A Swiss sojourn | AspenTimes.com

A Swiss sojourn

Kelly J. Hayes

“The Eiger – it is falling!”That news, hollered in a clipped Indian accent by a passenger a few seats ahead of us, was very disconcerting, since the train we shared with this chicken little was deep in a tunnel cut into the sides of, you guessed it, The Eiger.A little background.

My wife, Linda, and I were in the early stages of a summer journey to Switzerland to see, contrast and compare three Swiss ski resorts – Grindelwald, Zermatt and St. Moritz – to our hometown of Aspen. We started our journey in Zurich and had spent a few days in Interlaken before heading up the fabled Jungfrau Railway system to the “Top of Europe” as the Jungfraujoch, Europe’s highest railway station at 11,333 feet, is known.There, we looked down on the surrounding glaciers. Glaciers that, we were told, have receded dramatically in recent years. And indeed you could see scree fields in the distance where the glaciers, the lifeblood of this high alpine environment, had simply disappeared. Photos on the walls of the observatory, which sits above the Letch Glacier (at 14 miles in length, the longest ice stream in the Alps), depict the decline of glacial coverage over the decades in sobering detail. And it is assumed that global warming is the culprit. A dire future is predicted by scientists for these glaciers, which are shrinking by as much 60 feet each year.As we entered the tunnel for the two-and-a-half-hour ride to Grindelwald in the valley below, we could see helicopters buzzing in the distance. But it was not until we heard the cry of our fellow traveler about what sounded like an imminent catastrophe that we realized what the buzz was about.Yes, the Eiger was falling, but, fortunately, not directly overhead. Our train was safe, deep inside the 4.5-mile-long tunnel that knifes through the Eiger. But miles to the east, a tiny corner of the famed mountaineering playground had sheared off, tumbling thousands of tons of rock into the valley. The cause, we were told, was global warming. The process of ice melting within the rocks was creating huge changes throughout the Alps. Over the next few days we would hear many stories of “The Fall of the Eiger” as print and television journalists from around Europe congregated on surrounding hillsides to document this geological phenomenon.

The perfect Swiss villageWhen we arrived in the picturesque village of Grindelwald and gazed across the valley from our perch in the Hotel Schweizerhof, our home for the next two days, the Eiger-related fuss seemed like much ado about nothing. Sure there was dust in the air but, nonetheless, the vastness of the peaks made what fell seem minuscule. Then we were told the size of that day’s collapse was comparable to two Empire State buildings. And it was not done yet.The Romantik Hotel Schweizerhof was the quintessential Swiss mountain hotel. The peaked wooden roofs and shuttered windows rimmed by flower boxes planted with sunny red geraniums were almost too perfect. The small simple rooms with windows that opened to almost inconceivably beautiful vistas of the lush green valley were a sharp and welcome contrast to the more contemporary rooms where we had stayed in both Zurich and Interlaken. This hotel, like many small lodges throughout Grindelwald, had a sense of both place and timelessness. I thought of Aspen’s struggles to maintain intimate lodges that were, themselves, timeless; such places are rooted in a community and offer visitors a sense that they are in a specific place and not just a another room. Grindelwald has welcomed travelers since the mid-19th century, and the town has acknowledged how important it is to try to maintain its regional and cultural identity. There is growth and change taking place, but the community recognizes the value of small, intimate lodging and the impact that losing them would have on Grindelwald’s unique personality.A massive rainstorm punctuated our first evening in Grindelwald. The sky blackened and the mountains disappeared behind a curtain of water. A lightning show was accompanied by reverberations of thunder that shook the entire valley. As we made our way down to the little dining room at the Schweizerhof for a dinner of schnitzel and potatoes, the sun dropped below the black clouds, filling both the valley and the dining room with long, distinct shafts of light. The green carpet that ran through the valley to the rocky cliffs beyond seemed to be lit from underneath as we sat, jaws dropped, admiring the view. This was the Switzerland we had hoped to find.

The following morning dawned cool, the countryside still damp from the evening storm. Our plan for the day was to take the gondola up from Grindelwald to First, a ski station in the region, and hike to Bachalpsee on the sunny side of the valley. We met our guide and headed up the hill in an area famed for its network of more than 180 miles of hiking trails. As we walked, the views of the Eiger were magnificent. The sheer rock of its north face looked to be unclimbable in the distance. And, in fact, it was not until 1858 that the first recognized ascent was made and not until 1938 that the north face itself was climbed. The hikes were above tree line and relatively easy. Marmots poked out of the rocks as streams tumbled down hills specked with wildflowers. It was the perfect hike, and it ended at a mountain hut for a lunch of Rosti potatoes and cold beer, paired of course with a stunning view of the Eiger.That evening, a Wednesday, we strolled the town, which was hosting a Folkloric Festival. This gathering, which initially struck us as a little kitschy, is a weekly event on summer Wednesdays. The streets are closed to traffic, but all of the shops are open for business. For six blocks along the main street there is music, ranging from accordions pumped by men in lederhosen to punk/country/alt rock played by local teenage girls. Long wooden tables are set up aside huge grills loaded with local sausages and stands that sell draft beer. By our third beer and our fourth sausage, kitsch had been replaced by local color, and we swore that, given the opportunity, we would be regulars.Swiss cheeseOur final morning in Grindelwald began before dawn as our host took us up, up, up the winding roads of the valley to a traditional Swiss cheese farm. As the sun rose over the hills, we could see tiny huts and farm buildings dotting the countryside. Above, in the distance, we could see a line of cows heading into the hills for a day of feasting on grass and wildflowers. The ringing of cowbells grew louder and louder as we neared the farm. Dangling from the necks of the cows, the bells create a random symphony like nothing else in the world, as they ring and echo off the surrounding hills.Though it was just 5 a.m. when we arrived at the farm, the family was already hard at work. They had milked the cows, and inside the cheese-making facility (an ancient barn adorned with huge cowbells) a massive cauldron filled with fresh milk hung over a hot fire, where it was constantly stirred by the wife.

Our host ladled a helping from the pot and poured it into cups for each of us. The taste was totally unique; the creamy mixture tasted of fresh grass and warmed us in the cool of the morning. I closed my eyes and, listening to the sounds of the cowbells, felt envy for the family who spent their entire summers working in these hills, moving the herd from hut to hut with the growing grasses, climbing the mountains in June and receding down the hillsides in September.The cheese is transferred into a giant “jarb” where an enormous stone top presses the whey from the hardening cheese. After a half day, the cheese is wrapped in cloth and placed in salt water for two days before aging for a minimum of three months in cool, dry caves on the mountainside. The result are creamy, tangy, hard cheeses that smell and taste like the mountains of their origin.Satisfied with our morning excursion, we said farewell to the Bernese Oberland region and took a train to the home of perhaps the world’s most famous mountain, and the bustling ski resort of Zermatt.Home of the MatterhornArriving in Zermatt, one is awed by the sight of the Matterhorn. Mythical, it rises above the town and seems to cast a shadow into every nook and cranny of the community. A town of just over 5,000 full-time residents, Zermatt is nestled into a valley divided by a rushing river, over which a series of bridges take tourists through the busy streets.The most striking thing about Zermatt is that the village is closed to cars. This is an attempt to cut the pollution and to help maintain the delicate ecological environment within the valley. Most tourists arrive by train in the center of the city, where they are greeted by electric carts that transport them and their luggage to their hotels.

We were to be based at the Hotel Beau Site, a stately hotel with overwhelming views of the Matterhorn. From our terrace, we could see a gathering storm encroaching on the mountain’s rocky face. One could imagine what it must be like for climbers huddled on the cliffs.The Matterhorn was first climbed in 1865 by a party led by Englishman Edward Whymper. On the descent, four of the party fell to their deaths on the glaciers below, providing the climb with both history and mythology. The four are buried in a cemetery in the heart of Zermatt that includes a majority of those who have met similar fates over the last 140 years. One can read the names of deceased climbers on the stones marking their graves and touch actual axes, ropes and artifacts from their deadly climbs. It is a moving tribute, but it does not seem to deter climbers who make the ascent each year by the hundreds.Our introduction to the town was made over dinner with Amadé Perrig, the former president of Zermatt Tourism. Just that day a guide had perished in a fall on a nearby peak. These guides are held in such esteem that the front page of every Swiss paper made note of the loss.Amadé was pleased to hear that we were from Aspen and immediately peppered us with names of Aspenites he had known over the years, including Bob Beattie, who he had met through the world of ski racing. Dinner on the covered terrace at the Grandhotel Schonegg was a delight as we heard about how Zermatt was developing at warp speed, much like Aspen.The restriction of heavy truck traffic in the city to the offseason months of late April and May helped to hold down the pace of construction, but Amadé told us that things there were not much different from Aspen, with homes and hotels moving further up the hills and prices forcing families downvalley. Still, we all agreed over an evening ending with Swiss brandy that Zermatt, like Aspen, retained the charms of nature, and that nature will ultimately prevail.At dawn the following day, as advised by Amadé, I went down to the river to see the tourists taking photos of the Matterhorn. It seems that Japanese tourists in particular find the moment the sun hits the peak at dawn’s early light to be very special. Daily, dozens of Japanese, many with extraordinary cameras, stand in the cold pre-dawn light waiting for the exact moment. When the sun touched the peak, you could hear a cacophony of shutters releasing as the photos were captured. I imagine that throughout Japan there are framed pictures of first light on the majestic mountain.

Though it was mid-July, there was still skiing atop the glacier above Zermatt. We decided not to partake that day, but headed up the hill anyway to see the sites. There are four distinct ski areas served by Zermatt in what is known as the Matterhorn Ski Paradise. All are linked by lifts, and it is possible from the top of the mountain to ski into the Italian town of Cervinia for lunch and come back the same day.As we took the cable car up to the top of the Klein Matterhorn, the ski terrain below looked rugged, rocky and spectacular. Once on top, the temperatures were in the low to mid-30s (and this was July). We decided to take in the Ice Palace, a tunnel that was effectively cut into the heart of the glacier to see an exhibit of elaborate ice carvings produced by artists from all over Europe. The purity of the ice, untouched by outside influences, makes it very appealing for those who work in the medium. Our personal favorite was a sitting Buddha carved from crystalline ice that seemed both very placid and very much at home inside the glacier walls.As we left the cave and made our way back to the Gondola station, we could see climbers trekking up the far hills and, below us, skiers racing on a slalom course on the glacier. We had been told by Amadé that the glacier was used by a number of ski teams to train in the summertime, and when we arrived at the Gondola car for the ride down we were ushered aside while the royalty that is the Austrian Ski Team made its way in first. This deference by the Swiss to their heated rivals was surprising and, as we rode down the hill, we found the arrogance of the skiers to be unsettling. When they found out we were from Aspen one asked, “How’s Bode?” While the others howled, another asked “Still drunk?” Again, laughter all around.Zermatt is a special place in both winter and summer. The climbing culture, the skiing and the views all make it a “must” stop. It’s no surprise that Zermatt is affiliated with The Best of the Alps ski group, a promotional organization that represents the cream of Europe’s ski-resort crop.Train on top of the AlpsSwiss trains are an engineering marvel. They are not only fast and efficient (the joke goes that you can set your watch to the trains’ comings and goings), but they are clean and a joy to ride as well.

In a nation ringed by mountains, rail is best way to get around. And the crown jewel of the entire Swiss rail system is the Glacier Express, which takes passengers in understated luxury on panoramic cars from the ski resort of Zermatt to the ski resort of St. Moritz. Sigh.The journey takes some seven and half hours and is among the great days you will spend in your life. From Zermatt we headed north, down a river-carved valley to the exquisitely beautiful farmland that surrounds the town of Visp. We dropped more than 3,000 vertical feet on this first part of the journey, and as we descended from the alpine scenery, we were treated to the first of our meals that day, a plate of breads, meats and cheeses with hot coffee and, of course, a small tin of Nutella for those who like a little something sweet for breakfast.Though Zermatt and St. Moritz both sit at about 6,000 feet in elevation, the Glacier Express takes one as low as 1,800 feet, as in Visp, back to the high point of the journey, the 6,700-foot Oberalppass. This dramatic change in elevation affords passengers an ever-changing view as the countryside twists and turns, opens and closes, rises and falls over the 180-mile route.The cars themselves are wonders, with glass ceilings and, especially in first-class, seats that recline and envelop the traveler. The meals are excellent, and it is suggested that a carafe of the local wine accompany your lunch.While Switzerland is a small country, it is amazing how many tiny villages you pass through on the journey. Each one, whether on a mountain ledge or anchored in a valley surrounded by farmland, seems to be built around a church. Ancient walls are still visible in many of the small towns, and one can imagine a happy life amid the overwhelming beauty.Seven and a half hours may seem a long time to spend in a train, but it goes by so quickly that you find it hard to believe that you have traversed 291 bridges, forded uncountable rivers, and gone through 91 tunnels on your journey. At around $190 for a first-class seat, it may seem steep, but I guarantee that it is the best value in transportation in this world. You will never forget your ride on the Glacier Express.

The Aspen of the AlpsWhen you arrive in St. Moritz, you are, well, in St. Moritz.St. Moritz is to Swiss ski resorts as Aspen is to Colorado. It is filled with expensive real estate, upscale restaurants and the finest shops. It seems as though a shop on every corner sells fine Swiss watches. The buzz when we were there was the construction of a palace, or at least a Red Mountain-sized home, on the slopes above town. The owner is the Lakshi Mittal, who has made one of the world’s largest fortunes and is the king of steel. Forty-four rooms and an overall price tag in the $50 million range. The rumors, about who is in town to what jets are at the airport, to what a new home cost, sounded a lot like they do here.Our late-afternoon train was greeted by a chauffeur from Badrutt’s Palace, the venerable and esteemed home to the rich and famous in St. Moritz. As we have The Little Nell, St. Moritz has Badrutt’s Palace. The Palace is one of those places that those in the know from Dubai to Rio to Hong Kong know well. It is the kind of place where the bartender, Mario in this case (who has been tending since 1963), is on a first-name basis with, call it 20 to 30 of the world’s richest families. It is the kind of place where George – as in Clooney – goes when he wants a change of scenery from his villa on Lake Como.Badrutt’s Palace has welcomed visitors since 1896 to its warm and inviting perch above the Lej de San Murezzen, a small scenic lake at the base of the town. Over the decades it has developed a reputation as one of the world’s most celebrated hotels, and its 165 rooms and suites are booked far in advance for the Christmas holiday, when there is a 12-night minimum. The party on New Year’s Eve in Le Restaurant features a global A-list.Of course, the reason for Badrutt’s success as a magnet for magnates has to do with the beauty of the Engadine region where St. Moritz is located. In the southeast corner of Switzerland, the Engadine Valley is not far from the Swiss-Italian border. It is punctuated by vast glaciers, soaring peaks and perfect lakes that provide ample opportunity for sailing and windsurfing in the summer.

The Lej de San Murezzen does not allow motorized boating in the summer, so it is dotted each day with tiny sailboats as the children of the Engadine earn to sail. In the wintertime the lake freezes and is the sight of a much publicized horse race on ice. Snow Polo is also staged on the lake, with the World Cup attracting players from around the globe.The ski resort above the town is vast and the terrain is forgiving – country-club skiing, as one local kid called it. But the views of the lake and adjacent ski mountains are superb.St. Moritz, like Aspen, is an outdoor paradise that has been saddled with a reputation as a playground for the rich and famous. While true, it does not diminish the power of the region as a place to recreate and rejuvenate.Over a farewell dinner in Le Restaurant at Badrutts overlooking the Lej, we felt like royalty. We found in our travels to Switzerland that mountains have their own distinct and unique characteristics. The Alps and the Rockies share similarities, but they also have their own personalities. Both ranges are under pressure from man as the population grows.However, as we toasted our trip and gazed out upon the Engadine countryside, we both found comfort in the belief that the mountains will win again.

Kelly and his wife, Linda, enjoy visiting mountains as much as they enjoy living in mountains.