Holiday in the Hills: Snowboarding the Alps proves to be a breathtaking experience
For a snowboarder whose experiences have been limited to the Sierra Nevada (save for a long trip to Whistler/Blackcomb), driving up to Glacier 3000, above the tiny town of Les Diablerets in the Swiss Alps is a true test of meddle.Here are these rocky mountain peaks – the only available description being “gargantuan” by local comparison – casting shadows on the valley floor like a domino-row of Yosemite half domes. Hidden by their enormity are bowls with treeless, hour-long runs, canvassed by expert skiers in search of fresh tracks. Nearly everyone is local, and nearly all are expert, a nice break from the frustrating “tourist-standing-on-the-apex-of-the-best-jump” we are accustomed to here. Black diamond is the rule, not the exception, and leg-burning turns are the prize.The members of the Ski Club International des Journalistes (SCIJ) meet once a year, usually in an exotic resort town to share love of profession and pastime. The nearly 50-year-old group is comprised of mostly print, television and radio journalists who, when together, proudly display the badges of their mother countries, but diplomatically mix with their international colleagues.Two-hundred forty journalists from 40 countries made their way to Les Diablerets for the 2003 meeting March 15, and those who were not pulled away mid-trip to cover the war in Iraq, left a piece of their hearts among the hamlet’s approximately 3,000 residents. Truly touched by the hand of God, Les Diablerets is as close to perfect as a place can be.After a day-long struggle to get their via car, two airplanes, then two trains, the bones were a little creaky when the wake-up call came Saturday morning. Finally, with a stomach full of smoked meats and cheeses (traditional Swiss breakfast), and a head full of cowboy-strong espresso, we made our way to a waiting caravan of Swiss Army transport trucks for the ride to the Glacier.For a town like Les Diablerets, a visit from 240 journalists is a potential windfall to its tourist-based economy, and tourism officials truly rolled out the red carpet. Without a war to tend to, the Swiss Army provided us transport, skis and all to an awaiting tram.Glacier 3000The newest of the resorts that dot the peaks above Les Diablerets, Glacier 3000 is the most modern, and perhaps the most impressive.It takes three trams to get your first turns, but the time is not wasted. There is near quiet in the crowded cabins, as first-time travelers take in the expansive views. From the peak, Switzerland’s famous Matterhorn as well as the large Lake Geneva can be seen in the distance, while you strap on your bindings and breath in the cool air.Glacier 3000’s main attraction is a bowl (below a 3,123-meter peak call Oldenhorn) that starts with a steep trail and opens from canyon to vast snow-covered valley. On the way down, snowriders have the option of traversing on the left- or right-hand ridges and dropping down for steep powder turns, or taking the middle and choosing from an array of cliffs and chutes. There is no such thing as a disappointing run, although the occasional skier can be seen on the ridge tops backing up from potentially ill-advised drops.With each run, our group became a little braver, going a little farther “off-piste” (backcountry) to reap the benefits of unspoiled snow. Although it had not fallen in a couple weeks, powder turns were available to the curious and we found ours along the right-hand ridge.A lunch of meat and cheese (a recurring theme), and beer and wine made us a little groggy, and we were only good for one more run before the Swiss Army dragged us home for a banquet dinner and relaxing Swiss sauna session.Les DiableretsThe town’s namesake, Les Diablerets, is a mellower ski experience than Glacier 3000, but proved to be nearly as beautiful with views across the Alps and into the French speaking towns of Aigle and Villars in Switzerland. We were only a short train ride from the dividing line where German is spoken natively. A chunk of Switzerland also speaks Italian, an indication of the diversity of local culture.Still suffering a little jet lag, Sunday was about taking a few turns, but mostly enjoying the company of our travel companions with a couple glasses of wine, and lunch in the mountains. Meats and cheeses were again on the menu.Today my American colleagues, Sam Bauman, Jeremy Evans, Karl Horeis, Gene Kramer and I, made the afternoon count.We skied on a peak called “Gstaad” and another “La Para.” For someone who is not used to T-bars and Poma lifts, getting back up the steep terrain on a snowboard was awkward, and sometimes more taxing than getting down. But we closed the place, happy in our alpine surroundings.Muscles weary from a flawless day, without a cloud in sight (atypical for any part of the Alps), we relaxed and exchanged stories in the sauna with a gang of naked northern European men, and staggered to the town community hall for “International Night.”Each of the 40 represented countries brought “delicacies” from their homelands. Not to be under-classed, the Americans brought buffalo and turkey jerky, Florida orange juice, M&Ms and a bottle of Jim Beam. Next door, the Irish shamed us with their 10-bottle whiskey selection, so we started there first.I can’t say I remember all of the foods I ate that night, but the menu included smoked deer heart (Finland), goose liver (Hungary) and fat (from which animal, I don’t know) spread on toast (Slovania).Villars/GryonThe village town of Villars is a 20-minute drive from Les Diablerets, but we figured out a way to ski to the resort that shares its name.It requires a long lift ride up Les Diablerets, and series of downhill runs, and ancient T-bar lifts to traverse the mountaintops south. After a final lift run reminiscent of the hill traverse at Sugar Bowl, we landed in Villars.For the most part, Villars is tame compared to neighboring resorts.Long, hilly runs sometimes flatten out before a surprisingly steep drop. The ground was a little icy – and bare at the bottom – but the spring-like conditions had a boilerplate effect, and by noon we found some decent terrain.For the true Swiss experience, there is a train-lift, that brings skiers up to the main lodge, where a lazy afternoon can be spent looking out over endless peaks, and watching snowboarders catch air in a nearby terrain park. Although freestyle snowboarding is less common in the Alps (perhaps one out of 10 people), it has a loyal following of skilled riders. Most resorts provide terrain parks designed for aerial aficionados.After a long day, we made our way back to the ski resort of Les Diablerets, and the alpine restaurant “Les Mazots” where we feasted on cheese fondue and listened to traditional buglers.The whole SCIJ gathering was at the restaurant and following the dinner, everyone – except for those too old or drunk to participate – drew torches for a nighttime torchlight parade down to our hotel. We took the route of the resort’s 7k sled run, making for a mellow ending to a perfect day.That night we ate banquet style and heard stories of athletic achievement from the captain of Swiss Alinghi (winner of sailing’s prestigious America’s cup), a man who in 1998 road his snowboard down Mt. Everest.LeysinAcross the valley from Diablerets is Leysin, a resort with a mind-numbing view and a few potentially perilous runs.Besides the epic skiing, Leysin’s greatest attribute may be the four-story rotating restaurant at its peak. During a skiing break, visitors can pick their view: the Matterhorn and other famous Swiss peaks to the east, and Lake Geneva to the south. The only obstruction is the steep “Chaux de Monts” (2205 meters), a run that can prove dangerous on an icy day.After taking a gondola to get to the base, we rode the lift to Chaux de Monts, only to witness a skier slide the length of the run, finally skidding into another skier and coming to rest at the bottom. Windswept, and icy, early morning on the mountain was slow going, but improved with the sun.For the backcountry skier, Leysin is a playground. Six peaks and canyons are available to those willing to do a little bit of hiking, and all runs meet at scattered lifts. Like many of the resorts in the region, Leysin offers backcountry guides who divulge the secrets of the mountain. Unlike U.S. ski resorts, operators in Europe have less liability, so the attitude is truly ‘ski at your own risk.’The sometimes-unpredictable terrain can truly challenge skiers of all ability, as can the conditions. Within days of our visit, the mountain had experienced several late-season avalanches, some of them triggered, some natural.On a powder day, Leysin is probably without rival, and although we prayed for snow, we were met only with sunshine.After a few runs, we rode the Gondola back down, and were transported (again by Swiss Army trucks) to a luge run, that turned out to be an innertube park.After a few runs and an espresso break, we called it a day, and went back to the hotel to pack and reminisce.The Swiss members of SCIJ who hosted the gathering, and the tourism officials who made it so entertaining, left a deep impression on everybody in attendance. I, for one, will happily return to experience majesty of Switzerland again.On the Web: http://www.scij.orgCountries represented in SCIJ (43):Algeria, Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bosnia, Britain, Bulgaria, Canada, China, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russian Federation, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, United States of America, Yugoslavia.
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