The bombshell came as our small group sat in the warmth of the Bendolla mountain restaurant, finishing our coffees, fiddling with our avalanche transceivers and half-listening to a briefing by our backcountry guide for the morning, Brit Nick Parks. “And then,” he said, “we just abseil down into the top of the run.” Hang on! What? I’d heard of people doing this in super gnarly resorts like La Grave, macho beardy ski-mountaineers usually, who eat icicles for breakfast. Was I really going to have to dangle on a rope like Sly in the Cliffhanger poster, snowboard between my teeth?
Seemed like it. Two hours later our small group was huddled on a snowy crest, taking turns to drink little cups of hot herbal tea from Nick’s flask to recover from our hard hike from the limits of the lift network. We’d climbed to a col below the Becs de Bosson peak, and up through deep powder along a ridge to the top of the steep S-shaped couloir that was our target descent. Many times that week I’d stared up at the S from the village below – a streak of white carved into the cliffs like an initial in a tree trunk. Such a simple, emblematic, irresistible line, now ours for the taking.
Nick secured a rope, and chucked it down over the edge. Two skiers tackled it first, their ski boots scraping over the rocks. I took tight hold of the rope, gulped down my fears and – grateful for rubbery snowboard boots – rappelled over the edge.
Then, after a few tight, tense turns down the icy gulley, we were rolling, gliding, floating, flying, enjoying wildly thrilling seconds, impossible to hold on to. Too soon we were back at the pistes, shaking hands and waving goodbye, going our separate ways but still high on adrenaline.
In the Sly-macho version of this story I would next have dug an ice-hole, rolled naked in snow, downed 15 beers then gone paraskiing. In fact, this was my first trip with a six-month-old baby, so I raced back to our apartment to relieve her grandparents and, 30 minutes after the abseil, was slumped on a sofa breastfeeding, still wearing my avalanche gear and helmet.
The baby’s arrival had meant new powder-hunting priorities for my boyfriend and me. No more Japan and Utah – we needed a small, pretty, grandparent-friendly resort with enough easy runs for them, but satisfying steep off-piste terrain for us. Grimentz, in Switzerland’s Val d’Anniviers, ticked all the boxes. This hallowed backcountry wonderland is an insiders’ resort, where a scattering of serious skiers like Nick, who has skied the world, have decided to settle.
The S couloir was my hardest-won line, but I had in fact been riding deep powder all week – with much less effort – thanks to a 3.5km cable car, added in 2013, connecting Grimentz to Zinal. The vast rolling region in between these two resorts offers lots of off-piste kicks, but reaching them used to involve catching a bus round to Zinal and riding several slow lifts up. The fast new connection meant we could lap this incredible section several times a day, and we often had even this low-hanging fruit – powder easily accessed from a fast lift – to ourselves. On each new lap we rarely saw any other fresh lines – unheard of in major resorts, where they’d be crowded and destroyed in minutes.
On a longer expedition one day, we rode over rolling flanks from the Corne de Sorebois beside the Moiry glacier to the Moiry dam – where it was possible to ski a steep line right against the dam wall then out along a long shallow valley beside a bubbling stream, ending at Grimentz village.
Crowded with mazots (former storage huts) and ancient chalets (some built in the 12th century) burnt black by decades of sun, Grimentz has a gorgeous, peaceful centre, with a sweet church and wooden waterways.
Our big night out was to the Bourgeoisie, a council meeting place in a chalet built in 1550. We endured an hour-long Grimentz history lecture in French to be led down to the cellar afterwards for five or six free glasses of delicious, sherry-like wine poured straight from giant barrels by the convivial host. “You’re not just tasting wine – you’re tasting history,” he said, as he passed round vintages from 1969, and samples of vin du glacier, the local speciality, an 1886 wine whose barrel has been topped up every year since.
There may have been little après ski, but beers in the sunshine at the resort’s few bars, like Chez Floriaz by the slopes, walks and runs along hiking paths leading out into woodlands, and the odd meal out were all we needed.
And everywhere I went I could look up at that bright white S, where I’d carved my own mark in the snow.
• Flights were provided by Swiss Air (swiss.com), which has returns Heathrow-Geneva from £108 including baggage and skis. A Swiss Travel Pass was provided by (MySwitzerland.com). The journalist paid for an apartment at Pradamont 07 in Grimentz (chalet.myswitzerland.com). Nick Parks charges £240 for a half-day for six people: backcountryadventures.co.uk