By Sophie Ibbotson
I have found the perfect place to escape the damp, gray days of an English winter. The skies are a brilliant blue, the bright sunshine makes the snow sparkle like Swarovski crystals, and I am sat looking out at a panoramic view of the Swiss Alps with the warmth of a wood-burning fire behind me and a glass of a crisp local wine in my hand. Truly life doesn’t get much better than this!
I expect you have heard of the luxurious Swiss ski resort of Verbier; well, I am writing to tell you that those who really do know their red runs from their blacks, and their fondue from their raclette, head to the opposite end of the 4 Vallees, the largest ski area entirely within Switzerland. Here you will find a trio of smaller, much more charming resorts – Nendaz, Veysonnaz, and Thyon – which cling to the mountainsides high above Sion, the capital of Valais canton. These picturesque villages are the epitome of what I imagined Switzerland to be, with chocolate-box wooden chalets dotted between coniferous trees dusted with snow, cattle lowing in their barns, and, in a magical moment one morning, the sound of church bells ringing gently from the bell tower of the parish church.
The thing which has struck me most, besides the weather and the dramatic beauty of the Alpine landscapes, is how quiet it is. The weather is glorious and the powder is deep and fluffy, but my friends and I almost have the pistes to ourselves. I haven’t once had to queue for a lift, or struggled to find a seat on a sun-drenched terrace for a hot chocolate or mid-afternoon beer. When we climbed to the physical highpoint of the the 4 Vallees, which is Mont Fort (10,919 ft above sea level) in Nendaz sector, we could see miles in every direction, including to Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn, but other garishly-clad skiers and snowboarders were few and far between. It was just us, the peaks, and the snow, which is exactly how it should be. I have therefore been able to stretch myself, skiing further than usual and concentrating on my technique, without the worry of having to slalom between small children wobbling in ski school, or the erratic movements of twenty-somethings on a lads’ week away. The staff in the resorts are happy to see me, not fraught and overworked, and when it comes to the all-important après ski, there’s a lively enough vibe but not a scrum to get to the bar. There are certainly similarities with the French Alps, but it feels much less crowded and hence is a better experience.
This week I have had time not only to immerse myself in nature, but also to learn a little about this pristine Alpine ecosystem surrounding me. In Thyon, took a walk with mountain guide Etienne Jaccottet, tromping through the forest in snow shoes. On the way from Veysonnaz to meet him, I saw a huge stag with impressive antlers at the side of the road. The stag was startled, turned, and fled to the safety of the trees, but it was the ideal introduction to the creatures living here. Etienne explained about the delicate balance between the various species and man. Wolves have been reintroduced into this part of the Alps, and the lynx population is growing, too. These predators help to keep the deer in check. If there are too many deer they damage the young saplings, and the forests struggle to regenerate and grow. We also spoke about climate change, as changing weather patterns are already adversely impacting both the natural world and those who depend on it for their livelihood. The snow came late to the Alps this year, and though the 4 Vallees is relatively high and has plenty of snow cannons to keep the ski slopes open, it is an issue which should concern us all.
On that note I shall sign off and return to my wine and the view. If you need me, you know where to find me!
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