Switzerland has some of the best back country skiing and snowboarding in the world. If you’re prepared to don skins or snowshoes and trek beyond the higher lift stations you can enjoy virgin powder snow and spectacular scenery. If you prefer to have your ascents covered by lifts, however, there are still plenty of places where you can make your own tracks and escape the hoi polloi.
Many resorts in Switzerland have unprepared marked trails (denoted in yellow on piste maps) which, whilst ungroomed and unpatrolled are generally safe to use when open. Many slopes, such as those off Mont Fort in the Four Vallées ski area, at Engstligenalp near Adelboden or at Belalp-Betten and are often not even marked but require only modest care to use. There are spectacular off-piste runs from many other resorts which safely weave across and between pistes, although it should not be assumed that because virgin snow is close to a run that it is invariably safe to go there.
Some of the very best, accessible freeriding can be found off Titlis at Engelberg, off the Gemsstock in Andermatt, off the Wissmeilen from Flumserberg or Pizol, from lenzerheide down to Arosa, above Zermatt and Saas-Fee, Piz Bernina in the Engadin and all around Davos. It should go without saying that all off-piste skiing and snowboarding has risks, and that local knowledge should always be sought before embarking on freeriding.
There is a huge amount of literature in German, and to a lesser extent, French, on skiing and snowboarding backcountry in Switzerland. The only comprehensive text in English is the 1963 translation of Walter Pause’s “Salute the Skier – the hundred best ski runs in the Alps”. I hope to revisit many of the Swiss runs he identified and update the information he provided, but interestingly I have so far found the guide to have dated far less than the colourful prose it employs. The major change is that many runs which required skins at the time are now wholly or largely served by ski lifts.
Beyond simply going off-piste Switzerland provides some of the most spectacular ski mountaineering and ski touring supported by a network of 153 mountain huts managed by the Swiss Alpine Club which provides almost 10,000 high altitude beds throughout the year. Bill O’Connor has published a series of books entitled “Alpine Ski Mountaineering”, available from Amazon, which provide the most authoritative English-language guides on the subject.
An excellent series of Freeride maps, based on the maps of the Swiss Federal Office of Topography, are available from freeride-map.com. Not cheap, but useful since they are in English. Many books are available on freeriding Switzerland, but not in English.
But probably the best way to enjoy backcountry skiing and snowboarding in Switzerland is to do it with somebody who has done it before. The English Forum bulletin board is a good place to seek experienced English-speaking skiers and snowboarders who may be open to having you join them. Also www.pistehors.com. The Ski Club of Great Britain has representatives in eight resorts who will guide members on-piste, and sometimes off-piste for free. Ski guiding from experienced guides does not come cheap, but for a group it works out realtively affordable, and many ski guiding companies organise trips that are open to anyone with the required minimum technical skills. A good place to start is the Swiss Mountain Guide Association who have literally hundreds of members to choose from. Some other organizations offering ski touring include: