Les Incompetents Vol. 9 – Whimps In An Alpine Snowstorm

Last weekend, we went to bed in Gimmelwald, Switzerland (accessible mainly by cable car) with this view of the Lauterbraunnen Valley in the Bernese Alps.  It could have been clearer, but it’s still a pretty sweet view.  We woke up to this.

And it kept falling.

And falling.

We’re from Michigan, so we’re pretty hardy and decided that even though we were fighting off colds, we could do a few hours of hiking… in a snowstorm… on a mountain.  Yeah.  I know.  We’re geniuses.  Neither of us wanted to be the bigger baby and complain so we kept going.

And going.

Finally, the wind convinced us to turn back.  We decided that it was getting so windy that if it got much worse they might shut down the cable cars and be stuck up there that night.

Note the pitch of the flag and the temperature of -2. Balmy. Especially when I forgot to pack a hat and gloves.

Thankfully, we were able to get down to our car.   We even gave a couple of Aussies (whose paragliding trip had inexplicably been cancelled) a ride to the train station before setting off to see more of Switzerland.

Clearly the weather was ideal at lower altitudes. We ended up having a great time though. I swear, I will tell you all about it.

 

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You Know You Live In Switzerland When You Take Cable Cars As Often As Regular Cars

Since moving to Switzerland, we have spent less time in the car than ever before.  He takes the tram to work.  I take a combination of trams, busses and boats to get around.  On the weekends, more times than not, we have been on a cable car of some sort.  There are several different kinds of cable-operated devices.  They include:

  • Téléphérique, an aerial tramway or gondola that consists of a cabin suspended from a cable.  We take them to get to the slopes from where we parked, up the slopes (we were extremely grateful for the enclosure during the cold snap), and even in between mountains!

  • Chairlifts where open chairs are hauled above the ground by means of a cable.

One of the things that we love about Switzerland is that the mountains are so accessible.  It takes only an hour or two to get from a major city like Geneva onto a remote mountain. Part of the reason the country is so accessible is its outstanding infrastructure.  The Swiss try to take advantage of all of their land…and do a pretty good job of it.  They build highways, tunnels and cable cars everywhere.  There are over 130 cable cars in Switzerland. For that matter, the French at Mt. Blanc and the ski resorts in the French Alps do a pretty good job too.

When we first moved here, I was always uneasy in cable cars.  I kept of when the American pilot clipped the line of the cable car in Cavalese, Italy in 1998, killing 20.  I’d heard stories of cable cars falling in France and Italy in the 1980’s.

When I get on a plane, I remind myself that it is safer than driving.  Although I don’t have any stats, cable cars must also be.  Now, we have taken them so many times, that I don’t think about it any more than getting on a bus.  Besides, they have better views than most busses.  Just don’t look down.

 

Chamonix, Skiing In The Death Sport Capital of the World

Chamonix hosted the first Winter Olympics in 1924, so it was a no brainer.   We knew we had to go check it out.  Unfortunately, we didn’t know much about it. The day before skiing Chamonix, I did a bit of research to figure out where to go.

Chamonix is a valley and there are many different places to ski.  Unlike, Saas Fee, Crans Montana, or La Clusaz, there are separate ski resorts, each with their own characteristics and character.

Here’s more or less what I learned about them:

  • Grands Montets – This is one world’s most renowned ski areas with runs for all levels. It is located on the southern side of the valley (translate that into it’s not too sunny).  It is also means that its north face has good snow.  It is one of the Chamonix’s most famous resorts.  It has a snow park with a skier/boarder cross course with various tabletop jumps and rails.  It is open all season.   People go hard and fast here, really hard, really fast.  Experts enjoy the lift that heads 10,820 feet (3 297.9 meters) to some of the world’s steepest, most technically demanding runs.  We’re not that good yet, maybe next year.
  • Les Houches – The upper part is sunny, glorious in the afternoon and good for beginners.  The lower part, below the tree line, doesn’t receive direct sunlight, shielding skiers on windy days.
  • La Flégère – Its location on the northern side of the valley ensures plenty of sun, attracting people on colder days.  Its northern location also yields astounding views of the valley and Mont Blanc.  This is a haven for snowboarders (freestylers will be very happy) and has great natural terrain for it.  It has skiing for a variety lf levels and is a great starting point. The pistes are the valley’s best maintained.
  • Le Brévent – Le Brévent is on the northern side of the valley above downtown Chamonix. Its southern face lots of sunshine and spectacular views across the valley to Mont Blanc and the Aiguille du Midi.  It has something for all levels of skiers and boarders.  While it is not large, there is a cable car link to La Flégère.  We skied both.
  • L’Aiguille du Midi/La Vallee Blanche – The Aiguille du Midi is on of the most famous runs in the world, Valley Blanche. It is 10.5 miles (17 km) long with a decrease in altitude of 12601 feet (3841 meters) into Chamonix.  The real star is the incredible alpine scenery.   While this epic run isn’t appropriate for beginners, advanced, or even upper intermediate skiers who very fit can ski this piste.  While guides are not required, they are recommended in this potentially dangerous environment to avoid danger.  Snowboarders should seek advice on equipment before attempting this.   You don’t want to be one of the ones that goes over the edge.
  • Le Tour – Snowboarders (especially freestylers) go for its sunny, wide-open slopes that are well above the tree line, with varied terrain and have great powder.  There are also runs for beginners and families.  It is popular with locals.
  • It was hard to get good information about Le Levancher (although it is slang for avalanche), Les Tines and Les Praz.  Sorry.  Perhaps someone will post it comments about them.

At the bottom of the valley, there are some slopes for children and beginners that present virtually no challenge.  They include:

  • La Vormaine
  • Les Chosalets near La Tour
  • Le Savoy in Argentiere
  • Les Planards in the center of Chamonix by the cable car to Le Brévent

Chamonix is an adorable town.  In addition to skiing, it is a mecca for extreme sports like mountain climbingice climbingrock climbingextreme skiingparaglidingrafting and canyoning.  Mountain climber Mark Twight christened Chamonix  “the death-sport capital of the world” because of its base for the large number of dangerous sports practiced there.  The less adventurous can take a cable car up, sit and enjoy the view.

Skiing Gawking At Glaciers And Avoiding Crevices In Saas Fee

Sorry for the poor image quality; the windows of the Telecabine were scratched.

Last Sunday, we skied in Saas Fee, Switzerland.  The views were stunning, when we could see them.  Unfortunately, it was cloudy.  Each time there was any visibility, I whipped out my camera.  Even then, my photos don’t do it justice.  Saas Fee has spectacular scenery, here’s someone else’s picture for proof.

Photo from benik0.deviantart.com

At the far east end of the canton of Valais in the back of the valley, it is not the easiest destination to get to.  When you arrive, they will treat you well.  Everyone working there was extremely cheerful, kind and helpful.

Courtesy of Investorsinproperty.com

The town of Saas Fee is at 1800 meters (5905.5 feet, 1.116 miles) in elevation.  With peaks of 3500 meters (11482.939 feet, 2.17 miles) in elevation, snow in Saas-Fee is guaranteed.  It is less expensive and less crowded than nearby Zermatt, making it a perfect destination for families.

Piste Map Courtesy of Skiinfo.com

One of the coolest things about skiing in Saas Fee was the ice and glaciers.  They mean that you cannot go off piste without a guide as there is a danger of falling into a crevice!   At first, it was a bit daunting to ski next to them.  They were surprisingly blue and just plain magnificent.

Do Not Leave The Runs Crevices

I have had issues with T bars in the past.  While we’re at it, I’ve had issues with chair lifts too.  Saas Fee has lots of them, long ones.  It was a bit scary taking them in the clouds, with little visibility, knowing that you were near glaciers and crevices.

There was a drop off somewhere in this photo, we just couldn’t see it.

We really did try to respect the rules not to go off-piste.  Unfortunately, this T bar stopped while we were on it.  It didn’t start back up (a rarity because everything in Switzerland seems to run like clockwork).  After about 15 minutes stalled on the T bar, we abandoned it and moved to a nearby slope. It wouldn’t be a day of skiing if I didn’t make a fool of myself at some point.  I only fell once, but when I did, I lost a ski.  It was so steep that I had difficulty putting it back on.  I ended up removing my other one and sliding down the slope on my butt while holding on to my skis and poles.  I looked such a mess that someone stopped and asked if I was injured.  I thanked him and told him the only thing injured was my pride.

Imagine my surprise when I found out my goofy move was actually an alpine maneuver called glissading. It looked like this except it was me, in ski clothes, wearing a helmet, holding skis and way less elegant. Photo: http://www.vuw.ac.nz

While we were in the chairlift, staring at the blue ice in the glacier, we wondered why it was blue.  The ice is blue because water is blue (or at least absorbs light at the red end of the spectrum).  When water is in other forms, like snow, it is not as compact.  Therefore, its blue color is not as visible.  When snow falls on glaciers, it compresses the snow and gives it the blue color.  Science is beautiful.  Literally.