OFF-SEASON SKIING—IN WINTER?
For several weeks in January, sinking temperatures keep most Europeans off the world’s best ski runs, the Alpine slopes. But for hardy Canadians, the weather’s just fine—and prices are lower. Blair Fraser knows—he went—and tells how to get there, where to stay, how to have the most fun
BETWEEN THE TIME the last European students end their Christmas holidays, around the tenth of January, and the beginning of the February “High Season,” there is an interval that Alpine resort owners call “le trou" — “the gap” between the two periods of solid bookings, crowded restaurants, interminable lineups at ski lifts, and golden returns for innkeepers.
During le iron a remarkable transfiguration takes place. The same hotel clerks, who in February or late December look pained and slightly insulted by requests for an unreserved room, are almost pathetically eager to accommodate the wayfarer. Trains that were and will be jammed have seats for all. Prices of rooms, meals and lift tickets are lower by ten to twenty percent. Best of all, you can walk right onto cable cars at which, a fortnight earlier or later, waits of ninety minutes are commonplace. Thus you more than double the time each day of actual skiing, as distinct from standing wearily in line.
What’s the catch? Why are Europeans so reluctant to ski in January instead of February that even these inducements don’t bring them out in self-defeating hordes?
Weather is the answer. January temperatures in the Alps are well below Centigrade zero (freezing point) and sometimes almost down to zero Fahrenheit. Europeans think this simply is too cold for a civilized man to be out in.
By Canadian standards, though, Alpine weather in January is just about right. At a crisp twenty degrees Fahrenheit fresh snow is really powder, not the snowball material that falls in the High Season. Your ski clothes feel comfortable instead of intolerably hot and heavy. The air has the sharp invigorating bite that Canadian skiers are used to, instead of the moist softness of February-March.
True, another aspect of weather affects every skier, quite apart from temperature, and that is sunlight. Above tree line, skiing is difficult on a cloudy day, even a bright cloudy day with no fog. Without shadows, the hills fade into a great flat whiteness in which, quite literally, you can’t tell up from down. You can see a peak ten miles away, but not the sudden dip right in front of your ski tips. Swiss and Austrians don’t seem to mind this much (apparently they can ski blindfolded) but most Canadians find it disconcerting.
Statistically, you have a better chance of sunny days in the High Season than in January, but Alpine weather is chancy at any time. In the second half of last January I was able to ski every day, with conditions good to excel-
lent more than half the time. A friend of mine prudently waited for February sun; it snowed every single day of his vacation, bringing visibility close to zero. On my own trip, the one day of thick fog happened to be February 1. It's a matter of luck.
Another disadvantage of off-season skiing is the cost of air travel. You miss the ski-club charter flights, and no off-season discounts on room and meals can bridge the gap between charter rates and regular fares. Unless you can persuade your club to charter one flight a few weeks earlier than usual, there is no escape from full winter fare.
But charter flights have to be booked far in advance, often with substantial deposits, for rigidly fixed dates of departure and return. If you want to fly at your own time, Air Canada and Swissair each have tw;o flights a week from Montreal to Zurich for four hundred and eighty-five dollars return. (You can cut about one hundred dollars off the regular fare with a twenty-one-day excursion after February 15, until March 31.) Incidentally, you can take your own skis and boots for a flat charge of $8.90 each way, above your forty-four pounds of luggage.
THE QUESTION THAT puzzles nonskiers, of course, is, Why go at all? Why spend money to leave Canada, of all places, in midwinter, of all times, to look for more snow and cold weather, of all things?
No one who would ask this question can understand the answer. It’s like asking a devout Moslem why he should go all the way to Mecca when there is a mosque just around the corner. Alpine skiing is the best in the world, that’s all.
Mont Tremblant, the biggest hill in eastern Canada, has about eighteen hundred feet of vertical drop. The Parsenn run, from the peak above Davos to Klosters five miles away, has five thousand — almost a mile of sheer gravity. The Parsenn is five to nine miles, depending on which village you come out in (you’ve a choice of four), of virtually continuous downhill — just a few flat stretches where ordinary skiers have to walk but fast skiers don’t. At any Alpine resort the marked trails are packed, not too hard but enough to make turning easy, but on the open slopes above tree line you can still ski in fresh powder if you know how, or if you dare. In most places you can, if you want to, ski for several days without ever taking the same run twice — but you don’t want to because a / continued overleaf
Your first day of Alpine skiing may leave you frazzled, but the wobbles pass and fun begins
continued / touch of familiarity makes the big runs better, not worse. The time may come, and I hope it does, when the Canadian Rockies will have comparable skiing — they have the terrain, all they need are the facilities — but for the present and immediate future there is nothing in this country remotely like the Alps.
Last January I took one of Air Canada’s evening (lights out of Montreal and got to Zurich shortly after noon, European time — early enough for trains to any part of German - speaking Switzerland or the Austrian Tyrol. (For Chamonix or other French ski resorts, you’d fly on to Geneva and proceed by bus.) But it’s unlikely you would get to any destination in time to ski the same day, so it’s worthwhile to spend a few hours in Zurich conferring with the Swiss tourist bureau about tickets.
I’m told there are no fewer than ninety (not nine, not nineteen — ninety) different varieties and combinations of rail and skilift fares in Swiss resorts. No newcomer can figure out for himself which is the best buy. A lift pass that might be a bargain, if you stay two or three weeks in one place, would be a waste of money if you plan to move every few days. Some tickets are good for whole regions, some for only one village, some for only one lift in the village; trying to decide which to buy when you’re standing at a wicket, with a long queue of people waiting behind you, is no way to be popular. You can get accurate counsel in Zurich and still, with any luck, have time to reach your first ski resort the same evening. I started with Klosters, in the Grisons, about three hours by train from Zurich.
Klosters is a village of three thousand
permanent residents; Davos, next-but-one station up the line, is a town of ten thousand, and both have access to the same ski terrain. Each has the charms appropriate to its size — Davos a wider range of hotels de grand luxe, night clubs and casinos, concerts and theatres; Klosters only two big hotels, lots of small pensions and family-run restaurants, plainer and cheaper but no less pleasant than the more elaborate places. I paid about eight dollars a day for bed and breakfast at a small, spotless, friendly house run by a widow and her son; some other pensions offer full board for the same price, but they are likely to be a little short of such things as hot water and bathrooms, and besides they are mostly booked solid from midDecember to March or April by the frugal Swiss.
I got to Klosters about seven o’clock on a dark crisp evening—twenty degrees Fahrenheit and a light snow falling. A friend met me at the station and took me off to a dinner of fondue bourguignonne, raw fillets of beef chopped into small chunks that you cook for yourself on a stick, in a pot of boiling oil that bubbles on a brazier in the middle of the table. Bright and early next morning we went up to run the Parsenn.
DON’T BE DISCOURAGED if you find, on your first day of Alpine skiing, that you’re suddenly in terrible physical shape and have forgotten all you ever knew about technique. You are having to adjust to three things at once — an overnight flight with little or no sleep, a time change of six hours from Eastern Standard, and a mile and a half or more of altitude. Any one of these changes from the normal is quite enough to affect most people’s stamina; all three together are a jolt from which it takes a couple of days to recover.
Once recovered, you'll find that the Parsenn run is not difficult. Klosters and Davos have difficult runs, taxing enough for any expert, but the popular ones are for average skiers — comparable, say, to the Devil’s River Run at Mont Tremblant or the Ptarmigan at Whitehorn, stretched out to five or six miles long. Half to two thirds of the distance is above tree line, with most runs ending in narrow trails through evergreens.
Klosters and Davos are not for beginners, though. The / continued on page 23
continued on page 23
If you want to get the real flavor of a country, nothing beats the smaller inns
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novice slopes are down in the valley, half a mile or more from the cable cars or funicular trains that go up to the big hills. If you're in a party that includes all levels of skill, it will be split from morning to night. To keep that kind of party together. Arosa is a better place to go.
Arosa was a winter resort before Alpine skiing was invented, and it still treats skiing as just one winter sport. Only about half its winter tourists are skiers — the cable car in the morning is likely to be filled with small children and their sleds, and elders dressed for walks along cleared and packed trails. Sleighing parties are trotted around the lower edges of the ski slopes, and there are frequent horse races on the ice of an Alpine lake.
The town is built just at tree line, and the ski terrain is all one vast snow bowl above the town, a sun trap in which you bask in reflected radiant heat even when recorded temperatures are quite low', and which comprises every kind of slope from senior to novice. Skiers of all ages and skills can start out from the same place, meet as often as they like without inconvenience or loss of time, and ski at their own pace without losing touch with one another.
Arosa is only about six miles from the top of the Parsenn run. You can sec it from the restaurant at the summit, and you can ski there in less than half a day. Unfortunately, the ski route, though not difficult, is dangerous because of the threat of avalanches; to go without a guide would be lunacy, and the guides won't take you unless weather and snow conditions are just right. So, to my great disappointment, I had to go by train, which took considerably longer than the ski trip would have taken since it has to go all the way around the mountain and up another valley on the other side.
In Arosa, by some oversight in my reservations, I found myself staying at a luxe hotel. By Canadian standards it was not expensive — fifteen dollars a day for a room with bath, and three excellent meals — and it left nothing to be desired in comforts and conveniences. Personally, though. I’d rather stay at a small hotel, even aside from economic considerations. The trouble with first-class hotels is that they are all alike, the world over. It’s in the smaller inns and the pensions that you get the flavor of the country you have come so far to sec.
From Arosa I went to Lech, in the Arlberg district of Austria, a curious, enclosed, inbred community that I find altogether fascinating. You can imagine Banff or Lake Louise developing into a semblance of some Alpine resorts, but nothing in North America will ever be like Lech.
Lech is a village of fewer than a thousand people, almost a mile above sea level. It has been settled since the end of the thirteenth century, when German-speaking Walsers from Wallis in Switzerland came into the
Arlberg region and over the Flexen Pass, but not until 1900 was a road built to Lech. Before that, for six hundred years, it had dwelt completely isolated, accessible only by packhorse or. in good weather, by stout two-wheeled cart or sledge that could be dragged over a mountain trail. Otherwise, all travelers went on
foot. The ninety square kilometers of land in the valley were owned by a handful of old families, not rich but deeply rooted. Jochum, Strolz. Schneider and half a dozen other clan names still dominate the village. Such families as the Pfefferkorns, who have lived in Lech only three or four generations, are still regarded as out-
siders. (Anyone from beyond the valley of Lech and the neighboring hamlet of Zurs is an outsider, even if he comes from no farther off than the next Alpine valley.)
By Austrian law, no foreign national can purchase land there; by local custom in Lech, land is not sold to any outsider except in unusual cir-
cumstances. In a typical village family the father is a farmer who runs a small ski lodge in winter, the son a ski instructor who will become a farmer when he and his father retire from their respective occupations. Some never do retire. Gebhardt Jochum, a former mayor of Lech, is now well into his seventies but still gives private ski lessons six or even seven days a week in the High Season. (He has had to change his skiing style four times in the fifty-odd
years he has been teaching and learn completely new techniques.)
Lech grows slowly. The man who operates a small pension in winter may spend the summer building another one, with the help of his son; they let it stand half-finished through one winter, then finish it the second summer. It is a slow process but it helps to keep Lech self-contained and self-sufficient.
Lech is one of the few places left where ski-lift capacity exceeds hotel
accommodation. Since it is fifteen miles from the nearest railway station, not many day-trippers come to Lech, so the lift lineups are not too bad even in the High Season. (The catch, of course, is that rooms are hard to get: reservations should be made before Christmas, preferably in October. Cost, at my small hotel: nine dollars for room and meals.)
Besides the considerable variety of ski terrain in the Lech-Zurs area itself, it’s only a half-hour bus ride from St. Anton, where the Kandahar and the Valuga runs are among the most famous in the world. The whole Arlberg region is the shrine for ski pilgrims. Hannes Schneider, the St. Columba of Alpine ski technique in North America, came from the tiny hamlet of Stuben, half way between Lech and St. Anton.
Zermatt, on the Italian border at the foot of the Matterhorn, is another village with the special individual quality that comes from centuries of isolation. There isn’t a motor road to Zermatt even now (though I understand the Swiss are building one); there was no railway until the 1890s, and the trains didn’t run in winter until 1930. However, Zermatt was famous as a tourist centre long before there was any other way of getting there than by horseback, because the Matterhorn attracted climbers from all over the world. (It was first climbed in 1865, a tragic exploit in which more than half the party fell
to their deaths when a rope broke.)
Zermatt got some highly unwelcome publicity three years ago when a leakage from its sewer into the water supply set off an epidemic of typhoid. However, the emergency spurred the village authorities into belated but effective action — a new sewage disposal plant, two new filter stations and an automatic chlorination unit have been installed by an outlay of several million Swiss francs, and the sewers are now checked for leaks by having a closed-circuit television camera dragged through them several times a year. Zermatt probably now has the cleanest drinking water in the Alps.
It also has seventeen lifts of every known variety, from poma-lifts to funicular trains, to take you up a gorgeous array of hills in three separate ski areas. In addition, by taking a five-franc ride in a snowmobile, you can start from the top of the Theodul Pass and ski down into Italy (the village that used to be called Broglio but now, for the tourist trade, has been renamed Cervinia after the Italian name for the Matterhorn, II Cervino). Last winter Zermatt, for the second consecutive year, had a snow famine; even on the upper slopes there was less than two feet of snow, and in the village the ground was almost bare; the run home each day was hard on ski bottoms. But in a normal year it would be excellent.
Between Zermatt and Chamonix I
slopped for two days at a little village I'd never heard of before, Saas-Fee, in the next valley to Zermatt and about two hours away by rail and bus. Since then, of course, it has become tragically world-famous as the nearest village to an avalanche that killed almost one hundred people. Saas-Fee has only tw'o big hills, each served by a cable car and each with two principal runs, but last year for some reason it had twice as much snow as neighboring Zermatt. It also has the charm of smallness; on the way up in the cable car on the second morning we looked down to see a chamois feeding placidly beside the senior downhill run.
Chamonix, the famous French resort at the foot of Mont Blanc, is only about thirty miles from Zermatt as the crow flies. The ski tour from Chamonix to Zermatt by “la haute route" is famous all over Europe, and takes about five days of which the first two are spent in arduous climbing. the last three in glorious downhill running. To go by train, though, \ou have to go down one set of valleys and up another; it takes the better part of a day, but it’s w'orth it. Chamonix should not be missed.
I stayed in a little family-operated inn called, believe it or not, the Hotel Albert Premier et Milan. The proprietor is the cook, his wñfe runs the office, and their daughter is learning to be, but has not yet become, head
waitress. For a large room with bath and three admirable meals I paid $10.50 a day; I could have had similar accommodation without bath for nine dollars. (These are off-season prices, of course.)
“Le style n’est rien”
On my last day in Chamonix, after a foggy morning, I asked Mme Carrier where would be the best slope for the afternoon. “Wait a minute," she said, “perhaps my husband could go w'ith you.” She rang a bell. Out popped M. Carrier in his tall chef’s cap and white apron. "Dix minutes," he said, and sure enough in ten minutes he was down again in ski clothes and we set off for La Flégère. one of the two valleys with southern exposure and sun-trap facilities. M. Carrier turned out to be an expert skier as well as an expert cook. (After watching one of my elephantine descents, he said comfortingly, "Le style n'est rien. La chose importante. c'est de pouvoir." One of nature’s diplomats.)
Incidentally, not the least of Chamonix's charms is the fact that people speak French instead of German. It’s a myth that all Swiss speak English. All hotel clerks do. and most people in shops and offices, but the average man in the street doesn't.
But the main attraction of any ski resort must be the hills, and in Cha-
monix they are magnificent. There are five entirely separate ski areas, for w'hich buses leave the village square every half hour. The amount of vertical drop varies, but at the highest it’s nine thousand feet. Some of the slopes are easy, others so viciously difficult that when 1 found some of them temporarily closed because of avalanche danger. 1 was secretly glad. (At Swiss and Austrian resorts they tend to flatter the tourist by putting "Difficult” or “Expert" signs on runs that anybody can do. Not the French — if they say a run is difficult. you’d better believe them.)
However, Chamonix is one place that should be visited later rather than earlier in the season, when the year's snowfall is complete and the spring sun is shining. In three days there I wasn’t able to get up the Aiguille du Midi, which is a bit like spending three days in Cairo without ever seeing the Great Pyramid. The lift was closed by high winds on the first two days, and by fog on the third. Also the Vallée Blanche run, said to be one of the great experiences. is not recommended until maximum snow plus maximum spring crust has safely covered its perilous crevices.
If you do go early in the season you’ll want to take in Megève as well, an hour’s drive away from Chamonix. The hills there are not as high or as challenging — only about three thou-
sand feet of vertical drop — but the wide shallow valley is a perfect sun trap, and the four or five ski areas are so distributed that you can ski in direct sunlight from morning to night if you plan your moves correctly-
I wouldn't recommend to anyone as much traveling as 1 did. though. Mine was a deliberate voyage of exploration. and it wasted too much time on trains and buses. If you want to ski at more than one place, as well you might, pick two or three that are not far apart. Stay at least a week at each, with perhaps a few' short side trips. The big runs don’t begin to show' their charm until they’re slightly familiar.
What all this might cost, I can only guess. I kept track of the rates per day at each hotel, but not of the totals I spent. Also, in most places the local tourist bureau gave me free rides on the principal lifts, which made my expenses unrealistically low. All I can say for sure is that your daily outlay will be less than in Canada. but not as much less as it used to be. Swiss hotel rates tend to be a little higher than Austrian or French, hut Swiss ski-lift tickets a bit low'er — totals are the same within a couple of dollars. I would guess.
But short of mortgaging the house or pawning the family plate, you'll find the trip is worth whatever it costs you. ★