Return Trip

Reading Time: 10 minutes


The tiny, perfect village of Champéry—and massive Portes du Soleil region—welcomed Ski Canada on its third annual Readers’ Trip to Switzerland.

By Iain MacMillan  |  Photos by Marty McLennan

It’s funny how often a single anecdote at the beginning of a ski holiday can set the tone for how the rest of the week will unfold. Good or bad, silly or solemn, a trip’s harbinger (or at least a good lead to a story) sometimes can be offered up before you even arrive.

Take, for instance, the last Ski Canada Readers’ Trip. With Technical Editor Marty coming from Mexico City, and me already in Switzerland, it was up to rookie group leader and Ski Canada Test Editor Ron Betts to lead the troops to the land of watches, chocolate, toys, silks, cheese—and skiing.

Travel plans were mapped out like a Swiss clock. Ron wrapped up his workweek at Mike Wiegele Helicopter Skiing in Blue River, B.C., where he’s a mountain guide, then raced down to Kamloops to kiss his wife and dog goodbye, hopped on a plane to Vancouver, another to Toronto, met Readers’ Trip veteran and tuque mule Don McQueen to help pass out 45 team beanies generously donated by JYTTE, then boarded with everyone for the overnight flight to Geneva—with just one final quick pickup stop in Montreal.

I wasn’t even there, but it still makes me mad when I hear how stranded passengers can be treated by Air Canada in 2013. Before the crew bailed and left everyone at the Montreal airport for nearly seven hours while an engine was bolted back on, the airline’s generous compensation was finally announced: someone would go back on the aircraft and fetch the pop trolley and pretzels.

I’m proud to say that some Ski Canada readers are resourceful and a late-night airport delay wasn’t going to lower this ski trip’s stoke level. After enough hours had passed into the night that most of the airport had shut down, an ingenious traveller (whom I shall call “Paula” in this story) discovered one of the closed departure lounge bars had left a draught tap open. Before long, her beanie on the bar was quickly filling on the bar was quickly filling with contributions for the surprised but (eventually) grateful barkeep who showed up with the hommes des bleu. But the beer and stories of who’d skied where had long been flowing like an après-ski scene anywhere around the world and here, another one had been added before even reaching the destination.


In all, 48 of us, including three editors, were more Canadians than Champéry had seen, well, ever, according to Elisabeth and husband, Christophe Berra. The lovely couple own and operate Hotel Suisse in the heart of this picturesque mountain town. What was built in 1861 as the Hotel de la Croix Fédérale and later renamed Hotel Suisse is a classic reason why skiers like us cross the pond. Family owned and operated, squeaky clean, rustic cozy, with fluffy duvets, I felt as if we were staying at a friend’s chalet—and a world away from yet another North American condo.

Our traditional 40-room HQ for the week was on the quiet main street, a 10-minute downhill jaunt to the main tram station in the morning and (for more tired returning skiers) an easy ride on the free town-shuttle back up at the end of the day. Full breakfasts were taken downstairs, and a choice of home-baked tartes, pastries and tea and cocoa awaited us each afternoon in the solarium, where the group quickly got to know each other. Next door, the classic little Bar des Guides offered drinks with a little more horn, and a piano for our skiing entertainer (and dentist) Bruce Cole to complete the atmosphere. We chose a well-appreciated dine-around option so that each evening the group could sample a different restaurant or hotel dining room over the week. A huge culinary hit.

Champéry’s steep surrounding cliffs and consequently poor snow adhesion make skiing back to the village impossible, so the choice is either cable car home from the alpine or ski to the nearby Grand Paradis base with its après-ski yurt, new high-speed six-pack and shuttle bus back to Champéry.

But as easy as this little postcard of a Swiss village is to navigate, it also sits on the eastern edge of the massive Portes du Soleil ski domain that straddles the France/Swiss border. About 200 lifts (depends who’s counting) are included in your ski pass, with a staggering 650 km of pistes. French biggies like Avoriaz (think mid-mountain, car-free, purpose-built, rustic-wood, French ’70s architecture that grows on you) and Morzine (traditional bustling Alps ski town favoured by Brits) form the anchor parts of the network with 10 or 12 (depends who’s counting) other ski stations (like Champéry) that sprawl to its galaxy-like outer edges. In all, more than 14 valleys are skiable over more than 1,000 square kilometres. A ski adventure too big to cover in six days—but the challenge is wonderful.

Perhaps most important, more than 90 on-mountain restaurants can be skied to. The immensity of Portes du Soleil is challenged only by rivals Courchevel and the Trois Vallées or Italy’s Super Dolomiti pass, which includes 450 lifts at 12 somewhat interconnected resorts of Cortina, Alta Badia, Val Gardena and so on.

An easy transfer by coach or train from either Geneva or Zurich, Champéry lies in the French-speaking part of the canton (or province) Valais, which is also home to more of the world’s best resorts like grande dame Verbier and grosse Damen (sounds better in French) Zermatt and Saas Fee. If your French is rusty, you’ll find Swiss French is spoken slower than in France and practically textbook compared to Quebecois. And if your French is non-existent, you’ll find English is spoken widely and certainly much more than in France.


Richard, whose real name I shall use, was a Ski Canada rookie when he was given the opportunity to practice his French swearwords. While poking around in some light that had gone incredibly flat after lunch on Day 1, with no trees or rocks to orientate oneself, half-a-dozen of us skied slightly off-piste to get out of some tough old bumps and look for, if not something softer, something smoother. With me skiing ahead (like a Judas Goat), I lost the horizon and was blinded by the snow and sky blending into one. I zigged while poor Richard, who I didn’t realize was shortly behind me, zagged. I dropped about 30 cm off the cornice that none of us saw; Richard hucked himself spectacularly about three metres down and seemingly 10 metres out from his launch pad—and landed shoulder-first with a pile-driving thud worthy of any ski film loop playing above bar patrons’ heads at après.

I suppose it was bound to happen sooner or later. After three trips with so many readers, it was statistically time for someone to take a ride in the blood wagon. As it turned out, Richard and his dislocated shoulder also got to ride in a helicopter—and later, an ambulance. Oddly, none of us had considered the possibility of him being whisked off to another country.

But this is Europe, where the mountains are big and the countries are small. Richard was vindicated for blowing $2 a day on heli-evac insurance and off he went, ashen-faced, listening to some of what Mountain Guide Ron and one-time ski patroller and multi-lingual Marty were telling him. While the useful pair from Ski Canada tracked him down in two different French hospitals, it was my responsibility to return to base camp, inform the crew of the tragedy while keeping their spirits up at après ski, and embellish my role in the whole event. To the delight of the group, tough-as-nails Richard made the decision the following day (under the cloud of painkillers) to not bail on the trip and appropriately won a final dinner award for his bravery.


 The following morning I looked out my window and saw a few centimetres of fluff on the rail, wishing there were more for the big, fat Verbier-made Faction skis I’d borrowed for the trip. Day 2 was the first of two free lunches, where our entire group would be generously hosted by the tourist offices of the canton Valais and the town of Champéry. We would also receive an alphorn lesson. But first I had planned to drag Bruno Huggler and Eric Liechti from their respective offices to do what people who work in the ski industry often don’t have time for: ski. I’d also arranged for Canadian freeski star, La Crevasse nightclub owner in town and long-time Champéry resident Andy MacMillan (same kilt, no relation) to show us a few of his favourite haunts.

So along with Ronnie for good luck, and trip veterans James Statham and the Krupa cousins for comedic relief, we strolled out of the hotel ski room only to be met with ankle and, within a few steps, shin-deep powder. We stared at each other in disbelief as our pace quickened with anticipation and we boot-slid our way down the slippery steep road that led to the cable car station. Where’d this snow come from? Why weren’t we on the first tram an hour earlier!?

13021_SC_BG'14_v42_#1_features.inddDay 2, turned out to be my best day skiing last winter—which was wonderful because my best run the season before just happened to be with Krupa cousins John and Scott, who were on the previous Ski Canada Swiss trip. They were now my new talismen. Needless to say, the sun broke through and cleared the entire big blue sky by the time we made it up into the alpine. It was just cold enough to ski south-facing thigh-deep blower all morning, making us all feel like Ron does pretty much every day heli-skiing at Wiegele’s. Lap after lap of smiles, high-fiving and girl-like giggles from seven grown men. Even local boy Andy couldn’t believe our welcome.

It was almost a shame that we had to break for lunch at all, but when you’re meeting nearly 50 new friends slopeside for home-made Swiss specialties like hay soup—and someone else is picking up the tab—you choose lunch over one more run in the powder. Before the alphorn serenade and lesson began, Ron offered some powder tips to those in the crowd who were struggling in the deep snow. To some of us, that morning of skiing just couldn’t have been any better. To many others more used to Eastern Canada’s racecourse hard groomers, it was a struggle and the look of frustration on the faces was an eye-opener. If Ron, Marty and I had only known how significant the previous night’s snowfall was, we would have been offering powder tips at breakfast before everyone spent the morning sitting back and burning out their thighs. We resolved to anticipate readers’ future needs.


13021_SC_BG'14_v42_#1_features_v2.inddIt must have been something that “cousin” Andy had told me about his plans for Ron, me and whoever else was up for something sporty the next day that had me waking in the middle of the night both sweating and shivering in fright over such a realistic nightmare. My right hand and leg were on one side of a near-vertical mountain peak, and my left hand and leg were gripping and dangling down the other side. It wasn’t a premonition, just a nightmare.

The odd thing was, however, about eight hours later, there I was hiking in worn-soled ski boots, then crawling and, finally, straddling a ridge on my way up Pointe de Vorlaz. At one point, I wasn’t even on my hands and knees, but gripping with my thighs as if I were trying to grip a Belgian or Clydesdale bareback, reins lost, and holding the horse’s neck low with my arms in an emergency stop, trying to keep from soaring over the beast’s head. All while a gusty wind, that had spent hours turning the snowpack into a sugary gripless form, whipped up the elevator-shaft slope to my left and jostled the A-framed skis on my backpack and my feathery 60-kg body.

I lifted my chest off the snow to further my crawl half a metre before I had to grip my mount again to keep from being blown off an equally precipitous and seemingly never-ending slope to my right. I thought only briefly that somewhere down in that valley so far off, “Paula” and her new lunch partners Jenn and Judy would be sitting down at that moment to a glass of wine and reading lunch menus.

It was a while before I could even lift my head up enough to see young Jordon from P.E.I. nicely within Ron’s and Andy’s grasp, and I was thankful that last night at dinner Ron and I had discussed with Jordon’s dad, David, the seriousness of skiing off-piste. Or in this case, crawling off-piste. I wondered if Jordon would remember this big day for as long as I would.

Reaching the peak had its stellar moment, of course, and yes, the route down was fantastic. The views, enormous and incredible. Our tracks remained for days afterward, the only ones on that face, but with time those memories soften while the feeling of hugging the mountain ridge like that remain as unsettling as my sudden awakening during the night. When we got home, I forgot to ask what the ladies had eaten for lunch.

An early dinner that night was on the slate so the group could check out the curling sheets of the town’s pride-and-joy sports centre, the Palladium. To a raucous success, Fancy-Pants Brian Callow of Calgary organized the first-ever Ski Canada Bonspiel, while those of us with attention spans too short for curling checked out the rockclimbing gym, fitness centre, pool and other facilities of the sports complex. I considered upping the challenge on the climbing wall by donning my ski boots.


With elevations from 900-2,400 metres, there’s almost guaranteed excellent snow somewhere in the system at Portes du Soleil—unless a once in a decade, cross-Alps January thaw and thunderstorm hits during the six days of your visit. I’ve skied Europe for more than two decades and I’ve never seen the weather that came in midweek. To go from bluebird skies and deep dry untracked to torrential rain and flash freeze in 48 hours was spectacularly bizarre.

Slopes, valleys, entire mountains were shiny with a glaze of ice, making for treacherous skiing on the steepest and non-groomed routes. While some in the group quit early to head up-valley to investigate the thermal baths, or down-valley to take in some culture and history at Montreux, we literally slipped out the ski room door. Andy had switched to a pair of big old GS boards, while I was still in my rabbit feet powder skis that I’d been loving so far. But I was fine playing catch-up the entire day, feeling as if I were back home skiing, or at least skidding.

Commanding views from the Dents du Midi opposite Champéry, to the Alps highest peak Mont Blanc, to Lac Leman (Lake Geneva) were barely noticed as we careened our way high-speed to Les Gets, France, on the outer edges of the Portes du Soleil domain, and then to Morzine. By lunchtime in the early afternoon, some lower runs were softening enough to at least not assault my ears with chatter, so we stopped for curry at an Indian restaurant and chatted with the waitress from Ireland. After hearing she was emigrating to Canada at the end of the season, Andy and I bombarded her with our arguments as to why she should settle in Toronto vs. Vancouver, bantering just long enough to make us late for the dominoes of lifts and runs on the return trip to Switzerland. Our trip home was at even crazier speeds than the morning runs. As Richard, Ron and Marty learned on Day 1, Europe can be small sometimes, but the skiing is big.


Special thanks to:

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Join editors January 25 –
February 2, 2014

in one of the world’s most posh ski resorts, sunny
St. Moritz and the Engadine Valley, Switzerland!


Huge terrain (350 km of pistes)

Varied terrain (plus stellar & quiet offpiste)

Fair-weather skiers (few lift lines)

Great snow (1,800 – 3,300m)

56 ultra-modern lifts

Stunning alpine scenery

One of Europe’s sunniest ski resorts

Vibrant town centre 1km away

Endless non-ski distractions



Iain MacMillan
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