Scaling the Heights

A skier's pilgrimage to Switzerland--and how to afford one

Only when nature has been conquered can it be enjoyed. For most of human history the mountains, the ocean, the frontier, were dangerous and terrifying places. One didn't trifle with them. Sitting with my children on a beach in Cornwall last summer, I wondered whether generations of Cornish sailors and fishermen who had wrested a grueling livelihood from the sea and all too often perished at its hands would have believed me if I had told them that the little boats dotting the horizon were being sailed for pleasure. As for those folk closer inshore who were apparently trying to ride the tops of the breaking waves on little planks, the old mariners of Padstow and Port Isaac would surely have thought them votaries of a bizarre cult, or else deranged.

Similar thoughts had crossed my mind a few months earlier. I was dressed in strange, shiny, bright clothes, my feet were tied to narrow slats, and I was standing at nearly 12,000 feet above sea level, in the shadow of the most famously recognizable of mountains, whose peak seems to lean at a crooked angle like the spire of Chesterfield church. What would those who had for centuries past dwelt under the Matterhorn have thought of me and the casual insolence with which I was treating their mountain range? Could they have believed that I was there to enjoy myself, by gliding down to Zermatt across the snows that had always been the local people's deadliest enemy? For most of history these Alps had been as awesome as the ocean, a place where human beings went in fear of the destructive power of nature. They were among the most sparsely populated and least visited wildernesses of Europe.

alps picture

Then came the English. My countrymen have a lot to answer for--or, at any rate, a curious catalogue of achievements to their name: along with this language and team games, winter sports are among the legacies that will survive England when the country itself is forgotten. The English discovered nature, and at the same time they invented tourism: the word "tourist"entered the language to describe those who were visiting the Lake District of northwestern England 200 years ago, just at the time when Wordsworth was there wandering lonely as a cloud.

From Cumbrian fells we moved on to majestic Alps, admired from afar by Byron and Shelley. And then, toward the end of the nineteenth century, we found (how very English of us) ways of revering nature while exercising our muscles. The first was alpinism, or mountain climbing. Zermatt became its cathedral, the Matterhorn its high altar--and the overtones of sacrifice are all too accurate. In 1865 Edward Whymper, of London, still commemorated by a Whymper Room in the charming Monte Rosa hotel in Zermatt, became the first man to climb the Matterhorn. Four of his companions fell to their deaths--the first four climbers of many. One of the bleaker spots in Zermatt is the large corner of the cemetery that is filled with the gravestones of young men--most of them English, though there are Americans also--who died trying to conquer that magnificent but daunting peak.

To this day Zermatt has more visitors in summer than in winter. But just as Whymper was climbing, another sport was being born in Norway: cross-country racing on the wooden skis that had been used for centuries in Scandinavia. Englishmen are said to have brought skiing to Europe's greatest mountain range, and gradually developed in the Alps the previously unknown art of downhill skiing. Those pioneers couldn't have guessed that this was to become one of the most popular recreations--and one of the great worldwide multibillion-dollar leisure industries--of the twentieth century.

The essential technical development that made this industry possible wasn't the skis themselves but the means of getting up a slope before coming down it at speed. It's painful even to think of the early days, when skiers would spend exhausting hours climbing up through the snow so as to make one downhill run lasting several minutes. All of that has been changed by cable cars and lifts. And so here I stood in the dazzling sun, gazing down on the glorious panorama, a lucky beneficiary of that once unimaginable conquest of nature.

Before cable cars there were cog-wheel railways. One of the most famous still runs from Zermatt to Gornergrat. The journey cannot be called fast, but it is one of my favorite ways of starting the morning: breakfast early, walk down the main street to buy the Neue Zürcher Zeitung and the International Herald Tribune, and then sit reading them like any other commuter, first on the cog-wheel train to Gornergrat and then on one of the cable cars that ascend to Stockhorn. From there you can ski over to the Blauherd and Unterrothorn lifts and, if you don't want to ski all the way down at the end of the day, take the fast subway down from Sunnegga. Zermatt offers a large skiing area east of the Matterhorn and another on the slopes of the mountain itself, at the southerly head of the valley. A series of cable cars takes you to the Klein Matterhorn, and then a smaller lift brings you to the highest lift station in Europe, at 12,795 feet. From here there are half a dozen possibilities, among them skiing over to Italy for a decent cup of coffee--the border is a few hundred yards away--or skiing gradually down all the way to Zermatt, stopping at one of the excellent mountain restaurants for lunch.

Although Zermatt has grown since Whymper's day, it is in many ways the least spoiled of all the famous Swiss resorts. It can't spill out beyond its narrow valley, new buildings have been restricted to the traditional chalet style, the main street still has a village atmosphere, and fast-food joints are far outnumbered by simple inns serving simple Swiss food. I was staying at the Romantica hotel, a friendly, comfortable, inexpensive bed-and-breakfast place (the phone number is 011-41-28-671505, and the rate is $67.00- $84.00 per person a night), and I often ate in the evening at the Gitan, a couple of minutes away--a good plain place with good plain sausages and rösti, that delicious and fiendishly fattening potato dish. For a rather more elegant evening try Elsie's bar, a couple hundred yards up the street.

The year before Whymper climbed the Matterhorn, another group (yes, of Englishmen, I'm afraid) was summering in the Engadine valley, on the other side of Switzerland, walking and taking the waters in a little village called St. Moritz. Someone suggested that these fellows should come back in the winter to try the local sport of tobogganing. The eventual result was the Cresta Run--still the world's most famous toboggan and bobsled run--and, in the end, one of the most famous of all winter-sports resorts. St. Moritz has everything: skating and curling; horse racing on the frozen lake; langlauf, or Nordic, skiing; and wonderful downhill skiing.

There is more than one way of getting from Zermatt to St. Moritz, but there's no doubt which is the most beautiful. The fancifully named is probably among the slower trains of the Swiss railroad (itself a wonder, running its clean and comfortable trains to all parts of the country in all weather with almost neurotic punctuality), for it takes around seven hours to make its 190-mile journey. But what a journey! From Zermatt the line plunges to Brig. Then it climbs through dramatic and glorious valleys toward Oberwald and Andermatt, en route to the Oberalp pass--at 6,670 feet, among the highest railroad lines in Europe.

Andermatt might be worth a break in one's journey. It is a pretty village with an exquisite baroque church, though one side of town is dominated by bleak barracks looking up at the bleaker mountains: this is one of the Swiss army's main centers for training ski troops. And although not much frequented by visitors from outside the country, it has some of the finest skiing in Switzerland. On my latest trip, though, I pressed on. The train climbed the last stretch of the line, past Reichenau and Filisur, amid gently falling snow, a wonderfully romantic sight as well as a welcoming one for skiers.

Once the most aristocratic of resorts, St. Moritz has slowly acquired a reputation as home to that unloved international class known as rich white trash. It's true that the town has, along with delightful survivals like Hanselmann's café and Glattfelders, a high fur-and-diamond count. All the talk last year was of the Russian invasion: not a military one but an influx of dubious-looking fellows riding in Mercedes, accompanied by overdressed women, badly dressed heavies, and vast quantities of dollar bills obtained by who knows what entrepreneurial methods.

For those of us who can't afford the Kulm or the Palace hotel (or the boutiques bearing names like Giorgio Armani and Hermès which surround them), there are alternatives to the town itself as a place to stay. Celerina, near St. Moritz, is less oppressively opulent and has its own direct access to the slopes; as I had found before, it is pleasant enough. But last year I made a discovery that may change my skiing life: a few miles up the Engadine valley from St. Moritz, twenty minutes or so from the railroad station by bus, is Sils Maria, one of the Good Places on earth. It is a charming, quiet, unaffected village, and a dream come true both for skiers and for intellectual snobs.

Next door to the spacious Edelweiss hotel, where I stayed, is a small old house. Here Friedrich Nietzsche came to stay in 1881, and here he worked on some of his famous texts: Thus Spake Zarathustra, Beyond Good and Evil, and The Case of Wagner. If the English tobogganers set one fashion, Nietzsche set another: subsequent literary visitors to the upper Engadine valley have included Proust, Rilke, Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, Paul Celan, Pablo Neruda, Karl Kraus, Jean Cocteau, and Boris Pasternak--a list that would be hard to rival anywhere else.

They weren't all in the Engadine for winter sport, and Nietzsche would be startled by his beloved valley today. On one side of the valley are the scores of runs down from Piz Nair, looming high above St. Moritz to the west; on the other is Corvatsch, dominating the valley above Sils Maria. The great joy of Sils is that you can take cable cars directly up to Furtschellas, ski over to Corvatsch and then right down toward St. Moritz-Bad, walk (or, with a bit of luck, langlauf) across to the big Signal cable, and ascend to the Corviglia slopes, almost without removing your skis.

You can, in other words, enjoy all the skiing the upper Engadine has to offer without, if you choose, setting foot in St. Moritz itself. You can stay at the Edelweiss (011-41-82-45551; unfortunately, this hotel is not a good example of how affordable Sils Maria can be: rooms for two run about $320 and up in high season, though this price does include breakfast and dinner), or at one of the simpler places in Sils, including apartments with kitchens. (For information on the full range of accommodations in this area and elsewhere, call Switzerland Tourism at 212-757-5944.) There are a few little restaurants, among them the delightful Marchetta. When I say that the nightlife of Sils Maria is almost nonexistent, I mean that as the warmest possible commendation.

Both Zermatt and St. Moritz offer skiing for most ages and abilities, though they are not ideal for absolute beginners. They have incomparable scenery, and plenty to do when you aren't wearing skis. It would be absurd to pretend that Switzerland is a cheap country to visit. And yet I will say this: If you love good food and wine, then at least once in your life you must visit France. If you love golf, then some time or other you must play in Scotland. And if downhill skiing is your sport, then you must try the place it sprang from. Switzerland can be afforded on a modest budget, with careful planning. And no one who has fallen under the spell of skiing, this exhilarating way of wasting time amid the glories of tamed nature, can, in another sense, afford not to try it once on the slopes of the Matterhorn and Corvatsch.