5 to minus 10 is the coldest it gets. Sometimes it gets really warm, so you have to get up really early.

Number five would probably be my home town, where I learned skiing. A lot of people haven’t heard of it. It’s called the Bregenzerwald, in the Vorarlberg in Austria.

It’s where Gigi Rüff comes from – he’s an amazing snowboarder. It consists of lots of different villages; but Damüls would be the one for me – it feels like home. It has everything you could ask for – you can go backcountry and find really nice slopes. And it’s great for learning, too.

If you want to go off-piste, though, you should always check out the avalanche risk, and make sure you know how the snow layers built up over the season. It’s really important to get training in off-piste safety.

Snowboarder Aline Bock

© Daniel Zangerl

Resort details

Axamer Lizum (www.axamer-lizum.at) was the venue for many of the alpine events of the Winter Olympic Games that were held in Innsbruck in 1964 and 1976. The ski area is 50 minutes by bus from the city, one of the most appealing in the Alps; the journey is free with a local lift pass. Ski packages to Axamer Lizum are available from Crystal (www.crystalski.co.uk), and city/ski breaks based in Innsbruck from Inghams (www.inghams.co.uk).

Lake Tahoe is one of the deepest and clearest freshwater lakes in the world, surrounded by the mountains of the Sierra Nevada – which tend to have gentler contours and thicker tree cover than, say, the Colorado Rockies. The best views of the lake, arguably, are from the ski slopes of Heavenly (www.skiheavenly.com). There are seven ski areas around the lake, including the venue for the 1960 Winter Olympic Games, Squaw Valley (www.squaw.com). Trips to the two resorts are available from Ski Safari (www.skisafari.com) and Ski Independence (www.ski-i.com).

The Bregenzerwald (www.bregenzerwald.at) consists of 22 villages, little known among British skiers, in the far west of Austria, close to the borders with Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Germany. Damüls has access to 109km of piste rising to an altitude of 2,100 metres, and is regarded as reasonably snow-sure. You can buy day passes for the different ski areas; passes of two and a half days or longer cover all 17, plus a couple of neighbouring regions. For advice on arranging an independent touring holiday, contact the Austrian Tourist Office (www.austria.info/uk).

The well-known resorts of the Arlberg (www.stantonamarlberg.com; www.lech-zuers.at and Mayrhofen (www.mayrhofen.at) appear in the brochures of most ski companies.

Snowboarder Aline Bock

© Daniel Zangerl


On the trail of the St. Bernard

Sniffing out the truth in the legend of Switzerland’s iconic dog breed

St Bernard dogs of the Barry Foundation

Copyright Iris Kürschner, www.powerpress.ch

You are buried in a snowdrift, steadily losing heat, slipping in and out of consciousness as your life force drains away. Suddenly you are awoken by a warm, wet muzzle, and a rough tongue licks your face. You hug the furry angel that has come to save you, and instinctively reach for the barrel of brandy you know will be hanging from its neck. A fire fills your chest, and you know that, on this ski trip at least, you are not going to die.

A familiar fantasy? It’s one of mine, anyway, that I happily daydream about while floating over the slopes on a chairlift. It’s unlikely to happen, though. St Bernards are rarely used as rescue dogs these days – Alsatians are lighter, nimbler and faster. And, as most skiers know, giving alcohol to someone about to die of hypothermia is a bad idea.

“It would be the end,” says Nathalie Vouilloz, who runs the museum devoted to the St. Bernard dog breed in Martigny, in Switzerland. “Perhaps it would make a nicer end, but it would be the end.”

St. Bernard Ivoire with her puppies, Barry Foundation

Ivoire with her puppies

The legend of the St. Bernard with its barrel of brandy lives on, however. And a good place to discover the story behind Switzerland’s most famous breed is here, at the St. Bernard Museum and Dogs, located next to Martigny’s Roman amphitheatre – and beside the track of the branch-line railway that carries skiers up to the nearby resort of Verbier.

Big attraction at the moment, literally, is 56kg Ivoire. She gave birth to nine pups just before Christmas, duly named by readers of the local paper: Zamba to Zophus, with a string of other sleepy Zs in between. You can see them through the glass wall of their spotless kennel – this is Switzerland, remember – where most of the time they lie in their basket, a snoozing, twitching mass of wet noses, oversize paws and puppy fat.

Come feeding time, they explode into action, burst through the flap into the enclosure outside, and snaffle their rations in seconds – before pestering mum for a suckle. Ivoire – “sociable, sensitive, playful” according to the sign on her pen – looks world-weary, even for a St. Bernard. One visitor – a British woman, who seems to know a thing or two about dog psychology – says with a sigh: “You know exactly what she’s thinking. She just wants them all to go back to sleep.”

Puppy from the Barry FoundationBack indoors, visitors can learn more about the breed. It takes its name from the hospice on the pass at the top of the valley, founded by St Bernard nearly 1,000 years ago to shelter and feed travellers crossing the Alps.

By the Middle Ages, the Via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome – which passed through Martigny and over the St. Bernard Pass – had become the second-most popular pilgrimage route in Europe, and pilgrims could count on a free meal and a bed from the monks at the hospice – as could anyone who passed this way, whether pope, pauper or brigand.

You imagine, though, that the monks’ commitment to their vow of hospitality must have wavered when Napoleon turned up in May 1800 with 46,000 soldiers, on his way to invade Italy.

The dangers up here were real enough, however. For nine months a year, the pass is covered with snow, which can lie up to 15 metres deep. Many travellers died crossing the mountains, whether they were swept away by avalanches, lost their way, or were simply caught up by bad weather and froze to death.

St.Bernard dogs of the Barry Foundation

Copyright Iris Kürschner, www.powerpress.ch

Dogs were probably kept as guards at the hospice as early as the mid-17th century, but they soon made themselves useful in the search for lost travellers. The most famous St. Bernard of all, Barry, who lived from 1800 to 1812, saved at least 40 lives – and in his memory, one of the dogs at the hospice has been named Barry ever since.

In recent years the dogs have spent the winters down in the valley, at the kennels run by the Barry Foundation, close to the museum. Dog lovers can combine a visit to the kennels – home to about 30 dogs, breeding about 20 pups a year – with a guided walk through the vineyards nearby. The Foundation also offers guided walks in the mountains around Champex – one of Verbier’s smaller, nearby ski areas – on which children can ride a sleigh pulled by a pair of St Bernards.

And the legend of the barrels? It seems that stories about St Bernards bearing vessels of alcohol began to circulate at the time Napoleon’s soldiers passed through; perhaps the dogs were commandeered to help carry provisions. But it was the enormous popularity from 1832 of a picture – a painting copied and sold throughout Europe in the form of engravings – that sealed the myth once and for all.

The image shows a pair of dogs discovering a traveller half-buried in snow. One of the dogs, with a barrel around its neck, is licking the travellers’ hand; the other is barking, apparently summoning help. The painting is called “St Bernards to the Rescue” – by none other than the English artist Sir Edwin Henry Landseer, famous for his paintings and sculptures of animals, including the Monarch of the Glen, and the lions of Trafalgar Square.

So, it seems that a reputation for consumption of alcohol in life-threatening quantities at holiday resorts can once again be attributed to the English. Sounds familiar? Plus ça change…

St. Bernard puppies of the Barry FoundationThe Musée et Chiens du St. Bernard in Martigny (00 41 27 720 49 20; www.musee-saint-bernard.ch) is open daily 10am-6pm; admission CHF 12 (£7.80) for adults, children over eight CHF 7 (£4.50), children under eight free. Audio guides in English cost CHF 3 (£2).

Book guided walks with St. Bernards through the Barry Foundation (00 41 27 722 65 42; www.fondation-barry.ch). Accompanied walks through vineyards plus a visit to the Martigny breeding centre take place every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday at 1.30pm until the end of April, starting at the breeding centre.

Walks near the small ski resort of Champex (children under 10 can take turns to ride a sledge pulled by the St Bernards) take place at 9.50am and 1.50pm on Saturdays and Sundays in February, departing from the Champex-Lac tourist office (00 41 27 783 12 27). The cost for either is CHF 45(£29) for adults, CHF 9 (£5.90) for children aged six to 16; under-sixes free.

  • Further information: the Switzerland Travel Centre (00800 100 200 30, www.MySwitzerland.com) and the Verbier tourist office (www.verbier.ch).
  • Train tickets from the UK to major Swiss cities are available through Rail Europe (0844 848 4070; www.raileurope.co.uk); onward travel within Switzerland through the Swiss Federal Railways (www.sbb.ch)

The secret of perfectly fitting ski boots

Investing in a custom-fitted boot liner could make a world of difference to your skiing.

Nick Hammond has earned a reputation as one of the most sought-after ski boot fitters in the Alps.

Originally from Buckinghamshire, he studied finance in Canada before settling in Verbier in 1984.

Nick Hammond, boot fitter at mountain air, VerbierOne of the most important features of a well-fitting boot, he says – often overlooked by skiers – is the liner.

What is the liner and why does it matter?

Nick Hammond: The liner is the interface between your foot and your boot, just as your boot is the interface between you and your ski. It determines how well you are going to be able to ski.

If the liner is not shaped to your foot, you will probably tighten the boot to compensate. You are likely to clamp on some areas more than others, which will cut off circulation – you’ll get cold, your feet will go numb, which could mean lots of boot pain.

Which do you choose first, the boot or the liner?

NH: First we decide on a shell – depending on the level of your skiing, what kind of skiing you want to do, the shape of your foot and leg, your weight, and other factors. We then look at the foot in the shell; and depending on the amount of space around the foot and the qualities you want out of the boot, we look at different lining systems.

Which liners do you use?

NH: Here at Mountain Air we use either Zipfit, Strolz foam liners or Intuition thermo-mouldable liners.

Nick Hammond holds a Zipfit boot liner, Mountain Air, Verbier

Zipfit ski boot liner

Zipfit liners were developed by Sven Coomer, who is in many ways the godfather of ski boot design. At first he used silicone in the liners – but it’s heavy and conducts heat fast, so the boots ended up heavy and cold.

So he started developing liners with a paste that is made up primarily of oil and granules of cork; when heated, it goes soft and flows. It’s in shaped envelopes around the liner, and it moulds to your foot. As it gets colder it hardens, and stays in position.

With Zipfit we can remould the liner as many times as we like. We can even remould it to fit into a different boot. We find Zipfits often outlast the shell, and in a lot of cases we can re-use the liner in a second shell.

We reckon we are about the only shop offering them in mainland Europe. There are a couple in the UK, but most are in the States.

How do you fit them?

NH: We prepare the foot by padding the potentially sensitive areas. We heat the boot liner and the shell; put the footbed in the liner, and the liner on the foot. We then place the hot liner in the hot boot, and mould both of them to the foot. To speed up the cooling process, we stand the client in a box of snow.

There was a time when we used to microwave the liners to heat them up. Except we had some problems where they had metal shavings from the production, and I had a few catch fire, so I thought I’d give that game up.

Nick Hammond holds a Strolz boot liner, Mountain Air, Verbier

Strolz foam liner

And the alternatives?

NH: Before Zipfits we used mainly foam liners. We still offer them – ones by Strolz, the Austrian ski boot maker. These are hollow liners into which we inject foam to fill out the space between your foot and the boot; the foam then solidifies. You need a lot of experience to fit them, and even doing it as long as I have, you still make mistakes. And the trouble is, once you’ve made a mistake, you have to throw the liner away. They are also almost too precise: feet change.

A lot of people find it takes them a couple of days each time they go skiing to get back into them. Also, a foam liner can only be used in the shell you created it for; you can’t reuse the liners in a new shell. I don’t do nearly as many foams as I used to. I still make them for clients who are used to them, but I don’t generally put new clients in foam liners.

The system we sell most, though, is by Intuition. These liners were developed in Vancouver, and use a foam that we can soften by heating, and mould into whatever shape we want. The ones we offer have no tongue, just an overlap construction. It’s the warmest as well as lightest liner on the market. As long as the shell fits the foot correctly, it can be as precise as any other liner, but you can only remould it a couple of times, so it’s not really suitable to be moulded into a different shell. Its light weight and excellent insulation make it especially popular with female customers.

Nick Hammond holds an Intuition boot liner, Mountain Air, Verbier

Intuition thermo-mouldable liner

What should the liners feel like?

NH: When a liner is brand new, for the first few runs, the liner may feel too tight. But we suggest clients come back to the shop after skiing, and if they’ve got problems, we can then change the shape of the liner.

How long do the liners last?

NH: The Strolz foam liners have the longest lives. I’ve got people who’ve been in their Strolz liners for 15 years, and they are still perfect. I’ve got one Austrian ski instructor, and he did 1,500 days of skiing on a pair of Intuition liners, which I think is a world record. We reckon, though, that a liner has done its job if you have skied 200 days on it. That’s double what a normal liner would do.

Any tips on how to use them?

NH: The warmer the boot is in the morning, the better. It will be easier to get into, your foot will be more comfortable, and will stay warmer.

How did you learn your skill?

NH: There is no formal training facility for boot fitters. Most have learned by experience. I have no formal training at all – just 25 years of looking at feet, and not giving in. You take the view that you’ll do whatever it takes to make someone comfortable in a ski boot, and you don’t give in. If you’re as determined as that you’re going to find the solutions.

  • Nick Hammond works at Mountain Air in Verbier, and sees customers by appointment; it is best to call before travelling out to the resort. Book through Mountain Air (00 41 27 771 62 31; www.mountainairverbier.com). A pair of liners, including fitting, costs from CHF 250 (approximately £160) for Intuition (www.intuitionliners.com), from CHF 300 (approximately £195) for Zipfit (www.zipfit.com) and CHF 480 (approximately £310) for Strolz (www.strolz.at).
  • General travel information: the Switzerland Travel Centre (00800 100 200 30, www.MySwitzerland.com) and the Verbier tourist office (www.verbier.ch).
  • Train tickets from the UK to major Swiss cities are available through Rail Europe (0844 848 4070; www.raileurope.co.uk); onward travel within Switzerland through the Swiss Federal Railways (www.sbb.ch).