In 2004 when I earned my Masters in English, my mother took her first trip to Europe. During this graduation gift, I escorted her to many of my favorite highlights at the time, visiting London and where I studied in the Cottswolds countryside. We went to the Tuscan coast, with day trips to hill towns, and then to the Swiss Alps for the finale of our trip. With frequent backpacking, I always ensured to visit Interlaken at the end because if I went somewhere else afterwards, it felt anti-climactic–even the quaint mountains of Innsbruck. This region of Switzerland, the Berner Oberland, is natural, pristine, extreme and serene beauty. It just makes you feel good. There is a special energy that ameliorates nearly everything. I would stare at pictures of the blue lakes and jagged peaks during a dreary Bronx winter and dream of returning. I was thrilled to be back, and Mom adored it.
As we walked through the charming valley town, she kept pointing to the snowcapped Jungfrau mountain. I often caught her just staring, with a blissful smile on her face. I don’t think I had ever seen her like that my entire life. We ate cheese and chocolate fondue, pet goats and cows, and just enjoyed the peace. While we did take the train up to the top of the local mountain, Harder Kulm, we never made it to any of the high peaks around the Jungfrau, though.
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When I accepted the job in Genoa, I was excited for both the proximity to the Cinque Terre as well as the reasonable train ride to Interlaken, Switzerland, a place I visited nearly every summer since 2001. I planned to go as often as possible. And I did, with five visits over my two years in the region. I would have gone even more frequently if the six hour train wasn’t so expensive. I wrote about the mountains in the spring here. And now 13 years after my first visit, I was finally going to ski.
Many schools in America have February break (although, sadly, many have cut it in half or eliminated it). In Europe, they call it Ski Week, because a majority of the families head to the mountains for up to a week of skiing. Learning on icy, artificial snow in the Ramapo Mountains and other bumps in Bergen and Sussex counties, skiing the alps is always a treat for me. And the lift tickets are way cheaper than resorts in Vale. (I have yet to try skiing out West, but hopefully this year). In any case, while I have made sure to ski the alps last year and this year, I have not yet skied in my favorite place in the world. Last year, I got to see the high peaks around Interlaken covered in snow as I escorted my 12th grade students on a self-designed writing retreat perched in the peaceful mountain bliss in Wengen, Switzerland. This year, to save money, we stayed in the valley, with day trips to up to the magic. I vowed I would eventually ski there. This February, I did.
After a few days relaxing in Genoa, where Mamma enjoys living like a local (along with preparing a snack for me when I return home from school!), we boarded a train to Switzerland. We had a peaceful journey into Interlaken, where mom commented how relaxed she felt in the mountain air. There, we boarded the scenic train that would take us to Lauterbrunnen, the valley at the base of the high peaks, where we then boarded a cog railway up the dramatic slopes. Mom kept pointing in awe. But I noticed one very important thing was missing. Where was the snow? As we climbed higher and higher, I noticed the snow wasn’t covering the streets and paths as in January. Apparently, it was so sunny and warm that it had melted. Sigh. Meanwhile, back in the States, New Yorkers were pummeled with multiple snowstorms a week and low temperatures that didn’t allow it to melt.
Once out in the car free village of Wengen, we called a cab (a little electric car) that took us and our bags to the hotel for check in, just around the corner. They make a fortune at 20 swiss francs for the journey yet it was necessary especially with mom’s recent knee injury. The quaint hotel, perched on the cliff, offered dramatic views and plenty to enjoy even for a non-skier. When I had stopped by for a peek when I was here with my students earlier this winter, I saw the owner, who gave me a little tour and suggested I book a meal for the first night so we don’t have to worry about going out for dinner. I thought that would be convenient, so we opted for that.
Shortly after settling into the quaint and cozy room with panoramic mountain views, Mom and I went downstairs for the meal of the day. Each course was savory and scrumptious. We didn’t leave a drop of soup in our bowls or a piece of meat on our plates. I could easily stay here a week! I forgot to write down what we had, but the ever changing fixed menu was more satisfying than any of the more expensive restaurant food.
We vowed to sign up for dinner the next two nights, I took a starlit walk, and then we both drifted into a peaceful sleep you only can get in the mountain air.
The buffet breakfast was plentiful and delicious, of course, and soon after, I rented skis for two days along with a two-day all-mountain lift ticket. For a bit more, I was able to get the premier skis, which were newer and extra sharp. This proved amazing for cutting the very few icy patches on the slopes. I boarded a cable car for the peaks while mom enjoyed a relaxing day in the sunshine, watching the skiers and the mountains.
When I exited the cable car, it was amazing to be in a place I hiked with Dad a few years before, on top of the world. These are stunning views that tourists pay to see during the summer, and now I got to enjoy them in the winter, while playing and carving the snow. The shop gave me skis up to my lips, a lot longer than I am comfortable with. But they explained that when I opt for the shorter ones, I can out-ski them, and the lack of control is even worse. I definitely realized that for my experience and skill level, these were the best — even though I’m a very cautious and often nervous skier.
It was such a delight to explore all the options, from quiet powdery trails to big, crowded bowls with moguls and stunning views. The skis helped me to advance my technique, and I got a great workout as I went down to the valley of Grindelwald where the snow melted and I wished I wasn’t wearing a jacket. I stopped for a trail-side restaurant where I devoured a full plate of Rosti, a hearty mountain dish of cheese, egg and fried potatoes, in a sublime setting before heading back up.
At the end of the day, I stored my skis at the lodge for tomorrow and met Mom for another amazing dinner at the hotel with our super hospitable hosts. Nearly all of Switzerland is hospitable, so this is quite a compliment. I usually don’t like to give away hotel secrets, but Hotel Edelweiss deserves some recognition, so my modest little group of readers, you are in on my secret.
For day 2, Mom joined me on a cog railway up to Kleine Sheidegg, a place where Dad and I enjoyed petting goats in the summer of 2009. The goats have been replaced with skiers for the winter, and Mom got to watch me do a few runs while she basked in the sun by a tepee.
As much as I was enjoying this side of the mountain and the super fresh snow I found, I decided to explore a bit and began heading for the other side of the valley. Apparently, I somehow got on a very, very steep slope — so steep that when I stopped due to nerves, the chunks of packed snow tumbled down the incline, a reminder that would happen to me if I didn’t allow my skis to cling to the terrain which was actually easier while moving rather than crouched in crying baby, a seldom used yoga position. I focused on one turn at a time, a girl whose only lessons were the “beginner ski packages” on those little bump places at age 9, and made it! At that point, I noticed I was on the World Cup Slalom trail, an “expert skier only” slope. They should have marked that a bit more clearly before my entrance . . . and expert sking in the alps, that’s some serious business.
With tired quads and frayed nerves, I tried to find my way back into Wengen where I would take the cog down and then a cable up to the other side of the valley, Murren. I did pay for the all-mountain pass after all . . . yet I should have paid more attention to the “trail closed” sign, noting the melted slush that covered it, because as I went down, the slush disappeared. I was downhill, by some farm, and had to remove my skis, toss them on my shoulder and do the awkward, clunky ski boot clomp on a hiking trail, past a barn with cows, bells jingling as they tossed their heads towards the intruder. Clomp, clomp, clomp, down, down, down — the sun making my head dizzy, steam escaping from my pink fleece, dehydrated and dizzy when I looked across the hill and realized that cute town up above me was . . . Wengen. I went down too far, and this trail was no good to me.
Clomp, clomp, clomp up the trail — dehydrated, I grabbed fresh mountain snow for a pathetic attempt at refreshment. Back past the jingling cows, back up the closed trail and onto the lift again where I would take the correct path down to Wengen. Except, the path looked very familiar. Very steep, and . . . oh man, tempting fate once again on the World Cup Slalom Slope. I again made it down safely, back up the lift, and finally safely back to Wengen, swishing by fields and pine trees, and ever changing vistas, often the only skier in sight.
As I prepared to board the cable car up the other side, I realized I needed more hydration. I thought about buying a water in the vending machine (which happened to include a pregnancy test called Maybe Baby, for when you just gotta know on the slopes) but opted for a Capri Sun because I figured the extra sugars would do me good and hey, it’s been a while. With the skis in my hand, I jabbed that silly straw into the squishy pouch. I think I missed a couple of times, and eventually got it. A few minutes and a big sip later, I looked at my hand, blood dripping down from my thumb, a chunk of my skin cut clear off. I must have sliced the hand on the ski in my straw jabbing attempt. The skis were so sharp, I didn’t even feel it. Since I had no bandaid, and the machine had every other convenience except that, I pulled my thumb loops over it, gloves back on, and tried to ignore it.
When I got out in Murren, dizzy, dazed and bleeding, I couldn’t find a chair lift in site, so I clomp, clomp, clomp walked. I walked for a long while . . . and then found the cable car up to Schilthorn, the site of a James Bond movie, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. My a Dad and I traveled on this cable car in 2010, for panoramic views of . . . clouds.
Here I was now, without a cloud in the sky, for stunning views. And then I saw it, the dreaded sign” For expert skiers only” as our cable car sailed over struggling skiers clinging to a tiny, narrow cliffside trail that made the Slalom Look like a bunny hill. I exited the cable car, dizzy from the altitude, took a few photos, then rode the car back down, disheartened but alive.
Clomp, clomp, clomp — ski lifts were closing, so clomp, clomp . . . let’s try to cross country ski in the slush. . . . but these are not cross country skis, so . . . no. I was sweating, still bleeding, and regretting the journey to this side since I wasn’t actually skiing, just toting a lot of equipment for a peek at other peaks. Yet it was beautiful.
Eventually I returned to Wengen for an amazing shower, our last hearty and delicious meal at the hotel, and a final starlit sleep. It would be so sad to leave tomorrow. Meanwhile, Mom had a great day in the sunshine, loving every minute of her time on the mountains she pointed at from the valley 10 years ago.
Here are more photos from our lovely stay