Words and Photos by Tom Winter
It starts with an idea. The notion that the grass is really greener on the other side of the fence; Or the sudden realization that Robert Frost was right, and the road less traveled does make all the difference; Or a map, and a small red line that plunges deep into emptiness, terminating in a dot called Vals.
The storm hides the peaks. Later weâ€™ll hear the massive thunder of avalanches pounding into the valley from unseen heights, but for now, the occasional hiss of tires on rapidly icing pavement is the only thing that breaks the silence. Itâ€™s early and weâ€™ve been on the road for two days. Sleep comes quickly. The next day dawns white. The peaks are still invisible, cloaked in fog as the snow pounds down. The gondola is empty, the lift operators the only sign of life. Immediately it becomes apparent weâ€™ve stumbled onto something special. Pillow lines appear and vanish in the mist. Trees close in. And the snowfall intensiï¬es. The ï¬ rst run is something out of a dream. Overhead, untracked and each drop and turn a step deeper into the unknown. At the bottom, thereâ€™s still nobody around as we stare at each other in amazement disbelief and joy. Can this be real?
Of course, it is real. Vals is one of 33 ski areas that dot the Swiss canton of GraubÃ¼nden. Some of these resorts are well known behemoths, like St. Moritz, a super-charged Swiss version of Aspen. St. Moritz has everything you dream of when you think of the Alps: massive trams, huge off-piste faces, couloirs and plenty of quaint mountain huts, not to mention a glacier run or two, one of which, the Gletscherabfahrt in the Vadret da Morteratsch, is 10 kilometers long, and is, according to the resortâ€™s propaganda, the longest glacier run in Switzerland (if you donâ€™t count the off-piste stuff). Thereâ€™s even the opportunity to sneak over into Italy should you feel the need for a good spaghetti Bolognese.
Iâ€™ve come to GraubÃ¼nden with Liberty Team athletes David Lesh, Travis Redd and Alex Applegate with the goal of sampling a bit of everything, mega resorts and the unknown spots as well. Weâ€™ve inked in heavyweight St. Moritz on our schedule to guarantee the road more traveled and all the easy living and big-terrain we can eat, but the other focus of our journey is the road less traveled: two lesser-known ski areas, Vals and Disentis. Both prove to be as satisfying as what we know weâ€™ll enjoy in St. Moritz, but are vastly different experiences.
Visibility is gone. The wind is howling. A small pitch above the kiddie rope tow is steep and has enough scattered bushes that we can see where we are going. We lap it again and again, 300 vertical feet of face shots and bliss, the wind ï¬ lling in our tracks with each lap. Down lower, thereâ€™s less snow, but long ramps above ancient farm houses and slightly better visibility combine for creamy turns to the bottom. At the gondola, we see some people with carving skis. They promptly head for the lodge at the top of the lift when we disembark back into the heart of the storm. We decide to take the T-bar back up to the rope-tow stash. It keeps snowing, so we keep skiing.
The Ganni Hut
Sheâ€™s not sure what to think of us. The hut caters to walkers. Thereâ€™s a packed winter trail system for them here in Vals, and they gleefully tromp through the winter wonderland with little spiked attachments they put on their shoes. Thereâ€™s a spa here, too, with fancy anti-stress treatments and the Valser water company, which bottles the purest water in Switzerland. In other words, with our fat skis and baggy pants, weâ€™re not the normal clientele in this valley. Sheâ€™s hot, this willowy Swiss blonde, and after a beer or two itâ€™s easy to dream of how things could be. Rent a small chalet here for the winter. Maybe try to date this nugget of controlled beauty, or the brunette up in the lodge at the top of the gondola, she wasnâ€™t bad either. No one skis here at Vals, weâ€™d have all the pillow lines and fresh tracks to ourselves. Then someone jostles the table. An empty glass falls onto the stones, shattering instantly. The spell is broken. The waitress comes. Sheâ€™s pissed. The party is over. We have no chance with her. What were we thinking?
The snow is hard and ugly. We decide to explore anyway. The terrain is vast, served by only ï¬ ve lifts, two of which are T-bars. Huge valleys feed back down to the town, nearly 7,000 vertical feet below us. Sheltered aspects hold chalky snow. Down lower it all turns to mush. Massive wet avalanches have ripped to the ground. Perhaps weâ€™ve arrived too late in the season? The thought haunts us until we look down the valley. A wall of grey is moving towards us. Two hours later itâ€™s snowing, and the lights of the tiny church next to our chalet ï¬‚icker in and out of view. We drink some wine and toast our good fortune as another storm rolls in. The next day the mountain skis completely differently. Gone is the mank, the crust, the chalk and the wet slush. In their place are top-to-bottom pow turns, turns that seem to last forever, as we plunge 7,000 vertical feet back to the bottom of the tram, and head right back up to the top to do it all over again.
The train will be here in 30 minutes. Itâ€™s perfect timing actually. The bar is open and the deck is sunny. Travis Redd soaks it all up. Weâ€™re an hour away from the top of a ridge. A ridge that was gained by a 20-minute hike off the top of the Lai Alv T-bar at Disentis. Itâ€™s a lift that accesses so much great terrain that youâ€™d never think of hiking, but we do anyhow. From the ridge, you drop into a perfect face, with two tracks that lead the way. After the face, we ski farther down, cliffs, chutes, bowls, itâ€™s all there and more, and weâ€™re not done yet. Finally, a valley so big it seems it would hold all of Manhattan spits us out onto the most unlikely terrain on the trip: a kiddie learning area, perfectly groomed, with ï¬‚ ags and ï¬ve-foot high metal animals to ski around. I give a raccoon a high-ï¬ ve and we all end up at the bar. Travis takes a long swallow of his beer, looks up and says, to no one in particular, â€œthat was the run of my life.â€ Five minutes later weâ€™re on a train, heading back to Disentis, where Travis can do it all over again.
The Flury-Valier chalet sits above the Disentis tram station, at the bottom of Val Acletta, an off-piste playground thatâ€™s the size of ï¬ ve Jackson Hole ski resorts. Access is so ridiculously easy that itâ€™s a bit of a shock to the system. Take the Lai Alv lift up, traverse to skierâ€™s left and go. Thatâ€™s it. None of this is apparent from the chalet, though. What is obvious upon arrival is that thereâ€™s been a ton of snow. Maria wants to make sure we understand this fact. She doesnâ€™t speak English and our German is limited to â€œein bier, bitte (a beer, please),â€ she marches me over to the windows, motioning with her hand. The snow on the roof outside is so deep you can only see a sliver of sky. Then, smiling with a stoke thatâ€™s universal among skiers, conveying much more than any words in any language could, she picks up an object next to the window. Itâ€™s a measuring stick. She opens up the window and we take a reading. Thereâ€™s over a meter of snow outside, with more on the way.
The Disentis Athletic Center
Lesh is a hacker. Heâ€™s frustrated by the lack of wireless and canâ€™t stand to pay for anything he feels he should be getting gratis, like decent internet connectivity in a foreign land. After all, thereâ€™s his Facebook proï¬ le to update. The athletic center has a ratty old PC that Lesh could use for free, but itâ€™s a PC. But thereâ€™s also a wireless modem sitting next to it. Lesh plugs in his Mac and in less than ï¬ ve minutes heâ€™s erased the passwords for the modem and created an open network for us to use. It seems a bit bizarre that there even are passwords, and that the athletic center doesnâ€™t let you just log onto their wireless since the PC is free anyway. But they donâ€™t, and Lesh has his revenge. For the next three days weâ€™re all stared at as we sit on the ï¬‚ oor in the lobby with our Macs. The fun ends on the fourth day when management ï¬ nally ï¬ gures out why we like to hang out there with our laptops so much. Bummer.
The Julier Pass
Weâ€™re chasing Italian drivers. They ï¬‚ oor it on the straightaways, but are horriï¬ ed of the hairpin turns, their brake lights blazing in fear as they scramble to slow down. The Touareg weâ€™ve rented follows them effortlessly, dancing around the corners as we gape at the terrain above us. Sheer snow covered peaks surround us, the car ï¬‚ies higher and higher. Will the top ever come? Finally it does, and we scream down the other side, the Italians setting a blistering pace as the road opens up. Suddenly the castle-like turrets of St. Moritzâ€™s grand hotels rise around us. Weâ€™ve arrived.
The Corvatsch, St. Moritz
We go for the money line. Itâ€™s easy to get to, traverse off piste to a short, steep ridge and climb to the top. Anywhere else it would be hammered, but no one skis off-piste at St. Moritz. We kick steps in snow that starts out ï¬ rm and easy, but has rotten spots underneath a crust, which shatters and collapses. Redd powers up, but anyone who weighs ï¬ ve pounds more than him (and thatâ€™s the rest of us) wallows. We curse, crawl and ï¬ nally make it. The tram rises above our heads, packed full of people. A few of them look down and see us, but most are oblivious. The snow in the couloir is soft, the turns come easy, and the skiing is effortless. St. Moritzâ€™s highest ski area has delivered.
Our last day comes suddenly. Vals, the dot at the end of the red line on the map, seems distant and surreal, a refuge from the world, the town sleepy and quiet, nothing happening, the empty cars of the gondola swinging upwards into the storm. Disentis, our ï¬rst taste of spring, suddenly turning to winter, and then back again, with empty terrain and some of the longest, steepest runs weâ€™ve ever skied and then, ï¬ nally, St. Moritz, with the highest peaks in GraubÃ¼nden, fancy on-mountain chalets and hidden powder stashes. In retrospect each moment seems like a collection of postcards. Was the snow really that deep? No deeper. And the mountains, yeah, bigger, too, and the people friendlier and the beer colder: all postcards for the mind from the road less traveled.
The ï¬rst thing about road-trips in Switzerland is that thereâ€™s always another mode of transportation to get
you where you need to go: Bus, train, car, they all work. The best way to start a road trip in GraubÃ¼nden is to ï¬‚y into Zurich. The airport is efï¬cient and clean, organized to the hilt. You can pick up a car. Or walk directly to the train station, past stores selling everything from high fashion to orange juice. The airport is nice, but as nice as it as, and as attractive a city as Zurich is â€” surrounded by lakes with views of distant snow-capped mountains â€” there are better attractions. Zurich is on the doorstep of GraubÃ¼nden, and GraubÃ¼nden has mountains. The canton is home to 937 named peaks including Piz Bernina, a 4,049-meter massif that is the highest in the region. Big peaks with lots of snow, and plenty of ski areas are very good reasons why, upon arrival in Zurich, the ï¬rst thing to do is load up the VW, hit the autobahn and head for the red lines on the map.
Complete information on all of Switzerlandâ€™s ski areas, discounted travel packages, details about accommodations, weather reports and links to trail maps and other resources to plan your road trip.
A full collection of budget and high performance cars, including Touaregs, Passat sport wagons and Polo hatchbacks.
The complete source for all things skiing in Switzerlandâ€™s most mountainous canton.
Vals: vals.ch + vals3000.ch
Websites for the town and ski area, with accommodations, weather, lift ticket and other info.
Weather conditions, trail maps and info on accommodation, prices and everything else you need to know.
St. Moritz: stmoritz.ch
Everything that you need to plan your trip here. Be sure to check out accommodations at the Innlodge (innlodge.ch), which features affordable, self-catering studio apartments and enough unlimited free wireless connectivity to keep even Lesh happy.