Twenty-five miles up the valley from Sion, the cantonal capital of Valais, it’s like time has stopped. While posh Verbier and Zermatt, just a few valleys away, are bustling with modern attractions, the villages in Val d’Hérens look pretty much as they have done for the last 70 years: rustic, cozy, and sleepy. At the end of a long road, surrounded by some of the Alp’s classic peaks, Arolla is tiny and a bit forgotten. With less than a hundred inhabitants, a few old hotels, a couple of restaurants, a family-owned corner store, and an outdoor store combined with a guide bureau, the pace here is slow. However, the humble little ski area with a few ancient surface lifts, taking you partway up the big mountains, gives access to some of the best backcountry skiing in the Alps.
Sitting at 6,562 feet (2000 meters), Arolla is one of the highest-located ski areas in Europe. Numerous 10,000-13,000-foot-high peaks surround the small resort, and the opportunities are endless. Even better, this off-the-radar location has preserved an authentic and raw ski culture devoid of crowds. While massive corporations control the most successful ski destinations globally and small, independent ski hills need help balancing the books, places like Arolla are disappearing rapidly.
Deep in the valley, near enormous glaciers and big mountains, the temperatures are cold, which often means an early start of the season. Still, even if the groomers are excellent, the Arolla is primarily known for its ski touring access and steep skiing. The ski lifts function as steep ladders to a never-ending backcountry. If you bring a pair of skins, the terrain offers some of the most exciting skiing in the Alps. With many easily accessible couloirs, spectacular off-piste runs in all aspects straight from the lifts, epic ski touring itineraries, and steep skiing faces up to 50 degrees, Arolla is on par with legendary places like La Grave in France and Italy’s Alagna.
But Arolla also offers less intimidating terrain than these destinations. Combined with a handful of ski touring huts easily accessible within a few hours of skinning from the ski area, this means Arolla is accessible to a broad spectrum of skiers.
Perched between the peaks of Pigne d’Arolla (12,454 feet) and Petit Mont Collon (11,663 feet), the Cabane des Vignettes is a beloved hut among many mountain guides and guests. One reason is the stunning location at 10,367 feet – the hut sits on a cliffside with breathtaking views – the second is the reputation of serving the Alp’s most massive portions of rösti, a classic Swiss dish of grated potatoes fried in a pan.
Arolla is an alternative staging ground for the 112-mile Haute Route between Chamonix and Zermatt, first skied in 1911 and still the most iconic ski touring route globally. Some claim the most stunning part of the Haute Route is between Arolla and Zermatt, which is probably why some guides also offer this shorter route as part of their lineup.
Arolla has been an essential destination for steep skiing for a long time. With plenty of steep and challenging terrain, relatively easy access, and a very long season, it has all the necessities for successful steep skiing missions. Legendary local mountain guide André “Dédé” Anzévui was raised among the steep faces of Arolla. He pioneered many classic runs around his hometown and the Alps in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, amongst them the first descent of Pigne d’Arolla and Petit Mont Collon, two of the most spectacular peaks near Arolla. When he also skied the north face of the Matterhorn in 1989, Anzévui cemented his reputation in the steep skiing history books. Nearly 50 years later, the descent has yet to be repeated. Anzévui never left Arolla and eventually started a guide company in the village. The charismatic Anzévui, now 68 years old, continues to work as a mountain guide, and his company, Freeride Experience, employs a handful of local guides. Occasionally, he still skis steep lines, but over the years, he has slowed down and enjoys a quiet life in his hometown.
Arolla’s primary income is tourism, and most visitors come for the skiing. But there are worries among the community that this isn’t a sustainable income. The lifts are ancient, and the day they must be retired is looming closer. A proposed development includes a new gondola lift (including a mid-station restaurant) to replace the old pomas. The little lift company doesn’t have the money to expand, so it’s up to the local community. Many feel it’s essential to the valley’s economy, but such a significant development could forever change Arolla and its genuine atmosphere.
The alternative could be dismantling the lifts, creating an uphill destination, and going all in with ski touring. That would take Arolla back to its roots, and with the current trends in skiing, it could prove to be a smart move.