Trenchtown Deluxe | Splitboarding In Switzerland
The roof has been visible for a while now and as we get closer it’s obvious that the rest of the hut is pretty much buried in the snowpack. The entrance is a wooden door at knee height. Climbing down through the hatch and into the dark snowy corridor the cold stillness is an immediate shelter from the icy winds that blow outside. Somewhere inside the Binntal Hut’s main room I can hear the bustle of gear being sorted and pasta being cooked. We all stumble through the door. The fire is raging, it’s warm inside.
I’ve always had a bit of a thing for Switzerland. To me it feels like the quintessential mountain country. Yet despite the fact that millions flock here every year to see the Matterhorn and Eiger, to ride the famous trains and gaze at enormous glaciers, it still has many secret places that go largely unvisited, at least by the masses. Valleys that have remained virtually unchanged for centuries and mountains that are seldom full of people.
We are in one such place; Binntal. The Binntal is a designated nature reserve and as a consequence has remained free from the effects of tourism. There are no ski lifts, no apartment buildings and no holiday homes, just tiny villages and beautiful mountains. The main village of Binn may bustle with people in the summer months but now, at the end of February, it’s deserted.
The Binntal is a southern offshoot of the Upper Valais. Access is via a classic alpine road complete with switchbacks and an insane dead straight 2km long tunnel. The mountains that tower above the valley form the southern part of the main Alpine ridge along with the border between Switzerland and Italy. It’s been another strange winter in the Alps, snowfalls have been infrequent yet when they’ve come they’ve brought lots of snow and wind. Like last winter, this part of the Alps has fared better than many areas further north and consequently the snow pack in Binntal is reasonably healthy. A storm moved through a few days ago and left us hopeful that we’ll be able to find powder.
We’ve got 3 days in these mountains with UIAGM mountain guide Ric Potter from RPM Guiding. Despite having a huge amount of experience touring and climbing throughout Europe’s mountains, it’s Ric’s first time here too so when we park up the van and shuffle off up the track towards the mountains, we all sense that an adventure is there to be had.
The track winds its way up through forest and when eventually the trees start to thin out big views open up ahead. There are no four thousanders here but the mountains are beautiful and imposing all the same. We have a choice of routes to take; follow a gorge to the head of the valley, which could poise terrain difficulties at the narrows, or climb onto the northern slopes of the valley and traverse towards the hut that way. The slopes to the north have some steep and serious looking terrain above, plus the snow looks very wind affected so we take the option of the gorge. Occasionally we pass buried huts with the tops of roofs and chimneys just visible along with infrequent sign posts, these too buried to the hilt in the deep snowpack.
We soon reach the hut and that afternoon after a short rest and a brew we head back out and climb some of the slopes behind the hut, eager to get a few turns in. We also want to start to get a handle on the snowpack and a better view of our surroundings. The light is magic but it’s pretty obvious that most of the snow is wind fucked. Despite the sun and blue sky a cold wind is blowing up the valley and heavily scouring the surface of the snow. What was once powder is now a variable crusty hell that’s not a whole lot of fun to ride. We spot some potential lines across the valley though, on an aspect that appears to more sheltered. That evening Ric studies the map and sniffs out what looks like a safe route of ascent. We all crash in the sub-zero dorms hoping for sunshine and pow turns the next day.
Morning brings blue skies and lighter winds. It seems like a perfect day to go splitboarding. We leave the hut and descend back across yesterday’s tracks to the bottom of the face we hope will hold better snow than we found the previous evening. Soon enough we are strung out on the skin track which winds its way up the mountain side, always looking for the safest and most efficient route of ascent. The sun is strong, it beats down and burns the back of my neck. We stop, dig a pit and talk about snow. We are all eager to soak up as much as possible from Ric so waste no time getting stuck in and identifying potential weak layers within the snowpack. On this aspect at this particular elevation stability appears to be fairly good. There is a storm slab present though and with so many accidents in the Alps this season we will make sure our choice of line is a conservative one.
A few hours later and we are on the summit, basking in the views whilst eating crusty Swiss bread and honey, trying to get a sense of the mountain side which falls away below us. The descent is completely untracked, no-one has ridden these slopes since the last storm. Big, wide panels of snow open up beneath us, a blank canvas on which we rip turns. The snow is good – perhaps not the lightest, but fast, creamy powder all the same.
As we lose height the tree line approaches and the snow starts to turn increasingly wet and sticky in the strong sun. Eventually we pop out onto the main track in the valley that we followed on our ascent to the hut yesterday. We all agree that runs like that make the effort of the ascent fully worthwhile. One great run in the backcountry is worth countless generic runs on piste any day. We follow the track back down to the van, stash our gear and drink cold beer in a very welcoming bar among the centuries old hay barns and tiny streets of Fäld.
One of the great things about Binntal is the variety of terrain on offer. Multiple aspect big mountain terrain in the alpine combines with some nicely spaced trees at lower elevations to give touring options whatever the weather and snow conditions. Many peaks can be reached within a day from the valley or the hut during periods of good weather and on stormy low light days you can stay low and hit the trees.
A storm is forecast for our last day in the valley so we skin up through the forest, over snow choked stream beds and past tasty looking pillow lines. Before long the sky turns to milk and light snow starts to fall. The forest is silent and peaceful. It feels like we’re a long way from the typical ski resort experience. Animal tracks weave patterns through the snow and we ascend through a padded world of powder heavy branches and muffled sound.
We keep going until the weather gets bad enough to turn us around, then we shred the best snow of the trip. Visibility is difficult at first and the odd unexpected deep stash causes a sudden plunge into the white room. Cranking a heel side turn and getting lost in a wave of snow is a great feeling.
Visability improves as we reach the tree line. We ride down dreamy low angle meadows doted with just enough trees to give definition. The snow is deep and again our efforts are rewarded.
A short bush whack is followed by a fun ride down the track and back to the van. That afternoon Ric leaves us to head back to Chamonix so it’s a group of four who board the tiny red train that rolls into the station at Fiesch. Our Binntal experience has been a good one but now we’re on the move…..
Onward – our journey continues as we travel through the mountains to our next destination. Tiny villages pass by and we strain our necks to try and get a view of the mountains out of the train’s window. Snow falls harder from the sky and lies deeper on the ground; we must be getting close.
A flurry of effort and we’re off the train, baggage strewn on the floor. Again we find ourselves in a place that’s far removed from the average alpine ski resort. Hospental is a tiny, ancient village one train stop away from the big mountain mecca of Andermatt. Here almost all the buildings seem impossibly old. Walking around the deserted streets on a cold snowy night is a timeless experience. Apart from intermittent street lights and the occasional passing car, it feels like it could be two or three hundred years ago. The place resonates history.
Hospental sits halfway along the Ursental. This is one of the snowiest valleys in the Alps. We are hoping it will live up to its reputation and provide us with a bounty of powder to ride and a ticket to Trenchtown. We are staying in the newly renovated Sust Lodge and touring is possible right out of the back door.
The Winterhorn is a sort of sentinel of the valley and a popular venue for those who like to earn their turns. Up until a few years ago the mountain had its own ski area, complete with lifts and a small network of pistes. When other developments happened throughout the valley the ski area was decommissioned and left to nature. Some of the infrastructure remains however – the old deserted restaurant building and lift lines are still in tact and lend an unusual feel to a day spent on the mountain.
We skin up the lower slopes which mainly consist of small trees and shrubs. As we ascend the terrain opens up and finally a steep, wide couloir leads to the summit ridge. A short scramble puts us on the summit. The views are expansive and stretch from the big mountains of the Pennine Alps and Bernese Oberland to the west, north towards Engelberg and south into Italy. This area sits right in the centre of the alpine chain, hub of the entire range. It feels wild and remote.
We drop into the Winterhorn’s upper slopes just as cloud starts to build and the sun fades. More snowfall is forecast for tonight. I tentatively make the first turn and find that the angle isn’t quite as steep as I thought. The snow here is protected from the worst of the wind and sun so is deep and cold. The steep and deep turns are over all too quickly though as we re-join the ridge we skinned up earlier and continue the descent back down to the village.
The remaining few days of our trip bring several storms and plenty of fresh snow. The tree line is low so it’s not always easy to find shelter on storm days. Fortunately it turns out that the lower slopes of the Winterhorn provide the perfect place to shred during snowfall. The ascent to the old mid station is a safe one even in bad weather and on the penultimate day of the trip we skin up in a blizzard hoping to find some good snow. At the old deserted mid station there is an abandoned building that used to be a restaurant along with an old avalanche patrol hut. There’s even a little shelter in the form of a random old hippy caravan – certainly the strangest thing we’ve come across on this trip. The short 500m descent back to the valley is full of pow slashes and high fives. Isn’t that what it’s all about?
Splitboarding in the Alps, or anywhere for that matter, doesn’t just have to be about big days and bagging summits. An afternoon flight home enables us to grab a quick few turns on the last morning. An early start sees us skinning back up the Winterhorn one last time. The sound of avalanche bombs going off at nearby resorts echos around the mountains. The sun comes out and we ride powder all the way to the valley floor. It’s all over in a couple of hours but it feels good to squeeze another experience out of what has been a really fulfilling week in the mountains.
Flights – Swiss
Train – SBB
Hotel Schmitta, Fiesch
Sust Lodge, Hospental
Thanks to Luke, Jonny, Tom and Ric for permission to use images.