“Alperose” in Colorado

19 05 2015

I have never crossed the Rocky Mountains on land, so therefore I have also never actually physically been in the Rocky Mountains prior to this trip. (I have skied in Lake Louise, but that’s in Canada, so it doesn’t count.) But every October I watch the World Cup ski races from Beaver Creek, which is, for all intents and purposes, Vail.

So when we planned an overnight pit stop in Vail, I was thrilled to finally be able to see what a Rocky Mountain ski resort actually looks like. And, well, it kind of looks like… a ski resort in the Alps, just lots bigger. Here we are in the center of the continental United States and I had no idea I had landed back in Europe. We have “Austria House” next door to a hotel called “Sonnenalp”, which houses a restaurant called “Swiss Chalet”. I have not seen this many Swiss flags since I left the Confoederatio Helvetica more than two years ago.

Ode to the Confoederatio Helvetica!

All this alpine glory (and I will be honest, Vail is beautiful… I wish I could afford to come here during ski season) made us truly hungry for the Old Country. So for dinner we stopped in at “Alpenrose” and chowed down on Wiener Schnitzel with Spätzle followed by warm and heavenly Apfelstrudel.

Oh boy... Yum!!!!

Oh boy… Yum!!!!

Many of you may simply associate the word “Alpenrose” with a bucolic high Alpine meadow, and the cute little flowers that are the definition of clean air, water, nature and… wholesomeness.

I, however, having spent 9 years living in Switzerland, tend to associate it with Swiss rock singer Polo Hofer whose 1982 song by the same name (sung in a Bernese Swiss German dialect, understandable only to those who have grown up speaking it, like my husband, who translated it for me) has become a de facto national anthem. It is played/sung/karaoke-ed at pretty much every festival/concert/birthday party/wedding/graduation/funeral in Switzerland.

It tells a fairly simple story, really: A summer love between a hiker and a lady-friend, set on one of those bucolic mountain meadows amid those cute little flowers. When the fall comes, it starts snowing and she takes off. And every time he looks up to those Alps, he remembers her and wishes it wasn’t so.

As we finished up our Apfelstrudel in Vail, I almost half expected to see Polo himself walk out of the kitchen crooning, “Alperooooooose chöme mir i Sinn…..! Alperooooooose sy das gsy denn…. Alperooooooose müesse das gsy sy….. Wo näbe üs im Höi gläge sy!”

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Monday in the Swiss mountains

19 01 2012

I live in Switzerland, so that means the Alps are not far. In fact, if I walk up the street from where I live, I can even see them, every day. And that means, in winter, there is some serious skiing to be done.

First though, the photographic evidence, to prove that I actually went and returned, to tell the tale:

Monday afternoon. Lovely, isn't it?

Every time I see a photo like this, it makes me want to jump in the car and head for the hills. I admit, I don’t get out enough. And in the last few weeks, the northern side of the Alps has gotten more snow than it knows what to do with so it really is a crime not to take advantage.

The main deterrent is when I start thinking about all the stuff I have to take. First I have to find it all, and then I have to either put it on or take it with me in the car. Long underwear, turtleneck sweater, ski pants, ski jacket, ski gloves, goggles, a furry hat, my balaclava – for particularly frigid days. Then come the ski boots, poles and the actual skis themselves.

For the moment, I draw the line at a helmet. I know helmets are all the rage… safety arguments, setting a good example for kids, and all that… yadayadaya… Yes, okay, maybe someday I will go buy myself a ski helmet. But for now I will stick with my furry hat.

I love my hat. It's so much more fun than any helmet.

I also usually take along a hot tea for the drive out, and a snack of some sort and a sports bottle of flavored water as an ice-cold refreshment for the drive home.

The most important piece of skiing equipment, at least here in Switzerland, is a credit card and/or a wad of cash because one will, inevitably, be paying large sums of money for the privilege of waiting in a crowd for the gondola to the top of the mountain. (On a weekday! Don’t these people have to work?)

And it really is exhausting. I mean seriously… I consider myself pretty physically fit. After all, I have been skating marathons for 13 years. But when it comes to schlepping my ski stuff across an icy parking lot, cloding along in clunky ski boots, dressed for a day in the sub-freezing outdoors and feeling like the Michelin woman, all that junk is unbelievably cumbersome. I always forget how much work it is. And I hate sweating underneath all those layers, especially before I have actually done anything heroic at all.

The temperature was minus 12 degrees Celcius (10 degrees F) in the valley when I headed out last Monday morning. When I finally got to the top, at 2200 meters (7260 feet) above sea level it was, of course, wonderful. I snapped into my bindings and started swishing down the pistes like a pro. (Okay, no, not really…)

By venturing into the great outdoors, not only am I doing my body something good, I’m also reliving a lot of really great memories. Like last winter, going skiing in St. Moritz with my friend Pascale, before she died in a tragic hiking accident this past summer.

So sure I was glad I went – the life-affirming, glorious sunshine and the crisp clear air makes it all worthwhile in the end. But… ugh, the effort that it takes… every time.





Requiem for Pascale

18 07 2011

It was just another cold and rainy Sunday afternoon, one that passes for “summer” here in Zurich. I had gone out for a walk in the mud and some fresh air, and when I returned, the SMS message was waiting for me.

“Please call me,” from probably the last person on earth I expected to hear from on a Sunday. Something was up.

I called.

Gayle answered by saying my name: “Evelynn, Hi.”

“Hi, what’s going on?”

Silence.

“What happened?”

“Evelynn, I have to tell you…. I… something bad… ”

She couldn’t even say the words.

“What happened? Is it about Pascale? Did something happen to Pascale?” I had sent our mutual girlfriend several messages the days before and had received no response. That was not like her and I was starting to wonder.

“How do you know?”

“I DON’T know… Know WHAT? Tell me! What happened?”

“Evelynn… Pascale is… Pascale is dead.”

And then she told me about how she just found out that our friend went hiking alone in the southern Swiss canton of Ticino last Thursday, slipped, and fell off a mountain. How an emergency search & rescue helicopter later found her body among the rocks in a deep ravine.

She was 38 years old.

Full of life, with boundless energy, and ambitious plans. With a smile as wide as Montana.

Pascale was my nordic walking buddy. She lived in the next town over and we would often meet to gossip and stride through the rolling meadows and woods that straddle the two municipalities. In summer we enjoyed brilliant sunshine, in the company of cows, and savored the smell of the flowers and grasses in bloom. In winter we would meet after sunset, the short days making for frigid and sometimes treacherous going on icy paths.

That was our favorite time to walk and talk: in the dark, making tracks after a fresh, quiet snowfall.

Pascale was the co-snow-bunny I featured right here in my blog a few months ago. On skis she was mostly fearless, but she never let me take her flying.

Pascale and Gayle were colleagues at a previous employer, and the three of us remained friends even after she and I quit our jobs there. We all are just a few years apart, similar in physique and character: tall, with long, straight, dark blond hair, athletic, extroverted, loud and very demanding of ourselves and others. We always wanted so much more out of our lives and careers than the men we had to work with were willing to concede.

We got together for regular ladies’ lunches and dinners at swanky restaurants across this outrageously expensive city to have a fantastic meal, philosophize about life and celebrate ourselves.

Our last ladies’ lunch was just two weeks ago, also on a Thursday, at a hip Fusion-style restaurant just around the corner from the workplace where we first met almost exactly five years earlier. For dessert we ordered champagne, toasted each other and the great things that lay in all of our futures. We wondered how much fun it might be to start a business together.

I still see Pascale standing on Zurich’s busy main commercial avenue, Bahnhofstrasse, that afternoon. She was wearing a light blue blouse and slacks, and carried a large white handbag. The pearl bracelet on her wrist jingled as she checked her phone for messages. We said goodbye, kissed each other three times on alternating cheeks.

“Don’t be a stranger,” I said.

“I’ll call you,” she responded.

With a flick of her long blonde mane she turned away and melted into the crowd.

Pascale. March 4, 1973 - July 14, 2011.





Snow Bunnies take St. Moritz

1 02 2011

Last weekend I finally got my butt off the sofa and went skiing. It was my first venture into the Alps this season, and I guess I didn’t remember how cold it is out there. And how heavy all that damn equipment is.

WANTED: A competent skier.

But first things first. The story begins like this. About three years ago I found out that my friend Pascale’s family owns a mountain home near St. Moritz.

For those unfamiliar with St. Moritz, allow me to introduce the place. It is probably the most exclusive (expensive) ski area in the Swiss Alps, on par with, say, Vail, Colorado in the Rockies. It is a place where the rich and famous (and the not-so-famous – just rich) gather to party, ski, see and be seen. Regular guests include, for example: botoxed, bejeweled Russian madams and mistresses, just-divorced German corporate captains on the rebound, and morally corrupt Italian Prime Ministers. “Fur” is not a bad word here, especially when daytime temperatures hang around a nippy -25 degrees Centigrade (-13 degrees Farenheit).

It is a place where 100 ml (3.4 oz) of fresh-squeezed strawberry juice will run you about 65 U.S. dollars.

So imagine my delight when Pascale invited me to stay at her house, eat her food and drink her fresh strawberry juice – for free.

Pascale spends most of her weekends in this picturesque valley in southeastern Switzerland. On Saturday morning she took me to her winter playground, the Corviglia ski area. I spent the first 15 minutes getting reacquainted with my ski-boots. (Ummm… how do we do this again?) Then we each dragged 15 kilograms (33 pounds) of dead weight ski equipment up a steep hill to the lift. Only here in Switzerland do they test your fitness before you even get into the gondola that will take you to the top of the mountain. If you didn’t have a heart attack, you’re good to go.

Backcountry skiers – the purists who spend six hours walking up the mountain in order to then spend 20 minutes skiing back down – frown on gondolas, of course.

Once at the top, all arrows pointed into the valley, though stubborn morning clouds initially drained the pistes of any contrast whatsoever. White on white is always tough to navigate, no matter how wide you open your eyes.

My dear friend Pascale, who has been skiing roughly 20 years longer than I have, elegantly and gracefully zipped across the labyrinth of pistes like a real snow bunny, putting my inferior (yet gutsy!) ski talent to shame. But she was kind enough to stop and wait for me every few hundred meters. And if she hadn’t been around I would still be standing at the top of Piz Nair today, wondering which run would get me back to the car.

On top of the world last Saturday afternoon.

Joy of joys, I had a good day. A really good day. Seven hours standing in my ski boots and leaving other athletes in my dust, without eating any snow myself, or otherwise wiping out in spectacular fashion – not once! Just call me Lindsey Vonn from now on.

So maybe I really did learn something by watching World Cup skiing on TV the last few weekends, and not even at the expense of my anterior cruciate ligaments or any other key body part(s). As I returned to the lowlands happy and satisfied on Sunday afternoon, my red blood cells were still jumping for joy.

And they deserve more of the same… so I’ll be back in the mountains next weekend, guaranteed.





Fresh powder, Ahoy!

15 01 2011

This weekend’s ski races in one of Switzerland’s biggest resorts at Wengen in the Bernese Oberland are classics, for those who are interested. The downhill is legendary and the crashes spectacular. Four helicopters and an armada of medical personnel are on hand to scrape any damage off the piste. Amazingly, most of the athletes walk away from their horrific-looking accidents.

Please DON'T try this at home.

I enjoy watching world cup ski racing on television because I always think I can learn something from the professionals. I first got acquainted with sport in the Pocono “Mountains” (hahaha), when I was 17. But my first real instruction on a real mountain of any caliber was fourteen years after that, in the French Alps.

And that instruction was superb – to this day, my ski teacher’s mantras still go through my head every time I step into the bindings. In the intervening years and with a move to Switzerland, skiing rapidly slid up the list of favorite outdoor pastimes. Because it would be a crime, would it not, to live half an hour’s drive away from the nearest Alpine ski resort, and NOT go there.

I totally enjoy the sport despite my pathetic style. Learning to ski on the wrong side of thirty, one just does not have the grace, elegance and bravado to fling oneself down the side of a mountain like someone who learned to ski when she was, say, three.  I am not totally risk-averse (I am a super action heroine, after all…), just… cautious.

Hearing about friend’s ski accident over Christmas once again gave me pause… Nothing like a shattered tibia to help one reassess one’s priorities.

Even though we have the Alps at our doorstep, last winter, R. and I travelled 7,000 miles to my favorite ski region in the whole wide world: Canada’s Lake Louise, in the Rocky Mountains of Banff National Park. Everything is just so totally perfect in Louise – starting from the dry climate, the well-prepared runs, the nice people, the spaghetti bar in the Lodge of the Ten Peaks, right down to the fact that you can park your car within spitting distance of Grizzly Express Gondola.

Lake Louise also hosts World Cup ski races, and the big black signs that mark the “Men’s Downhill” course seem to have an invisible subtitle that says to every wannabe ski jock: “If you dare.” And – who would have guessed – R. and I could not resist the bait. Fresh powder, ahoy!!!

Evelynn, trying to look the part....

The narrow, steep piste that takes the professionals about two minutes to master took us a solid half hour. And after sliding down what was nothing more than an icy canal (All four knees intact? Hips? Shoulders? Fingers?), we retired to the bar to silence our nerves, come off our adrenaline high and regain some of our strength. It was, as the Swiss say, simply mega.

It was SO mega, that it’s already January and we have not bothered to suit up and head to the local hills this winter yet – rendering us guilty of the above-mentioned crime. And I think the best place for me this weekend is not on the slopes but rather in front of the TV, studying the experts as they ski circles around each other.





Swiss winter fun

19 11 2010

Now that the first snowflakes have fallen in the lowlands of Switzerland, many of my Swiss friends are making plans for the six months of the year when a grey fog the consistency of cream soup descends upon Zurich. What do they do? Head to higher ground of course. Where the sun shines and the danger lurks.

While I too look forward to enjoying good couple of crisp, clear days above the fog-line in the picturesque mountains during this, my sixth winter here, I now know where I’m capable of holding my own, and where I should just not bother to try. Having grown up in the tropical sunshine of Southeast Asia, I will never be a snow bunny, no matter how much money I spend on the accessories.

Nice try, Evelynn.

Analog to Swiss Summer Fun a few months ago, here are a few of the astounding and crazy things that the locals enjoy paying good money to do during the winter. For more information on any of these, or to create your own wild winter adventure, check out the Swiss Tourism Website.

Alpine skiing – A world cup race on TV is kindergarten compared to what Swiss skiers are capable of on their slopes. No wonder helmet sales are up by something like 500 percent every year.

Cross-country skiing – The skis are much thinner and exponentially more unstable requiring exponentially more strength and coordination to stay upright. And Swiss people don’t just go out for a Sunday ski-stroll. Nonononono. When Swiss people strap on their cross-country skis, they end up doing things like this.

Igloo-building – And here I thought this was just for semi-nomadic native peoples in northern latitudes. No, the Swiss have a thing for building igloos, too. A winter weekend in the mountains is not complete unless you spend part of it constructing your own accommodation and then sleeping in it. Believe me, this is nothing for claustrophobics or folks who chill easily.

 

Please don't try this at home unless you're an architect.

Ski jöring – For the truly insane. Instructions: Attach skis to feet, attach self to galloping horse.

HA! Yeah, right!

Tobogganing (winter version) – Nothing against some harmless sledding down the slope behind your house. But we are talking serious, professional-grade tobogganing here, on near-frozen tracks many kilometers long, almost vertically down the sides of mountains, while sitting on rickety, unsteerable wooden sleds invented in 1883. This sport is generally done late at night (i.e. in the dark), helmetless, and only after an illegal amount of alcohol has been ingested.

This was an activity at my company’s “Rookie Camp,” a sort of basic training for new employees I attended a few years ago. It was scheduled for 11 p.m. and the toboggan run was a sheet of ice. After narrowly missing a large fir tree in the first turn, and then flying out of control, twisting a knee and landing on my butt in the snow in the second turn, I decided my long-term health was more important than any dumb rite of passage. So I walked the rest of the way, all the while keeping eyes in the back of my head and diving for cover numerous times to avoid others who careened down behind me. At the base, hours later, I found out that one member of the group lost control of his sled, flew off the side of the mountain and ended up in the hospital with a concussion and a gash over his eye.

Peanuts, my Swiss colleagues said. Anything less than a crushed vertebrae gets no sympathy.