Welcome to Switaly - Ski Mag

Welcome to Switaly

The Swiss are too cold, the Italians too hot. But combine the people and terrain of the mountainous border of the two nations and you get glorious schizophrenia. What if they were one country, united under schuss? Inside one man’s (unofficial) feasibility study for the UN.
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Men in tights keep getting in the way of the world’s most famous peak, a 14,691-foot monolith too steep to hold snow. With faces for each of the four compass points, the Matterhorn looks like a gray granite pyramid, a gargantuan version of the ride at Disneyland—and, according to popular myth, the inspiration for Toblerone chocolate’s triangle shape. I’m ascending a wild backcountry plateau just west of it, only it hasn’t come above the glaciated horizon yet. Just as the view is about to pop, it’s suddenly obstructed by men in tights.

Should I be surprised? The Alps are home to lots of men, and lots of tights. On a continent that really digs Lycra. These particular men in tights cut in front of me as I shuffle up a skin track. They adhere to technical glacier protocol, roped together in unwieldy groups as big as eight, even though the light is clear, the route simple, and no cracks whatsoever mar the skin track. So if one man hesitates, they all do, causing a shiny spandex blockade. When I try to step over their ropes, they bark something nasty in a language I can’t understand. Show me the Matterhorn, dammit, not jiggly man-ass!

Don’t these angry men have a triathlon to run somewhere?

See more photos from Switaly.

The men in tights don’t seem in awe of the Matterhorn. Perhaps it’s because, for all its iconic glory, the Matterhorn is also like razor wire strung between Chula Vista and Tijuana. It actually achieves the same purpose: the separation of sovereign nations. In this case, Switzerland and Italy, where the big lug is called Cervino. I behold the peak’s jagged crown and wonder: Which chunk accepts Swiss francs and which demands euros?

If all goes right, Matterhorn/Cervino will decorate coins of a different realm: Switaly. That’s the name of the new nation I’m proposing, an enclave that will appropriate both sides of the mountainous Swiss-Italian border. True, I’m an American with no Swiss or Italian blood, and the borderlands of the two established countries have expressed no desire to secede. I’m petitioning the United Nations anyway—demanding that Switaly be recognized as a distinct country or duchy or principality. A Monaco of the mountains, if you will, where the weirdly different cultures of Switzerland and Italy are harnessed to serve the ultimate ski haven. Switaly. C’mon, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, or whoever’s in charge at the UN now: Let’s light this candle.

Along with skiers James Harvey and Craig DiPietro and photographer Lee Cohen, I’m doing feasibility studies right now. We’re hopscotching back and forth across the existing Swiss-Italian border, trying to see if these disparate places can coexist under one new flag, trademarked by me. It could be tricky. One is famed for its neutrality, the other for its fascists. One sees cheese as fondue, the other as pizza. One has locals who barely acknowledge you, the other has locals who won’t shut up. One has a nearly perfect rail-based transportation system, the other raven-haired hotties who can stop traffic.

As is, Switzerland’s border with Italy runs 456 twisty miles—significantly farther than its boundaries with France, Germany, or Austria. Citizens migrate at high passes like the Great St. Bernard, over peaks like the sprawling Monte Rosa Massif, or in Ferraris hauling ass through high-tech tunnels. Nevertheless, the Alps still function more as a fence than a gate. Cultural seepage is limited. While Italian is one of Switzerland’s four official languages (along with German, French, and Romansh), just 1/12 of the country actually speaks it and 10 percent of Swiss nationals claim Italian descent. (Italy will get to its census number later, after its long daily nap.)

For the most part, southern Switzerland and northern Italy do their own things. The only obvious commonality: big-ass ski slopes. Mountains with legendary names—Saas-Fee, Verbier, Courmayeur, Cervinia, St. Moritz, Alagna, Zermatt, and Bormio—all sit about 20 miles from the Swiss/Italian border. Consider the Marinelli Couloir, the longest straight-shot chute in the Alps. It drops some 7,000 vertical feet from a Swiss mountain with a spittle-generating Germanic name (Zumsteinspitze) to a small Italian town with plentiful vowels (Macugnaga).

Welcome to Switaly.

***

After gazing at Matterhorn/Cervino awhile, wondering what angle to portray on Switaly’s stamps, we stash our climbing skins and ski down toward the town of Zermatt, on the Swiss side of the border. Soft spring snow shoots off our tails as we whip past vivid arrays of glacial ice. Some are blue, some gray. Some shaped like a church organ, some shaped like fish eggs.

There are a few crevasses to avoid on the descent. But they ultimately pose less of a threat to our health than downtown Zermatt. It’s Saturday, changeover day, when thousands of Euros simultaneously depart and arrive. Mobs of humanity throng the narrow streets. Shouldered skis aim at innocent vacationers’ teeth. Because Zermatt bans all automobiles in its village, horse-drawn wagons and valets on golf carts converge on tourists swarming the train station. Noiseless electric taxis sneak up without warning and startle the bejesus out of us.

We need a calming beer. Inside the Papperla Pub, we meet an American musician named Jeremy Hughes. He has Weird Al Yankovic looks and a business card calling his music “The Beautiful Insanity.” He plays here with a band—Chicago Mike’s InterGalactic Brother & Sisterhood of Big Eyed Beans—that performs all over Europe. Hughes says that compared to Italians, Swiss audiences are more group-oriented and respond more to beer. “The Swiss chant and yell ‘

Ja, ja, ja,

’ while the Italians sip wine and applaud afterward.”

Not that Italians are chilly. They simply prefer one-on-one socialization, like when Alberto Tomba hit on Katarina Witt at the Olympics. Italians flat-out love their lovin’. At a pizza place one night, our Latin waiter gleams at the sound of Craig’s last name: DiPietro. The waiter grabs his hand. DiPietro cautions him that he’s half Irish. With a deranged smile, the waiter thinks a moment. “Yes,” he says, “but you’re half

paisan

!” He looks down below his waist, and chops his hands at his hips. “The good half is

paisan

!”

Service workers in Switzerland? Much less likely to reference a stranger’s junk. Respect for personal privacy, after all, is a bedrock belief of Swiss society—and it’s earned gazillions for its banks.

***

You notice the changes crossing from Switzerland into Italy, even from neighboring towns straddling the border: spectacles become more stylish, scalps appear darker, and skirts get shorter. People wear more black. Mobile-phone usage becomes an excuse to yell at volumes that could wake the dead.

Skiing the Italian side of the Monte Rosa Massif, out of Alagna, brings up another big difference: ski patrol. There’s no American-style ski patrol at Alagna, nor anywhere else in Italy. Instead, slopes are monitored by the

policia

. On a steep pitch of perfect corn at Alagna, I scope one such armed blue-coat ahead of me and to the left. The cop makes squiggly little slalom turns. I point my fat Atomics straight, reel in the cop, and quickly pass. Call me immature, but I derive great joy from dusting a cop. Only later does my buddy James tell me of a sign he saw, warning customers that policia will fine you 100 euros for excessive speed.

Boasting a 15,203-foot elevation, connections to 37 lifts scattered over the Monte Rosa Massif, and untold acres of terrain, Alagna has been poised to break out—the Next Chamonix!—for more than 10 years now. It took steps to rebrand itself (as “Freeride Paradise”) and install a modern tram. But customers this late-March midweek are scarce. No doubt we’re the only Americans in this medieval town of 400 people. Other than our Anglo selves and four fair-haired Poles taking repeated nips at a huge metal flask, the summit tram carries only olive-skinned beautiful people. We’re told there are usually Scandinavians around, though not this week. As to why lift lines are shorter than anywhere else in Switaly, we can guess: The big-mountain terrain intimidates the English bankers and families that patronize Zermatt and St. Moritz. It also sits 23 miles from the nearest train station. But if Alagna is too remote to be famous, it’s also too massive to be ignored. Just the off-piste looks like it could house a Snowbird or two.

After confirming the off-piste as hard and unwelcoming, we blitz sunny groomers till closing time. We chase a stunning blonde on Fast Thang skis. Discover the hops-and-barley beauty of local Forst beer. Hang out in deck chairs among middle-aged Italians oozing style, from their all-black ski apparel to the way they hold their midday wine glass by the stem.

When the lifts close, we don’t descend to Alagna. Rather, we knit down moguls to 9,452-foot Col d’Olen and one of Europe’s highest hotels, Rifugio Guglielmina. We approach beneath fluttering prayer flags as speakers sound out classic ’70s soul: Earth, Wind & Fire and an artist who’s no doubt popular in Italy, the Walrus of Love, Barry White.

And love, on a superficial level, could spell trouble for fledgling Switaly. In an online poll to pick just one phrase to describe the Swiss, only a few more respondents said “friendly” (19 percent) than “reserved” (14 percent). The most votes went to “on-time” (20 percent).

But it’s a mistake to pigeonhole the Swiss as fussbudgets. According to a global sex survey by Durex condoms, the Swiss have sex 104 times per year. In the same period, Italians knock boots 106 times. If we can get them to settle at 105, we should have a happy, satisfied Switaly.

Verbier, in Switzerland, certainly seems fulfilled. In that western bastion of Switaly, we top out at the 10,925-foot summit of Mont Fort, a cold wind snapping at our cheeks as we ratchet down boot buckles. We drop off the back side, knifing our skis in and out of pillowy snowpack, descend, and then descend some more.

We feel far superior to American tourists until the next day, when we stuff our packs with food and gear and set off for the backcountry. We aim to tour east of Mont Fort and spend the night at a hut below 10,944-foot Rosablanche Peak. The first couple hours of climbing go well. Then comes a series of small mistakes. None of our local sources quite agree on the best route to the hut. While consulting the map on a high ridge, we overhear a report of incoming weather. Unsettled, we chase tracks that might lead to the hut but do not. We lose a few hundred vertical feet before realizing our mistake. Now committed, we keep descending the tracks to a far-off valley. In North America, we’d be search-and-rescue bait. But this is Switzerland. The valley has a name: Fionnay. It has a cluster of buildings, a bus stop and, most important, a bus bound for Le Chable’s train station.

“When do you depart?” we ask the driver.

“In two minutes,” he answers.

We’re lucky. Frustrated, too. My feasibility study on this place is suffering, having found navigation not so feasible. Attempting to comprehend Switaly is like performing the Heimlich maneuver on a fat man: It’s difficult to grasp, and God only knows what will pop up.

***

On neither side of the Swiss-Italian border can one expect to sleep in. Bells sound from churches and cathedrals, punishing non-Catholic activities from the previous night. Bells toll as early as 6 a.m., pealing songs followed by numbered chimes. With updates every 15 minutes.

May as well get up and caffeinate. Block out sufficient time for this, as coffee remains a slow, old-school ritual in Switaly. Forget about to-go cups. Here, java arrives in tiny ceramic cups on saucers. It is not removed from the premises nor ordered in Starbucks quantities. Skiers don’t necessarily drink more coffee here than at home. But they do take more coffee breaks to sit down, lift a pinkie above doll-size cups, and ingest rich espresso in birdlike sips.

At Cervinia, the Italian ski area south of Zermatt, coffee provides a boost at the base lodge as we boot up. At the summit, it gives us an excuse to duck out of an overcast precipitation soup and into a

rifugio

on the ridge that spills off Cervino and forms the international border. The weathered wooden hut has stood here, at 11,040 feet above sea level, since the early 20th century. For 90 years it’s been called Theodulpass by the Swiss and Teodulo by Italians and enlightened foreigners who realize it’s probably in Italy.

Teodulo’s decor reminds me of a basic Italian design rule: When in doubt, add flowers. The hut’s waxy old tablecloths bear floral designs. On the wall are photos of flowers. And flowers adorn the simple sign pointing the way to Teodulo’s

dormitorio

. Austerity just doesn’t fly in southern Europe. Designwise, Italy is considerably more comfortable with overkill. That’s why the Italian Alps remain the world capital of ski clothes festooned with nonsense English. I’ve seen parkas that urged me to “Beat the Wanderers” and “Challenge the Wind.” According to one shiny one-piece, “Reptiles are great. They’re the toast of the town. Live’s [sic] always better with reptiles around.” I’m not making this shit up. I couldn’t.

Of course, challenging wind and toasting reptiles take time. Italian mountain folk have to cut corners somewhere, and that somewhere is in the restroom. Italian lavatories frequently contain no toilet. Instead, there’s a hole in the ground one either aims at or squats over. Italians, perhaps, view toilet seats as germ colonies, with potential to soil one particularly incomprehensible jacket proclaiming, “Cool Kids Snow Machine.”

To get a better read of European ski areas, check out their vintage posters. They tend to be art deco love letters to skiing’s beauty and freedom. For my money, none can touch St. Anton’s pipe smoker surrounded by psychedelic rabbits. Yet Cervinia’s comes close. Undeniably sexy and Italian, it shows a bronzed young brunette wearing a tank top. As Cervino sparkles behind her, she lifts her green-mittened hands to the sun, a look of rapture engulfing her pretty Mediterranean face. Compare this to Zermatt’s poster. It also puts the iconic peak in the background, but with a less human, sexless foreground: a launching ski jumper in silhouette. Is he having as much fun as Cervinia girl?

Hard to say, as he has no face.

***

Well, this is awkward. After a day devoted to skiing uphill—climbing 4,400 feet in six hours—we’ve settled in at the Cabane de Bertol above the Val d’Arolla, on the Swiss side of Switaly. Bertol sits 10,863 feet high, atop boulders erupting from a sharp ridge. I swear its architect was Dr. Seuss. The spectacular hut is accessed by a number of fixed ladders and chains over such sheer exposure that guests employ harnesses, slings, and carabiners just to check in. We should be kicking back with a well-deserved glass of wine. Instead, we’re getting pilloried, absolutely reamed at full volume by the enraged hutkeeper. Veins are throbbing. Seriously, his head could explode. Wondering: Does my softshell protect against ruptured blood vessels?

We’d woken up in a grand, century-old hotel called Kurhaus in the hamlet of Arolla. Parting the curtains revealed sunshine and fresh snow. From the breakfast buffet, we’d inhaled yogurt and soft-boiled eggs and built towering cold-cuts-and-cheese sandwiches for later. We’d joked with a Swiss Army officer attempting the same climb. He put a cheery spin on it: “In Switzerland, we always go up.” Lee mused, “It’s a pretty good army that sends you skiing.”

The glacier, framed by stunning arêtes, tilted up at a manageable angle. It waited until the final few switchbacks to suck our lungs dry of oxygen. When we arrived at the hut, the hutkeeper sneered at our U.S. passports but assigned us our own room, though it was below the main (and heated) floor. A sign in German, French, and English convinced us it was OK to build a fire in the stove. But we proved far too American in our approach. DiPietro chopped wood like a maniac and stuffed the stove full, carbon footprint be damned.

Not OK. The hutkeeper storms down to our room, flings open the door, and starts yelling. Lee counters: “

No problema, no problema.

Lee’s inexplicable use of gringo Spanish only inflames the angry Swiss guy, turning his face new shades of red. “IT

IS

PROBLEM!” he roars, so utterly pissed off as to be incomprehensible for the rest of his diatribe. Long minutes of rage elapse before we finally understand: DiPietro’s fire is simultaneously rendering the kitchen on the floor above us an unbearable inferno (just in time for the dinner hour) and devouring wood where wood does not exist. Wood that had been hauled thousands of feet above timberline up a glacier. Oops.

The next morning, the hutkeeper returns to our room and goes slightly insane again, this time over blanket usage. We’ve slept with too many and haven’t folded them properly. This guy can’t possibly be getting laid 104 times a year. When the nation is launched, I’m afraid I’ll have to revoke his Switalian citizenship.

***

The train is getting face shots.

Not just any train, but the Bernina Express, a high-altitude marvel and symbol of mountainous Switaly—something for Switaly’s stamp committee to consider when issuing the first batch. It runs from Tirano, Italy, to St. Moritz, Switzerland, climbing 6,000 vertical feet along the way. At one point, its rails bend into a spiral to tame the inclines of the Alps. And as it approaches its high point at Ospizio Bernina, it nails fresh snow, plumes exploding high above the engine car. Crossing the Swiss-Italian border on the Bernina Express is right up there with doing so on skis.

We’re moving again, from where exit signs say uscita to where they say a word that’s always fun to yell: ausfahrt. The train’s terminus is in Switzerland, at St. Moritz, where wealthy Europeans go to rub Bogner-covered shoulders with other members of their tax bracket. No resort can match its affinity for polo on frozen lakes.

But dirtbags would be fools to write off St. Moritz as merely a playground for the rich. For one thing, there’s the 4,921 feet of lift-served vert. From St. Moritz’s enormous valley spring three sizable ski areas—Corvatsch, Corviglia, and Diavolezza—yet only Corviglia sells caviar and maintains a coat check for furs.

At Diavolezza, a Swiss joint with an Italian-sounding name, we ski the main piste, Firn, with our heads cocked over our right shoulders to scope lines in the legal out-of-bounds below 11,072-foot Piz d’Arlas. Bingo: DiPietro spots a 10-foot-wide couloir that runs back to Firn. A gondola, a chair, and a traverse later, we’re standing at its mouth. Its 35-degree pitch and Sierra-like chalk make this unnamed Swiss cleft one of my Top 10 Coolies of 2008.

One descent is followed by another and another until St. Moritz locals notice what’s happening and follow us. Even they enjoy nice, cut-up fluff. But our first turns in the unnamed chute with 18 inches of fresh stand up as our line of the day. Finding that descent, at our final destination on a long international trip, was nearly as much fun as skiing it.

This is Switaly. I’d like to think we’ve gotten the lay of its crenellated land—not an easy accomplishment for ugly Americans living an ocean away. But just when we think we have Switaly nailed, it takes us 11 hours to drive from St. Moritz to Geneva due to traffic jams, closed passes, and bad judgment. And, let’s be honest, we’ve barely managed to keep track of Switaly’s multiple personalities. Even though a united Switaly is my idea, I don’t think we’ve earned the right to rule it. Or even to vote. But we could qualify as visitors with certain rights, say green-card holders. Let’s light this candle.

- SKIING MAGAZINE, JANUARY 2009

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