A delay in snowfall in the Alps during the 2015 winter season led to bare ground at many ski resorts in Switzerland, Italy, and France as late as December when the ski season should already have been well underway. Since Travis and I are still fairly new to Switzerland, we didn’t really know what to expect in terms of snowfall and didn’t readily notice its absence. In January, we started seeing news headlines about storms sweeping the Alps, adding to the snow pack at an impressive rate. The headlines continued through February, and with news sources referring to it as the “best snow for a decade,” we’ve been anxious to get out and enjoy it for ourselves before it gives way to what is starting to truly feel like spring. Flowers are already blooming in our front yard! Boooooo…
But on the other hand, YAYYYY!
When Sunday finally rolled around, we were anticipating a day of skiing with Dorota, her husband, and a couple of their friends. Not only was this going to be our first time skiing in Switzerland, but it would also be our first time ever to try downhill skiing. Though we’ve been cross-country skiing and learned how to snowboard on some of the best slopes in Washington, New Mexico, and Oregon, I hardly felt qualified for this entirely new sport in a country that is famous the world over for its intimidatingly rugged mountain terrain.
On our way to the charming little village of Charmey, I mulled over the countless news stories of avalanche deaths in the Alps this year, one of the worst in recent years, in part due to the high snowfall. I couldn’t help but think it would be so much nicer if we were heading somewhere like Charles Mound, Illinois. What could be scary about learning to ski on a “mound” that tops out at 376 meters above sea level?
“Stop being such a certifiable sissy,” I told myself.
I hadn’t been worried about avalanches, compound fractures, or the prospect of an untimely death when I’d been learning to snowboard and ended up cartwheeling uncontrollably down the slopes of Mt. Bachelor with both feet hopelessly strapped to a death stick. If I could survive that, I could certainly survive cartwheeling uncontrollably down the slopes of Charmey with both feet hopelessly strapped to two death sticks.
“But are we really going to learn to ski in Switzerland?” I whined to Travis. “We learned to snowboard years ago! I was in my 20s! My bones were still young then. I probably have avian bone syndrome by now.”
I finally allowed myself to be consoled by the fact that we wouldn’t be skiing off-piste, we’d be at a small ski area with groomed trails. Plus, Dorota assured us we could stick to the beginner runs.
Hellooo, bunny slope!
Anxiously watching clouds rolling across the peaks and hoping the rain would remain at bay, we arrived in the charming little village of Charmey. With some confusion, we finally located Jacques Lüthy Sport, the shop Dorota had recommended for renting our gear. After Trav’s navigation landed us squarely in the parking lot at the ski area, we doubled back and located the shop by name rather than address. Beware that te number over the front door of the business differs from its official address online, an address which is actually upstairs from the business but not visible from the street. Sooooo confusing.
With our pockets lighter, we left the shop a half hour later, proudly toting our loaner skis and boots. No sooner had we wolfed down peeb-n-j’s than we spotted Dorota and her family near the base of the lift. We bought tickets, they showed us where to tuck our skis neatly in the special baskets on the outside of the gondola, and then we hopped inside the fully enclosed basket for a scenic ride to the summit.
Knowing that we were complete beginners, Dorota warned us that her husband, an accomplished Swiss skier who first learned at the age of four, was too impatient to be a good teacher for us. Softening her gentle ribbing with a cheeky grin, he flashed her one in kind.
Apparently in cahoots with our death sticks, frigid gusts of wind slapped us across the face as soon as we reached the summit.
“Hmmm,” I thought, “maybe if it’s blowing uphill, it’ll help slow my frenetic descent.”
We stepped into our skis, and I waddle-slid my way the few feet uphill to the start of the run. Julien showed us the basic position to slow down (and theoretically stop) with knees bent and skis in an inverted V. Dorota apologized that since she was boarding, she wouldn’t be able to go slow enough to keep pace with us. Trepidatiously eyeing the small but steep drop immediately in front of us, I told her to go on ahead, knowing it would take us considerably longer to navigate the run. With a soft whoosh, she shoved off. Moments later she was already almost out of sight.
Pretty soon, we got our bearings and started to figure the whole “skiing” thing out.
That’s certainly not to say we didn’t spend our fair share of time on les arses, though not the actual trail (if ya catch my drift).
Towards the bottom of our first run, we hit upon a glorious section that was nicely sloped with perfectly banked corners for practicing turns. Navigating this entire long stretch while remaining vertical ignited a warm glow of satisfaction. I couldn’t stop grinning. Not long after that, I lost my balance and pitched forward onto my knees, sinking into a shallow split that deepened as I continuing sliding uncontrollably. I felt rather like Wile E. Coyote as I watched my skis sliding off into the sunset in opposite directions with my legs still stuck fast.
Towards the end of the run, a member of the ski patrol passed us while we were kicked back in the snow enjoying the views. (And yes, we had both just crashed again, but that doesn’t mean we weren’t vigorously enjoying the views.) He asked us if we were ok and if we could make it to the bottom. Laughing, we assured him we were fine and would definitely make it to the bottom, one way or the other. He warned us they would be closing our run once we completed it because of high winds. We thanked him and waved him on.
When we reached the base of a strange chair lift a few minutes later, we weren’t quite sure if we were supposed to continue down the slope or if we had to take this new lift uphill. We didn’t want to go back uphill – we liked this beginner run and wanted to continue on it. We waved to the only chair operator in sight, but with the language barrier, we still had no idea where to go. Finally we realized this was probably the end of our beloved run #8, and we passed our electronic key cards over the turnstyle to get on the lift.
Much less user-friendly than our cozy, enclosed gondola we rode up to the summit, this lift was like the ones we’d been on back home – just a 2-person chair dangling from a cable. While I’m not afraid of heights, I’ve become increasingly phobic of getting on and off these contraptions. I’ve lost count of all the spectacular falls and painful injuries associated with lifts while snowboarding, sometimes crawling or rolling out of the way of the next chair, one time with a lift operator yelling at me to get out of the way.
Poor me – someone was mean to me. Sniffle.
My heart always starts to pound faster as I near a lift, and I remember a sharply harrowing moment while trying to board a particularly ancient, rickety beast in New Mexico. As the tiny chair swept past, I braced myself, perfectly centered in the line of fire, but the force nearly knocked me over, dislodging me from my seat and leaving me hanging for a few terrifying seconds in blank air above the ground as it rapidly fell away.
So now you know my worst fear: death by chair lift. That, or Grizzlies. Both equally terrifying.
Luckily, this particular story has a happy ending! Not only was the lift quite roomy, but it rounded the base at a snail’s pace, giving us ample time to get ready before it gently scooped us up like wee babes.
My smug satisfaction over our wildly successful loading was quickly replaced with worry when the lift operator began yelling at us in French a few seconds later. We looked back to see him gesturing excitedly at something over his head. Perplexed, we were still staring when he abruptly shut down the lift and continued gesticulating wildly.
Never the winning team at charades, we finally thought to look above our own heads and realized the blasted lift had a hinged safety bar like a roller coaster. As with a roller coaster, it needed to be down to serve its purpose. Trav and I exchanged sheepish grins while pulling the bar into place. then gave our hero a thumbs up before continuing the journey back to the summit.
The things you learn…
At the summit, we skied the short distance to a nice overlook of the village of Charmey below, then followed our bellies to the restaurant on top. We refueled over a heaping mound of piping hot pommes frites (French fries are obviously a favorite of ours) while I sipped vin chaud, wondering if the spiced wine would improve my ski technique. I figured it certainly couldn’t hurt.
As it was late in the afternoon by then, Travis and I split off from Dorota, her husband, and their friends after lunch and headed down different routes with plans to meet at the bottom. Julien shadowed us for a time, imparting helpful hints on how to shift body weight to be able to turn. Improving fairly quickly, Travis mastered several nice turns on the final run, while I glared at him for improving faster than me.
The last part of the run was a bit ugly, with soppy snow partially melted at the lower elevation and mixed with dirt churned up by other skiers. By then completely exhausted, I was grateful to enter the last, long sweeping descent to the gondola that would take us to the bottom.
Shedding our hefty skis, boots, and winter clothing, Trav and I drove over to return our gear to Lüthy Sport, where we visited for a spell with the owner’s wife. Friendly and eager to chat on what seemed to be a bit of a slow business day, she talked about Jacques while retrieving a box from behind the register. Cracking it open, she proudly revealed her husband’s bronze medal from the 1980 Winter Olympics when he placed in the slalom event in Lake Placid, New York. Surprised to realize we had just rented skis from an Olympic medalist, it suddenly made sense why he had been so insistent about us renting skis and boots together so they could be properly fitted. We‘d been only too happy to wear any old thing. We thanked her for sharing and as we left the shop, I realized I’m pretty sure I still have the blue ribbon I won back in grade school for the 3-legged race during Track & Field Day. I didn’t mention that though.
After returning our gear, we met up with the rest of our group for a coffee at the Hotel de l’Etoile right on the main drag in Charmey.
Sipping a lovely, creamy latte while we swapped stories was the perfect way to wind down from our first downhill skiing adventure. On the drive home, Travis and I talked about the day, comparing skiing with snowboarding and pointing out the highlights of each. While I’m already looking forward to our next ski trip, I’m not quite ready to give up snowboarding altogether. Trav, on the other hand, has fallen head over heels (quite literally) for these new death sticks.
Know Before You Go
Rates for 2015 Ski Season:
43 chf for an adult day pass: 34 chf after 1230
25 chf for youth age 10-16 day pass: 18 chf after 1230
38 chf for young adult age 17-24 day pass: 29 chf after 1230
Add additional 5 chf per person for a rechargeable electronic key card to use the lift. If you have one already, bring it!
Lift ticket for adult non-skiers: 14 chf one way, 22 chf round trip
Free lift ticket for “seedlings” under 9 years old
No additional discount for lift tickets if you have a Swiss Half-Fare travel card or GA travel card
Gear is not available for rent at the lift ticket/ski area. Plan to bring your own gear or rent from one of the nearby shops.
We rented our gear from Lüthy Sport in Charmey. Two pairs of adult beginner downhill skis and boots cost us 35 chf per person – 70 chf total. Jacques Lüthy, a Charmey native, and his wife both work in the shop. They’re friendly and helpful.