LITTLE SWISS SECRETSStory and Photographs by Dan Milner
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 (www.otp.co.uk) 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