Gabriela le Breton, The Daily Telegraph, December 30, 2013
The road to Zinal has terrified me for as long as I can remember. As a child, I’d listen, spellbound, as my father recounted the tale of his first visit to the tiny Alpine village in Switzerland’s French-speaking Valais.
The night-time drive up the Val d’Anniviers from Sierre (533m) to Zinal (1,670m) during a snowstorm in 1958 has gone down in the annals of Le Breton history.
The road, which winds up the valley with a dizzying number of switchbacks, had only been transformed from dirt track to asphalt three years before my grandparents took my 16-year-old father and his younger sister skiing in Zinal. Unprepared for the storm, they were travelling without snow chains, although with a barrel of British beer strapped to the roof. Occasional glimpses of sheer drops bordering the narrow ribbon of tarmac were revealed in the snow-flecked beam of the headlights, striking fear into my vertigo-inclined father’s heart.
I confess that my heart was pounding when I first navigated that twisting road, driving alone, at dusk, in a snowstorm. None the less, just as my father had done 50 years earlier, I realised upon waking in Zinal the next morning to views of the snow-smothered “Imperial Crown” – five mountains over 4,000m that encircle the Anniviers valley, the Matterhorn, Weisshorn, Zinalrothorn, Obergabelhorn and Dent Blanche – that it’s worth every toe-curling turn.
In all, 12 villages dot the slender valley, with Zinal shoehorned into a canyon at its head. The perilous road appears to have delayed time itself: sun-blackened larch raccards (granaries) date as far back as the 12th century and cow fighting is still a highlight of the social calendar. In Grimentz, Zinal’s neighbour and one of the valley’s largest villages (although, with 489 permanent residents, “large” is relative), you can sample Vin du Glacier, droplets of which might be centuries old. The unique wine is an acquired taste, achieved by blending a little of each annual vintage of local white wine in a single larch barrel, the Bishop’s Barrel.
Crafted by coopers in 1886 in honour of the local bishops, the historic barrel is stored in the cellar of La Maison Bourgeoisiale (public hall), which dates to 1550 and still hosts council meetings.
Just as asphalt came late to Val d’Anniviers, so too have tourists. My grandparents were pioneers coming here to ski in the Fifties – even today more than half the visitors to the valley are Swiss, with only three per cent hailing from Britain. And this despite the fact that the valley boasts some 225 kilometres of pistes spread between five villages (the largest single area being Saint Luc-Chandolin, comprising 65km of local pistes), as well as acres of untracked off-piste terrain. Even more remarkably, this little-known valley is merely 15 miles or less, as the crow flies, from the famous resorts of Verbier, Zermatt and Crans-Montana.
However, the introduction of a new cable car next month, which will link the hitherto separate ski areas of Grimentz and Zinal, threatens to catapult this sleepy valley to global stardom. Or at least drag it into the present. On January 18 2014, Switzerland’s third-longest cable car will be unveiled, spanning 3,534m and whisking passengers up 1,100 vertical metres from the slopes of Grimentz to Zinal in only seven minutes. By linking the resorts, visitors will have easier access to their 120km of pistes, a snow park, freeride area and avalanche training park, and hopefully more skiers will be enticed to the valley.
Yet the limited number of skiers in the Val d’Anniviers is a large part of its appeal for a clutch of British emigrants, who came here seeking an authentic Alpine skiing experience and found they couldn’t leave. Will Herrington, former bigwig of luxury ski specialist Powder Byrne, first came to Grimentz eight years ago, felt compelled to return the following year and never left. Now ensconced in Grimentz with his family, Herrington runs Rental Prestige, assisting with chalet purchasing, management and rental in Grimentz.
As I discovered last season, Herrington’s seven privately owned rental properties range from the slick new-build Chalet CBC, complete with state-of-the-art kitchen and outdoor hot tub, to the centuries-old Chalet La Légende, bang in the picture-perfect old heart of Grimentz. Most of his properties are central, walking distance from the lifts, restaurants and three bars (don’t come to Grimentz expecting rowdy nightlife).
I sense that businessman Herrington overrides powder hound Will when he speaks about the new lift to Zinal: “It is undoubtedly an important development for Grimentz – skiers are always looking for large, linked ski areas.” He goes on to say: “Devotees of Grimentz might prefer the slopes to remain empty, but the vote in favour of the new lift at the shareholders’ general assembly was unanimous [hundreds of second-home owners in Grimentz have shares in the lift company], which suggests there are few serious detractors.” The inauguration of the lift is also likely to fast-track other developments in the pipeline for Grimentz, such as a rumoured luxury hotel operated by Six Senses and thermal baths.
Unlike Herrington, I don’t stand to gain from increasing skier numbers in the Val d’Anniviers and would selfishly rather keep it a family secret.
However, I am required to share with you the fact that this is a sublime place to ski: long, sunny cruising runs that remain chalky thanks to the altitude; tranquil snow gardens for family skiing; gentle powder bowls sliding down to the brutally scenic Moiry Dam; untouched off-piste routes punctured by trees and scattered with powder pillows; and 40 to 45-degree couloirs, which snake down Chandolin’s Col des Ombrintzes and host the qualifying rounds of the annual Freeride World Tour. The views are spectacular, the queues non-existent and the mountain restaurants excellent, notably L’Etable du Marais in Grimentz, which does a mean rösti Marais – a mountain of rösti potatoes smothered in ham, cheese, onions and herbs, topped with an egg. Equally impressive but different is the cosy Cabane Illhorn in Chandolin, a rustic mountain hut serving vast portions of polenta, rösti and pasta as well as delicious home-baked fruit tarts.
A day’s heli-skiing with Héli-Alpes to the 3,796m summit of Pigne d’Arolla grants achingly beautiful views, a pristine 1,800-vertical-metre descent through a glacial wonderland and not a sniff of humankind for an entire afternoon. And, at about £200, it’s reasonably affordable. However, visit Grimentz in January, when it’s quiet even by Val d’Anniviers standards, and you can enjoy a similar skiing experience within the resort’s ski area, with a 10 per cent discount on your lift pass.
When I told my grandparents I was writing about “their” valley, their eyes twinkled with memories. I believe that every skier should have a secret valley in their life and I count myself lucky to have shared mine with two generations of my family – and hopefully more to come.
Rental Prestige (0041 27 476 2026; rentalprestige.com ) offers one week’s rental in Chalet Dragon (sleeping six) from £2,330 on a serviced self-catered basis.
Fly to Geneva with Swiss ( swiss.com ) from £125, including ski carriage. Drive to Grimentz (two hours) or travel by railway to Sierre (two hours, 10 minutes; £40 return; sbb.ch ) and onwards with Taxi Anniviers (45 minutes; £80 for up to four people, £128 for up to eight people; taxianniviers.ch ) or post bus (one hour; £20 return; sbb.ch ).
Will Herrington, Rental Prestige
With more than 20 years’ experience working in the Swiss Alps, it’s testament to the Val d’Anniviers that Will Herrington should have chosen to settle in Grimentz. He’s an invaluable contact for anyone buying property in the valley or planning a holiday here. Herrington offers his guests refreshing flexibility: they can cater for themselves, with the help of daily deliveries of fresh bread and pastries and a midweek chalet clean, or upgrade to include “simple suppers”, delivered each afternoon for reheating, and daily cleaning. Herrington is also on hand to coordinate lift passes, equipment rental, tuition, guiding and restaurant reservations and advise on all things local.
Nick Parks, Grimentz-Zinal Backcountry Adventures
Founder of the highly regarded British guiding outfit Mountain Tracks, Nick Parks knows the world’s finest ski resorts inside out and, tellingly, elected to launch his latest venture in Zinal. Parks knows the terrain around Grimentz and Zinal intimately and, with his crack team of IFMGA-qualified guides, he’ll ensure that you’re more likely to spot chamois than humans as you explore the area. A day’s bespoke guiding costs from £85 per person, with five-day courses (for all levels from beginner to expert) starting from £545 (020 3287 7478; backcountryadventures.co.uk ).
Eric and Penny Kendall, Ski Zinal
The Kendalls lived the dream for a decade, travelling to 300 ski resorts on four continents in their roles as ski writer and photographer. It was Zinal that captured their hearts and halted their wanderings. They now operate the 10-person catered Chalet Edelweiss in the hamlet of Mottec, just two minutes out of Zinal, three self-catered chalets in Zinal and a self-catered property in Saint Luc. Chalet Edelweiss can be booked by the room, rather than on an exclusive-use basis, from £700 per person per week (020 8144 7575; skizinal.com ).