The car park is empty and the ticket booth unmanned, while a creaking old cable car eerily rocks in the breeze. Post-apocalyptic skiing wasn’t exactly what I had in mind today.
I’m in the Vals Valley of Graubünden, Switzerland’s largest canton. Only a few hours from Zurich but a world away from orderly city living, with wild forests, rivers and mountains, a tiny alpine village, a population of just over 1,000 and lots and lots of snow. With a ski area sitting at an altitude of just under 9,850ft, Vals is something of a snow-sure hotspot, particularly this year, with Europe’s mountains seeing some of the most prolific snowfall in the past 40 years, stretching the ski season well into May.
But while it’s only a quick train and bus hop from the Swiss capital, several larger villages and resorts before Vals ensure only a handful of tourists go all the way into the valley — and that’s just the way the locals like it. Yet the modest ski resort of five lifts and a dozen or so slopes ticks all the boxes for freeriders and carvers alike.
After having a bemused nose around the lift, checking for any signs of life, an attendant eventually surfaces from behind a door and fires up the rickety system, giving me a toothy smile and an eager thumbs up. I’ve only ever been used to frantic queues and precariously congested slopes, so it feels slightly unnerving to be venturing up into the mountains without another soul in sight.
But I’m soon at ease up on top, surveying the immaculately crisp terrain before me with vast virgin tracks of deep, light powder blindingly white in the sunlight. I check my map and there’s a good choice of warm-up blues, pleasingly long reds and ambitious blacks, but it’s the sheer exclusivity of the place that staggers me — why’s everyone crowding the slopes of St Moritz, Davos and Laax when they could be here?
Sure, each of these resorts is brilliant in its own way, but in making the mountains so accessible with scores of lifts, it could be argued they’re overwhelming the very thing people come to experience.
Thanks to its intimate feel, Vals caters to two distinct markets: families looking for quiet slopes where kids can learn in safety; and diehard boarders and skiers hankering for powder fields and uninterrupted inclines.
With only a morning to spare, I vow to get in as many runs as possible; gingerly testing the snow’s quality at first with short, slow turns before gradually cranking up the speed, making huge, sweeping curves that etch my solitary presence onto the mountainside. It’s not long, though, before I start noticing a few more fresh tracks in the snow. Yet in the space of a few hours, I spy no more than six other skiers, acknowledging their company with a cursory wave or nod — a salute to our discovery of a well-kept Swiss secret.