Little Swiss Secrets

Nov 26, 2013 at 11:24
by Dan Milner  

Story and Photographs by Dan Milner

  Jez and Mike head down.. again. In reality the uplifts took longer than anticipiated so we didnt hit as much vert as hoped. But no one was complaining

I am starting to wonder of the whereabouts of Rudolph. The little cable car that we’re about to use to rise six hundred metres up a Swiss mountainside is less cablecar and more sleigh in appearance. Okay, so it’s green, but whip the thing from its cable, pop a couple of skis on, add a couple of reindeer and you have guaranteed employment come Christmas. The Santa season is fortunately still 2 months off, and at least in this neck of the woods, that means there’s still time to ride. We unbolt thru-axles to pop wheels off our bikes, then load the dismantled rigs into the back seat of the green sleigh before squeezing in alongside them for the chilly open-air express to the trailhead.

  Let's hope Rudolph makes it back in time or there will be a lot of unhappy kids.

The green sleigh might be unique in appearance but it’s not an uncommon phenomenon around this part of Switzerland. The Swiss have never been shy of thinking outside the box, so when it comes to accessing the dozens of remote villages strewn about the steep Valais region, they decided that cablecar instead of roads was the way to go. This was back in the 1950’s but as mountain bikers today, we have no reason to question their Swiss way of thinking. Uplifts mean descents and this one valley alone boasts seven such lifts, all installed merely as a way of accessing the mountain villages. Skiing, let alone mountain biking was never on the agenda at the lifts’ planning meetings. Indeed we’re only a hop and a skip away from the resorts of Verbier and Zermatt –both established ski and bike destinations- but unlike these tourist meccas, the twisting trails we’ll ride during our two-day stay rarely see the caress of fat tyres.

  The flat valley floor -something we never got bored of seeing over our handlebars

It’s early October when we hook up with big Al, Chris and logistics expert, Jeff, from Zermatt-based OTP mountain biking. The lifts and bermed trails at Verbier are now closed and Zermatt’s epic Gornergrat descent is prematurely buried under snow. None of that matters to us however, as we’re here to see what secrets Switzerland’s village lifts hold. Our meeting point is fairly off the beaten track, and even though I’ve been behind the wheel, the roundabout directions we’ve been given for our rendezvous make me feel a little like I’ve been blindfolded most of the way. Swiss secrets I guess, are secret for a reason.

Like many of the lifts, our first known as “La Ficelle” that serves the remote village of Iserable, was originally the only form of village access, apart that is from the winding singletrack path that snakes its way either up or down the mountain –depending on which way you approach it. We roll our bikes into what is the biggest lift we’ll use during our adventure, a 20-person cabin that replaced the original 5-person lift that had run from its conception in 1942 until only last year. Despite having a road up to the village since 1960, the lift is still popular with the village’s 900 inhabitants, mostly because it represents a quicker way of getting home than driving ten Kilometres of hairpins.

  A late finish for another long day

We should have heeded Big Al’s words of warning but instead we start off too fast, with all the excitement of a basket of puppies eager to play. Forced to grab fistfuls of brake we send a clattering of scree off the fifteen-metre drop to the side of the trail. OTP utilises this lift as part of their week-long Valais tour and Big Al knows every twist and turn like the back of his gloved hand. Now letting Al set the pace, he deftly pokes the front end of his Kona Dawg down the next barreling section, one that with its natural flowing berms seems more like a bobsleigh run than a bike trail, and we follow. By the time we are catapulted out the bottom of the descent and through a patchwork of rust-leaved vineyards to emerge at the lift station once more we’re a little blown away by the ride that’s now behind us. “Well?” says Al asking how our first taste of this appetiser has gone down. His face mirrors our own broad grins. “I think we’ll have to do that again!” I reply catching nods of mute agreement from my fellow riders Mike and Jez.

  Room for a littl'un? The lifts here are unique and no one seems to mind you using them for bikes. Sometimes you gotta love the Swiss.

With two brakepad burning laps of La Ficelle behind us we drive a short distance West along the Rhone valley to sample the downhill delights of today’s other lift. Unlike this morning’s lift however the DAC cabin is tiny, perhaps only 2x1 meter in size, and as I stand looking at the rudimentary aluminium bin in front of us, I wonder where we’re going to put our bikes. “Ah,” says Jeff, “the Swiss have taken care of that,” pointing to a set of hooks projecting from underneath the cabin. For a cablecar that’s not set up for mountain bikers it seems the Swiss have indeed taken care of everything. Despite its diminutive size, this one lift, built in 1957, hauls a significant 20,000 passengers per year the 673-metre rise to the tiny village at its top. As we pluck our bikes from their inverted rack I scour the cluster of chalets and wonder what 20,000 people do up here. My answer soon comes in the form of a snaking metre-wide singletrack that forms part of a cobweb of hiking trails that stretch across the mountain. Al and Chris’ choice for our descent leads us down some challenging technical sections awash with autumn leaves, one that just goes on and on, in a good way. The descent is in fact so long by the time we’re at the bottom it’s nearly dark.

  Natural berms and banks - Nothing beats Valais singletrack.

We start our second day dip into the region’s best kept secret by jumping aboard the small cablecar to Embd. The village, perched above a spectacular but worryingly unstable rock face is tiny. The cablecar operates on a timetable but there’s a phone at the bottom that enables locals to hail the lift out of hours. It’s the kind of service you’d appreciate living in a remote chalet on top of some precipitously balanced rocks without having to wonder how to get home after a big night out.

Winter has set in early here and the nearby peaks are white with snow. Despite the mercury sitting at four degrees Celsius, when we set eyes on Rudolph’s Green Sleigh we can’t ignore its charms. A phone call to the lift operator soon has it moving and minutes later we clamber out at the 1900 metre high Schalp, a village that boasts a population of four. With Al’s guiding we lap up 1100 metres of descent down a trail that starts among snow and the golden needles of larch forest, threads its way back and forth down a vertical mountainside before lunging into a dusty race-paced finale.

  Lucky it's not a 29er or it wouldnt clear the railing. The lads check the hooks.

Finally a short hop in OTP’s minibus brings us to what turns out to be the icing on the secret Swiss cake. We squeeze bodies and bikes into a six-person lift at Stalden to be whisked up to a descent that will take us over an hour to ride before we roll, wide eyed and dry mouthed into the industrialized concrete surroundings of Visp, over a thousand metres below. It’s a descent that sweeps along half-meter wide traverses, drops down helter-skelter like spirals and punctuates a hell-for leather chase along epic singletrack with a dozen sharp switchbacks. As our cablecar disgorges its contents of bikers only our two guides know of the incredible ride ahead of us. That’s the beauty of secrets; they stay that way until someone shares them with you. Oops, the cat's out of the bag.

The Guided Option: The little lifts around the Valais region are not hard to find, but the best trails down from the top can be. OTP ( has been guiding mountain biking in the Valais and Zermatt region since 2003. Its popular Chablais, Valais and Brig tours and Zermatt weeks include the use of many of these village lifts for serious uplift. With years of locally accumulated knowledge there are few that know these trails as well as Big Al, Chris and Jeff. Groups are between 2 and 6 clients to keep it tight and they offer women-only groups too. Prices for 5 days HB including transfers and guiding start at £349.

The Valais lifts: Rising from the low altitude Rhone valley floor the seven village lifts around the Valais region access trails from spring until autumn. Hundreds of Kilometres of trails extend out from these lifts, with descents usually dropping at least 600 metres per ride, with some as much as 1100 brake-burning metres. The original lifts were built between 1942 and 1960 and most still run as part of the Swiss PostBus scheduled service to access the villages perched on the mountainsides. Operating punctually between 4 am and 10pm, many run up to 20 times per day, while others have a telephone set to call the operator to send the lift down; uplift on demand! They’re popular lifts with the locals more than mountain bikers: the La Ficelle lift carries 60,000 passengers per year and hauls some 250 tonnes of provisions up to the Iserables village, avoiding a drive around ten Kilometres of hairpins.. The villages served range in size from 900 inhabitants to, in the case of Schalp, just 4 people.

Story and Photographs by Dan Milner


  • 24 1
 Home sweet Home! I'm glad you haven't told half of it ;-)
  • 7 0
 c est pas plus mal....
  • 4 0
 Oh yeah! Proud to be a local!
  • 15 0
 Half of it? This is like %0.0001 of the trails in Wallis alone. Now add Graubunden, Ticino, Berner oberland, Jura etc, etc.
They say Switzerland needs no bike park, because Switzerland is a bike park.
"The descent is in fact so long that by the time we're at the bottom it's nearly dark". Enough said.
  • 6 0
 shhhhh, they might hear you Smile
  • 2 0
 Oh man you guys are so lucky, I wish I lived somewhere that was like 1% of what you guys have to ride.
  • 1 0
 eh don't forget ÖstSchwiiz!! Smile
  • 2 1
 Yes --- very nice discretion and judgment
  • 9 0
 Cant wait for summer ! Smile
  • 1 0
 And just when I started to go on the bike again hoping that the winter was comes back the snow this week!...God I can't wait another 15 weeks!! Might drive down to Finale
  • 7 1
 Hmmm riding 'enduro' with standard seatposts, 90mm stems, 680mm bars, and without some sort of aggressive fish as a fork.... cant be true!
  • 4 1
 Never been so unsure how to prop a comment so i haven't. The 'enduro' marketing scam is a valid point but im also bored of hearing comments about it now. Just sayin. Nothing personal @thelumberjack
  • 1 0
 @leecozens - fair - I shall be quiet now!
  • 4 0
 I propped for the aggressive-fish-as-a-fork comment...but then again I am easily amused.
  • 1 0
 Aggressive fish as a fork may be one of the most amusing comments I've seen in a long time. Well played @thelumberjack, well played...
  • 2 2
 Why RS haven't marketed it like that beggars belief...
  • 1 0
 So when i go to switzerland… do i take my all mountain bike or my enduro bike?
  • 8 0
 "have a lot to keep quiet about." yes, lets put it on Pinkbike.
  • 3 0
 I am amazed by the types of cable lifts. I haven't seen any of the kind like the green open one. It is a pitty there are only few photos.
  • 8 0
 If you think that cable lift is small, check this one out:
  • 1 0
 I did not say it is small. I said I haven't seen any of that kind.. I love cable lifts in general so I would like to thank you for the photos.
This is the smallest one I have seen and used:,karkonosze-wyciagi-wkrotce-rusza,id,t.html It is in Poland Karpacz Karkonowsze mountains.

The largest I've used so far is the one in French Alps "Three valleys". Val Thorens I suppose. There are only two cars for about 40 person each.
  • 2 0
 Buddy if you sneez in that cable car you can lose one of your bikes!
  • 1 0
 Some say.. bikes can fly.
  • 1 0
 Great write-up, the trails sound amazing. I might be heading there for a week in July. I'm trying to determine if I should take my bike or rent one while out there. Are there some good places to rent a bike for a decent price?
  • 2 0
 It's generally cheaper to take your bike than renting one... And with your bike you don't need riding time adaptation!
  • 1 0
 That's a good point. Thanks for the info!
  • 1 0
 Great story Dan! thanks.
Anyone out there want to go ride the awesome Valais region we run two amazing trips in this amazing region. All-mountain, our Swiss Cloudraker and for gravity riders, our Alpenrock DH trip:
Happy trails!
  • 2 0
 I love how they are using older bikes (2007 Kona Coilair) and still enjoying theirselves. I thought you had to have a brand new bike to do such things Wink
  • 1 0
 Well thats one of the bikes, the others include 2009 Yeti 575 and a 2011 Santa Cruz Blur LT, but what the hell, like you say, it's not what you ride, its about riding them. The older Kona is actually the guide's bike.. he doesnt give a sh!t so long as it works and gets him out there, and he's a better rider than I'll ever be!
  • 1 0
 Just wondering if you meant to say 'Kona Dawg' in the article btw, might have used the wrong model name? dustyduke22 is right, it's a 2007 Coilair in the first photo
  • 2 0
 If this was an article about secret trails in California, you would have 1000's of angry locals sending you death threats. I guess the Swiss are a lot more civilized!
  • 3 0
 I know where I am heading this summer!
  • 2 0
 Now that's a trip I'd love to try and do wow
  • 2 1
 Second picture, bike standing on its rear deraileur... I wouldnt do that. It can bend the deraileur or hanger.
  • 4 0
 We had it propped up on a nice soft puppy, but it got loose and ran away.
  • 1 0
 Gears are over rated here. Just make sure your brakes work.
  • 1 0
 Seriously considering this trip, any other recommended companies that do a similar one?
  • 1 0
 It looks like some really amazing trails out there!
  • 2 1
 can we have .gpx files instead of pictures please ? Smile
  • 12 1
 No you can read the feature and make a note of the village names, grab a map, and work it out for yourself!
  • 1 0
 Or hire the guides! Thanks for doing that Dan. Its awesome discretion
  • 2 1
Below threshold threads are hidden

Post a Comment

You must login to Pinkbike.
Don't have an account? Sign up

Join Pinkbike  Login
Copyright © 2000 - 2020. All rights reserved.
dv56 0.011232
Mobile Version of Website