Guest Blog: Swimming and Dancing Under The Eiger

9 Apr

By Stuart Elliott and Michael Cooke
(While Sharon was in Goa the boys continued their ski adventures.)

Swiss trains are quiet and comfortable; the stations are well maintained and have convenient ramps as well as stairs, and sometimes lifts to change platforms. All well and good unless you have 30 kilos of skis, boots and luggage and only five minutes to make a change, of which we had five en route from the Valais, the French speaking part of Switzerland, to Grindelwald in the heart of what I now consider the real Switzerland.

Whilst the inhabitants speak German they also speak their own language, and wonderfully lyrical it is too; almost yodelling without the falsetto. The manager of our hotel was quick to point out, and not without a cheeky grin, that whilst they can understand German, Germans cannot understand them.

I hadn’t visited the Bernese Oberland since I was a teenager some 45 years ago. Guess what – not much of it had changed, except perhaps the train conductor who all those years ago rapped me across the shins for putting my legs up on a seat. It’s the kind of place where you don’t throw out the old and replace it with something shiny that only lasts a few years; you build it to last and maintain it (and if people don’t look after it you rap them over the shins and send them off to military service). Yes, it’s true everything works like clockwork, even their clocks, even though they might belong to decades gone by.

There is none of the razzamataz of jetsetting Verbier or the top French resorts with their slick and fast lift connections using super quick high capacity lifts. The Grindelwald skiing area encompasses the smaller village of Wengen. The two sit on either side of the Jungfraujoch like saddle bags. Rising up from the Jungfrau (my basic German suggests this means young woman. Why? And even more curious Jungfraujoch!) is the magnificent Eiger piercing the sky; one of Europe’s tallest peaks.

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My skiing companion, Michael Cooke, is an armchair mountaineer. He spent many a moment, whilst standing on skis right under the Eiger, inducting me into the routes of the North Face climbed in the pioneering years when it was a four-day expedition and many climbers perished. It’s vertiginously vertical, quite high, quite cold and subject to rockfalls and avalanches. Why anyone would want to climb it, when there is a perfectly good gentle face just around the corner and a train that goes half way up it, is beyond me. Michael tells me people can free climb it these days in 2.5 hours.

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The Grindelwaldians are helpful, even charming and appear comfortable and contented. No doubt there is a good deal of wealth but it is the discreet sort. Our hotel was the Gletschergarten (Glacier Garden) and right in front of it surprise surprise was a glacier running (I think that is the right word under current climatic conditions) off the back of the Eiger; magnificent. The hotel is classified as 3 star, but in our opinion merits 4 star with a 5 star rating for service. Nothing was too much trouble. This became particularly handy when a departing female guest drove off to Basle with my ski boots. She must have had mighty big feet if she thought my boots were the right size for her. Quick as a flash, in order to not ruin my first day of skiing in the 40 cms of fresh powder, the hotel arranged for me to rent some boots from the local ski hire shop. Not only that, but when I came to pay there was no charge plus we were picked up from the hotel and delivered to the lift.

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Every evening during our exquisite dining experiences the management would come to our table to chat for 15 minutes and impart their knowledge of the mountains to prepare us for skiing the next day. As the owner’s son (fourth generation) did his rounds we noticed when he spoke to us he used his Oxford English and for an American family at the next table his US East Coast accent; very cute and quite genuine. Lars also spoke four or five other languages and is only 18.

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The skiing was scenically sublime. I adore skiing through forests. I hasten to add on pistes and not between indecently close pine trees off piste like my sons. At least they wear helmets. All the runs home at Grindelwald are swathed in pine forests. There are some 250 kms of marked trails and off piste opportunities; so only about half the terrain of the top French resorts. The runs are generally cruisey reds, not much to entertain the diehard blackanistas. The best that can be said of the lifts is that they are quaint, including the charming and scenic cog railway. We were told in high season there can be queues at the base lifts of up to 2.5 hours. Why would you bother? During our 40 cm powder day we reckoned there were only 200 people on the entire mountain. Oh the joys of being old and without school kids and skiing at the end of the season.

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And so to swiming and dancing in the snow. Having sworn last year to never ski again in poor visibility guess who went out in a snow storm. True to form on the first run I leaned back (scared) and skied like I didn’t know how to turn. Determined to lean forward and ski more aggressively on my next run I disappeared into a snow drift during my first turn, my legs did the splits, the skis came off (fortunately) and I ended up face down swallowing snow. Michael found it highly amusing but to me it felt like it must when caught in an avalanche: swimming in snow. However the next day we had blue skies, soft fresh snow and the pistes and restaurants to ourselves. We danced for joy!

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On my last descent I stopped, looked around and decided I would like Sharon to take me to Grindelwald just before I ski off to the next world.

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Photos by Stuart Elliott and Michael Cooke.

2 Responses to “Guest Blog: Swimming and Dancing Under The Eiger”

  1. Heather April 9, 2014 at 9:59 pm #

    Your are both living a dream and seem so happy – keep it up. Heather

  2. Charmaine Lawton April 15, 2014 at 3:06 am #

    Nice blog Stu. Lovely!

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