When I say big, how about seventh largest in Switzerland, measured by uplift? In this most alpine of nations, that’s saying something. And though there’s little to push anyone craving super-steep, there’s plenty for the biggest bracket of all – people who just want to cruise the mountains for a week, soaking up the exceptional views and getting that all-important sense of travel you find only in a place that spans several valleys. Adelboden even links with Lenk (there’s a catchy slogan) for added acreage. Freestylers get an impressive park complete with authentic-looking wooden obstacles and a booming terrace of people much younger than me, sunbathing with ski-goggles on. (Don’t knock it ’till you’ve tried it.)
And then there’s the off-piste. Adelboden’s backcountry opportunities are as abundant as they are reassuring, with easy-to-access, empty little valleys somehow hidden between the main ski areas, and few alarming bits. It’s all steep enough but not hair-raisingly so, with rocky outcrops, pockets of trees and quaint old chalets rather than couloirs and cliffs. The local ski school can provide a guide to open this world to you, so factor in several days to do it justice, especially if you’re new to freeriding. This must be one of the easiest playgrounds in which to find your feet, with no pesky competition for the powder.
Andermatt is at the other end of the scale in terms of size and development. Its not-so-secret weapon is snow. When the rest of the Alps is having a bad snow year, Andermatt, in the middle of the Gotthard massif, is doing great, and when everyone’s having a good year, Andermatt breaks records. But a funny-shaped mountain, the Gemsstock, that gets steeper the lower you go, and infrastructure that’s stuck in the 1970s means it hasn’t developed as it might have.
The Swiss Army garrison (the infamous SAS – Saturdays And Sundays part-time soldiers) that piles into the cable car each morning, with skis so old they must surely come back into fashion soon, probably hasn’t helped. But that funny shaped mountain also gives easy access to points south, east and west, with endless valley systems to explore with a guide. There’s everything here, from wide-open powder fields begging for you to etch rhythmic turns down them, to deep, gulley-like valleys that twist multi-kilometre paths through the mountains and reliably fill with snow, week on week. The perfect start involves just ten minutes bootwork to drop down a deep valley to Hospental for a late lunch – the kind of run that would be the off-piste jewel in the crown of many resorts. In Andermatt, you’ve only just begun.
Finally, don’t miss the Val d’Anniviers, not one resort but four tucked deep in the jumble of mountains that stretch between Zermatt and Verbier. After the death-defying hairpins that take you up into the valley, the villages of Zinal, Grimentz, St Luc-Chandolin and Vercorin are a short drive away.
All the ski areas can be accessed with one liftpass and there are regular buses and shuttles to link them. That’s the boring but essential bit. For the ‘I’ve died and gone to heaven’ bit – where to start? The views impress at first sight, and forever after. Then there’s the skiing – much of it relatively steep in Zinal and Grimentz, with wide open mountainsides and superb off-piste terrain within bounds and beyond, mostly north/north-east facing, from just below 3,000m to village level of 1,600m. Lack of snow is seldom an issue, but in belt-and-braces style they’ve bunged in plenty of snowmaking too. St Luc-Chandolin is a blast, with fast, rolling piste skiing. The south-west aspect means this is the place where sunny lunches last longer than the powder, but frankly, who cares? Vercorin – the smallest of the lot – is the place for tree skiing and more of the charm you’ll find throughout the valley.