Blown Away in Verbier

Chasing Ace Kvale, John Falkiner, and the Clambin' kids across Verbier's steep terrain Volume 18, Issue 4)

In celebration of POWDER’s 45th Anniversary, we are releasing select stories from every volume. This story originally published in POWDER’s December 1989 issue (Volume 18, Issue 4).

Story by Casey Sheahan | Photos by Kvale Shapiro

Something told me to put on the brakes about 15 feet from the edge of a steep out-of-bounds couloir on the backside of Verbier Mont-Fort summit station. For some reason I didn’t want to look down the couloir before we skied it. Standing in front of me were former British team downhiller Konrad Bartelski, my wife, Tara, and two of Verbier’s hottest local skiers, Ace Kvale and John Falkiner. The four of them sidestepped to the edge of the gully and peered down through the mist at the chute which fell from a cornice– much like Jackson Hole’s Corbett’s Couloir–then narrowed between a pair of rock fins.

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“This is Lito’s Run,” Ace said referring to writer Lito Tejada-Flores, who first wrote about this run in a POWDER story three years ago. While not exactly an extreme ski descent, at 40 degrees the run was steep enough to get my adrenaline pumping. Added to that, a recent storm had left three feet of powder over crust–perfect conditions for some sizable sloughs if not a full-blown slide. Ace admitted he was a little wary because he’d skied off from his chalet in Clambin that morning– thinking we’d stick to the packed pistes–without his avalanche transceiver and shovel.

Even though John had kicked off most of the snow in the couloir, I was secretly panicked that an avalanche would suddenly come rushing down on us from above.

I was trying to psych myself for a leap off the cornice while secretly questioning why I had allowed myself to get sandbagged up here. I wanted to blame it on this guy Konrad we had met on the tram. He had asked John if he knew where the memorial to Konrad’s fellow British ski team member, Willy Bailey, (buried in an avalanche in on of the couloirs near where we were standing), was located. “Sure,” John said, uttering the famous last words, “If the snow looks safe, I’ll take you there…”

Falkiner waited for the entire 150-person tram-load of skiers to pass before he ducked the rope and edged onto a breathtakingly steep slope that fell 2000 feet to his right– rocks poking like daggers through the shiny surface. He poked his pole into the snow a few times, then announced in a thick Australian accent, “No worries, she’ll be right.” He traversed across the top of this slope and around a corner to the steeper north-facing gully.

Tara and I turned toward each other with that wide-eyed “what-now?” kind of look. Tara asked Ace what would happen if we fell. Ace simply replied, “Don’t fall.” We skittered warily after John, thereby committing ourselves to the kind of wild mountain adventure that makes Europe the hairiest, most exciting place to ski in the world.

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John led the way down the couloir landing softly in three feet of powder, telemarketing beautifully as huge sections of the slope sloughed from the tips of his skis. We watched him until he dropped into the clouds.

Conrad jumped in, skiing careful, low-speed GS turns. Then it was Tara’s and my turn, with Ace following to clean up the wreckage. The fog was so thick you couldn’t see whether the snow was deep and powdery or had been scraped clean to the crust. Falkiner waited for us 200 yards below. “I skied ahead so I could knock down as much snow as U could before you guys go here,” he said with a grin. “I didn’t want you to be nervous, but Jesus, I kicked off a lot more than I bargained for!” He was standing to the edge of the couloir at the top of the rock fins where the gulley narrowed to a sk width. What little snow that remained in the gully was bulletproof crust…

We were skiing the back of the 11,000-foot Mont-Fort on our fourth day in Verbier. Until just before we arrived in Switzerland last April, winter in Europe had been a disaster. “The skiing sucks,” photographer Mark Shapiro had hold us in a mid-February fax, “even though we’re skiing high places and making extreme descents on runs you’d never ski in a normal winter because the avalanche danger is so low.”

We told Mark we were coming over to matter what in April, figuring that if we waited any longer to visit the Clambin crew of ski models, extreme skiers and photographers (the Team includes Australian-born ski models John Falkiner and Lisa Nicholas, former Telluride freestyler Ace Kvale, Toronto-born photographer Mark Shapiro) we might as well bring mountain bikes.

With the exception of Shapiro, who lives in town, Team Clambin lives in a cluster of tiny chalets on the edge of a ski run a half-run above Verbier. It’s an ideal ski bum hangout in any season, but a snowless winter will test the mettle of any diehard, and the Clambin kids had evacuated to go skiing in Kashmir a few weeks before we arrives. Winging home from their expedition on a route that brought them directly over the Swiss Alps, Ace John and Mark ran from side to side in the place, astonished to see that it had stormed heavily while they were gone. As Tara and I drove up the long winding road to Verbier, two feet of powder covered wildflowers that had sprouted on the hillsides in the sunny March weather. At dinner that night with Mark, we heard that the Mont Fort tram had been closed for a week due to a storm.

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Thursday, April 20, was probably the best day of skiing Verbier had last winter. John took us up to the Medran lift out of downtown Verbier, the first of four lifts that would take us to the Mont-Fort telecabine, We reached the bottom of the Mont-Fort just as Ace and five other American telemarketers– smiling like they’d just won the lottery–finished their first run.

As we rode up the tram, I asked John why there was a huge roped-off area in the middle of the glacier. “There’s a couple of crevasses and a steep breakover at the bottom that slides ager storms,” he said. “But if you follow me closely, we can pick out way through it.”

The top of the steep Mount-Fort run was covered in three feet of powder. In places, the snow already had been sliced into bumps by the several trainloads who had skied it. But the run was still unskilled in the middle of the glacier– the other side of the rope. Typical of most resorts in Europe, Verbier ski patrol will warn you about potential dangers, but if you want to go ahead and disregard the signs, you’re free to do so. If you hurt yourself and have to be rescued, expect to pay for it.

Shapiro had told us about a women he had chatted with at the top of the Mont-Fort on an icy day, who then turned, fell on one of the six-foot high bumps and skipped from mogul to mogul all the way to the bottom

People risk their lives on the Mont-Fort every year. Shapiro had hold us a story at breakfast that morning about a woman he had chatted with at the top of the Mont-Fort on an icy day, who then turned, fell on one of the six-foot high humps and skipped from mogul to mogul all the way to the bottom.

“She was dead by the time she hit the run-out,” said Mark. “A helicopter came and took her body away.” As Falkiner lead the way into the roped-off glacier snowfield, tele-surfing through the sparkly powder, I tried not to think about the Mont-Fort’s deadly reputation. The snow was fast, making it hard to adjust my rhythm to the steepness of the face. “You’re working too hard,” said Falkiner patiently. “Don’t try to turn your skis until the camber reverses out. Let ‘em arc through the fall-line until you feel the pressure release, then put them into the next turn.”

I felt the groove as I dropped over the glacial headwall following Faulkner’s tracks. The top layer of snow avalanched around me but was so light it didn’t affect my turns. I was linking turns by making deliberate pole plants and bouncing from side-to-side through the powder . The nine of us–six American tele-borders and three gat board skiers–floated down the face together, turning, burning, and roarding onto the flats before pulling up to the packed run to skate the snow out of clothes. Nothing like a high-speed run through the crevasses to make you feel alive in the Alps.

It was late afternoon when we finally skied off the mountain. Time for tea at the Clambin chalet. The whole mad group swooped down a series of coral-headed bump runs, cat tracks, and cow paths to a meadow above town dotted with wooden chalets. Everyone slid to a stop at Clabin—the old wooden clubhouse/ashram for expatriots Ace, John and Lisa and a huge resident Swiss mountain dog named Bari.

Sipping tea, we soaked in the view from the wooden bench at the main Clambin chalet. The Mont Blanc Massif towered to the west. A mile below us was the vivid green Rhone Valley. In every direction, huge snow-covered slopes blanketed the high peaks. If Verbier didn’t qualify as a skier’s paradise this winter, just listening to Ace and John’s stories about season’s past made you realize the potential.

“There’s nothing like it,” said Ace, describing the 7500-foot vertical run you could make from the top of the Mong Fort to the village of Le Chable below us. “You can catch air over terraced vineyards and ski through beautiful orchards. In mid-winter, you can have powder all the way to the bottom. It’s definitely one of the longest runs in Europe.

The thought of all that vertical had the Americans making rough calculations to compare Verbier to their home resorts. But dogs like Bari could care less about such numbers; he long ago figured out how to make the mountain work to his advantage. His daily routine beings with a downhill migration to town, where he cruises the back doors of the cafes for handouts. He naps in various locations and allows himself to be petted by the tourists. Then around five in the afternoon, he lumbers over to the Medran station and catches the last gondola up the mountain. From there he pads down the ski trail to Clambin, just in time for dinner.

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Twenty five years ago, Verbier was a quaint little farm village in the French-speaking portion of southwestern Switzerland. But a former Swiss army captain named Rodolphe Tissieres, who walked and skied in the area after World War II, envisioned a great ski area here. Today, Verbier has 85 ski lifts, 200 miles of runs and reputation as one of Europe’s top five resorts.

Verbier has become increasingly popular with all nationalities of skiers—from Sweden To the British to the ever-increasing numbers of Americans. So far the resort is free of swaggering one upmanship and the weekly death toll of some other mountain towns like Chamonix. Maybe it’s Verbier’s low-key pace, but there just aren’t as many egomaniac media-seekers around. The sponsored skiers, pink-haired snowboarders, crazy parapenters and climbers gravitate to Chamonix– a 90-minute drive away.

It was our last day in Verbier and we were off on an adventure John Falkiner refers to as “circuit skiing,” in Verbier’s circular lift system to outrun the sun and ski the best snow all over the mountain. John pointed out the extreme ski descents he and Ace were able to makes last winter because of the stable snowpack.

Today started off as more normal on piste ski day. In the last 24 hours while we were caffe-bound in Verbier because of storm, avalanches had pulled out of nearly every steep chute in the ski area. Our morning took us to some incredible in-bounds runs: steep face below the Col De Mouche, a huge bowl above the Tortin lift into which you could fit about half the ski areas in Colorado. Our day wasn’t half over when Konrad asked John if he could find Willy’s memorial. That’s when I found myself sideslipping through the narrow rock-lined gully of Lito’s Run on the backside of the Mont-Fort.

Even though John had kicked off most of the snow in the couloir, I was secretly panicked that an avalanche would suddenly come rushing down on us from above. Picking our way through the chute, we heard voices yelling to one another in the clouds above us. “It’s probably a guide taking his group to another couloir,” said Ace. “Let’s get out of here and around the corner as fast as possible.”

We skied below the rock fins and found ourselves in the middle of a beautiful mountain amphitheater, a “mini-Bugaboos” of peaks capped with fog. A huge easy-angled glacier spread out before us. This was heli-ski terrain without the helicopter, a lovely spot called Le Grand Desert. And there was’t a track in it.

Free from the claustrophobic couloir, we made high-speed arcs down the glacier. The runs seemed like it would last forever. One slope led to another with an occasional steep headwall to keep you on your toes.

Far below us on a small mound, we could see Willy’s memorial. Somewhere above us was the slope where Willie had died. Now leading and probably thinking of the thousands of turns he had made with Willy on slopes like this all over the world, Konrad skied down to a granite boulder with a tiny plaque.

But we didn’t stay long with Willy. The sun was rising in the sky–threatening us with our own avalanche problems. At the side of Lac de Cleuson we passed an 800-year old church that had somehow survived hundreds of huge slides while the village that once surrounded it had long since vanished. How’s that for religious power? We skied around the lake, then down a steep face on the edge of the dam that blocks the canyon. Finally we dropped into Super-Nendaz, the end of a mind-blowing five-mile run. It would take us three long lifts to get back to Verbier.

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We left Verbier the next morning, driving back down the switchbacks from town on a warm cloudless day. Most of the flowers that were smothered by the big storm had survived. Above us a neon orange parapente soared toward the valley. We wondered what Team Clambin would be doing today. Telemarking off the Mont-Fort? Poring over slides from Kashmir? Or just sitting on the porch of the chalet with a cup of tea?

By the time we reached Le Chable, the spring sun had us peeling off sweaters and looking forward to lunch at an outdoor cafe in Italy. Winter was shot in Europe, but for us at least, it was as sweet as it gets.

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