September 2008 Skiing the Swiss Valais region by Catherine Murphy

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Mont Fort cable car

Nendaz is a name that only a handful of Irish skiers are familiar with. Yet this unassuming resort in the Swiss Valais region is linked into one of Europe’s biggest and toughest ski areas, the Four Valleys.

The resort that most of us connect with the 412km Four Valleys area is Verbier, that haven of wealth and sunshine: home to Richard Branson’s exclusive new lodge: trendy nightclubs like Coco and Farm, companies like Picnics On the Piste and loaded business tycoons who build incredibly expensive chalets on the side of the mountain and moan about the lack of Michelin star restaurants in the region.

Nendaz, an hour from Verbier by road, might as well be a million miles away. A mid-sized, medium-priced resort, it’s more laid back than its ultra-posh neighbour and is home to hundreds of privately-owned apartments and chalets. There are just a handful of hotels, although there are plans to build four and five star accommodation and a wellness centre at ‘La Glace de Mer’.

 

Nendaz has one or two Irish links – Ennis woman Carmel Synnott has been living there for 20 years and runs an interiors shop in the village while the chef at the Mont Rouge hotel trained in Kinsale and has the cuisine to prove it.

Nowadays 50pc of Nendaz’ visitors are Swiss and the resort is only now beginning to appear on the UK ski market’s radar with Crystal Holidays selling it for the first time last season. The real beauty of this undiscovered gem is that it lies at the very heart of the Four Valleys and is closer to some of the ski terrain most coveted by Verbier’s off-piste and powder hounds.

Nendaz’ own ski area is compact and best suited to beginners and young families, with the frozen lake at the top of Le Tracouet lift providing a centre of fun and games for children learning to ski.  The resort’s highest point, Dent de Nendaz, offers views of the Printse and Rhone valleys and off-piste options while two main runs back to the village are surprisingly long and challenging for nervous intermediates. Nendaz is also home to the Burton Progression Park, easily accessible from Le Tracouet and aimed at beginner and intermediates who want to improve their snowpark skills.

 

 

But it’s the 20 minute bus ride or 40 minute ski over to Siviez that brings ambitious advanced skiers to where they really want to be.

A chairlift from Siviez takes skiers to the Tortin sector, home of the infamous and seemingly endless Tortin mogul field that is at once revered and feared by skiers.

From here, a cable car transports you to the absolute heart of the Four Valleys, the 3,300 metre high Mont Fort, which offers some of the most stunning views in all of Europe. Among the 20 or so 4,000m peaks visible, you will easily spot the Matterhorn, Mont Blanc and Rosablanche.

On the way up to Mont Fort, you may also have spotted the entrance to Stairway to Heaven, one of the Four Valley’s most popular off-piste routes, which requires a 15 minute steepish hike to reach fresh powder.

While many skiers are content to bash the busy Verbier pistes around Attelas, La Chaux, Les Ruinettes and Savoleyres, the Four Valleys is famed for its high mountain ski routes, most of which are easily accessible by lift.  Watch out for names like Col des Gentianes, Vallon d’Arbi, avalanche-prone Col des Mines, Chassoure and the fabulous off-piste Greppon Blanc.

 

Once you’ve admired the views from the top of the Mont Fort cable car, it’s decision-time.

With options ranging from steep to steeper, this part of the mountain is for advanced or expert skiers only.

The steepest section under the cable car has a gradient of around 40 degrees and moguls – not for the faint-hearted – then opens out into glorious powder (if there’s just been a fresh snowfall). Skiing this section also gives you the excuse to have lunch at the Cabane de Tortin, which manages to serve up oysters and delicious mountain food despite its apparent inaccessibility.

Apart from skiing the front side of Mont Fort, your only other option from the highest point at 3,300 metres is to ski the backside of Mont Fort, an altogether more difficult option with a tricky entrance, exposed rocky sections that you cannot afford to fall on and steep moguls.  The backside opens up a wonderful world of off-piste and ski-touring options, again totally accessible from the lift. If you haven’t skied it before, get yourself a helmet and hire a mountain guide, preferably someone like Dutch guide Sander Kan, who’s based in Nendaz.

When you have skied it, sit back and relax in the sunshine that this region enjoys for over 300 days each year. Take tomorrow off to go snowshoeing or to walk winter trails, then pat yourself on the back with a beer in the Cactus bar, our favourite Nendaz local.

 

 

WHAT’s HOT

Access to 412km of piste, excellent high mountain routes and off-piste options.

Great views from the top of the Mont Fort cable car and bone-shaking moguls at Tortin and Chassoure.

Great skiing without the hefty price tag. You won’t find €10,000 Verbier cocktails in Nendaz.

High altitude skiing with most runs above 1,700 metres and a high point of 3,300m.

Fewer English-speaking visitors than many European resorts. No queues and empty slopes in January.

Neige Aventure ski school, our favourite.

Family friendly with day nursery, ski lessons for children from the age of 2-3 and special family prices.

 

WHAT’S NOT

Too much traffic in the resort during peak season, although there are plans to relieve this problem with proposed underground carparks on the edge of the resort.

Buses to Siviez can be packed during peak season. If you opt to ski to Siviez, queues for Le Tracouet lift can also be long during mid February and if it hasn’t snowed for a while, conditions on the ski across to Siviez can be poor.

Lack of four star accommodation and wellness facilities. Nendaz has no public swimming pool but you can take a bus to Les Bains de Saillon to swim in thermal waters.

The downside of quiet runs in early January is quiet bars and restaurants but we still had lots of fun in the Cactus, locals bar the Forum and The Canadian.

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