Where to ski tour: Crans-Montana Rando Parc, Switzerland
The Swiss ski resort of Crans-Montana has created what is believed to be the world’s largest rando park. It offers an impressive 40km of waymarked ski touring routes.
There are 15 ski touring routes – through the grades of blue, red and black – so there is something for all, including beginners, intermediates and more advanced skiers.
The routes at Crans-Montana Rando Parc are between 1.3km and 34.7km long with a variety of elevation gains, from the “easiest” at 212m to the most difficult at 3059m.
These ski routes have been created in collaboration with ski-mountaineering champion Séverine Pont-Combe.
Advantage of waymarked routes
Ski touring is growing fast and has many benefits:
- Great for cardiovascular fitness (the uphills give a good work out)
- Free access to the snowy mountains (no need for a lift pass)
- Freedom for skiers and snowboarders (on split boards) to roam.
But still, for many people, the idea of ski touring is on the edge of their comfort zones. They might worry: What if I stray into dangerous territory? What if I get lost? What about avalanches? Should I take transceivers, shovels and snow probes? etc.
So the beauty of the waymarked ski touring trails at the Rando Parc is that they are in-bounds (part of the wider resort) and linked to the groomed pistes of Cran-Montana for easier – and safer – descent.
The signage allows for skiers and snowboarders to find the right uphill paths and the links to the pisted slopes means that they do not need to worry about straying into the wrong areas of snow, or, worse still, avalanche-prone slopes.
Of course, it’s still important to check the avalanche forecast before setting out but generally the parc will be a great deal safer than setting off for your own roaming-free ski tour.
Grand Loop ski tour, Crans-Montana
I joined a group tour on the 5.6km Grand Loop route with an elevation gain of 871m. We had ski hire from the dedicated Rando Shop. I enjoyed my Movement skis.
“Keep it slow and steady,” suggests our guide, Dimitri Matthey, as our group of seven sets off from Aminona, a Swiss mountain village situated in the Valais canton and close to Crans-Montana. “We have a long way to go and to be sure of making it to the top it is better not to go too quick.”
But it is difficult not to be filled with enthusiastic energy as we begin the climb on a snowy mountain track, quickly leaving behind the village roadside.
The air is so fresh, the slope rises gently and the views are the kind that draw you upwards, simply so you can enjoy more of them.
I can’t help but ascend with greedy speed at first, although I do also enjoy frequent stops to survey the beautiful scenery and take photographs.
The skis, fitted with grippy “skins” on the base, slide forwards and upwards with ease. The touring ski bindings are set for ascending, which means that while the toes are fixed, the heels can lift to allow for a slide-step motion.
I use my ski poles for balance and a little push with each ski-step uphill.
Beside me, behind and ahead, on the track, my fellow skiers appear equally thrilled to have forsaken the resort gondolas, chairlifts and tow bars for a self-propelled up.
We chat animatedly to each other, oohing and ahhing at the high Alpine scenery, which is illuminated to picture-postcard perfection by a large, bright sun that is beginning to sink towards the high mountain peaks.
The rising popularity of ski touring
Our group is not the only one on the Rondo Parc trails on a mid-week afternoon. There are several solo skiers dressed for speed and with lithe bodies to suit. One or two zip quietly by, efficiently gliding uphill and most likely enjoying a post-work fitness training session.
Later, I spot a trio of ski tourers accompanied by a bouncy sheepdog. As the three ski in a line, one trailing a little, the dog races back and forth to ensure that none of his companions get left behind.
We are also reminded to keep to the right-hand-side of the wide track as two family groups speed by making their descent on skis with kids on toboggans. Their laughter and squeals as they zoom downhill make me grin back at them.
For our ski touring outing, we will ski uphill into the early evening, hopefully topping out on the Grand Loop trail at 2383m on Petit Mont Bonvin by 6.30pm.
We will then descend by head torch on quiet pistes (the Crans-Montana lifts close at about 4.15pm) to dine at a mountain restaurant at around 7pm.
Making good progress on the Grand Loop
We are still only about 30 minutes into our ascent, yet we are all climbing well. By now, the group has formed a lengthening string, snaking peacefully up the mountain track.
We spot regular Rondo Parc signs, many located on rough tree trunks, reassuring us that we are on the right route.
To the left of the trail, the mountain falls away steeply towards the valley floor. Many areas of the slope are forested with dark green firs, their branches laden with thick snow. Far below the lights of several villages are coming on one by one to create a twinkling display far below.
To the right, the mountain slopes rise steeply above our heads, only the largest rocks sticking out above the deep blanket of snow. Chunky cliffs and tall firs complete a classically Swiss winter scene, minus perhaps the sighting of a small herd of wiry coated mountain goats.
In the distance, the vast panorama of high peaks in the wider Alps is now less brightly illuminated by the setting sun, which dips lower and causes the outlines of the skiers in front to darken to an opaque shadow.
I have been skiing on my own, enjoying the views and my own thoughts, before I find myself alongside one of the group, Katie.
Our pace settles into a companionable rhythm and we ski side-by-side talking about this and that, meanwhile stopping every so often to snap a few pictures of our fabulous surroundings.
It’s not all easy ascending, however
The trail rises at a variety of different gradients and at times it is testingly steep. The touring skis offer three heel height settings, which we switch between to cope with the angle of the slope. (The steeper the slope, the higher our heel setting.)
At the steepest sections, Katie and I cease chatting as we work hard to draw breath. We both seem to enjoy the exertion and comment afterwards on the cardiovascular benefits of ski touring.
I unzip my outer jacket and the zips of my Gore-Tex shell trousers and welcome the cool breeze of the early evening air. I am sweating despite being at a rather chilly altitude of well above 1500m.
The steeps are usually short, then followed by a gentler slope, although in the entire 6km ascent towards the top of Petit Mont Bonvin, there is only one brief section of downhill. It is not much of a descent and so there is no need to remove the skins from the skis.
Light turns to darkness
Katie and I have not noticed that our steady pace has put us quite far ahead of the rest of the group. This is not intentional, rather we have simply slipped into a comfortable pace and we know that if we stop for too long we will end up shivering with cold.
We see another skier, perhaps few hundred metres behind, which gives us comfort in the knowledge that we are still on course.
We have also been careful to follow any signs that we can spot and we are both confident ski tourers, especially when following an obvious track.
When a narrow singletrack leaves the main route, we find ourselves zig-zagging up and around a headland of deep powder snow. The track is still obvious and we enjoy the pristine blankets of untouched snow on either side and as far as we can see.
By now, the sun has almost set and the sky is a pinky-orange, highlighting the numerous snowy mountain peaks.
At seemingly ridiculously frequent intervals, Katie and I exclaim with delight at the stunning vistas. It really does feel like the most perfect place to be on a Wednesday evening in January.
As we climb, the air cools further and a breezy section makes us both work harder to stay warm. Finally, we stop and add layers, including tops and gloves. Heading behind another section of headland we become more sheltered from the wind and we are able to slow a little again.
Katie remarks that this is a relief because she was feeling out of breath. I murmur the same. It isn’t easy skiing uphill on the steeps at an altitude closing in on 2500m.
It’s dark at the top
Having checked the Rando Parc map a few times and continued to follow the Grand Loop signs we are starting to wonder if we will ever make it to the top of Petit Mont Bonvin.
Finally, we round a corner and spot a large shed-like building next to the top of a lift station. We are sure this will be our highest point and then, suddenly, we spot a sign that tells us that, yes, we have made it to the finish of the Grand Loop.
We laugh, take photos and quickly head to the shed to get out of the cold wind. While waiting for the rest of the group to arrive we add more clothing layers and turn our uphill skis into downhill skis.
This requires us to remove the “skins” (placing them in our rucksacks) and switch the heel function to solid/stuck. I love touring skis for their versatility. It still seems like a bit of a miracle to be able to use them to go uphill and then utilise them for downhill skiing as well.
We add more layers of clothing because it’s too easy to get cold at such a height in the night-time Alps. Even so, my hands have become numb with cold and I am grateful that I have remembered to add a couple of handwarmers to my pack.
As Dimitri (from the Ecole Suisse de Ski de Crans-Montana) arrives at the top, he tells us he has hot tea, wine, bread and a selection of meats for us to enjoy. We are thrilled. The ski touring has been tiring and I am hungry.
Skiing downhill by headtorch
As our group reassembles at the top of Petit Mont Bonvin, we turn on our individual headtorches and set off following Dimitri downhill. We ski on a mix of off-piste slopes of delicious powder and neatly groomed slopes.
I am thankful for my awesome Silva headtorch with its superb beam and I thoroughly enjoy skiing in my own pool of bright light. In fact, I am filled with the excitement of skiing downhill at night and with only my headtorch as guidance.
I can see the rest of the group thanks to their headtorches but mostly it feels like a solo ski. What an incredible way to end a very memorable ski tour in the Swiss mountains.
The meal at Mayen Restaurant of the cure was enjoyed by the group, all with big smiles and rosy cheeks.
I highly recommend the Rando Parc Crans-Montana if you get the chance to visit.
Also read about the Swiss ski resort of Crans-Montana.