I’m halfway up a mountain in zero visibility trembling with fear. My skis are lodged in the snow in parallel like a pair of razor blades and it’s taking every ounce of concentration I possess to keep my balance. The smallest of movements and I’ll be on my back skidding down the mountain. I can’t see more than a few metres ahead of me. Snow has been falling non-stop for the last two days and the result is a total white out. The professionals haven’t even braved the slopes today, yet here I am up a mountain waiting for my instructor to rescue a member of our group who took a tumble ahead of us. The wait is excruciating – muscles I didn’t even know I owned ache.
All I can see is white – it’s hard to know where the snow ends and the sky begins. It’s what the end of the world might look like – a blank canvas on which to create a new beginning. After what feels like an eternity Rolf, my instructor, herringbones his way back up the mountain, which requires considerable effort. Relief washes over me like a tide, but I still need to ski my way back down. I grab onto the pole Rolf’s carrying as if my life depended on it and we tentatively make our way down. My heart is thumping so hard it feels like it might burst through my chest. All I can hear as we go is the gentle swooshing of our skis on the snow. It would be beautiful if I wasn’t such a nervous wreck. After a few astute turns we’re onto the home straight. I make it to the bottom without falling over, which is a small miracle. This is the first time I’ve ever put on a pair of skis. For a rookie I’ve been tested with the most punishing of conditions in this baptism of fire and ice.
My home for the next three days is a snowy cabin in Riederalp, a tiny village that time forgot in the canton of Valais in the Swiss Alps, which boasts the lion’s share of Europe’s 4,000-metre peaks. In addition to being Switzerland’s largest wine producing region, Valais also celebrates an odd tradition each spring when feisty female cows battle it out in a ring to be crowned ‘queen’. My journey to Riederalp took in a two-hour train ride from Zurich. Sipping an aromatic glass of local white wine Chasselas and nibbling on a hunk of grainy Gruyère, I happened to be sat beside a couple talking animatedly in German, who reminded me fondly of the opening scene in Before Sunrise, where Jesse and Céline are brought together on a train bound for Vienna by a squabbling Austrian couple in their carriage.
For someone who has only ever been treated to the occasional day off from school on the rare occasions when it snowed enough to bring Britain to a halt, my cable car ride through the snow-dusted pine forests was nothing short of magical. I watched the landscape unfold with wide-eyed glee as our pod lurched skyward. It was so pure, pristine and perfect it felt like I’d been transported to a mythical land. I half expected to see fawns frolicking in the snow beneath, but made do with the sweeping vistas of the giant old pines.
We arrived in Riederalp at dusk. Home to just 250 souls, its population swells during the ski season. Snow was falling and the mountains were shrouded in mist, which made the view all the more ethereal. A century ago, Lord Byron had been beguiled by the same landscapes when he ventured to Switzerland after the public breakdown of his marriage to Lady Annabella. “The clouds rose from the opposite valley, curling up perpendicular precipices like the foam of the ocean of hell during a spring tide,” he rhapsodised on viewing the Wetterhorn mountain.
Our hotel – Walliser Spycher – is an adorable throwback to simpler times. I imagine very little has changed here since the ‘60s. My room is so warm and comforting it makes stepping out into sub-zero temperatures all the harder. Decked out floor to ceiling in wood, it feels like sleeping in a cradle. I brave the cold to drink in the view from my balcony. All is calm, all is white. Snow falls silently. It’s so quiet I could hear a pine needle drop. That night I feast on abundant platters of dried meats and smoked cheeses washed down with a zippy local white Petite Arvine, fortifying myself for the day ahead.
The next morning the fog had rolled in further, gobbling up the Matterhorn from view. Snow continues to fall. Even the locals seem surprised at how much fresh powder we’re being treated to. Over breakfast there is talk of torch processions and avalanches – I feel thrillingly close to danger. Among our intrepid group is a middle-aged adventurer called Dave. Never without his red bandana, he wows us at mealtimes with tales of breaking his neck during a trek, climbing past dead bodies while hiking up Everest, the dangers of cave diving and one unfortunate incident when a friend lost an inch of his penis to frostbite.
Getting kitted out for a skiing session is a comical experience involving indecent amounts of layering, donning dungaree-like, salopettes, keeping your neck warm in a buff, then trying to find a pair of ski boots that don’t make you feel like your ankles are being given a Chinese burn. Like Cinderella, it took several attempts for the shoes to fit. Lugging my skis to the nursery slopes and nearly toppling over en route, I wonder whether I’m too delicate a flower to succeed at this skiing malarkey. It all seems like such hard work. Our morning began with some simple exercises to practice our stops and turns. Having a handsome young instructor called Daniel dressed in the colours of the Swiss flag proved a welcome distraction from my palpable fear that I might break a bone.
After an hour on the nursery slopes I finally find my groove and whoosh along with reckless abandon, practicing tight turns and the all-important snowplough move to stop me in my tracks. Pleased with my progress, Daniel suggests I advance to the blue slope in the distance. It looks rather steep but I’m buoyed by his enthusiasm and decide to give it a go, secretly looking forward to lunch and the chance to gorge on gooey raclette layered with leeks, potato and pears. My first journey down the blue run didn’t end well. Daniel had overestimated my ability and left me to my own devices. On my way down I built up so much speed that I lost control. It’s a horrible feeling knowing you’re going to fall and being powerless to stop it. The inevitable happened and I stacked it in spectacular style, skidding down the mountain on my back, legs splayed like a wounded deer.
Undeterred, I ventured up the mountain for a second time, and a third, fourth and fifth, determined to descend the blue run with grace, if only once. Towards the end of the first day it happened. Having built up my confidence post fall, following Rolf, arms out wide like an angel, I glided down the mountain mirroring him turn for turn, enjoying the sound of my skis slicing through the snow. In that moment I understood why people are nuts about skiing and spend lavish amounts in pursuit of powder, because when you’re on point, zooming down a mountain makes you feel like a superhero. Back at the hotel I run myself a hot bath and soak my aching bones then sleep the sleep of the dead. I awake in a world of pain. My calves are on fire and it feels like every muscle in my body is aching in unison.
Luckily, skiing isn’t on the menu today. Opening my curtains, I notice pockets of blue sky breaking free from the clouds. Layering up, our group heads to the Aletsch forest for a snowshoe walk among the oldest pines in Switzerland. Dropped off close to the Aletsch Glacier, a 23-kilometre shifting structure once traversed by Tolkien formed of 27 billion metric tonnes of ice, it’s easy to see why the forest is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The landscape is indescribably beautiful. Giant pines stand proudly amid undulating snow dunes dotted with mountain hare tracks. Striding purposefully through the knee-deep snow like Bigfoot, I stop every now and then to take in the breathtaking views unfolding before me.
Snow falls silently. When the flakes catch the light they sparkle like fragments of glass. Trekking through the Narnia-like landscape, in the distance we spot the quaint Villa Cassel perched on top of a hill, its roof iced with fresh snow. Once owned by English banker Ernest Cassel, Churchill spent a number of happy summers there in his youth. While writing his father’s biography at the villa, he became so distracted by the clinking of cowbells that he ordered the local famers to stuff them with hay to drown out the din – the bells not the cows that is. We end our voyage with a warming mug of hot chocolate on a deck overlooking Villa Cassel. The snow on the ground glistens like glitter in the sun. Snowflakes fall in perfect formations on my ski jacket. Each, within its minute reality, is exquisite. It’s more magic than I could have hoped for.
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