7am: It is well below freezing up here at 2,457m on the deck of Cabane Mont Fort – icily silent, without a trace of wind. I’ve not experienced this kind of quiet anywhere but deep in the mountains; snow silencing any sound, remote and removed, just until the world 1,000m below wakes up. I’m outside watching as the rounded summit of Mont Blanc turns from white to pink. Before long the entire massif glows red, the sky purple in comparison, and then the whole bowl before me burns orange. This is real luxury, I think, waking up in the heavens next to giants Mont Gele and Grand Combin. A panorama unparalleled.
If the motto of The Bespoke Black Book is ‘luxury is about the experience, not the price tag’ then here is a front runner: a night spent at Cabane Mont Fort. For me this is the sweet spot, somewhere between a Swiss 5* superior and a self-dug snow cave in the backcountry. Shacked up in a mountain refuge on Verbier’s skyline – the vast mountainscape to yourself – you experience the best of both sheer comfort and unbeatable views. How to get to this remote outpost? In winter, by ski touring or snowshoe. As well as being one of the chain of huts along the Haute Route – a multi-day expedition and holy grail for ski tourers and mountaineers traversing the jagged horizon between Zermatt and Chamonix – Cabane Mont Fort is also easily accessible from Verbier resort. A high mountain restaurant and lunch spot by day, reachable through the Verbier lift network, it’s a secluded refuge come dusk. Here is the perfect way to enter into the world of mountain hut sleeping, something that’s become quite the skier’s trophy, and the ideal opportunity to cut your teeth in ski touring. The skin up is on piste from La Chaux and the next morning you can either take the chance to ski the bowl first thing toute seule – one of my all time favourite things to do in resort – or, if you’re already into touring and off-piste riding, continue on up early doors into some of the world’s most respected freeriding terrain (as always, advice is to take a guide). No matter the plan, waking up among the spiked summits that 24 hours before I saw tower over me down in the town of Verbier has created a lasting memory and is one of the most spectacular places I’ve ever stayed.
5pm: Arriving with the direct, warming light still hitting the corner of the large terrace I order a beer from the service hatch and sit down with some straggling sun-chasers wanting their last minutes on the mountain to watch as the sun rapidly sets behind the French peaks out west. Very suddenly it turns freezing cold and I head inside the timber-clad cabin to settle in for the night. Cabane Mont-Fort, named after the highest peak in the region on which it sits, has been offering travellers a refuge from the elements for a century. Since 1983 it’s been under the guardianship of Daniel and Frances Bruschez, who have watched their children grow up here. Such places – old farming huts, perfunctory shacks – are dotted through the Alps and offer shelter, if you know where and how to navigate there.
With the trend these days being all about paring it back, getting closer to nature and to the roots of skiing, this cabin finds perfect balance between comfort and rusticity. Most huts promise a hot meal and some kind of sleeping situation – a sleeping platform, dorm room or bunk – company (but hopefully not too much – these places can get ‘stuffy’) and camaraderie. It’s more a simple outpost than a modern masterpiece (the Monte Rosa Hut above Zermatt, or Refuge de Goûter on Mont Blanc); it’s cosy, has fantastic food, hot showers, thick duvets and is not one reserved for the extreme skier, so you meet all kinds up here. Visitors range from mountaineers on a hut-to-hut tour to people like me, taking a night out from the hubbub of the resort to experience the deserted heights of the Bec de Rosses mountain.
Switching out boots for crocs in the ski room I go in to find myself a bed, lucking out – the place less than half full – and nabbing a twin room with a buddy under the eaves. The light has pretty much gone and the atmosphere is building, a small group of us hunkered down here for the night with wine and a traditional Swiss meal of rösti on the way. Downstairs in the main room are three groups; our English gang of five, a group of good-time Swedes and a quiet pair sitting in the corner eating early to turn in. After a few friendly intros with the Swedish crew, we join tables and spend a merry evening drinking and making friends. There’s nothing quite like being holed up together in an alpine wilderness surrounded by nothing but snow covered peaks to unite you (helped along by schnapps).
6am: The mood is very different the next morning. I’m up before dawn finishing some work (there’s signal up here!) and I see the dedicated pair take a quick breakfast and head on out, skins on, before first light. I stand outside for as long as I can handle, merely a few minutes at a time, watching the surrounding snowy landscape turn all shades of pastel. The La Chaux bowl, a brilliant intermediate area usually buzzing with skiers and movement, is beautifully still. There’s something magical about seeing the lift towers iced over and motionless, miniscule and insignificant in the grandeur of the setting. It’s so high, you’re looking across the summits of the Alps what seems to be hundreds of miles.
8am: A still night and low temps made for pretty sound conditions to head into. Under what is by now a sheer blue sky our group set off, up and over the Col de la Chaux at 2,940m, a good few hundred vertical metres above the refuge, onto Col do Momin. Expertely led, we toured through and skied Verbier’s splendid out bounds. Four hours later we landed into semi-civilisation at Le Mouton Noir at the top of the Medran gondola, where lunch was soon to descend into après. Pals we had abandoned in resort, injured from the previous day’s skiing (I know now the sound of an ACL snapping) were already installed and enjoying the fun on this sun filled deck. Ruddy faced and chuffed after a good morning’s work, we got stuck in.
3pm: Inspired by an azure sky full of colourful kites, and spurred perhaps by the magnum of rosé circulating, I’m sitting in a parapente harness, skis still on, strapped to a guide and about to take the easiest route down to the valley floor. This feels a little controversial, human powering my way to the heights of Verbier only to soar down below the resort on air waves – but it’s the effect of Verbier’s fun-filled attitude. And what an experience this 30-minute flight is.
So if you’re a skier, snowboarder or winter hiker looking to up your game, switch up your style and get further out of bounds, then this is the place to start. The sheer luxury of sleeping at the top of the world costs around CHF90 (around 75 euros).
Access: For an easy 4km uphill to Cabane Mont Fort, pick the route from Ruinettes. Take the cable car from Medran to Les Ruinettes. Just below Le Mouton Noir is the start of the path marked with pink posts that’ll lead to La Chaux, with great views of the Combins Massif along the way. Around Le Dahu, around Gentianes ski lift and climb a short while alongside the cable car route. From here you’ll spot the cabin, which is where you can start your final, steeper climb. See here for other ski touring routes in Verbier.
Recommendations for down in Verbier
I was introduced to Chez Dany by a Verbier local and it’s a favourite of those in the know, off the beaten track. Chez Dany is a slope-side restaurant tucked away in the wooded hamlet of Clambin village with a cosy lodge interior that’s brimming with atmosphere most every night of the week. The menu is traditional and based on fresh, locally sourced ingredients – I did also eat the most perfect escargots Chez Dany. To get here, walk the 15 minutes from the centre of Verbier to Clambin, where the restaurant’s snowcat will scoop you up from the foot of the slope, bringing you to its nighttime-secluded location. I’d recommend bringing a head torch and toboggan (which you can rent from any ski hire shop in town for a few euros) and make your descent from the restaurant with an exhilarating ride back into Verbier. Make sure to book ahead at Chez Dany; it really is a Verbier favourite. A low key option, Fer a Cheval is the centre of Verbier locals’ social scene. A chalkboard menu features Swiss mountain favourites in the lively pub. Book for upstairs (advised) if you want to have dinner with drinks. Celebrate in town at glamorous Le Rouge, located at the foot of Le Rouge ski run and open from midday to midnight. The terrace has stellar views and is a great spot for sunny lunches al fresco and, later, pumping après. Inside it is luxurious modern lodge decor with roaring fires, leather furniture and lots of chunky wood. The menu features fondue, steak, risotto and fish. V Bier, located on the high street, offers a brewery tour and tastings of its great range of beers. If your body needs a stretch out post ski tour, join a yoga class at Wholey Cow which offers lessons in English.
Cabane Mont Fort coordinates: (46 ° 05’00”N – 7 ° 16’51”E)
58 beds, 15 rooms: Reservation essential: [email protected]
Opening dates: December to mid-May | Late June to mid-September
SWISS operates more than 170 weekly flights to Switzerland from London Heathrow, London City, Manchester Birmingham, Edinburgh and Dublin from £55 one way
Verbier is 2 hours from Geneva by car, 3 hours by public transport
Photo Credits (for those not mine) : verbier.ch / Melody Sky