The 3,000 metre Mont Gele peak above the Swiss town of Verbier is serviced by one single cable car that opens up multiple faces of arguably the best lift-serviced freeride mountain in Europe. Devoid of any groomed pistes and with just one marked itinerary route that is as steep as any black run, Mont Gele is a unique offering to skiers looking to test their off-piste skills out, whatever level they might be.
I found myself with British ski instructor Jamie Heywood, part of the team at The Warren Smith Ski Academy, the eponymously named ski school run by Smith for over twenty years in the resort.
Jamie’s ‘Supergroup’ (the top level group in the resort that week) is set up for experienced skiers that are looking to tick several boxes including off-piste guiding, ski technique tips and social skiing. Everyone here has skied Mont Gele before, but skiing a mountain like this alone just isn’t an option. Jamie pushes and encourages the group, picking alternative lines down the north face of the peak that I would never have found.
The academy is very focused on technical skills and developing biomechanical movements that help skiers actually pull off what the instructors ask them to do. “If your range of movement is not large enough to actually perform what you’re being asked to do then you’ll never be able to do it in the first place”, says Warren.
Back up on Mont Gele, the focus is very much more about the tactical skills required to ski down safely and in control and Jamie scopes out the next pitch. It had snowed about 30 centimetres the night before, just enough to provide some soft powder snow conditions but not quite deep enough to stop the skis hitting the harder base below.
This is where the group dynamics work well and an experienced guide can help steer things away from troubled spots and Jamie managed to find some sheltered bowls where the snow had accumulated significantly more – the first powder turns in two years felt incredible.
All skiers in the Supergroup are given avalanche safety equipment if they don’t already own it. Most of the time is spent off-piste and the idea came when clients of the academy wanted a course that pushed them more physically and emotionally. The terrain in Verbier is set up perfectly for the kind of skier that is looking for a shot of adrenaline, but with the safety catch of an experienced and qualified instructor.
We push on down the wide open and empty snow fields towards the Col de Gentiane and the bottom of the Tortin lift. After that some of the classic routes that spur off the side of Mont Gele were tackled, including the infamous Tortin run and its wilder (and hidden) off-shoot, Col de la Mouche.
If the Supergroup sounds a little too much then the academy offers ski courses for all levels from 1 to 6 on their own scale. Level 1 is skiers transitioning from snowplough to parallel turns and level 6 would be skiers actively competing in competition skiing and/or looking to achieve the very highest ski instructor qualifications. The minimum standard for the Supergroup is level 4, skiers who can already handle off-piste terrain, moguls and steepest marked runs.
I caught up Warren to ask how things were going in Verbier this season.
Top things to do in Verbier
According to Warren Smith from the Warren Smith Ski Academy
The highest lift serviced point in Verbier’s 4 Valley’s ski area, the 3,330 metre peak offers incredible views in all directions, with Mont Blanc to the front and The Matterhorn to the back. There’s a red and a black run, often heavily moguled, on the front side and the legendary off-piste itinerary route for experts only over the back. The long run ends with a shimmy around the dam wall before finishing in the village of Siviez. It’s worth heading up for the views alone.
The action on the slopes doesn’t stop off them in Verbier and the Farinet is the place to go for live music at the end of the day. Every afternoon guest bands play well-known cover songs and the covered terrace fills up with partygoers in a pre-dinner slot that gets everyone in a party mood.
One of the most exciting single mountain peaks in the Alps serviced by a lift, with multiple faces that offer skiers and snowboarders extreme challenges wherever you look. This is an incredible freeride playground with large amounts of terrain that would take seasons to explore and for any aspiring freerider it should be a ‘must do’ mountain and for those with years of experience, it’s a tick in the box for anyone looking to knock off the classic ski runs of the Alps.
Verbier is well-known for its off-piste and freeride terrain but Warren points out the incredible job the resort has done to keep the marked ski runs in great shape. The long run from the top of Les Attelas down to Medran (Verbier) is one of the best in the 4 Valley’s region – best skied in the morning when it’s quieter and with a vertical drop of around 1,000 metres, if you carve non-stop all the way down then you probably deserve a coffee at the Arctic Juice and cafe right at the end of the slope.
For information about courses with the Warren Smith Ski Academy, visit: www.warrensmith-skiacademy.com
For more information about Verbier visit www.verbier.ch
Rob stayed at the 3* Hôtel Bristol from £202 per night per room, £101pp, including breakfast. Visit www.bristol-verbier.ch/ or call +41 27 771 65 77 for more information.
The 4* Hotel de Verbier starts from 227chfs/£185 per night per room, £92.50pp, including breakfast. Please visit hoteldeverbier.com/ or call +41 27 564 40 00 for more information.
Travel to Verbier from the UK
SWISS operates up to 180 weekly flights to Switzerland from London Heathrow, London City, Manchester, Birmingham, Edinburgh (seasonal during summer) and Dublin from £59 one-way. www.swiss.com
Transfers by train from Geneva or Zurich Airports:
The Swiss Transfer Ticket covers a round-trip between the airport/Swiss border and destination. Prices are £131.50 in second class and £211 in first class. Return 2nd class tickets costs £44. www.sbb.ch
Lift passes: A six-day adult lift pass for Verbier Valley is priced from 348 CHF/ £276; a six-day adult lift pass for 4 Vallees is priced from 379 CHF / £309.