Where I live, there are trees, traffic and potholes. No snow. I’m from Southern India. However, I have dreamt of skiing in Switzerland for as long as I could remember. Blame it on the opening scene of the James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me where Roger More is chased by his enemies across the Alps. Dressed in yellow ski suit and red boots, Bond navigates the snowy twists and turns with panache driving his ski sticks as expertly as he drives his fancy cars. And when he finally jumps off the cliff, in slow motion, your jaw hits the floor.
Recently, I found myself on a train from Zurich to fulfil my ski-dreams – or at least a semblance of it. I was headed to Aletsch Arena, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which comprises of three villages — Riederalp, Bettmeralp and Fiescheralp. Aletsch is tranquil and pristine surrounded by the unsullied Alps. This is a place of extraordinary natural beauty. It is also car-free. Sustainable mobility like cable cars, electric snowmobiles and skis are the preferred mode of transport. Everybody here learns to ski before they learn their alphabets.
After two-and-a-half-hours, we reach Brig from where we take a smaller train to Morel and Fiescheralp. At Fiescheralp, after a traditional Swiss lunch of fondue and Raclette which is melted cheese served with potatoes, pickles and onions we hop onto a cable car to Eggishorn the viewpoint.
Seeing Switzerland from its trains and cable cars is a memorable experience. Especially during winter. The large windows frame breathtaking vistas – alpine walls of snow, vast stretches of flatland coated in white and rivers frozen into interesting shapes and sizes. From the cable car you get a bird’s eye-view — of snow-dusted treetops, rustic traditional Swiss Chalets dotting the snowy landscape, and the sun-kissed tips of the Alps above. The beauty of this land is overwhelming.
POINT OF VIEW
At 2869 m above sea level, Eggishorn offers the mother-of-all views of the 23-km long Aletsch Glacier. The curved length and expanse of the Glacier resemble a Hokusai painting — ethereal and spiritual even.
The Glacier forms in the Jungfrau region at 4000 m above sea level and flows down to Massa Gorge around 2500 m below. It weighs 11 billion tonnes or to put it in layman terms – it is the weight of 72.5 million jumbo jets. It is said that if the Aletsch Glacier were to be melted, it could supply every single person on the Earth with a litre of water every day for 4.5 years.
On this day, the Aletsch Glacier was playing hide and seek. Constant snowfall. Low-hanging clouds. Freezing alpine air biting into our bones. But nothing could take away the breathtaking magnificence of the Aletsch Glacier.
What’s disconcerting is that the Glacier is shrinking up to 50 metres in length each year due to global warming.
At Eggishorn there’s a ritual of the ‘lucky stone’. You can write your wishes or worries on a lucky stone which you can pick up from the site or anywhere else and leave it at the designated places at the viewpoint. It’s a symbolic gesture of unloading the weight off your shoulders. Then return to the village lighter and happier. I did not leave a lucky stone behind. But the ride back to Riederalp was nonetheless joyful.
Riederalp is a resort village, 1925 m above sea level. Fringed by the Alps and checkered with rustic Swiss chalets it sits on a high plateau and offers a panoramic view of the 4000 m high peaks of the Matterhorn and Dom. The air here is flawless. Nature all around is chaste and white. The silence is stunning. You can hear the undertones of your breath. Riederalp is straight out of a pretty postcard.
Hotel Royal, the luxury wing of The Art Furrer Hotel in Riederalp was going to be home for the next two days. Most hotels at Riederalp have ski slopes in their backyard. Next morning, with the snowclad Matterhorn peeking from the horizon, clad in a puffy ski suit and accompanied by David Kestens, the ski instructor, I walked in the knee-deep snow to the Aletsch sports shop close by to get kitted for my first ski experience.
Ski boots can make or break your experience. The boots are like a medium which translates the body’s intentions to the skis. If the signals are lost in translation, you will end up horizontal with your face planted in the snow. The boots are made of hard plastic and weigh around 2.5 kgs. Ski boots are measured on a scale called Mondopoint. The size of your boot depends on your height, weight, age, and also your ability (or inability as in my case) to ski. The measurements are fed into the computer which calculates your ideal boot size. I clocked a five.
Getting your feet into the boots involves few intricate moves. You twist your feet into an angle, slide them through the column of the boots, angle them again and slide your feet into position. All the while you should remember the boots and your feet are unbending and stubborn. But you need to make it work. What’s it like wearing those boots? Think Leonardo Dicaprio with the iron mask in the film Iron Mask. My feet felt claustrophobic and imprisoned.
Once the boots are buckled tight the next step is learning to walk in them. The weight of the boots makes it a tad difficult to walk normally. The technique involves a conscious heel-toe movement. Once you get the hang of it, you are good to go. And that’s when you realise you are walking like a Robot.
SKIING OF A DIFFERENT KIND
Aletsch Arena has 104 km of ski slopes for skiers of all grades. Numerous ski lifts and chair cars take the skiers to the slopes. But we weren’t headed to the slopes. Instead, we snow-walked to the flat kiddie ski area where Bobo, the happy penguin mascot of Riederalp, was perched on his fat bottoms. You go to the slopes once you grasp the basics and learn not to fall every time you stand up on your skis.
With feet locked in the skis, sticks in hand I was ready for takeoff. Or so I thought. I could hear the instructor’s gentle Swiss voice: “Bend your knees slightly” “Don’t push your back out”, “Don’t put your knees together” “Think you are keeping a basketball between your knees”, “When you want to stop, create a wedge with the tips of the skis, but make sure the tails are apart”.
It was raining snowflakes. Everything was white, soft-focused and surreal. I pushed the ski sticks into the snow, bent my knees and gave myself a little push. I was gliding. Slowly at first, then a little faster, then a little too fast for comfort. Now, I was heading straight for Bobo’s tummy. How do I stop? I remembered the instructions, “make a wedge…knees apart…imagine you are holding a basketball between your knees”. Just before the tumble, I realized I had dropped the ball and wasn’t even holding a French Fry between my knees.
If you are not falling, you are not learning. For the next three hours, I learnt a lot. In the end, my knees were creaking. I couldn’t feel my nose. And my feet had lost all hope in the dark depths of my ski boots. But, my face stretched into a broad smile. I know I could never drive two sticks on the Alps like Mr.Bond, but then a bad day on the slopes beats a good day in a cubicle.
Skiing is like playing a game with nature. She will let you win some and lose some. She will challenge you and finally, she will let you master her, but only if you learn to let go and trust her. And also in yourself. The quiet Aletsch Arena surrounded by the mammoth Alps is the ideal place to let go.
Getting there: A 2.5-hour train ride from Zurich will take visitors to Brig from where trains go to Fiescheralp (www.sbb.ch)
When to go: Skiing season is from December to April. During this time, temperatures in the Aletsch region can drop as low as – minus four-degree centigrade
Things to do: While Aletsch Arena is most famous for its ski slopes there are also other activities such as a guided glacier walk, snowshoe walking, hiking, paragliding and ice skating (www.aletscharena.ch)
Places to see: When not perfecting your skiing skills, there is much to explore in the Aletsch region. Hike along the 11.8 km hiking trail through Aletsch Forest which is home to Switzerland’s 900-year old pine trees, for sightseeing of red deer and chamois. Visit the conservation centre at the 20th century timber-framed Villa Cassel. Soak in views of the Aletsch Glacier or trek into blue ice caves at the glacier’s edge from the 7650-foot high Moosfluh point. Visit the interactive multimedia exhibition on the history of the region at Bettmerhorn.
More scenes from Aletsch Arena…