There are roads in the Alps which lead to surprises, and the painfully thin trail turning off the wide Rhone Valley floor at Sion for the paradise that is the Val d’Anniviers, is one such road. Winding its way like a coiled snake towards uncrowded slopes and untracked snow, it hangs from the steep-sided cliffs, deterring anything larger than a minibus. It’s this physical deterrence that has kept the large scale tour operators at bay, and while the local bus does ply its trade here, there is no way the road could cope with a busy coach-filled weekend transfer day.
One thing that shouldn’t come as a surprise is that at the head of the valley, in the small resort of Zinal, you’ll find ski guide Nick Parks. Nick used to live and work in Chamonix, as well as traveling all over the world as lead guide for Mountain Tracks. Tired of competing for fresh lines and some solitude with the multitude of other mountain guides in Chamonix, Nick then left the mountains, to become Bear Grylls’s safety adviser. However: “It was never going to work for ever. I couldn’t stay away from the mountain for long, and there comes a point, even in the life of a nomadic guide, when you have to find somewhere to put down some roots,” explains Nick.
“I still love the buzz of travel and skiing new places, that won’t totally stop, but I’d heard about the powder of Grimentz-Zinal on the guide grapevine; and after taking a look, I knew that at last I had found a place to call home.”
So after years spent descending the mountains of the world, Nick has finally unpacked his suitcase and set up Grimentz-Zinal Backcountry Adventures – for skiers looking for a sense of wilderness skiing, right in the heart of the Alps.
“There are so few guides here that none of the off piste routes have names, so I’ve chosen to make my own map, using the Lord of the Rings as the theme. You can descend into Helms Deep, and it’s easy to get lost in the trees of the Fangorn Forest.”
I join Nick and a small group of skiers one Sunday in peak season February, meeting up in the early morning chill, with the sun still to penetrate to the valley floor, for first lift up from the sleepy village of Zinal.
“Here, use this today,” Nick says, handing me an avalanche airbag. “We all ride with them here! You do have a transceiver and shovel, don’t you?” I nod an acknowledgment as I quickly move my kit into the airbag, depositing my now empty bag into my hire car.
It’s 8.30 am, and outside of our small group, there are only 6 other people waiting for the morning’s first cable car.
“Okay, we’ll just drop down to the drag lift over there”, instructs Nick with a wave of his pole, and we all follow him into the piste-side powder, speeding across some rolling terrain towards the lift. Safely regrouped, we head a bit higher for the day’s first real run.
“Now we’re going to drop over the back here; it’s a safe slope, especially at this time of day, but I’ll go first and then you can come down one at a time and regroup where I’m waiting.” Nick is a short guy and he almost vanishes into the very deep snow, leaving a few whoops of joy in his wake. There is plenty of slope, so we each obediently wait for our turn, while Nick watches from below to evaluate our group’s skill level.
“Great! We’ve got a strong group, so let’s head up high and drop down the front face into the woods.”
I’m having a great time; I’ve already snowboarded some deep snow and it isn’t even 10 o’clock yet – it’s shaping up to be a brilliant day. Next up we ride a sun-drenched powder field, but before dropping into the woods, Nick stops us and recounts his version of a traditional guide’s horror story (told to encourage groups to slow down) which in this case involves a half-buried log, a ski and a dislocated leg. Needless to say we do all slow down, if only a little, as we pick our way through the trees, before joining a hiking trail back into Zinal’s lift system.
We jump straight off chair lifts into deep powder over and over again. Many of the longer descents end in a blast down a summer hiking trail or snow covered road; some have a short hike or skin back to the nearest piste or lift – but none of which is so long as to make me think that the fresh turns I’ve just had weren’t worth the little effort it takes to get back into the lift system.
“Okay it’s getting late: one more run in from up high?”
He doesn’t really need to ask, as our group is having a blast, and we all answer with smiles and nods. So we soon find ourselves at the top of a very long drag lift looking down into a huge steep bowl of untracked snow.
“This is probably the most dangerous part of the day. We need to traverse that slope over there, staying high, with an aim to regroup on that ridge; it’ll be safe over there. I’ll go first and then you’ll cross it one at a time, without stopping. Don’t set off until the person in front is on the ridge, understand?”
We do, and being the only snowboarder, I wait until a couple of skiers have put some tracks into the snow, then set off on my toe edge with my heart in my mouth. I safely make it across without losing any height and look down on an untouched wilderness of snow crying out to be cut up by our skis and board. Which is exactly what we do, making it the perfect last ride of an epic day.
In this globalised world of mass information, it’s hard to imagine a secret valley, smack bang in the middle of the world-renowned but quickly tracked up resorts of Zermatt and Verbier. But it does exist: a quiet place of tight-sided valleys, set within a larger one, that offers mile upon mile of lift accessed backcountry skiing, still untouched days after the last snowfall. If you’re lucky enough to find your way there, be sure to look up Nick, and go lose yourself in Middle Earth.