Holiday in Saas-Fee

The hills are alive…

Mid-February is “Ski Week” in Europe.

Schools are on “half-term”, and many people flock to the slopes during the week long break.  Unlike the Northeast of America with its arctic chill and massive snow drifts, London has mild winters with temperatures reaching 50º and green grass carpeting the parks with colorful crocuses popping up!

So a trip to Switzerland is a welcome excuse to experience a “proper” winter and play in the snow.  This year we set off to the quaint village of Saas-Fee in southern Switzerland just a short hour drive from Zermatt.

town

 

I love the Tetons in Wyoming, but I have to concede that the Swiss Alps are beyond stunning.  Everywhere you look, you are surrounded by a 360º panorama of majestic snow capped peaks.  It literally takes your breath away.

As I discovered last year, the best thing about skiing in Europe is Lunch, with a capital “L”, denoting its importance and significance.  This is not merely eating but rather feasting on a grand scale.  Cheesy fondue and raclette are always on the menu.  My favorite traditional dish is rösti, a classic crispy golden potato cake that comes with anything from veal stew to creamy mushrooms to ham and cheese.  I had all combinations!  With all that cheese, bread, and potatoes on the menu, you have to stay active.

rosti

Though I am a reluctant skier, I did suit up for one day on the slopes…and boy what a day that was!

me

The ski runs or “pistes” in Europe are either completely unmarked or vaguely delineated with faded poles of varying colors that are often covered in snow or haphazardly placed.  It is easy to lose a trail and end up “off piste”, literally lost on the mountain. Hence, it is best to ski with a guide.  However, it turns out they can be as vague and unclear as the trails themselves.

IMG_4274

Despite the assurances of my guide, I skied down runs that were steep and crisp, moving from the relative comfort of the blue “easy” slopes to the red “intermediate” ones.  I’d like to say I rose to the challenge gracefully.  But I nearly cried after lunch when I found myself staring down the icy face of a steep cliff with no way out.  I protested and offered to hike back up the mountain.  In desperation, my guide (or rather my tormentor at this point) suggested that he ski backward with me holding on to his poles.  This humiliation was enough to give me the courage to venture forward on my own.  I made it, but it wasn’t pretty.  Afterward, my guide praised me for being brave and facing my fear.  You know where he can stick that comment!

The next day, I took the more sensible approach of leaving my skis behind and taking the gondola up the mountain to hike the glacier with Jeff.  After a brief stroll among the peaks, we returned via gondola to a mid-mountain chalet for delicious Alpine soup (akin to a lighter cheesy fondue) and a crisp bottle of rosé.  Now that’s what I call a good day on the slopes!

rose

On our day trip to Zermatt, I hit the slopes again.  This time I happily hiked up the mountain to join the gang for lunch.  Once again, the skies were clear and blue, providing the ideal backdrop for the mighty Matterhorn in the distance.

wine

 

lunch

Back in Saas Fee, I hiked most afternoons, happy to take in the extraordinary scenery.

montain

 

For a change of pace, I decided to try snow shoeing and encouraged some of the gang to come along.  In the U.S. whenever you sign up for an activity you are required to sign endless release forms, endure long safety briefings, follow strict rules, and wear protective clothing.  Not so in Switzerland.

Upon meeting our Swiss guide, we were unceremoniously handed show shoes and poles, told to strap on a honing beacon in case of avalanche, and inherently expected to follow as our guide wordlessly set off toward the lift. I assumed the avalanche beacon was just another needless precaution and expected that all the prerequisite U.S.-style briefings would follow once we got off the lift up the mountain.  Not so.

We strapped on our shoes and started to follow the seemingly mute guide.  He immediately walked off the established paths and traversed the virgin snow, creating switchbacks up the steep mountain.  If you leaned the wrong way, you could literally slide down the steep slope.

shoes

We trudged forward in silence, and then suddenly our guide disappeared before our eyes, sinking deep into a crevasse that left only his head visible.  In a muffled voice he finally spoke a word:  “HOLE”!!

Now I understood the importance of the honing beacon.  As he repeatedly fell through holes, our confidence waned that this was an entirely safe expedition.  Nonetheless, we persevered and hiked to the summit.

the gang

The descent was even tougher than the climb as each misstep lead to a slide downhill with no means of stopping.  The kids thought this was great fun, falling and sliding with wild abandon.  The adults were a bit more cautious.

sliding

Sledding, or “sledging” as it is known in Switzerland, presented more dangers.  During the day, the toboggan runs offer soft snow that naturally slows the sleds and cushions the falls.  However in the evening, sledging is a more extreme experience.  Hardened packed snow and slick ice create a very difficult terrain to navigate on a stiff wooden sled atop hard metal grooves (think old school Flexible Flyers without the steering function).  Once again, there were no helmets, no release forms, no instructions.  And so, one of our gang found himself hurled off the mountain side in the dark.  With much difficulty, he climbed back up to safety, traumatized by losing track of his children along the trail.  They were fine.  He was not.

Every day was action packed with excitement, whether anticipated or not!  So we kept the evenings full of fun and relaxation. I soaked up the late afternoon sun on the veranda of our hotel.  With cloudless skies, the beaming sun was so warm that I baked in a T-shirt as I sipped my cappuccino and enjoyed my apple strudel.  This was my ideal version of après-ski.  

cathy

Jackie on the other hand…

Jackie had fun both on and off the slopes.  One evening I realized I hadn’t seen her in a while so I texted:  Where r u?  To which I got this succinct response:  Après-ski!  I started walking down the main street, following the trail of blasting music to an outdoor bar brimming with beer-fueled, happy people bopping to old ’80s standards and ABBA’s Greatest Hits.  Here I found the Dancing Queen herself, Jackie, passing notes to the DJ, dancing with her friends, and having an absolute blast.

We all capped off the week with a Happy “Swiss” Sixteen birthday bash for one of Jackie’s friends.  Never ones to miss the opportunity to dress up for any occasion, we all happily donned the Swiss shirts for the festive event.  Jeff swears he will wear it again…Jackie not so much.

swiss miss

And so the hills were alive this past week

with skiing, feasting, sledging, hiking, snow shoeing, and celebrating.

So long, farewell, auf widerzein, good-bye Saas-Fee!

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