Verbier’s legendary skiing is part natural brilliance and part hard work, says Tom Otley.

At around seven in the morning, while the Swiss resort of Verbier is still in darkness and the surrounding mountains indistinguishable from the night-time sky, the patrouille (ski patrollers) begin their day’s work. Overnight, in preparation, as skiers fill the après-ski bars then move on to restaurants and nightclubs, the lights of the snow cats can be seen grooming the slopes ready for the next day. That job completed, now it is time to make those same pistes safe before the day’s skiing can begin.

To see what is involved, I met up with a member of the patrouille – Victoria Jamieson. One of 28 people patrolling the Verbier Four Vallées area (and one of only two women), her working day starts at 7am and ends at nearly 6pm. In between, it involves everything from making sure the pistes are safe by checking they are correctly marked and coming to the aid of injured skiers to, depending on snow conditions, setting off controlled avalanches with bombs.

To get up there, we took the Médran gondola from Verbier (1,200 metres) up to Les Ruinettes (2,200 metres), and as the tops of the mountains became clearer against the lightening sky, stopped for a minute to watch a faint pink edge the horizon as this beautiful part of 
the world awoke.

From one point of view, the patrouille are the security team ensuring the safety of the resort before it opens, except here there are no intruders to worry about – only nature. As well as 410km of pistes, Verbier has 11 “itineraries”, which are marked but ungroomed, and endless off-piste opportunities.

Verbier has to strike a balance between being a resort where skiers can challenge themselves, but also one where safety is paramount. To that end, a recent innovation has been the International Snow Training Academy (ISTA). For skiers who do not intend to leave the piste, there is also the assurance that no avalanches will occur, and if they do fall and hurt themselves, help will be swift in coming. For both of these tasks, the resort relies on its patrouille.

Returning to skiing after a decade, I was more concerned about staying safe and enjoying myself without injury than with testing my limits. I had spent the previous day with a ski instructor from the European Snowsports ski school. He took me across the whole of the Verbier ski area as I progressed from a nervous snowplough down an easy red run, to remembering how to do carving turns and, then, finally, heading for black slopes. It’s possible that many people have had a bad experience in the types of group lessons that were common 20 or 30 years ago and either been put off skiing (or put off lessons), but teaching techniques have changed among the ski schools that have blossomed across the Alps in the intervening period. On that first day back as a returning intermediate skier, I skied dozens of kilometres of red runs, had lunch at the sun trap of La Chaux (2,260 metres) at Le Dahu restaurant, and took the cable car up for the stunning views from Mont Fort (3,330 metres), from where confident skiers can take a black run down – and the rest of us can simply take the cable car.

Switzerland in general, and Verbier in particular, is an expensive place to ski. Yes, there are ways of reducing the cost – staying in Le Chable further down the valley for instance, or travelling at an off-peak time. January, if possible, is best, as the school holidays have ended, the price of ski passes drops, the snow is good and you will have quiet slopes and mountain restaurants, and less expensive accommodation. But whatever you do, you will be paying a lot of money, so it’s gratifying 
that the money is reflected in the experience, both on- and off-piste, in the town. Perhaps you would expect free sets of tools at the tops of lifts to help complete minor repairs to ski equipment, or slopes regularly blasted by snow cannons, or poles straightened on an almost hourly basis, or lifts replaced to speed them and make them more comfortable, but in Verbier (and many ski resorts across Switzerland) there is a recognition of the importance of preserving the natural environment, not least since the tourist authorities want to attract visitors in the summer, when the snow has disappeared and the resort and its mountains need to look as unspoilt as possible. To that end, pistes are not blasted out during the summer to make them uniformly blue or red in difficulty, and even the avalanche bombs are in bags made of a biodegradable tissue paper. In this way the scenery remains beautiful whatever the season, unlike in other parts of the Alps, where for several months of the year the landscape reveals 
the scars of winter.

Still, there’s no doubt that the prices reflect the visitors and a trip to the Vinabagnes shop ( 
in the centre of town leaves little doubt about the budget that some can afford, with its extensive range of Swiss wines along 
with French, Italian and Portuguese bottles, and a lot of magnums of extremely good wines for entertaining in chalets. It was only the early start that prevented me from buying a bottle for later enjoyment.

Back up on the slopes as sunlight 
lightens the skies, we ski down the virgin pistes with Victoria. It’s hard to know which is more enjoyable: skiing slopes completely free of others, as though this was all for ourselves, or clocking the looks of those passing overhead in the cable cars, them wondering who we are that we managed to get up here so early. For the patrouille, though, this is just the beginning – hours 
of vigilance and ensuring the safety of 
skiers lie ahead. Verbier’s website promises that “pure energy lives here”. It’s something to live up to, but only after a leisurely breakfast on the mountain.


  • Fer A Cheval

The “Horseshoe” is open all day and very popular for après-ski on the bustling Rue de Médran – great music and food. Rue de Médran 16; +41 27 771 26 69;

  • Restaurant Le Caveau

The place to head for a traditional raclette or fondue. Place Centrale; +41 27 771 22 26

  • Bottle Brothers Verbier

Underneath the Hôtel Nevai, this is 
a modern sister restaurant to the one in Geneva – sleek and stylish, with smaller visually led portions and an extensive cocktail list. Route de Verbier Station 55; +41 27 775 40 00;

  • Le Millenium

Underneath the Hotel La Rotonde, 
this serves stylish food in large 
portions, attractively 
plated with excellent service. Route de Médran; +41 27 771 99 00;

  • Le Dahu

The best pizzas 
on the mountain, as 
well as a wide choice of pasta dishes and salads. 
La Chaux; +41 27 778 20 00;

  • Chalet Carlsberg

This Italian restaurant sits right next to the Attelas ski slope. It has stunning views down to Verbier and across the mountains. There are lovely sheepskin-covered chairs as well 
as an outdoor terrace with a self-service 
snack bar. It shuts at 4.30pm though. 
Chalet Carlsberg, 1936 Bagnes; +41 27 775 26 73;