I’ve spent a week or two every year for the past 25 years skiing resorts across the western United States and Canada.
I’ve burned through the trees in Lake Louise, braved the winds of Big Sky, blasted down the slopes of Telluride and kicked back in the fine mountain lodges of Sun Valley, but until this week, I’d never stepped a ski-clad foot on a European slope. I figured the skiing didn’t get any better than it did in the Rockies, and if I was going to go to Europe, I’d rather spend my time exploring villages and museums then schussing down mountains. Plus, I’d heard the lift lines described with a two-word term that loosely translates as chaotic.
This past week, though, I packed my parka and goggles and aimed for Gstaad, Switzerland. And in a nutshell, I can’t wait to go back.
One thing I learned: The main pastime for most people who visit Gstaad isn’t really skiing. It’s a high-end destination, and most guests who stay in the luxury hotels or vacation homes have been coming for decades. And instead of hitting the ski slopes daily, like they do in Colorado, they fill their days with socializing, dining and shopping. Sure, they might squeeze in a day or two of skiing, but that’s not their focus.
That’s not to say the skiing isn’t fantastic. It is. It’s also different from skiing in the United States. The resorts around Gstaad are smaller, more of a network of ski lifts connecting multiple towns.
We started on Eggli, skiing there one morning and pausing for lunch in a little wooden cabin atop a hill catered by a rotating cast of luxury hotels (the on-mountain restaurant is undergoing renovation, so it’s a temporary solution). Our group of eight tucked into the little shelter for an hour, enjoying wine, soup, pasata and thin, crusty pizza for an hour. Afterward, while the rest of the group ditched their skis for spa treatments, I talked the guide into spending more time on the slopes.
I love to ski, and those afternoon runs sent me to heaven. For an hour, we bypassed the intermediate slopes and headed for the ungroomed, off-piste areas. Over one ridge, we found untracked powder halfway up my calves. We dipped in and out of the trees and whooped and hollered all the way. I have no idea why no one else was back there, but it was the best tracks I’ve laid down in recent memory.
We wound up the next village over. And funny thing about Switzerland – some parts are German speaking, other parts are French speaking. We started on the German side and ended up in the French part, in the span of just a few miles.
Another difference here? Instead of swift-moving four-pack or five-pack chairlifts, we rode mostly T-bars and poma lifts. Slopes here are marked differently than in America, too – blue for beginner, red for intermediate and black for expert.
It’s a slower pace, yes, but civilized. We never once waited in line, even with fresh powder and a bluebird sky.
I also got to know my guide, Bernhard Hanswirth, a little bit. A local, he works part-time as a ski instructor for a company called Alpin Zentrum, and part-time as a dairy farmer and carpenter. He and his brother care for about 20 cows, just as their father and grandfather once did. While many of the local farmers make their own cheese from the milk they get from their cows, the Hanswirths sell it to a local creamery that does that part of the job. His oldest cow is 13 years old, he says, much older than a dairy cow typically lives in America. He obviously cares about his animals, and notes that by government regulation Swiss cows must spend at least every other day out in the pasture, not boxed up in a barn.
He prefers skiing of his three jobs, of course, and although he’s never skied in the United States, he likes the family friendly, casual vibe of skiing in this cozy slice of the Swiss Alps.
“Everything is a little bit smaller here” he says. “People like that it’s not as big or crowded as Aspen. The resorts are not as fancy.”
That surprises me, considering the luxe vibe of Gstaad, where designer stores like Louis Vuitton, Hermes and Prada line the narrow streets, and by regulation all the structures are built in the traditional wooden chalet style, none of them higher than three stories – above ground, anyway. Some extend like James Bond liars under the surface.
Lift tickets are less expensive here than in the big Colorado resorts, too, about $75 Swiss francs a day, and the U.S. exchange rate is currently about equal.
“You can ski six different villages from here,” added ski instructor Philipp Wirz of Bern, who has been teaching here for nine seasons.“It’s not so crowded. You can always find slopes that are not so steep for the beginner, too.”
The views are stupendous, he notes. You can see for miles, and a jagged peak called the Gummfluh draws the eye. “Everything is open,” Wirz says. “You can see over the mountains.”
Another bonus? The less-intense vibe. It’s possible to ski from village to village, pausing in each one to sip white wine and swirl crusty bread crusts in posts of cheese fondue in each one.
As Hanswirth and I make it to the bottom of the mountain, we glide right off the mountain to the back of a van driven by Wirz, who has driven to the next village to pick us up. That’s pretty impossible back home.