I can’t honestly say that “Ski the Swiss Alps” was on my life list. This is because my personal recipe for skiing involves 2 parts coasting nervously at a barely-comfortable speed + 1 part falling and sliding on my rear end + 1 part immobilized after said fall, afraid to resume the nervous coasting.
Also I get really anxious on t-bar lifts.
But skiing is an activity that I have at intervals tried to learn and enjoy, mainly because people in my life do it. This baseline knowledge paid off last week when we had the extreme pleasure of traveling for a wedding to a small village called Aeschiried, in the area of Switzerland known as the Bernese Oberland (2 hours by car from Zurich). Let me be the first to admit that I did not become an expert on any part of Switzerland during this trip. Because the focus of the week was our friends’ wedding, and because they had rented a house for 10 of us to share, I did about 5% of the research I normally do before travel.
And so the main thing I am going to tell you about the area where we stayed is that there is so much snow! Coming from three winters in Holland, where a light dusting has parents dragging their kids on sleds through the streets (runners scraping the bricks with every step), Aeschi was snow heaven.
We arrived at the chalet after dark on a Saturday, and on Sunday morning were greeted by astounding views of mountains that just reached on and on toward the horizon. More immediately, the heads of cross-country skiers kept going by out the bathroom window. Paths (above) for walking, skiing, or snowshoeing cut all through the countryside, passing steps from our door (not even as far as the small bump in the approach that the cars kept getting stuck on). While people were frequently making use of the paths, they were never “crowded” or busy. The feeling of space, of having room, of buildings being spread apart and of it being OK for you to enjoy a walk on what was probably someone else’s pasture or lawn–was so refreshing. Two separate days we hiked for a few hours just by following the footpaths from the chalet. Quite nearby was a small downhill ski slope, and the most energetic portions of the hike were where the paths would intersect: a skier, a sledder, and maybe an automobile might all cross the same portion of snow within a few seconds of our feet. I really appreciate (and several of our friends commented on) the unregulated-ness of Europe as compared to the United States. There aren’t signs stuck everywhere telling you where you can do what activity (I didn’t even have to sign a release form when I rented skis the next day) or what you’re not allowed to do. It’s more common-sense based. Of course, with miles of trails for all sorts of outdoor activities, it only makes sense that periodically you find a hut like this, offering sausage and drinks.
On Monday we were off for downhill. The options in the Jungfrau ski region were vast, and discussions (conditions, ability of those involved, cost, distance) led us to the parking area at Stechelberg, where we took a gondola to Gimmelwald, where we took a gondola to the village of Murren (no access by car). We’d bought our lift passes (little plastic cards that buzzed the lift gates from your pocket—you return them at the end of the day) at Stechelberg, and for a day they were around 60 francs. The cost of a full set of rental gear from the little shop in Murren was an additional 60 francs, but I have never loved rental skis so much. For added safety I threw in a helmet, and found it really comfortable (though until I removed the hat I had underneath, I was effectively deaf). The lift passes put 55 km of trails at our disposal. The very peak of the mountain (2970 meters) was called the Schilthorn, and it’s the backdrop of a 1960s James Bond flick.
Someone I skied with at Murren said that he never minded waiting for me at the bottom of a run, because in every direction, the view was breathtaking. In another situation, I might have thought he was just being kind. Not in the Swiss Alps. We had a glorious, sunny day and were removing layers by the second or third runs. The snow was powdery and thick (so pleasant compared to my memories of semi-icy New England slopes of manmade snow) and truly pleasant to fall on—a fact I tested repeatedly.
The advanced pack reported that the upper levels of the mountain boasted some intimidating drop-offs along the trails, more great views, and fun (though tiring) off-piste opportunities. Tim’s only negative was that only one trail connected the two main sections of the mountain (top / bottom)— a narrow, function-over-form black, too daunting for a couple of our friends (who rode the gondola back down).
The white of the snow extended in every direction, and against it popped the colorful chutes of paragliders, taking off from areas alongside the skiers. Near the bottom, we also saw base jumpers—a sight that even prepared for, I found alarming. (Base jumpers free-fall from the mountain, only pulling a parachute just before they land. They look like suicide jumpers. Signs inside one of the lodges warned: BASE JUMPING: KNOW THE RISKS. I thought this was pretty obvious.)
When we moved to Europe in 2010 and carefully selected which objects to have sent in our crate, Tim included his skis. For nearly three years they sat in our apartment gathering dust, and with our timeline becoming hazy this summer, it was beginning to look like he wouldn’t have the chance to use them. (Because of the contrast in our abilities, a ski vacation has never been a top priority.) Thanks to our good, newlywed friends, the skis met the Alps, and took us along for the ride.
The scenery outside the chalet also made for a unique wedding photo shoot.