A travel article about ski touring in Switzerland in the new Rando Parc Crans-Montana. This feature also appeared in the Sunday Mail.
What’s it like to ski tour in Crans-Montana?
“Keep it slow and steady,” says the guide, Dimitri Matthey, as our group of seven sets off from Aminona, a Swiss mountain village in the Valais canton and close to the up-market ski resort 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 fast.”
But it is difficult not to be filled with enthusiastic energy as we begin the climb on a wide and snowy mountain track.
The air is fresh, the slope rises gently and the views are the kind that draw you upwards, simply so you can enjoy more of them.
My touring skis, fitted with grippy “skins” on the base, slide forwards and upwards with ease.
The 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 on the track, my fellow skiers appear just as thrilled to have forsaken the resort gondolas, chairlifts and tow bars for a self-propelled up.
Our group is not the only one in the new Rondo Parc Crans-Montana, acclaimed as the world’s largest ski touring parc.
The network of 15 waymarked trails extends to some 40km with grades to suit all abilities, from easy blues to intermediate reds to expert blacks.
The distances are from a mile to 21miles and elevation gain of between 700ft to 10,000ft.
The ski routes have been created in collaboration with ski mountaineering champion Séverine Pont-Combe.
We have chosen the four-mile “red” Grand Loop and as I ski uphil, two solo skiers zip quietly past me.
I also spot a trio of ski tourers accompanied by a bouncy sheepdog and several family groups whizz downhill having already completed their ascent.
Already 45 minutes into the climb of 2857ft (871m) towards the summit of Petit Mont Bonvin and I am thoroughly enjoying myself.
As the group stretches out in a lengthening line, we each check off regular Rondo Parc signs that reassure us that we are on the right route.
To the left of the trail, the mountain falls away steeply to the valley floor. Thick forests of green firs are laden with snow.
To the right, the mountain slopes rise steeply above our heads, only the largest rocks sticking out above deep snow.
In the distance, a vast panorama of high peaks in the wider Alps, including both Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn, is illuminated by a setting sun.
Skiing higher still, 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.
The trail rises at a variety of different gradients and at times it is very steep.
The touring skis have three heel height settings, which we switch between to cope with the angle of the slope.
At the steepest sections, Katie and I stop chatting as we work hard to draw breath.
We both to enjoy the exertion and comment afterwards on the cardiovascular benefits of ski touring.
I unzip my outer jacket and welcome the cool breeze of the early evening air.
I am sweating despite being at a chilly altitude of well above 5000ft.
When a narrow singletrack leaves the main route, we find ourselves zig-zagging up and around a headland of pristine powder snow.
By now, the sun has almost set and the sky is a pinky-orange, highlighting the tall peaks.
Higher still, the air cools further and a breezy section makes Katie and I work hard to stay warm.
We stop and add layers, including tops and gloves, then ski on behind another section of headland were we are more sheltered from the wind.
We are able to slow a little again and Katie remarks that this is a relief because she was out of breath.
I murmur the same. It’s not easy to ski up on the steeps at such a high altitude.
Having checked the Rando Parc map a few times and continued to follow the signs we are starting to wonder if we will ever make it to the top of Petit Mont Bonvin.
Then, 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 a sign 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 we wait for the rest of the group to arrive at 7818ft (2383m), we add more clothing layers and change our uphill skis into downhill skis.
This requires us to remove the “skins” – placing them in our rucksacks – and switch the heel function to fixed.
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 downhill.
Leading the way again, Dimitri seems impressed with our group’s fitness.
He said: “You have all done well. You were fast to the top. Now for the downhill.”
We turn on our individual headtorches and set off to ski a mix of powdery off-piste slopes and neatly groomed slopes.
The big advantage of this new Rando Parc is that waymarked uphill trails are located next to the famously pristine pistes of Crans-Montana.
It’s the perfect place for skiers of all experience levels to enjoy touring in a relatively safe environment.
It is cold as we descend but within 15 minutes we reach the mountain restaurant, Mayen De Le Cure, pre-booked to serve us a traditional meal of cold meats, raclette and hot potatoes, followed by schnapps.
I am not sure there is a more perfect way to enjoy a mid-week evening in winter.
Travel fact box
Resort: Crans-Montana, Valais, Switzerland
How to get there: Fly easyJet (easyjet.com) from Edinburgh or Glasgow to Geneva or SWISS Air (Swissair.com) for other UK airports.
From Geneva Airport Train Station (a short walk from arrivals) catch a Swiss train to Brig, getting off at Sierre around two hours later.
A short walk, following a red line on the pavement, takes you to a funicular that climbs the mountain to Montana station.
Where to stay: The fully refurbished three-star Hotel ELITE is located on the edge of Jack Nicklaus Golf course in Crans-Montana. It is close to the town’s amenities and entertainment and around a 10-minute walk to the main ski resort gondola uplift. See elite-hotel.com
Where to eat and drink: For information about restaurants and bars see www.crans-montana.ch/en/local_gastronomy
Ski hire: Touring ski hire from the Rando Shop in Crans-Montana. Email: [email protected] also on Facebook.
Ski and snowboard guides: ESS Crans-Montana at esscrans-montana.ch/en/
For more information: About Crans-Montana and the Rando Parc see crans-montana.ch/
Also see Swiss Tourism.
The Sunday Mail article: