My final moment on the ski slopes is what got me through lockdown

Asia's Tech News Daily

Paul Nuki skiing in VerbierJames Forrest

Some of us developed funny little tricks for coping during lockdown and mine was this: I’d picture myself on a platform high in the Alps, amid a crisp blue sky full of brightly coloured paragliding kites. Some hang high, almost static, against the mid-afternoon sun. Others – their pilots more animated – fearlessly pivot, swoop and swirl. Every now and then one dives so low it looks like it might land among us.

The scene is not fantasy but memory. As Sars-Cov-2 started spreading unseen and unchecked across Europe in early 2020, I found myself on the vast outside deck of Le Mouton Noir, a bar and restaurant perched high in the Swiss Alps above the resort of Verbier.

The moment has become a mental keepsake not just because of that juxtaposition of plague and kites, but because it has come to represent a sort of idealised freedom. If I were to be stuck in a time loop, I would think to myself during lockdown, I would choose that afternoon of February 7, 2020 as my Groundhog Day – my last hurrah before the pandemic set in.

That morning, we had woken early in bunks at the Cabane du Mont-Fort, a spectacular high mountain refuge on the Haute Route, a 120km ski touring route between Chamonix and Zermatt. Unlike many other such remote outposts, popular with hikers in summer and adventure-seeking skiers in winter, Cabane du Mont-Fort has the distinct advantage of being easily accessed from the Verbier lift network, making it accessible for all.

The previous evening had been full of mountain food, storytelling and schnapps. Now, at first light, four of us set off climbing in a zig-zag, first to the Col de la Chaux about 500 vertical meters above the refuge, and then up again after a short descent to the Col de Momin at just over 3,000 metres. All told it was about a three-hour hike on miraculously light-yet-stable touring skis and boots, made specifically for such laborious activities by the local Swiss company Movement skis.

Whenever I suggest ski touring to friends, even if it’s just a 10-minute climb, they look at me dumbfounded, as if I’ve proposed an ice bath. “Why walk when we could take a chairlift someplace else?” they ask. I never quite know how to respond, how to explain what they are missing. The problem, I think, is the reward of ski touring is not just the obvious thing of skiing somewhere new. What’s hidden is the thrill of it – the elation it generates.

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As we reached the Col de la Chaux, the longest leg of the climb, we paused to take pictures at the pass and I could feel that elation building. The vastness of the mountainscape and its strange, enveloping silence was extraordinary. It’s a cliche, I know, but you feel as if you are at the top of the world after completing such a climb. I’d hazard a guess it’s the same buzz you get from climbing Everest.

Despite skiing almost every year since childhood and its reputation as one of Switzerland's top ski resorts, I had never been to Verbier before. Someone once told me the lift systems were owned by different families who didn’t get on and the lift queues were a nightmare. I was also told it was bankruptingly expensive.

But that’s all a bit of a slander – or at least it's out of date. The lift system works seamlessly, spanning four valleys to create the largest ski area in Switzerland, and although nothing is cheap you feel like you are getting much better value for money than in many European resorts. Lunch on the mountain will set you back £20-£30 but it will be genuinely good. Nowhere did I come across the sort of rip-off self-service canteens that have proliferated in France where a plate of chips often comes in at £10.

Up at 3,000 meters on the Col de Momin, the sun was reaching its midday peak as we locked our heels into our skis and started the long descent towards the giant Mauvoisin dam and reservoir. The snow was untracked and there were a couple of big powder fields on which to link tracks before pulling up with burning thighs and looking back to admire them.

Paul Nuki in Verbier – James Forrest

An hour later we arrived at Le Mouton Noir, perched in the blazing sun above Verbier. There was music, there was food and there were friends we had not seen for 24 hours – those that had opted out of the touring.

And then there were the paragliders and their kites – dozens and dozens of them – filling the sky all around us and creating a picture like no other I can remember outside of a Cinzano advert, perhaps.

We knew by then the virus was encroaching and that people were already being taken ill just over the border in Italy. But with the kites flying it was impossible to feel down. Instead, we hugged and we danced. It was a last hurrah before the pandemic set in and I’ve been reliving it in my mind ever since.

This winter I’ll be back for the real thing. Even if you don’t ski, it’s a sight worth visiting Verbier for.

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