There is no snow where I live. I’m from South India. However, I have dreamt of skiing in Switzerland for as long as I can remember. I blame it on the opening scene of The Spy Who Loved Me. In a chase sequence across the Alps, Roger Moore’s James Bond, dressed in a yellow ski suit and red boots, navigates snowy twists and turns with panache. He finally jumps off a cliff in slow motion. And your jaw hits the floor.
Last winter, I found myself on the way to fulfilling my ski dream when I boarded a train from Zurich to head to Aletsch Arena in Valais. Part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Swiss Alps Jungfrau-Aletsch Region, Aletsch region comprises three villages—Riederalp, Bettmeralp and Fiescheralp—surrounded by the unsullied Alps. This is a place of extraordinary natural beauty. It is also car-free; cable cars, electric snowmobiles and skis are the preferred mode of transport. Everybody here learns to ski even before they have learnt their alphabets.
After a sumptuous traditional Swiss lunch of fondue and raclette at Fiescheralp, we hopped on to a cable car to the viewpoint on Eggishorn mountain. Seeing Switzerland from its trains and cable cars is a memorable experience, especially in winter. The large windows frame breathtaking vistas—alpine walls of snow, vast stretches of flatland coated in white and rivers frozen into interesting shapes. From the cable car at Aletsch you get a bird’s-eye view of snow-dusted pines, rustic traditional Swiss chalets dotting the landscape, and the sun-kissed tips of the Alps.
At around 9,400 feet above sea level, the viewpoint at Eggishorn offers the best view of the 23-kilometre-long Great Aletsch Glacier. To me, the curved expanse of the glacier resembled a Hokusai painting.
The Aletsch Glacier forms at about 13,000 feet in the Jungfrau region and flows down to Massa Gorge around 8,200 feet below. It weighs 11 billion tonnes—the weight of 72.5 million jumbo jets—and it is believed that if Aletsch Glacier were to melt, it could supply every single person on the Earth with a litre of water every day for 4.5 years. What’s disconcerting is that the magnificent glacier is shrinking up to 165 feet in length each year due to global warming.
On the day of my visit, the Aletsch Glacier was playing hide-and-seek. There was constant snowfall, the clouds hung low, and the freezing Alpine air was biting into my bones. Yet, nothing could diminish the majesty of the glacier from this viewpoint.
There is a ritual at Eggishorn. Visitors write their wishes or worries on a lucky stone and leave it at designated places at the viewpoint. It’s a symbolic gesture: unload the weight off your shoulders and return to the villages lighter and happier. I did not leave a lucky stone behind but the ride back to Riederalp was still joyful.
Riederalp is a resort village fringed by the Alps and checkered with Swiss chalets. It sits on a high plateau at about 6,300 feet and offers a panoramic view of the Matterhorn and Dom peaks. Everything around is enveloped in white and the silence is stunning. You can hear the undertones of your breath. Riederalp is straight out of a pretty postcard.
Most hotels at Riederalp have ski slopes in their backyard and views of the Matterhorn peeking from the horizon. Next morning, clad in a puffy ski suit and accompanied by my ski instructor, David Kestens, I walked in knee-deep snow to the sports shop close by to get kitted for my first ski experience.
Ski boots can make or break your experience. They are like a medium which translates the body’s intentions to the skis. If the signals are lost, you will end up with your face planted in the snow. The hard plastic contraptions weigh around 2.5 kilos and are measured on a scale called Mondopoint; the size depends on your height, weight, age, and also your ability (or inability, in my case) to ski. I clocked a five.
Getting your feet into ski boots involves few intricate moves such as twisting and angling your feet until the fit is snug and unyielding—think Leonardo Dicaprio’s mask in the film Iron Mask. My feet felt claustrophobic and imprisoned.
Once buckled tight, the next big step is learning to walk in them. The weight makes it a tad difficult to walk normally, but once you’ve mastered a conscious heel-toe technique, you’re good to go. And that’s when you realise you look like a dancing robot.
There are 104 kilometres of ski slopes for skiers of all grades at Aletsch Arena. But I wasn’t headed to the slopes. Instead, I snow-walked to the flat kiddie ski area, where an inflated mannequin of Bobo—the happy penguin mascot of Riederalp—was perched. You only go to the slopes once you grasp the basics and learn not to fall every time you stand up on your skis.
Feet locked in the skis, sticks in hand, I was ready for take-off. Or so I thought. I could hear the instructor’s gentle voice: “Bend your knees slightly.” “Don’t push your back out.” “Think you are keeping a basketball between your knees.” “When you want to stop, create a wedge with the tips of the skis, but make sure the tails are apart.”
It was raining snowflakes; everything was soft-focused and surreal. I pushed the ski sticks into the snow, bent my knees, and gave myself a little push. I was gliding. Slowly at first, then a little faster, and then a little too fast for comfort, heading straight for Bobo’s tummy. How do I stop? I remembered the instructions, “make a wedge… knees apart… imagine you are holding a basketball between your knees.” Just before the tumble, I realized I had dropped the ball and wasn’t even holding a French fry between my knees.
If you are not falling, you are not learning. In the next three hours, I learnt a lot. In the end, my knees were creaking, I couldn’t feel my nose, and my feet had lost all hope in the dark depths of my ski boots. But my face was stretched into a broad smile. I know I could never drive two sticks on the Alps like Mr. Bond, but then a bad day on the slopes beats a good day in a cubicle.
Few hours on the slopes of Aletch Arena and I realised that skiing is like playing a game with nature. She lets you win some and you lose some, but finally you can only master it if you learn to let go, and trust in her and in yourself. And the stunning Aletsch Arena surrounded by the mammoth Alps is the ideal place to let go.
Getting there A 2.5-hr train ride from Zurich will take visitors to Brig from where trains go to Fiescheralp (www.sbb.ch).
When to Go Skiing season is from December to April. During this time, temperatures in the Aletsch region can drop as low as -4C.
Things to do While Aletsch Arena is most famous for its ski slopes, there are also other activities such as a guided glacier walk, snowshoe walking, hiking, paragliding and ice skating (www.aletscharena.ch).
Places to see When not perfecting your skiing skills, there is much to explore in the Aletsch region. Hike along the 11.8-km hiking trail through Aletsch Forest, a nature reserve home to 900-year-old pine trees, for sightings of red deer and chamois, or visit the conservation centre at the early 20th-century timber framed Villa Cassel. Soak in views of the Aletsch Glacier or trek into blue ice caves at the glacier’s edge from the 7.650-foot-high Moosfluh point. Or, visit the interative multimedia exhibition on the history of the region at Bettmerhorn.