All Aboard

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All Aboard

"Every American skier owes himself at least one crack at Europe. For all the rich variety of stateside skiing, the Alps are an experience that cannot be duplicated back home. Summer tourists scoot around looking at the outsides of European life. As a skier, you live side by side with the Europeans."

¿A SKI Guide To Europe, by Abby Rand, 1968

When SKI's guidebook was published 33 years ago, a week in the Alps was an annual inscription on the winter calendar for many Americans, and I was one of them. We would head across the Atlantic, often on ski-club charters, for Zermatt or Davos, St. Anton or Kitzbühel, Chamonix or Courchevel. We'd come home with fondue pots, bottles of schnapps and hand-knit sweaters in our luggage, and a wedeln wiggle in our repertoire.

European skiing was cheap in those days. A private ski instructor was paid $17 a day. An eight-day lift ticket cost less than $30. One could sleep under eider comforters and breakfast and dine exceedingly well in a good hotel for less than $20 a day. While Swiss skiing is no longer a bargain-hunter's dream, it still is more affordable than most American skiers realize.

I have managed to ski in Europe almost every winter since 1960. And as Abby Rand wrote, no activity puts a visitor into the life of the host country so completely as does skiing. The shared spirit and camaraderie, which the sport and the mountains nourish, break down anything resembling a language barrier. Nowhere else in the world can you find the miles-long, village-to-village touring that you find in the Alps. Or the vast openness above the 6,000-foot treeline. (In comparison, trees can be found on 11,000-foot summits in Colorado.) When the snow is right in the Alps, you can ski anywhere you see, and not be reduced to yo-yoing on the same lifts, as often is the case in the U.S.

Last winter, I spent a week skiing Switzerland, on St. Moritz's extraordinary open pistes of Corviglia and Corvatsch, and on the glacial runs of Diavolessa just five miles away in Pontresina. During that week I renewed a love affair with Swissrail, the best railroad system in the world.

The pleasure begins as you board a train that carries you directly from the Zurich airport to your destination, toting nothing but a carry-on. Your baggage and skis, checked in stateside, meet you at the resort. With a Swissrail Card (about $145 for a first-class, one-month pass), resort-to-resort skiing is a breeze. Even if you are traveling on a package that includes a week of lodging and meals in a single hotel, as most skiers do, you can take off by train for a day of exploring. The Swiss use the train as New Yorkers use the subway. After a few days skiing in St. Moritz, the wind on top of the Piz Nair and the Corviglia became so severe that the mountaintop lifts close, so I hop a train over to Klosters for a day on Parsenn, the most famous descent in Switzerland. Another morning, I leave St. Moritz at 7 on one of the immaculate trains of the Rhättishe line, and, by 9 a.m., I'm having a cappuccino on top of the Gotschnagrat cable car in Klosters with two Swiss friends, Elsbeth and Johannes Bärtsch.

The trip, which once took four hours, is down to an hour and 27 minutes through the new Vereina Tunnel. The tunnel cuts through 12 miles of alpine granite, linking the valleys of the Prattigau¿home of the great ski resorts of Davos, Klosters and Arosa¿with the Engadin¿home of elegant St. Moritz and its satellite ski villages of Pontresina and Sils.

It's the longest narrow-gauge rail tunnel in the world, and it took eight years and 800 million Swiss francs¿more than $500 million¿to build. The trains are designed to haul automobiles, trucks and freight containers, as well as passengers. One of the tunnel's chief goals is to take traffic, particularly polluting diesel trucks, off the roads in this crossroad corner of the almost borderless new Europe.

Johannes was a racer as a scolboy, and he leads us on a fast warm-up tour of the vastness of upper Parsenn mountain. We first ski the Parsennfurgga, a run Johannes and his brothers walked up to ski to save lift money when they were kids. Then we make another run down a steep passage to the bottom of the Meierhofer Talli chair, high above Wolfgang, a village on the climbing road that connects Klosters and Davos. As we move around, we test our edges on a piste down to the Parsenn hut, which is specially groomed for the wide carving turns that have become an obsession for young European skiers.

At noon we are on the Weissfluhgipfel, the White-Face Peak, which is the takeoff point for the Parsenn run. Seven lifts¿three cablecars, a funicular, a gondola and two chairlifts¿converge on the Weissfluh, Grand Central station for the 200 miles of pistes in the Klosters-Davos area. From the summit observation deck¿at 9,382 feet the highest lift-served point in the region¿one can see Arosa's ski runs on the distant horizon. Closer by, the north-facing slopes of the Jakobshorn and the Rinerhorn ski areas stretch along the Davos Valley. Austria is on the eastern horizon, a day tour on skis beyond Kloster's Madrisa ski slopes.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, came to the region in 1894 and, after trekking over the mountains to Arosa, wrote: "I am convinced that the time will come when hundreds of Englishmen will come here for the skiing season." He was as astute in his deduction as Holmes might have been. The English have been regular visitors to the region for more than 100 years. Prince Charles brings his two sons to Klosters every season. They stay at the quietly luxurious little Walserhof, where I once had the best meal I have ever enjoyed in Switzerland. As I dined there on foie gras with rhubarb confit, and poached turbot, a gent at the next table said, "If the chef were a woman, I would divorce my wife and marry her."

Hollywood stars and American literary lions came to Klosters in the Fifties and Sixties. They lived in private chalets, but the gemütlich bar and restaurant of the Chesa Grischuna inn was their headquarters. Irwin Shaw was the kingpin, and Greta Garbo, Charlie Chaplin, Audrey Hepburn, James and Gloria Jones, and Peter Viertel and his wife Deborah Kerr turned the charming Chesa into their club. The rustic inn in the heart of the village still draws an international mix of ski instructors and grandes dames, well-heeled young families and movie stars.

I was there once at Christmas when Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward and kids were treated as just folks, which is probably why they were there.

Skiing came to the valley in the early part of the 20th century, when energetic adventurers, with skins on their crude skis, climbed 2,500 vertical feet to the Parsennfurgga from the hamlet of Wolfgang. They would then bushwhack eight miles down into the Landquart valley and the tiny mountain town of Kublis. The hardiest would make the strenuous circuit twice in a day, catching a little red train from Kublis back to Wolfgang, and climb up and ski down once again. The breathless length of the north-facing run combined with a vertical drop of more than 6,700 feet made it Europe's most famous piste, a trip every early-era skier dreamed of making.

In 1924, even before lifts were constructed, the Parsenn became the site of the first downhill race in skiing: the Parsenn Derby. After the Parsennbahn funicular opened in 1932, making it easier to compete, as many as 600 racers entered. Men started at the Weissfluh and skied the full length to Kublis. They raced down fields of snow into trails through forests, meadows and orchards to the lowest village where the snow still held. The women started lower, at the Weissfluhjoch, and finished at the Schwendi hut, above Kublis. The race is still held for the fun of it¿and for silver cups competitors keep for a year. Win the race three times running and the trophy is yours.

The race is why I have come to Klosters to ski with Elsbeth and Johannes. They both raced the Derby in their youth. The first pitch from the gipfel, or peak, is a lulu: a field of moguls, wide and steep, with about a 40-degree slope. But the snow is fresh, and I soon get my skis together on a grand boulevard called the Wasserscheide. Identifying names bedeck the Parsenn like those of the steeplechase hazards at the Epsom Derby. Wasserscheide, or Water Shed, is the dividing point for the snowmelt. The runoff on one side ends in the Rhine and the North Sea, the other drains to the Po in Italy and the Adriatic.

The Parsenn Kreuzweg, or Cross Way, is a confluence of skiers up from Davos on one side and Klosters on the other. Signs point to off-piste destinations in every direction. One of Johannes' favorites leads to the hamlet of Fideris. To reach it, you hike up for an hour to the Fideriser hut for a meal or a bunk. "The run down from there is what skis are meant for," he says. "It's a spectacular promenade in spring snow all the way down the Landquart valley."

We pause and Elsbeth warns me about the Derby Schuss, a mile-long steep and lovely boulevard through vast fields of snow. It suddenly drops into the Gauderloch, or Gauder Hole, and the unwary can come unglued. There is hardly time to recover before the roller-coaster ride through Danau Wellen, the Danube Waves. At the Teufeltritt, or Devil's Steps, one can peel off and head directly down toward Klosters to the base of the Gotschnabahn cable car. We keep skiing and take a trail bordered by larch and Scotch pine.

A strong skier can make the Parsenn in less than an hour, but why would anyone but a Derby racer want to? In the Alps, the answer to the question "Where are we skiing today?" is "Where's lunch?" The sun is warm for a January day, and the deck of the Conterser Schwendi¿schwendi is the local dialect for a clearing in the woods¿is filled with life.

On the Conterser's deck, there is an upturned log, studded with nails. Anyone who fails to hammer three nails flush to the head with one blow each, without bending a nail, buys a round. I lose, of course, so we sit in the sun and share a bottle of ruby Veltliner from grapes that matured only 30 miles to the south on an Italian hillside. The air is filled with the sound of chatter and the aroma of grilling chicken and bratwurst. With a paddle big enough for a canoe, a young man in a leather apron stirs an enormous copper caldron of rösti, the grated hash browns of these mountains. We move inside for a lunch of bundnerfleisch, thinly sliced air-dried beef, and cheese-laced polenta. We are warmed by the wine, the radiating heat of a great green-tile stove in the stübli's corner, and the polished glow of the butterscotch-colored ceiling and pine walls that are the pride of every Prattigau farmhouse. I would gladly book one of the bedrooms upstairs and stay a while: A bed with half pension is only about $50 a night. But I have a train to catch.

We head for Kublis, through a Hansel-and-Gretel trail in the woods, until we exit high above the valley. One of the little red trains is puffing down it. The scene, looking at it from above in a landscape dotted with a scattering of alpine farmhouses, is like an FAO Schwarz Christmas window.

We catch the 3:07 back up valley to Klosters, and I'm soon back in St. Moritz. I'm meeting friends for dinner in the all-red, newly decorated Relais restaurant of the grand old Badrutt's Palace, perhaps the most famous ski hotel in the world. After dinner, an amazing sound reverberates through the lofty chambers of the hotel ballroom adjoining the bistro. It's "Amazing Grace," a duet for alpenhorn and bagpipe, at a banquet celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Anglo-Swiss Ski Club, founded in 1925 by legendary ski pioneer Sir Arnold Lunn. Many of the young Brits, in black tie and kilts, are celebrating having survived the 85 mph, headfirst run dy is yours.

The race is why I have come to Klosters to ski with Elsbeth and Johannes. They both raced the Derby in their youth. The first pitch from the gipfel, or peak, is a lulu: a field of moguls, wide and steep, with about a 40-degree slope. But the snow is fresh, and I soon get my skis together on a grand boulevard called the Wasserscheide. Identifying names bedeck the Parsenn like those of the steeplechase hazards at the Epsom Derby. Wasserscheide, or Water Shed, is the dividing point for the snowmelt. The runoff on one side ends in the Rhine and the North Sea, the other drains to the Po in Italy and the Adriatic.

The Parsenn Kreuzweg, or Cross Way, is a confluence of skiers up from Davos on one side and Klosters on the other. Signs point to off-piste destinations in every direction. One of Johannes' favorites leads to the hamlet of Fideris. To reach it, you hike up for an hour to the Fideriser hut for a meal or a bunk. "The run down from there is what skis are meant for," he says. "It's a spectacular promenade in spring snow all the way down the Landquart valley."

We pause and Elsbeth warns me about the Derby Schuss, a mile-long steep and lovely boulevard through vast fields of snow. It suddenly drops into the Gauderloch, or Gauder Hole, and the unwary can come unglued. There is hardly time to recover before the roller-coaster ride through Danau Wellen, the Danube Waves. At the Teufeltritt, or Devil's Steps, one can peel off and head directly down toward Klosters to the base of the Gotschnabahn cable car. We keep skiing and take a trail bordered by larch and Scotch pine.

A strong skier can make the Parsenn in less than an hour, but why would anyone but a Derby racer want to? In the Alps, the answer to the question "Where are we skiing today?" is "Where's lunch?" The sun is warm for a January day, and the deck of the Conterser Schwendi¿schwendi is the local dialect for a clearing in the woods¿is filled with life.

On the Conterser's deck, there is an upturned log, studded with nails. Anyone who fails to hammer three nails flush to the head with one blow each, without bending a nail, buys a round. I lose, of course, so we sit in the sun and share a bottle of ruby Veltliner from grapes that matured only 30 miles to the south on an Italian hillside. The air is filled with the sound of chatter and the aroma of grilling chicken and bratwurst. With a paddle big enough for a canoe, a young man in a leather apron stirs an enormous copper caldron of rösti, the grated hash browns of these mountains. We move inside for a lunch of bundnerfleisch, thinly sliced air-dried beef, and cheese-laced polenta. We are warmed by the wine, the radiating heat of a great green-tile stove in the stübli's corner, and the polished glow of the butterscotch-colored ceiling and pine walls that are the pride of every Prattigau farmhouse. I would gladly book one of the bedrooms upstairs and stay a while: A bed with half pension is only about $50 a night. But I have a train to catch.

We head for Kublis, through a Hansel-and-Gretel trail in the woods, until we exit high above the valley. One of the little red trains is puffing down it. The scene, looking at it from above in a landscape dotted with a scattering of alpine farmhouses, is like an FAO Schwarz Christmas window.

We catch the 3:07 back up valley to Klosters, and I'm soon back in St. Moritz. I'm meeting friends for dinner in the all-red, newly decorated Relais restaurant of the grand old Badrutt's Palace, perhaps the most famous ski hotel in the world. After dinner, an amazing sound reverberates through the lofty chambers of the hotel ballroom adjoining the bistro. It's "Amazing Grace," a duet for alpenhorn and bagpipe, at a banquet celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Anglo-Swiss Ski Club, founded in 1925 by legendary ski pioneer Sir Arnold Lunn. Many of the young Brits, in black tie and kilts, are celebrating having survived the 85 mph, headfirst run down the Cresta's famously iced track that morning on a sled the size of a washboard.

The next day, I leave Switzerland for Bormio, Italy, on the Bernina Express, perhaps the most beautiful train ride in Europe. I get a seat in one of the special cars that Phillipe Starck has designed for the Rhättische line, with furnishings by Starck and Corbusier. As we climb to the Bernina Pass, glacier fields seem near enough to touch. Descending toward the Italian border and Tirano, through tunnels, across bridges, we skirt the Lake of Poschiavo, its waters as green as jade from the glacial moraine runoff, with the Alps as a backdrop. At the village of Brusio, the train, on a viaduct of stone much like those the Romans built, makes a complete circle around a stand of chestnut trees and crosses under one of the viaduct's soaring arches. It's as if we are tying a knot around a perfect week of skiing.un down the Cresta's famously iced track that morning on a sled the size of a washboard.

The next day, I leave Switzerland for Bormio, Italy, on the Bernina Express, perhaps the most beautiful train ride in Europe. I get a seat in one of the special cars that Phillipe Starck has designed for the Rhättische line, with furnishings by Starck and Corbusier. As we climb to the Bernina Pass, glacier fields seem near enough to touch. Descending toward the Italian border and Tirano, through tunnels, across bridges, we skirt the Lake of Poschiavo, its waters as green as jade from the glacial moraine runoff, with the Alps as a backdrop. At the village of Brusio, the train, on a viaduct of stone much like those the Romans built, makes a complete circle around a stand of chestnut trees and crosses under one of the viaduct's soaring arches. It's as if we are tying a knot around a perfect week of skiing.

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