We caught up with Chatel based ski instructor Eilidh who owns Mountain Venture for her top tips on skiing the Swiss Wall. The Swiss Wall (Le Mur Suisse) or ‘Le pas de Chavanette’ is known as one of the hardest runs in the Alps and is located on the border between France and Switzerland in the vast Portes du Soleil area. It is famed for its difficulty due to the steep, 40 degree entrance and moguls often described as being the size of small cars! The first 50 metres are always the most tricky to navigate as it is the narrowest and steepest part of the slope, made more icy due to the many people negotiating their way in. After that it opens up, the gradient reduces and you have the most breathtaking views of Les Dents du Midi. Below you will find Eilidh’s guide to an enjoyable and successful experience in skiing the Swiss Wall in any conditions!
For those who have skied in Switzerland before, you will find similarities between skiing the Swiss Wall and the itinerary runs found in Verbier; Mont Gele, Mont Fort, Chassoure – Tortin and Vallon D’arby for example. It is classified as ‘Orange’ in difficulty as it cannot be graded in the normal green to black system. Due to its gradient it cannot be pisted, and it will be closed to the public when avalanche risk is high or the visibility is poor.
The Swiss Wall is accessible to anyone who is on the mountain and who has a full area pass. Access from the French side is from Avoriaz and from the Swiss side, the towns of Champéry and Les Crosets. There are no qualification checks at the top but you must make sure your pass can get you back up from the Swiss side to the French before you make your descent. From an instructors perspective, if you can ski a red run with confidence and have some experience skiing variable snow conditions, it is well within your capabilities!
#1: YOU CAN ALWAYS TAKE THE CHAIR
It does not matter how experienced you are, if you don’t feel like skiing it, you don’t have to! A lot of ski instructors, (myself included) will take the chair down if it looks busy or if we just aren’t feeling it that day. If you arrive at the top of the Swiss Wall to find crowds of people hovering over the entrance, it may not be the best time for you to do it for the first time. You can always take the chairlift down and see how it looks, then head back up if you think there is a clear window! The busier it is, the more risk there is of being skied into by another skier and the icier the snow conditions tend to be.
Find a blue or red piste and go to the edge where the piste markers are. You should find a little ridge between the piste and off piste. Check your surroundings are safe, avoiding rocks and trees, and practise turning back and forth over this little ridge between the piste markers. Get used to what the varied snow feels like using all the joints in your legs to absorb the bumps! There are also blue and red snow cross runs off the Fornet chairlift that are un-pisted and provide a safe playground to practise skiing in varied snow and moguls.
If it is your first time, your adrenaline will be through the roof and it is likely that your muscles will be working the hardest they have done all week. Even the best skiers get leg burn down here! Make sure you have a snack in your pocket to eat before as it may have been a few hours since breakfast, or nip into the O’Padcha restaurant at the top for a light bite (and perhaps a shot of Genepi for courage!).
#4: LOOK AHEAD
I know people tell you “not to look down” when you are nervous. That is not the case here, you really must be looking down the way you are going, or at least looking a few turns ahead to plan your route.
The hardest part of this whole experience is getting started and it just happens to be at the trickiest part of the run! It is where everyone lingers, taking photos or just watching as people begin their descent. Getting away from this area as smoothly as you can will dictate your enjoyment levels the rest of the way down. Once you are a couple of turns in, the space will open up things will get easier.
If you are with an experienced skier, ask them to ski down about 6 turns ahead and concentrate on following their route. Visualise it and then do it. Just be careful if coming to a stop nearby!
#5: WHEN IT IS HARD AND ICY
If it is icy, you will hear it before you see it. Often it is the noise of the ice beneath the skis that is the bigger challenge mentally than the terrain itself! The most important tip on ice, is to stay in the middle of your skis. Keep your shins glued to the front of the boots and imagine with every turn, you are squeezing fruit juice out the tongues of both your boots.
If there is a line leading off to the left as you look down the mountain, follow this route as it takes you to the side where the gradient is not quite as steep and the moguls are usually a little smaller (within the green border). The orange border shows the direct and steepest line where moguls will be the biggest.
The greatest challenge about the moguls on the Swiss Wall is that they are usually not nicely rounded and uniform in shape, like the ones you would see in competitions. They are more randomly distributed, with bigger spaces in-between and often take the shape of spines or waves due to the different styles of people skiing them and the effects of the wind.
When it is very icy, you want to avoid skiing directly into the side of them. If they aren’t rounded, they will stop you in your tracks and could throw you backwards. You may find there are some you can use like berms that will assist in your turns, but make sure to keep the turns tight, with skis pointing across the hill to control your speed. Take your time and stay aware of other people around you.
#6: WHEN IT IS SOFT OR SLUSHY
In the spring, the snow softens very quickly. Get up early to catch the bumps as they are softening. They will be much more forgiving, usually a lot smaller and you can play about by taking different lines through them. Use the bumps to slow down and get into a rhythm that you can maintain. The only thing to watch out for are the rocks that may be poking through in some of the troughs around the bumps.
Though the snow may look tempting to go far skier’s left or right, you should avoid these areas unless with an experienced guide (see previous photo). Far skier’s left can often hold lots of avalanche debris that has come from the chute up above. Skiers right is fenced off but you will see people going in there to get fresh tracks. Ski down here and you will find yourself in need of a speed riding wing to fly you off the cliff’s below! Definitely Avoid!
#7: DEEP POWDER DAY
Firstly, if it has dumped with snow overnight, you are likely to find delays in pistes and lifts opening whilst the pisteurs secure the area for avalanches. Hire a guide on days like this so you can get to all the hidden spots before everyone else.
If you do find yourself at the top of the Swiss Wall, on a powder day, the moguls will have disappeared so go and enjoy it!! On big powder days you are best to stay closer to the direct line beneath the chair as this is the safest place away from cliff on the right and avalanche debris far skier’s left.
You have permission in powder to hang out a little further back on those skis as that will help to keep your tips coming out of the powder. Imagine a dolphin diving in and out the sea, you want to create that same kind of dynamic movement with your skis.
#8: HERO SNOW
When there has been fresh snow a few days before, new moguls have had a chance to form but haven’t been over skied or gone through a melt freeze to become icy. This is when you can start to learn how to use moguls to control your speed and look like a pro as you disco dance your way down the mountain!
Good technique in the moguls comes from keeping a strong core, a narrower stance and ALL the movement coming from the ankle, knee and hip joints. You can practise taking different lines between the moguls depending on what feels best for you. This first line (photo above) is getting you used to using the moguls and troughs in-between to steer the skis back and forth across the hill. Control your speed where I have marked the skis on the photo, by sliding the ski up the back of the mogul.
The second line above shows the more direct line, it will look more dynamic as you will constantly be flexing and extending the joints in your legs to manage your speed and direction. Use a strong pole plant to help with timing and rhythm in a line like this!
#9: IF IN DOUBT, TRAVERSE OUT
Though I would tend not to advise long turns across the hill as it becomes increasingly more daunting to make a turn, you can still do this if you need to get away from a crowd, a thin patch of snow or an accident below. Stay soft in the legs and imagine them acting like a car suspension beneath you to cross over moguls before finding somewhere easier to make a turn to come back the other way.
#10: HIRE AN INSTRUCTOR
I am sure your partner, parent, best friend or new chairlift buddy has all your best interests at heart, but we all know how quickly things can turn for the worse when teaching a loved one without the necessary qualifications.
Put your trust in an instructor if you really want to get the most out the experience. An instructor will be able to gauge if you are ready to ski the wall and help you to practise before doing it. They will know the safest routes down and will endeavour to take you when the conditions are at their best. You will not just be skiing the Swiss Wall, but hopefully ENJOY skiing it too!
Le Mur Swisse. Video Credit: Lucas Stanus Videos.
If these top 10 tips have inspired you or if you want any further advice on skiing the Swiss Wall, get in touch with Eilidh at Mountain-Venture and she will be able to help with any further tips. Should you need help planning your ski holiday to the Portes du Soleil, the do get in touch with our Ski Specialists who will be happy to assist in finding you a suitable chalet where you can rest those weary legs after skiing the Swiss Wall! Send an email, or give us a call on +44(0) 1202 203653.