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Switzerland Rocks

Switzerland Rocks

Switzerland is like a rock. “Sure,” you say. “It has a ton of rocky mountains, jagged spires of granite that reach to the sky, there are rocks everywhere. The people are reserved, and can seem cold – like rocks – but when you smile at them they come alive with warmth and beauty, like polished granite.”

Well, if you said any – or all – of those things, you’d be right. But what I’m getting at is that Switzerland is like a rock thrown into a pond. Think of that pond as Europe and the ripples created by Switzerland spread far, across the pond that is Europe. The Swiss introduced the first cheese and chocolate factories to the world, created the first air conditioning systems and invented the contact lens. But like the ripples in a pond, which then return energy to the source, Europe has influenced Switzerland. And nowhere else is this more evident than when we arrived at the Furtschellas tram at the Corvatsch ski station outside of St. Moritz.

We came to St. Moritz from Davos. Davos is well known as a metaphorical rock, hosting such heavyweight events as the World Economic Forum, which brings together such diverse politicians and thinkers as Bill Clinton and Tim Koogle, CEO of Yahoo.

Davos is also a rock when it comes to the pond of skiing. One of the first places where the sport was introduced to the public, the town and the ski areas around it creating the impetus for the popularization of the sport, helping push it into the mainstream and laying the foundations for what we do today.

Without Davos, one could argue, we wouldn’t have releasable bindings, plastic ski boots or fat skis. These are all good things, but on a more personal note, our group wouldn’t have had two amazing bluebird days, including one with more than 10 cm of sparkling dry snow that one Davos ski instructor told me was the best day of the winter.

There are a lot of choices when it comes to skiing at Davos. There are five ski stations, both large and small, all of them different with unique personalities and advantages. With only three days to sample them all, we started on a cloudy, foggy afternoon by skiing tree laps off of the Jacobshorn. The snow was good; powder on the right aspects in steep, tree lined gullies, but it hinted at nothing of what was to come.

The next morning dawned as blue as possible and we headed for the big-boy of all the Davos resorts, the Parsenn. It’s hard to explain how much terrain there is here, but to give you an idea, if you put Breckenridge and Vail together, they would only comprise a tiny sector (and a very mellow one at that) of this massive playground. With options to ski back down to Davos, or to nearby Klosters or to tiny villages like Wolfgang, one is faced with a vast array of potential descents. And that’s just the stuff on the trail map. Throw in backcountry and off-piste descents and you quickly learn that to ski everything here would take several lifetimes. In our two days, we did the best we could, focusing on the Davos/Wolfgang sectors and – on one particular descent – enjoying the run of a lifetime down to the hamlet of Wolfgang.

But back to St. Moritz. Sitting in the Engadin Valley, the mountains here feed into Italy, and as we traveled closer, the influence of that country could be felt in small and important ways. There was a subtle shift in the architecture, with less carved wood balconies of the kind we saw in Lenzerheide and Davos, and more use of raw rock and shale roofs.

But the Italian presence became even more strongly felt when we boarded the Furtschellas tram. Instead of the German we’d been listening to for the last week, the air was filled with the musical sound of Italian voices.

I mention these things only to underline the fact that, with five countries (including Liechtenstein) surrounding Switzerland, some of those countries’ cultures bleed across the mountains and up the valleys into Switzerland, engendering unique flavors found no place else on the planet. This rich complexity is what makes Switzerland one of the most interesting places to visit. And, because the skiing is so good, there’s no place better to become an amateur cultural anthropologist while making some turns at the same time.

Of course, St. Moritz is also a prime location to indulge in a bit of cultural anthropology as well. Namely studying the lifestyles of the very rich. After an epic descent down a massive coulior off of the 3451 meter Piz Corvatsch (the highest mountain in Graubunden), we lingered over beers at the Alpetta hut. Lined up against the wall, killing off a bottle of wine as they soaked up the sun, were some of the most elegant skiers I’d ever seen. Of course, the fur that trimmed their jackets was real, as was the relaxation on their faces.

While the skiing at St. Moritz was – for us at least – anything but relaxing, featuring off-piste no fall zones and dead end lines with mandatory airs, for those belonging to a certain social set, the groomed runs winding beneath impossibly spectacular vistas and the impeccably preserved mountain huts serving excellent deserts were the apex of their vacation. Finally they could stop worrying about the price of oil, the fact that the chauffeur ran off with the maid and the kids, who were a bit too much into the all-night rave scene in London.

Which brings us to another point. There’s no doubt that St. Moritz is fancy (as Davos can be, too). But that’s no reason to avoid this place. In fact, if you are a skier, both towns have surprisingly affordable options when it comes to accommodations and eateries. And both offer some amazing skiing, especially the off-piste runs which would be hammered in North America but which are strangely untracked here. And both are famous ski destinations, world renowned resorts which got that way not because someone built a couple of very, very nice hotels, but because their reputations are built upon the high rocky peaks that surround them, with lifts going straight up to the top and skiing in every direction. And when you create ski areas with rock-solid foundations like that, they’re going to be world class regardless if you’re on vacation from Monaco or a ski bum from Colorado.

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