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Switzerland (Or: Why you shouldn’t build your mansion in the mountains) 12 March 2012

Posted by magicdufflepud in Colorado, Skiing, Travel.
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So here’s the thing about about Switzerland: sometimes, after too long spent traveling around only your own country, you’ll look at your bank account and say, “Huh, that seems like more than I usually have.” To which your frugal side will respond, “Yes, yes it is, and it’s the product of your hard work and diligence and it’ll pay for your child’s education and a downpayment and a nest egg and, and…” But then Switzerland will slink by with a  vest full of cheeses and Patek Philippes saying, “Betcha I can help you unload all that extra cash in a week.”

And of course, you’ll take Switzerland up on the offer because, well, the Alps.

For the geographically challenged, it’s a country about twice the size of New Jersey sitting pretty in the middle of Europe, between France, Italy, Germany and Austria. For the politically challenged, it’s also, you should note, not part of the EU. Why should that matter to you? Because Switzerland’s not on the Euro, and with the rest of the continent esploding and whatnot, this has made the historically safe Swiss Franc (CHF), a very, very expensive currency.

Expect to pay about $1.10 for every 1.00 CHF. That doesn’t sound bad, except everything in Switzerland costs about twice as much as it does in America to begin with. So plan on 200 CHF/night for a small hotel room, 25CHF/plate at dinner and 5 CHF/beer.

Once you get past the price, though, Switzerland is quite possibly one of the best, and certainly most beautiful, places on Earth. Folks from the Midwest tend to regard mountains as mountains. They’re big. They loom. Goats and people climb them. But spend any amount of time around rocky, pointy places and you’ll realize that not every range was created equal. The Sawatch in Colorado roll up to 14,000′ covered in talus–a fairly boring affair as mountains go. The San Juans offer a bit more relief: solid walls of rock a few thousand feet high, rugged terrain filled with lakes. And then there are the Alps, still dissected by glaciers and soaring 10,000′ above the valley floor where a cluster of chalets huddle together against  rockslides and avalanches.

The tallest peak in the Alps, Mont Blanc (which is actually in France/Italy), breaks the 15,000′ barrier, higher than anything in the lower 48. And as its name implies, the glaciers smothering its summit leave it white year-round. No one will ever confuse Colorado for this place, no matter how much Telluride may protest to the contrary.

Anyway, faced with all that, we did what any sensible Coloradan would do: we skied it.

There’s more to that than you might image. Skiing in Europe is an affair unlike anything you’ll encounter in the US. There are no “resorts” in the American sense of the word, only “areas,” which generally seem to be run by their surrounding communities. The difference is this: so long as you’re in between the ropes at an American resort, you probably won’t die in an avalanche. In Switzerland, only the groomers benefit from avy control. And that partly explains why, in the 2009-2010 season, avalanches in Switzerland claimed 29 lives, seven of them in one slide alone. During that same period, 36 people died in all of America, where the population is roughly 40 times that of Switzerland.

I suspect to Europeans, this all contributes to the danger, and allure, of skiing. You might die. You might not. In practice, though, this seems to scare the bejeepers out of most skiers, who appear too timid to tackle evenest the tamest off-piste terrain. Of course, enough of them do that you can kinda sorta tell what’s safe an what isn’t based on their tracks, but for the most part, the day after a storm offers unlimited powder runs, which are exactly what we discovered in Grindelwald. Eight new inches, bluebird skies and the Eiger (which is German for ogre, evidently) keeping a close eye on everyone below.

This was skiing as it was meant to be. The Swiss should know; alpine skiing draws its name from these mountains. Yet the country predates the sport by several hundred years, meaning the ski villages typically appeared well before their lifts. You won’t find condo towers here, or mansions, just chalets perched on the hillside as if they’d grown right out of it, clustered together so a half dozen villages might inhabit a single valley. In some sense, these villages seem as much a part of the mountains as the boulders and the trees.

We could learn from that. It’s hard to overestimate the difference this makes in the overall experience. On the slopes, skiing is skiing and it’s easy to lose track of time and place. But wander the narrow alleys of Zinal as the last hints of alpenglow fade from the peaks and it takes you back a century or more. You pass a barn, an ornate carving on a chalet twice as old as anyone you’ve ever met. This place seems right, in a way that Vail with its Disneyland decorations and too-clean shutters can never match. This is the Swiss ski experience, not reliant upon the snow, which falls now and again in Tahoe-like dumps, but on a unique mixture of mountains, towns and the occasional ski lifts that all seem to draw meaning from one another.

Give America 800 years, and maybe we’ll get there, too. But right now, in our lifetimes, there’s only one place for it: Switzerland.

Skiing Switzerland 15 January 2010

Posted by magicdufflepud in Uncategorized.
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A little over two years ago, I packed my bags for a 7 a.m. flight, jumped on the pre-dawn train toward Geneve Cointrin, and boarded my plane home to America, leaving Switzerland behind — for the time being. But two weeks before that, I’d found myself racing alongside Lac Leman bound for the Val d’Anniviers by way of Sierre.

If those names don’t mean anything, that’s okay. Imagine this: nearly floating along one of the best rail systems in the world with no responsibility. The French Alps crash into a dappled Lake Geneva, steeper and more jagged than any geological formation should be. France begins over there, and on this gentler side, vineyards roll away from the train as you pass Montreux, Switzerland’s Riviera, then Martigny and Sion, tracing a path up the Swiss state of Valais — literally “Valley” because that’s just what it is, an eons-old swath of habitable terrain between 11,000-foot peaks.

Imagine Caesar’s army cresting the pass into this primeval world: the mountaintops running on into infinity, higher still in every direction, and there in the middle of it the Rhone, ice-blue with glacial run-off and guiding the way toward Lake Geneva.

Now imagine skiing here.

Bowls? What bowls?

The Alps are not the Rockies. Well, yes. Of course. But I mean that; though lower, treeline kicks in sooner leaving so much more terrain blissfully, unendingly sheathed in white. The American ski industry prizes “bowls” those rare areas devoid of trees where you can ski with the sun in your face and the wind in your hair/helmet for what seems like an eternity — wherever you point your skis, there you go. No pre-planned runs in a bowl. Nothing like that exists on the East Coast, however, and even out here in the West, Vail’s seven bowls drop jaws. It is simply too much terrain to be allowed.

In Switzerland, talk of bowls is a little silly, really, because everything goes on above the trees. The Swiss don’t even bother cutting pistes through the forests, instead employing a funicular to bring everyone to a more manageable altitude before dumping them onto the slopes. Around here, only A-Basin can hope to match those views. And even with the Beach in full swing, I doubt it can wrest away claim to most authentic skiing experience.

But perhaps I’ve let nostalgia get the best of me. After all, I learned to ski in Switzerland, braving icy bunny slopes and never venturing onto a chairlift for fear of (what seemed at the time) disastrously steep descents on the intermediate terrain. Something about it grips me, though — and I know that “something” lacks any necessary precision. Maybe I can parse out my meaning. Skiing Switzerland returns in snippets: the paralysis of fear on my first run, the Leffe Blonde left on the hotel roof to cool, the Ovalmaltine with the hotel breakfast.

That evening stroll.

The American resort ski-village attempts to replicate this experience, I think, but no amount of production value can recreate the twilight stroll through a centuries-old village. The last gleams of alpenglow fade from the valley wall and it becomes clear at that moment that for all the steeps and bowls and gnarliness encountered in American ski culture, the sport lives and breathes there with the Swiss.