With Western Canada having some of the best skiing in the world, it would be easy to think there is really no need to go beyond our borders for alpine snow adventure. Our terrain is varied, the snow (for the most part) is plentiful and light, the resorts are accessible and their lift infrastructures modern and fast. So why leave home when it’s so good right in our own backyard?
You do it for the same reason golfers flock to Augusta National in the US or to St Andrews in Scotland. It’s the sense of going to the very roots of something you love to do in order to better understand and appreciate it.
The experience of a European ski trip is something special largely due to the age of the resorts and the way skiing is ingrained into the culture.
In the Davos-Klosters area of Switzerland that my wife and I visited last winter, skiing has been a part of the valley’s identity since the 1800s, when the first pair of telemark skis arrived from Norway. Locals soon began copying the pattern to produce their own skis and started sliding down the mountains that surround the area. It was the birth of the industry that, over the following century, would shape the community’s culture more than any other single activity or industry.
Today, the towns of Davos and Klosters are surrounded by six separate ski areas with 200 km of slopes to choose from. Train stops are located right at the base of the lifts and the communities are centred around them, so the integration of the ski resorts and the towns is seamless. It’s a pretty typical setup for Swiss ski towns, and that sense of being right in the centre of things the minute you ski off the mountain is a big part of the charm.
While the sidewalks and slopes are inundated with skiing and snowboarding tourists, the locals are also passionate about alpine recreation—be it skiing, mountaineering, back-country touring or any of the other ways the Swiss celebrate their privileged location in the heart of some of the most spectacular scenery anywhere.
Eighty-year-old Germaine Meier is one of those Klosters locals whose life has been shaped by the towering Alps that surround her and her husband’s log-cabin-style home on the outskirts of the community.
“Our town, Klosters, has always been a good ski town,” she boasts. “I taught skiing all through my life but had to give it up two years ago when my hip had to be replaced. I hope I can get up skiing again sometime, though.”
Meier’s uncle, Paul Klaas, who immigrated to Canada in the ’60s and started West Castle Resort (later renamed Castle Mountain Resort), was our connection to finding her. Klass returned to Klosters later in life and was known for teaching some of the more elite guests that visited the area including celebrities, royalty and politicians. When asked about Klass’s teaching career, Meier smiles coyly and says, “He had his clientele—I had my clientele, too.”
Meier’s comment best sums up the Swiss demeanour as my wife and I experienced it. It’s a proud, yet reserved, disposition that comes from being situated in one of the most desirable places on Earth.
Desirable if you are a skier, that is. The choice of places to ski at the major Swiss resorts (and there are a couple dozen of them) is hard to wrap your head around. Entire valleys that are serviced by a single lift would take a week to explore fully, and there can be 100-plus lifts at some of the biggest resorts, like Zermatt.
The vast majority of skiers never even venture off the wide, flat, perfectly groomed main runs. While “off-piste” is a way of skiing life in North America, in Europe (or Switzerland, at least) the areas of the mountain that are not groomed are considered dangerous and venturing onto them is taking a considerable risk. Getting hurt while off-piste is the major concern as many visitors fear health insurance will not cover them.
“I guess you could drag your broken, bloodied body back onto the main run,” speculates one British skier we shared a lift with. “Your insurance might cover you then.”
In a way, the skiing in Switzerland mirrors that proud yet reserved mentality of the people. The resorts boast a huge amount of terrain, but they really want you to stick to the main runs. The people are self-reliant and adventurous but put forward a demure face.
Once you get past both facades, the country opens up entirely new avenues to explore.