Secret Switzerland: Day 7

Italians, Iranian Arms Dealers, and Couloirs
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Italians, Iranian Arms Dealers, and Couloirs
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Photo: Tom Winter

In three quick hours on a train heading south in the Swiss Alps,

ja

becomes

si

. Gore-Tex turns into mountain couture. Eyeglasses change from pragmatic sight correction into just another vehicle to parade élan. Billboard ads turn from hawking shampoo and cell phones into high-end boarding schools—photos of blond girls playing cricket in starched white pants.

I should’ve known. We were heading to a certain part of the range, which is famous and hardly secret: Friedrich Nietsche, Herman Hesse, and Thomas Mann all wrote about it. It twice hosted the winter Olympics. At the margin of a frozen lake, sparkling come summer, a phalanx of private jets line up to land at the small airport and deposit European celebrities, soccer stars, Italian businessmen, Iranian arms dealers, and a few prominent Greeks who aren’t here for the skiing. This mix, rich and rich, makes some of America’s fancy resorts seem provincial.

Photo: Tom Winter

There are five ski areas here, concentrated in a 35 mile-long valley. Four of them, linked together with short bus rides, dwarf the biggest ski resorts in North America. The big four have a 360-degree exposure so it’s possible to ski powdery north and east faces and sunny, corned-up west and south faces on every single resort in the valley.

Our first day here starts at a wide-open, treeless resort that hosts Europe’s steepest start to a FIS ski race (yawn). We see it from the tram ride to the top, a ride that brings us 4,000 feet above the valley. It leaves us on a lone peak with steep lines spiraling off every side. The wind has packed the snow into something not quite as forgiving as marble flooring. We thread through a choked couloir, and ski it down to the valley to try our luck across the street at the next resort.

Photo: Tom Winter

Two trams later we’re on a windy summit with a view of the eastern Alps’ biggest peak. A traverse and a 20-minute bootpack up a small face loaded with sugary depth hoar leaves us standing under the second-highest tram tower. I peak over the edge and look into a 2,000-foot couloir. Trams whirr over our heads. Tram operators wave at us while the rich just gape. Though it hasn’t snowed in five days, the couloir remains untracked.

Liberty team riders David Lesh and Travis Redd find boot-deep cream in the gut of the chute. I follow, starting with cautious GS turns then shooting out onto the apron at jacket-flapping speed. Several hundred feet below is a groomer. Scads of fur-collared Euros have stopped to watch.

This resort is famous, the couloir is under the tram, and yet we’ve just scribed its first tracks. So the mountain itself isn’t a secret. It contains them. Tomorrow I’ll show you how to find them.