A quiet drive through the Alps

Jay Cowan
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At last, maybe an hour out of Frankfurt, heading to Interlaken, Switzerland, traffic thins out for a few minutes on the autobahn and I have a chance to jump on the gas. What is the fun of being in famously fast Germany if you have to crawl along at 150 kilometers per hour? However, I can see our opening closing out like a big wave for a surfer as our side of the four lanes a few kilometers ahead clots up with vehicles. Fortunately, we don’t need much time. The speedometer clicks almost instantly upward – 170, 190, 200 – so effortlessly the cars to our right blur by as though yanked backward by a giant string. The left lane in Europe is the province of the big beasts, prowled by aggressive Benzes and Beemers eager to flash their lights at anyone invading their territory. But we’re having none of it. Our 266 horsepower Saab 9.5, burdened with a rooftop box, gaudy red Saab/Salomon lettering and what seems like a half-ton of luggage, rolls up to 215 (135 mph) and stays there without so much as a shiver. Except from my wife. “Now, that’s what I’m talking about,” I cackle just before Harriet observes that we’re rapidly running out of room. I’ve driven in Europe a lot, but rarely in something with enough muscle to contend. This time, though, Saab automobiles and Salomon ski gear are helping sponsor our little jaunt. And I know we won’t get many chances to drive like this, since most of our travel will be in the fast approaching Alps.

Every once in a while a great trip just falls in your lap. In this case, I’ve had to hustle some writing assignments to make it happen, lining up work for Ski, Cross-Country Skier and Aspen Sojourner magazines. But it has been a pleasant surprise for the Saab/Salomon partnership to step up and offer us some cars and gear for the trip, making everything much easier.Yes, promises get made that may be excessive but, hell, that’s our business. Implications might occur that the names of certain products will find their way into print on several continents; that destination stories on all of our hotels and resorts will be read by millions; and that we won’t do any worse damage to the vehicles than did the Olympians who just returned them (I mean, how hard can that be? Those people are animals). But once such “misunderstandings” have already happened and a great trip has fallen in your lap, it would seem petty to reject it over semantics. Thus we find ourselves, in this winter of 2006, pursuing an ambitious and luxurious itinerary, visiting Interlaken, Adelboden and Verbier in Switzerland, then Megeve and Chamonix in France. We began in Aspen too many hours ago, but got a few hours of sleep on the nonstop Lufthansa flight from Denver to Frankfurt. I couldn’t persuade them to comp the tickets, so we had to use our mileage credits, yet I still like them and think that direct flight is one of the best things to come out of Denver since Tyrell Davis.Even so, after the long plane ride, picking up the car in Frankfurt and making the six-hour drive, by the time we pull up to the Grand Hotel Victoria-Jungfrau, jet lag has kicked in with a vengeance. Fortunately there are few better places in the world to recuperate from that malady. Fast in the long shadows of the Eiger, the Jungfrau and the Monch, the Grand Vic is by acclaim one of Switzerland’s finest hotels. I cannot give them any higher recommendation than to say that I would pay my own money to stay there. Our room is palatial and we’re lavishly pampered in their newly and expensively expanded ESPA Spa, with embalming seaweed wraps, salt scrubs, full body massages, a fabulous array of hot tubs and a beautiful main pool that looks Greco-Roman as rendered by Gustav Klimt. The spa is not only a commercial necessity in fine resort hotels today, but a vital antidote to the highly rated on-premises dining at the V-J. Our dinner at Las Terrases features amuse bouches and an amuse desert that are heroic by themselves, plus a foi gras “pudding,” remarkable veal shank and classic tournedos. All of it so good I fear my ski day tomorrow at Murren may be in jeopardy.Such is not the case, however, and even though the mountain and its 7,000 vertical feet of slopes is less than half an hour away by regular trains, I can’t resist firing up the Saab for the twisty trip up the Lauterbrunnen Valley. I would, after all, be doing less than my job if I couldn’t report on how it performs under a multitude of alpine conditions.

Ridiculously vertical and spectacular, the Lauterbrunnen was first adored by Romance artists more than 200 years ago, and Harriet and I have been equally smitten with it for a while. The road is busy but still fun when you’re driving something that was designed for it, and you can stop to take pictures where you want, instead of out of a moving train window. In spite of it being high season with the consequent long lines, the multiple cable-car trip all the way to the Piz Gloria “James Bond” revolving restaurant atop the Schilthorn is totally worth it. They filmed much of “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” here. Getting good-view seats on the outer circumference isn’t easy, but if you should finally achieve this, here’s a tip: Don’t set your gloves and goggles on the shelf next to the window and promptly forget them. If you do, I hope someone sweet at the next table plucks them off the stationary shelf as the restaurant spins past it, and hands them back to you as they do with me. You might think of revolving restaurants as a bit kitschy, very Bangkok, but I doubt there is a better situated one anywhere. The expansive views from France to Austria to the Black Forest are destabilizing in their breadth. But it is the more immediate vision of the towering Monch and Jungfrau that leaves you truly dizzy, not to mention the moving floor combined with too much schnapps. Murren’s skiing is huge and sweet, and I’m able to find a variety of untracked lines in days-old powder from top to bottom. Operating sans guide, my biggest challenge is to not veer off into the wrong Canton or, worse yet, get caught in any really horrendous lift lines. So I prowl down steep bump runs with deserted drag-lifts, take a few high-speeders on cruisers served by six-pack lifts that eat lift lines like strudel, and ski out-of-the-way routes between mountainside settlements where there is good, untrammeled riding everywhere. Murren, where they expertly adjusted the bindings on my loaner Salomons on the way up and where we linger on the way down, has grown since we were last here. But not in a ruinous fashion, constrained as it is by the mountain rising behind and big cliffs in front. Hovering like a mirage hundreds of feet straight above the narrow valley floor, with grandstand seats for the Monch and Jungfrau mountains and a really long first step out your backdoor, this is a setting too bold and melodramatic to seem quite real.Swiss villages like Murren, nearby Wengen and famous Zermatt were used as templates by the designers of Snowmass when they created it to be fully accessible without vehicles, although something was lost in translation. In Europe such towns are all served by trains, cable cars and funiculars, truly liberating them from the effects of internal-combustion engines and traffic jams. The approach at Snowmass has always represented a compromise, with the main access provided by driving a car or taking a bus. The new Base Village will continue this tradition, albeit with less parking.

The next morning we wend our way up on the bright green and yellow Jungfrau Joch cog train through heavy clouds to nearby Wengen and beyond, finally popping into brilliant blue skies right at the base of the mighty north face of the Eiger. The bustle is immense as lifts load and disgorge in all directions, while trains do the same, running down to Grindelwald on the other side and upward to Europe’s highest rail station on the Jungfrau Joch, after carving directly through the middle of the Eiger. In America we seem to fear trains as though they’re all Amtrak expresses to hell, or of communist derivation. In Europe they’re so gaga for trains that they’ve run this one right through a famous peak to a glacial bench at 10,000 feet. And the crazy bastards did it more than a century ago. More important, you can’t drive your car to Wengen.The snow is nearly as glorious as the picture-taking, where all the peaks of one of the world’s great ridgelines (the Eiger, the Jungfrau and the Monch) pop out into sculpted relief. I’m able to find excellent, surprisingly uncrowded skiing all around the upper Wengen-side slopes, dropping in and out of the clouds and the powder, eventually retreating back through the thick mists along the famous Lauberhorn downhill course for late lunch with Harriet in the classic mountainside enclave of Wengen. Afterward, we depart slowly, knowing we’re moving on tomorrow and hating to go. Leaving the Grand-Victoria is nearly as hard. This is the kind of life to which one can quickly become accustomed, especially when it’s free. I think the staff may sense this because I feel someone give me a little nudge as I pass lingeringly through the front door and I swear I hear it lock behind us.AdelbodenStill, I’ve wanted to ski in Adelboden since I was a kid and used to hear about it being a host for World Cup gate races. We’ve driven by the road to it for years, but this time we actually take the turn. The area’s enfolding massifs, stone walls and clamorous peaks are truly competitive with the higher profile ones we’ve just left. The scattered old villages of Boden and Adelboden are very charming if a bit spread out, somewhat in the manner of Grindelwald and other villages in the Bernese Oberland. The skiing, connected with the village of Lenk in the next valley over, is vast. The 185 km of pistes are carefully maintained, the 58 “skier conveyances” include numerous high-speed, high-capacity chairlifts. My favorite feature, though, is the almost abandoned backcountry. Because Adelboden caters primarily to Swiss and German families of an intermediate hue, the uncontrolled terrain skiing is virtually untouched.

“Here, no one skis off-piste except locals and free-riders,” explains my guide, Marcel Seiler, who takes me on several backcountry routes where we rarely cross tracks or see other skiers, enjoying snow that’s days old but still unmarked. “In Adelboden they sell mostly racing skis, very few randonees. Only guides and instructors. Local mountain guides mostly use Fritschi touring bindings, made near here,” he adds, noticing mine, “and like to hike for runs.” The next morning I ski alone for a few hours, probing further into Adelboden’s main tracks and secret stashes. Later we meet Seiler at the cross-country skiing center of Engstligenalp. He is an active nordic racer who competes every year in St. Moritz’s famous Engadine Marathon and other events, but today moderates his usual training pace so he can show me around. Engstligenalp is situated in a high, stunning basin, encircled by the formidable Wildstrubel complex of ridges, peaks and ramparts, all of which can be hiked in an hour or so and skied back down. Or you can link up with longer backcountry tours leading to Lenk or distant valleys and resorts such as Kandersteg, Leukerbad, Crans Montana and les Diablerets.Seiler likes Engstligenalp for altitude training and loves the whole region in general for the life it provides him, his wife and young daughter. For nine months a year he is a well-paid joiner, thriving in the construction industry much as people do in Aspen. For three months he teaches skiing so he can be in the mountains. He’s in the middle of buying a house near Spiez, a bigger city an hour away, for 300,000 Swiss francs. In Adelboden, he says, the same house would cost 800,000 to 1,000,000 SF (with the dollar worth 1.3 SF). Sounds familiar.When we start talking about how shocked we were to drive through so much air pollution on the way from Frankfurt, especially in Switzerland, where the air never used to be such a dismal brown, he animatedly agrees. “They’ve always said, pollution doesn’t happen in Switzerland,” he tells us, mimicking a kind of smug sincerity. “Now that it is, especially the last two years, they don’t admit it. They call it ‘dark air,'” he snorts, rolling his eyes. For Swiss industry, business is booming, and the current government seems to have gone slack with environmental regulations and their enforcement. This, too, sounds depressingly familiar.For our last night we have reservations to the Hohliebestubli, an exceptional, nouvelle-Swiss mountainside restaurant, parts of which are 300 years old. Our concerned Arena Steinmattli hotel staff inquires of us before we leave: “Do you have four-wheel drive?” “No, but our Saab will be fine,” I reply, sounding brazen enough to actually be the car’s owner, or even a salesman. And ignorant enough to prove I know nothing about the route, which turns out to be roughly comparable to driving up Aspen Mountain to Bonnie’s in the middle of the winter. Equipped with only normal street tires for the long, steep ascent through the dark on narrow, snowbound roads, I’m pleased, and not a little surprised, to be proven right.

On the car-train from Kandersteg to Goppenstein the next day, we cruise straight onto the train, then relax in our car and snack all the way through the mountain. I’m convinced that one day they’ll realize, as in car washes, that these car-train tunnels are a perfect opportunity to run some kind of multimedia show along the way, like the light show in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” only updated. After the train and several fun hours of driving down the Rhone Valley and through Sion and Martigny, we come to Verbier, another destination I’ve always wanted to visit. One of the big-mountain legends of the world, it’s bustling, young, fat-skied and helmeted, very international and more noticeably upscale than I had imagined. Largely chalet-styled, the village is cozied onto a hollowed-out bench 700 meters above the Entremont valley floor, with lifts streaming upward and giant, cloud-wreathed mountains in all directions. The location looks almost like Namche Bazaar in the Everest region of Nepal, if Intrawest had gotten hold of it.It takes awhile to find our hotel, requiring directions during a lunch served to us by a Swedish girl dividing her attention between us and the soccer World Cup on TV where her country is still in contention. She tells us there are Swedes working in nearly every restaurant or business in town, as they do in other big-time ski resorts in the Alps, then points us just up the street to our lodge.My first act there is to put some ugly scratches in one of our rear fenders while trying to negotiate the parking lot. Nice. After notifying our local host, Bernd Rosenthal, who has arranged the car for us, I go out and scrub the marks with a handful of snow and they all but disappear. When Bernd shows up later looking worried, he can barely find them and is clearly relieved. Then he informs me, by way of getting even, I think, that they haven’t had snow in two weeks. Now it’s my turn to worry.My concerns evaporate the next morning as quickly as the Saab’s scrapes when I go skiing with local tourist office PR manager Pierre-Yves Deleze. At about 2 a.m. this morning, skiing today didn’t seem a strong likelihood, because we still hadn’t slept more than five minutes at a time. Traveling to the Alps in late February and early March isn’t altogether smart unless you have no choice, because it’s high season and very crowded. In popular Verbier this means we get us one of the last rooms in town, and it happens to be right in the middle of the busiest and loudest area. Verbier, quite famously, rocks, and the bar downstairs apparently doesn’t close at all. We can hear its music and drunken howling all night long as clearly as if we were camped in one of its booths. By breakfast I’m ready to leave town, and Europe, immediately.

But Pierre-Yves is able to find us another place to stay and convince me to accompany him up on the mountain, for which I will be eternally grateful. It isn’t just the shocking scale of Verbier’s slopes – 400 km of pistes, 100 lifts and 7,000 feet of vertical – that impress. Or the craggy summits and rocky spires laced everywhere with elegantly steep chutes and couloirs. It’s also the fact that even without a recent storm they’re still solidly layered with good snow. This becomes even more evident after Deleze concludes our tour of the main, marked slopes and leaves me with Bernd. “Have you skied anything … interesting … yet?” he asks.”No,” I answer.”Shall we do that?” he grins.”Let’s,” I reply. Thus commences my insider’s sampling of the radical terrain that has made Verbier infamous. Because conditions are less than optimal, there is nothing totally urgent to what we tackle, but it’s full-charge, long, frequently ungroomed and big fun. I’m an instant acolyte.John Falkiner, one of the great names of worldwide adventure skiing, stops by the next evening at our quiet new lodgings, the Vieux Valais. He walks in as we’re finishing a fine dinner that includes homemade wild game terrine, buttery mushrooms on puff pastry and canard des landes. Falkiner is just back from a commercial ski trip he guided in Lebanon. He travels around the globe on such excursions, but always returns to Verbier, which tells you something about the resort. It sounds like Aspen when he says, “It’s gotten a bit expensive here, so I’ve moved down in the valley, but I still love the skiing.”Our last morning is windy, snowy and socked in. I make a solo run from the deserted Mont Fort cable car on top in a whiteout so thick I can’t see my skis, and count myself lucky not to drop off my route and into something even stupider. Back in the village, Bernd delivers a sharp new 9.3 Sport Combi for us to sample, and off we zoom to Megeve.

The Forclaz and Montet passes are slickly snowpacked and full of momentum-killing switchbacks, but the car does fine and we arrive in Megeve near dark. To our surprise we are expected for a town tour and a late dinner, which we actually, and unusually for us, make. One of the highlights of this beautiful, sophisticated and almost haughty haunt of the Rothschilds is the legendary Club de Jazz les 5 Rues. It features great music, martinis, caviar and characters, including, on this night, the well-known sculptor Pierre Margara, with whom we talk at length about art in Megeve and Aspen.Former World Cup racer Adrien Duvillard, the Megeve tourist office director and son of another great skier of the same name, meets me in the morning. His father is the famous ski-racing star they called Dudu when he was dominating the pro tour in America in the 1970s. Dudu became very fond of America and now owns a small ranch outside of Durango where he and his wife spend their summers.Adrien skis fast and never looks back, suiting me well. We explore some new pockets of snow on the main slopes for a while, and then head off-piste on Rochebrune mountain down the old track for the fearsome and deadly Emille Allais Downhill, held from 1952 through 1972. Plunging through heavy forests and over sudden drops and ending near the village, this wild and historic trail killed French racer Michel Bozon in 1970 and was subsequently decommissioned for racing. Over lunch, Adrien discusses the resort’s future. “We have much success in Megeve, but our crowd is mostly older and we would like to move our business in a younger direction,” he explains.

He is particularly interested in Aspen’s X Games as a model for how Megeve can reposition itself. In echoes of what Aspen went through with allowing snowboarders on Ajax, the prospect of encouraging more boarders and hard-riding kids to come here makes Megeve’s current, rather old-line customer base nervous. But Duvillard knows today’s youth are the future of the sport.In the evening we have dinner at the Demi-Lune restaurant not far from our hotel, about five kilometers from Megeve. Fancifully painted with crescent moons and stars on the outside, inside they serve excellent Savoyard and American cuisine. The owners, Georges and Suzy Duvillard, are very friendly and actually met while both were working at a ranch up the Fryingpan near Aspen 30 years ago. “It is where our first daughter was conceived,” confides Suzy, who is originally from New York. She is both the chef and the artist who has created much of the restaurant’s decor.After rain and snow fell most of the night, our parking lot is a quagmire the next morning. BMW is holding a special exhibition in Megeve for its new X-drive cars, but they’re having trouble getting them out of the hotel. I shovel 2 feet of wet, heavy porridge away from the Saab and move it forward so I can help push out a Beemer wagon stuck behind me. The swank BMW crew, in their fashionable silver dusters, offer to return the favor, but I tell them it’s not necessary and back the Saab easily uphill onto the street, leaving them smiling and looking abashed.After some fun, slabby powder skiing in the trees of Mount d’Arbois and our best lunch of the trip yet at L’Igloo on top (the smoked salmon with blinis made with genepi liquer are a house original not to be missed), we return to the village and take in Pierre Margara’s fantastic sculpture show at the big Megeve Sports Centre. The rain below continues all night, and we decamp for Geneva the next day just to dry out.

At the historic (read: creaky) five-star Beau Rivage, we have excellent views of the lake just across the street, superb service and a friendly doorman who promptly announces his admiration for our car.”Is this a new model?” he asks. “It is nice. It looks good. Is it a diesel? I think that is good for the fuel economy. Saab is a very good car, I believe.” Considering that he spends his day parking Ferraris, Mercedes and Porsches, this seems a high compliment.The Geneva-Lausanne-Montreux complex arranged around Lac Leman may be one of the most beautiful and perfectly situated metropolitan areas anywhere on Earth, staring across the dark blue water at a wall of spectacular mountains beyond. The area boasts legendary music and dining and hosts remarkable galleries and museums, all within an hour of skiing that includes Gstaad, Les Diablerets, Champery, Morzine, Megeve and Chamonix.

The next day finds us in Aspen’s sister city of Chamonix, one of our favorite resorts in the world, in time for a lunch of Pierades, the famous Savoyard meal of fresh meats cooked on hot stone. Snow is coming down so hard that it has seriously elevated the avalanche danger and almost no skiing is open except on the cross-country trails. That works for me since I’ve got a story to do about the trails, and the system is reminiscent of Aspen’s, connecting all the towns in the Arve Valley from Chamonix to Argentiere. The snow on the tracks is good, and when the sun finally comes out, the views are as dramatic as always of the high, wild spires surrounding the valley, lacquered in white against an almost unnaturally blue sky. When the Aiguille du Midi and Les Grands Montets lifts open at last the next morning, I’m on the second Aiguille du Midi cable car with my guide, Marc Cereuil, for the start of a legitimately epic alpine day. It begins with a deep powder descent of the Vallee Blanche area via a mixture of the Envers, classic and real Vallee Blanche routes, moving from a heavy storm on top to almost clear skies near the bottom, more than 8,000 vertical feet later. From there Marc is able to see up toward Les Grands Montets and notices tracks and skiers where there have hardly been any all year. Within the hour we’ve made it back to Chamonix, then Argentiere and the top of Les Grands Montets for lunch. The front has broken, and as the big ragged clouds fall away, the day turns stellar, with all the absurdly stylized peaks of the Aiguilles, Dents and Drus arrayed in constellation around Mont Blanc like savage silver jewelry set in a deep sapphire sky. The powder is perfect, and I get photos of one of the wild mountain goats for which our backcountry route, the Pas de Chevre, is named.After two long, magnificent descents up to 9,000 vertical feet through knee-deep powder, across dark crevasses on skinny snow bridges, past teetering blue seracs and through crystalline ice caves, the day’s only disappointment comes on the great Mer de Glace glacier at the end of each route. “Fifteen years ago, when I started working,” says Marc, “the glacier was still the same level as the small hut up there,” he points to what is now a steep, 15-minute climb. I don’t mind the hike, but our destruction of the planet depresses me. Further evidence comes when Marc points up at a flank of the famous Aiguille Verte where a large chalky area can be seen. “A year and a half ago, a huge slab of the mountain just fell off because the ice holding it together for thousands of years melted. It covered all this area in several centimeters of dust.”Many of the ragged peaks that stud the local horizons, and the indomitable people who inhabit them, are lavishly represented in a photographic exposition called “100 Years In Chamonix” that we visit on our last afternoon. Our sister-city hosts, Jany Couttet and Jacques Tomei, take us to meet Chamonix’s mayor, and we also catch up with Bernard Prud’homme, the brilliant and charming tourist office director and climbing guide whom we have gotten to know over the years.Nights in Chamonix are nearly the equal of the days, spent as ours are at the estimable Albert Premier, one of the world’s great boutique hotels. Both of their restaurants are highly regarded by Gault Millau, especially the gastronomie where we enjoy a trio of almost Japanese-style amuse bouches, mouthwatering Carre d’agneaux du Quercy and Harriet’s two versions of pigeon, one with truffled duck liver and the other with crispy carrots. The final tab is the breathtaking equivalent of $225, but worth every euro. Our last evening is a fun feast with friends at L’Impossible, once owned by extreme ski star Sylvan Sudain. A large and bustling version of an old French farmhouse, the restaurant is a local favorite with exemplary hosts.

It’s never easy to leave Chamonix, or the Alps, but our meter has expired, and no one seems interested in hosting us for an extension. Another month or so of this lifestyle would be nice, but not if we have to pay for it. I plot how to ship the Saab home and claim it was stolen. But in the end we regretfully return it to Saab/Salomon headquarters in Annecy, and anyone who claims I tried to sell it is a liar.Our postpartum blues are assuaged with a last night in the quiet refinement of Frankfurt’s Kempinski Hotel Gravenbruch. That’s followed by a permanently spoiling morning in the first-class Lufthansa terminal, surely the envy of fliers and other airlines the world over. Thanks to Saab and the help of Alpine Adventures, I don’t think we could have traveled the Continent in greater style or comfort. But I’d be happy to give it a shot if anyone else is interested in sponsoring us.Jay Cowan is editor of Aspen Sojourner magazine, author of “Best Of The Alps” and a longtime contributing editor at Ski magazine.