Verbier by Train
I’m at my favourite station, the utterly magnificent St Pancras, built 155 years ago with 60 million red bricks supplied by Edward Gripper’s Nottingham Patent Brick Company, to board the 10.09 Eurostar to Paris, thence to Verbier to test if it’s possible to go skiing sustainably. What could be more delightful? Not for me the red-eye cattle-class of SqueezyJet. What’s the rush? My smiling cabin steward Quiteria (“Call me Kitty”) lays out my breakfast as the train builds speed, the ugly Kent landscape of wrecked cars and the odd knackered horse blurring past.
Breakfast Wine and CO₂
“Tea? Coffee?” asks Kitty. “Not for me,” I say, lowering my voice, “but is there any chance of a bottle of wine?” She glances at the bulkhead clock and smiles, “Well, it’s five o’clock somewhere in the world…I’ll see what I can do.” Back she comes with a chilled Domaine de Tholomies. Most acceptable. As I sip my breakfast wine, I compare the amount of CO₂ emitted per person per journey: Train 2.4, Plane 66.0. No contest. At Paris, Gare du Nord to Gare de Lyon is a struggle on the Metro. Only two stops but the escalators are out of order and the signage is terrible. Attention Paris! You’ve got the Olympics in July.
Reclining in my leather seat, stage 2, the SNCF journey to Lausanne, goes by in a 180mph dream, interspersed with regional and sustainable choices from chef Michel Roth’s menu, then more green dreams. Train 3.2 g of CO₂ per passenger kilometre; EasyJet 70.36 grams of CO₂ per passenger kilometre. My home-to-Verbier travel is all pre-booked through Go Verbier in one click, showing various sustainable options.
Platform changes are Swiss-perfect efficient: Martigny, Le Châble and then gondola into the very heart of Verbier and a short walk to my 4-star superior Hôtel de Verbier.
The hotel is part of the Switzerland Tourism programme ‘Swisstainable’. Solar panels paired with the town’s pellet-fuelled system heat the hotel and restaurant; triple-glazed windows are fitted; rainwater collection is filtered and reused; no air conditioning; no shuttle service, guests are encouraged to take public transport or walk; spa facilities are only switched on between 3 pm and 9 pm to reduce waste.
None of the above is apparent, but what is apparent is the gorgeous wraparound Scandi mysighet, (cosiness) created by Eld and Ebba Leijonhufvud, the Swedish owners. “He’s back office, I do the cosy bit” laughs Ebba. From sheepskin armchairs to king or emperor-size beds furnished with the floatiest pillows I’ve ever experienced; this is eco-paradise.
Hire and Higher
Many skiers rent boots and skis, so why not clothing? Hey Presto! There, laid out my bed, are ski clothes pre-ordered at home. Taking hire to the next level, Cirkel of Verbier specialise in premium skiwear rental, offering skiers and snowboarders another way to reduce the impact of their sport by renting premium outerwear, mid-layers and gloves online.
I have chosen a top-of-the-range Ortovox Deep Shell jacket and pants, and a Piz Boval jacket. The brainchild of Anna Smoothy (former World Tour Freerider and a living example of nominative determinism), Cirkel’s rentals emit 76% less CO₂ than equivalent shop sales, boosted even more by delivery and collection to users in their accommodation. To complete my kit requirements, I rent skis, boots and a helmet directly across the road from the hotel at Xtreme Sports. Removing the need to lug a huge bag of kit on and off trains is a joy, and all the equipment is tip-top and tickety-boo.
Verbier is twice the winner of World’s Best Ski Resort, attracting 35,000 visitors at peak times but ski lifts here generate very little CO₂. How? Laurent Vaucher, director of Téléverbier tells me, “This is because we use electricity from low-carbon sources such as hydroelectric power. The biggest carbon footprint comes from the movement of customers from their place of residence to Verbier. We’ve reduced the speed of lifts to conserve over 10% of energy and extend the lifespan of machinery. While we still produce carbon emissions from our snow-grooming vehicles, the technology for replacing internal combustion engines is not yet perfected. However, projects based on electric batteries or hydrogen fuel cells are well advanced and we expect a solution in the mid-term. By then, Verbier will have reached zero emissions.”
The Drain Game
Every New Year’s Day in Verbier at 15 minutes past midnight, 60,000 people flush toilets into a sewage system designed for 10,000. That’s part of the water sustainability dilemma faced by this Commune. They aren’t taking it sitting down. Five years ago, residents, who pay all water fees locally, started to mitigate and adapt. Now all sewage is recycled, rain and snow are conserved.
The 100,000 tons of snow cleared from roads are cleaned to drinking water quality and recycled. I meet the man in charge of the water in Verbier, Laurent Horvath, deputy director of BlueArk Entremont. He’s tall, inspirational, and optimistic: “We’re in time. We can do something. Some people don’t believe it. I don’t care. I see it. The climate is changing, we need to live with it. With the steps the people of Verbier are taking now I hope that in 50 years our kids will say, ‘You were smart’”.
On the main drag in Verbier, cheek by jowl with Moncler, Boutique Bogner, and Agence ABC Verbier, who will sell you bijou properties for £12 million plus, is SunGod, another important link in Verbier’s sustainability chain. They make carbon-neutral goggles and sunglasses for all types of sport using sustainable materials. Customers choose size, design, lens, frame and logo colour, and products come with a lifetime guarantee: break, and they will fix them free.
Broken pairs are completely recycled. They make lenses for prescriptions. I’m now the proud owner of Vanguard goggles which I wear over spectacles and Renegade sunglasses with prescription lenses. If they’re good enough for me they’re good enough for the likes of the Ineos Grenadiers Cycling team, and Ariana Tricomi 3x World Freeride Champion.
Grasp the Nettle
What could be more sustainable than local produce? Dairy farmers making the famous Raclette du Valais AOP and other numerous cheese specialities have united under the Grand Entremont brand with livestock breeders, beekeepers, aromatic and medicinal plant growers, cereal crop farmers, and wine and fruit cultivators.
Their exceptional products are offered in Verbier shops, hotels and restaurants, like the newly renovated La Pasay at the top of the brand new La Pasay chairlift. My nettle soup served with Valais AOP Raclette cheese and rye bread paired with a bio Johannisberg 2022 produced by Daniel Magliocco & Fils down in the valley 2163m below is outstanding. Now that really is local.
The name Verbier is synonymous in most people’s minds with ‘slebs and royals, but you’re unlikely to strap hang next to a Beckham on the free shuttle bus to the lift station; more likely to jump out of the way of a speeding bevy of blacked out guzzley Range Rover SVs carrying the likes of Jude Law, Richard Branson, James Blunt, Prince Harry, Jamie Oliver, Ronan Keating, Barack Obama, or Leonardo di Caprio in the back.
You won’t share a chairlift with Prince Andrew who finally managed to sell his little chalet for around £19 million. No branch of Woking Pizza Express here. It is a resort for the few privileged but also for thousands of ordinary passionate skiers, and definitely the place to head to if you want to enjoy some of the best runs in the world and leave as small a carbon footprint as possible.
Reasons to visit Verbier:
- World’s Best Ski Resort
- Single point low carbon travel options
- Easy train connections
- All clothing and equipment are pre-ordered saving luggage
- Local produce in hotels, shops, and restaurants
- Low carbon infrastructure
- Top quality hotels using low energy
- Lifts extremely low carbon
- High local sustainability awareness