BY: Claire Challen PHOTOGRAPHY: Paul Morrison

Doors of the Sun

WITH OUR RENTAL VAN STUFFED FULL OF GEAR, videographer LG Palmer, S-Media producer Ashley Herod-Tait, photographer Paul Morrison, and I headed off in search of coffee. As I took in the views of Lake Geneva and lush pastures dotted with farmhouses along the AutoRoute, I found it hard to believe that we could be skiing later today. Exiting toward Portes Du Soleil, zipping around a final roundabout and veering onto a tiny road, we began climbing into the mountains. Snow coated the hillsides alongside the twisting roads that were barely wide enough for our boxy rig to scrape by should a large vehicle come along. Villages built into the hillsides and weathered wood chalets sat so close they were almost within reach. As we pulled into the tiny driveway of Art Boutique Hotel Beau-Séjour, in the historical village of Champéry, it began to snow. We immediately scurried down Grand-Rue for lunch at Le Nord, a cozy post-and-beam space a three-minute walk from our hotel. Despite our jetlag, we managed to decipher the French menu with a little help from our patient waiter and savoured a variety of röstis, the first meal of many in the delightfully decadent Swiss tradition.

Chivalrous as usual, the boys sussed out the resort conditions after lunch, reporting low visibility and goggle-coating freezing rain. I was feeling slightly under the weather and opted out of skiing. Depositing armloads of gear in my quaint room and eyeing the cozy twin combo topped with Swiss down comforters, I allowed myself the luxury of a daytime nap, knowing Ashley was probably doing the same thing in the next room. Later, hearing giddy tales from the boys of high-speed turns down unknown slopes, blinded by the fog and the danger factor compounded by a lack of sleep, I thought perhaps I’d missed out a little.

Champéry’s main cable car passes directly over the hotel, rising more than 1,200 vertical metres above the village into the heart of the Portes du Soleil ski area, where one lift pass provides access to 12 linked resorts in Switzerland and France, with 209 lifts, 700 kilometres of piste and unlimited off-piste. From the top of the Champéry tram, skiers connect with the four Swiss resorts of Champéry: Les Crosets, Champoussin and Morgins. To the west lie eight French resorts, including Avoriaz and Châtel.

That evening, we discussed the next day’s plan in the hotel’s La Vieux-Chalet restaurant over seared local beef grilled mid-restaurant on an open fire. Perfectly sated after a variety trio of shared crèmes brûlées, we watched as, much to our delight, heavy snow began to fall, visible in the soft glow of the outside lights.

Grey skies and low visibility greeted us in the morning, as did fresh snow and the energetic Andy MacMillan from Abbotsford, BC. A denizen of the Alps for the past 25 years, Andy owns La Crevasse, Champéry’s only nightclub, located within crawling distance of anywhere in town. Spending his daylight hours as a mountain tour guide whenever possible, he puts his ripping ski skills to good use. Once Andy ensured we had safety gear, including probes and shovels, and that our beacons were transmitting, he took off in a flash, challenging us to keep up.

After a morning spent dropping into snowy pockets and shoots just off the cat-tracks in this ski-wherever-you-wish country, our explorations led us to the crossroads of Avoriaz and Châtel, where we skied to Les Rhodos in Village des Chèvre, a summertime mountain pasture for goats. Following escargot and a warming vin chaud with Andy’s recommendation of chanterelles a la crème maison, I felt guilty for taking up valuable real estate in the chalet for so long. Looking around, though, I saw most people were taking their lunches seriously. We staggered out two hours later. The top of Le Pas de Chavanette, also known as the iconic Mur Suisse

[Swiss Wall] gives skiers the option to drop into France or Switzerland. Following closely behind Andy, we launched into the 40-degree slope toward Les Crosets on the Swiss side, making our silent debut on the wall. Normally topped with De Chevaux-sized moguls, today it was blanketed in thigh-deep powder. To celebrate our conquest of the Wall, we skied to Buvette des Clavets, an inviting trail side chalet. As the sole guests, we had no problem quickly acquiring plus de vin chaud, but guests can book ahead for fondue and an exciting ski down through the darkness – guide recommended.

An untracked snowfield greeted us off the back of the chalet. Weaving along the exit trail’s switchbacks, we arrived at the base in an area known as Grand Paradis and popped into a yurt off the parking lot. Andy showed up a couple of seats shy and squeezed us all into a borrowed Subaru. After unraveling our intertwined bodies from the front and peeling Paul and LG the Friendly Giant from the back, we clattered our way onto the quiet village street. We returned to Le Nord for an evening meal sans jetlag. At a corner table under rustic miniature lanterns in a room abuzz with happy diners, we dove into sensational gooey raclette and salt-pressed salmon. I was encouraged (forced) for the second evening to partake in the génépi de Champéry – locally prepared hooch made by steeping alpine plants in pure grain alcohol – as it might knock out my nagging cold.

Day two brought sunshine, and with it, the Switzerland of my imagination. Photos I’d seen of the region boasted astounding scenes like this. From my balcony I could see the Dents du Midi and Dents Blanches. Atop the tram, the 360-degree mountain views were breathtaking. We alternated between firm groomers and hiking into steep powder patches wherever we chose, not once being told, “You can’t ski there.” Pointing this way and that to peaks, open bowls and rocky-cliffed lines across the valleys, Andy told us he discovers new lines each season; the nearly limitless opportunity for off-piste skiing is a large part of what keeps him here. As I made my final run of the day, the sky was a pink backdrop for my turns and the trailside chalets.

I could have skied into the evening, but incredible delicacies such as beef carpaccio and foie gras awaited at Champéry’s charming Café du Centre. We awoke on our third day to limited visibility and widespread lift closures, but our attention was diverted as we savoured the creations Beau-Séjours owner Sophie cooks up daily for guests – raspberry-topped meringue, cakes, pies and chocolate eclairs. Bellies full, we hopped on the train for the 10-minute ride north to Thermes Parc – Les Bains du Val-d’Illiez to float and rejuvenate in the natural hot springs. Massages provided further comfort after chasing Andy through the Alps for two days. We spent a quiet afternoon touring the village, stocking up on chocolate and wine at the local grocery store.

Rumours of too much cheese wreaking