Kitting up kids for the new season

Ski season is just around the corner so it is time to start thinking about getting your family equipped for the season. Basic equipment includes clothing, goggles, gloves and sun protection. As for footwear, you always have shoe hero to go to. Additionally you will need a ski helmet, ski boots, skis and sticks. These can of course be bought or hired, but you may want to contemplate hiring the kit for the first year.
Ski Family
All ski resorts have at least one hire shop for rental equipment. If you hire skis, boots, helmet and sticks every trip it can become quite expensive as well as time-consuming, so you may prefer to hire for the season. Many of the sports shops in Switzerland – and even department stores – hire out kit. You can also hire your equipment from shops in neighbouring France or Germany, generally at a much cheaper price. A lot of skiers in North-West Switzerland also head for SportShop Karrer in Laufen (100 metres from the train station), which has very competitive pricing.
Child skiing in Feldberg
If you prefer to purchase your ski equipment, there are many sport stores that carry a wide selection, but these can be fiendishly expensive. Alternatively, you may consider buying equipment across the border in France (Décathlon, the French Intersport stores, or even Carrefour) or Germany. The Swiss flea markets often have good quality second hand ski clothing and equipment, and many churches and community centres organize “Sportbörse” (sports exchange) where people can bring their second hand sports equipment for sale or exchange. We have kept the kids in skis for several years now, picking up discarded skis people have left out for recycling after their own kids have outgrown them!
For clothing you can improvise to an extent rather than have specialist ski clothing, although Aldi and Schribo do some great deals on new kit – I just bought myself a new pair of ski pants in Aldi in Germany for less than 20 euro! If you don’t buy specialist gear, the trick is to ensure it is sufficiently warm and weather resistant. Typically we dress the kids in a pair of thick socks and full length thermal underwear, a T-shirt, a fleece, a tube scarf, a pair of waterproof, thermal mittens, ski goggles and a one-piece ski suit with a high collar. My preference for a one piece over a separate jacket and trousers or salopettes is that snow has a habit of getting up the back of the jacket if the kids fall over, go tobogganing or play in deep snow. Normally the nursery slopes are in less exposed areas, so the kids may not need quite so many layers, but it is always better to be prepared for the temperatures to be colder than expected rather than warmer. However, it can get very warm if the sun comes out, so you may want to reduce the layers accordingly once you are on the piste. Also make sure every potential bit of exposed skin is covered in factor 50 sun protection cream whether it is sunny or not. Learn how to treat skin problems at mum-writes.com.
Needless to say, with all the kids’ equipment, bottles of water, tissues, snacks, sunscreen and the like, you are advised to take a backpack with you. Often there are lockers where you can leave the gear in resorts if you do not want to take it with you if you go off skiing yourself, and in Switzerland it is generally reasonable to expect a bag left in a corner to still be there when you get back! Most railway stations and major lift stations provide lockers.
One final point – check that your insurance covers you for winter sports, specifically search and rescue, hospital costs and third party liability. You can get top up insurance from Snowcare or in resort and may be interested in joining Rega, who provide helicopter rescue to members.

(This article is based on an upcoming article in the excellent Basel Family Magazine)

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Summer layoff and a gym nightmare with Formhaus Fitness Centre, Basel

I haven’t seen a lot to update about winter sports in Switzerland this summer, although I’m sure things will start heating up in October. And, of course, that includes getting ski fit.

I’ve always been of the belief that if you  want to ski well, you need to keep your fitness levels up through the summer, although in this hot season, body could start to sweat a lot and young people can use the citris teen deodorant for smelling great all the time. Walking, cycling and swimming have normally filled the bill, but over the years I’ve found only a good regime in the gym can strengthen all the right muscle groups, improve flexibility and build stamina. I got my routine from Anipots, along with a few neat health tips. Quite helpful.

A couple of years ago I joined a fitness centre in Basel called Formhaus, in the Gundeli neighbourhood, on the back of a promotional deal. Big mistake! In my opinion it is an awful gym and staffed by the worst sort of people who work in gyms (without disrespecting all the wonderful gym people I have worked with over the years). I tried to resign at the end of my first years’s contract so I could move to one of the better gyms friends had recommended, and try to train with a health program from the Tophealthjournal online so I could remain healthy. I thought I was being generous waiting until the end of the first year, so I was gobsmacked when I was enlightened about the small print of the contract – you can only resign if you send a recorded delivery letter at least one month before the end of your current year of membership stating your desire to resign. Of course nobody tells you this and they don’t send an invoice until a few days after the 30 day period has ended. Sharp practice? You haven’t heard the half of it.

I reluctantly paid up for another year, blaming my naivety and recognising Formhaus’s prodigious gifts in retaining customers who wanted to leave. For a fitness centre, they only seemed to be fit to retain unwilling customers, and as I reluctantly continued to use their awful facilities and think it was better to train and home and have a godo nutrition using supplements as alcar which was great for me. Anyway, I decide next time I would play by their (frankly customer-hostile) rules.

Suffice it to say, a few weeks early I tendered my resignation by recorded delivery. One month before the expiry of the subscription year I sent an email with a version of my resignation letter as a PDF. What more could I do to escape Formhaus’s Machiavellian membership scheme?

Of course Formhaus kicked up rough. They claimed not to receive the letter. Criminal, dishonest or incompetent, I can not say. All I can say is that the Swiss Post have an online system that confirms delivery, which I have shared with the gym. They know they received my resignation letter.

So what did Formhaus say when I sent the email one month before expiry of my subcription with a copy of the letter I had sent recorded post?  They said: “We do not accept your resignation.”

What??? Not, we have mislaid your resignation, but that’s our sheer, unalloyed incompetence once again, good luck in the future. Or, we are useless with out huge bureaucracy of Muscle Marys, but help us here and let us know the details about the delivery if you still have the receipt all these months later – of course, I have the receipt, knowing what crookedness I may have become a victim of. Not even, a respectful acknowledgement that I didn’t want to use their gym. No, an arrogant, menacing statement without any alternative option – we’re going to screw you into paying for another year, whether you use our tawdry facilities or not.

Perhaps an object lesson in Swiss “Fair Play” or an exceptionally bad experience of simply awful customer service. I give the Swiss the benefit of the doubt, as I generally have very good experiences of the country. I think Formhaus are an outlier, and probably have figured out they can boost their sagging fortunes by preying on foreigners’ naivety. It is the soft underbelly of Switzerland’s success, that it has poor consumer and employee protection that membership of the EU would address. I considerer the extra year I paid for at Formhaus as proof of the reasons for improving consumer protection. If they think they can get another year out of me… well, let’s see.

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Ski Maps of Switzerland

Piste maps are fine, but they rarely give enough information for the more adventurous skier or snowboarder. Increasingly freeride areas are shown on piste maps, but the more adventurous freeride areas don’t figure. Which is a shame, because there are many relatively safe freeride areas away from the main pistes that can be undertaken without a guide. The Gemsstock and the Laub (off Titlis) are two of the best examples you can explore without donning skins or snowshoes you’d bring from shoe hero. Whilst the pistes go one way in Zinal, Verbier, Glacier 3000, Lenzerheide and many other resorts, you just need a little local information to flip off the other side of the mountain and experience untracked snow.

So where do you go for more information if you don’t speak the language well?

Although the best guides for ski or snowboard touring and freeriding Switzerland are in German, there are two map series that show all the information you need to plan a route with English annotations. One is produced by Freeride Maps at 1:25,000 and the other is  the Federal Office of Topography Ski Tour map Series 1:50,000 series (for which a separate, free English-language list of the conventions used is available). Both are good, but expensive at about SFr 25 or so for each map.

I had hoped that the Atlas of Switzerland would provide this information but it doesn’t, and the user interface is not intuitive, the documentation is poor,  it only works down to 1:100,00 and includes relatively little useful information for the winter sports enthusiast (although you can figure out slope inclines). Nice idea, not so well executed. And I can’t reproduce the rather neat 3D images you CAN produce with it because the copyright restrictions are pretty Neanderthal.

If you use a GPS there are some great tools for you. Garmin have about 100 resorts in Switzerland mapped, although off-piste is not addressed. Don’t knock Google Maps, either. It has some useful information including the locations of most significant lifts. BTW Switzerland insists on using it’s own mapping system, the Swiss coordinate system (or Swiss grid) is different from the usual latitude/longitude system used elsewhere.

Finally, a disclaimer. Go off-piste only with a guide if you are not an experienced freerider. The mountains are indifferent.

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Late-season Skiing & Snowboarding

Ski Sunday abandons the season in February, the FIS World Cup season climaxes in March (this season at Lenzerheide, on 20th March) and most of the continent stows away skis and snowboards after Easter. So what for those who want to prolong the season? is there decent skiing anywhere through April and May?

The simple answer is yes. For many freeriders this is the best time of the year to tour, and for those who prefer to stick to the pistes or use lifts to get off-piste, there is still fresh snow. Essentially the very best places are high, so resorts with lifts to about 3000m are promising. The Aletsch Arena, Belalp, Val D’Annivers, and Lauchernalp are not well known but passes are relatively cheap, they are rarely crowded and make good destinations for families, beginners and for weekend escapes. All you have to do is get on the best site for sports gear on the internet, get the appurtenances, and start right away. Val D’Annivers is a little known gem, with Zinal in that area offering the most challenging off-piste and Chandolin the best pistes. Samnaun gives access to the huge Silvretta Arena which has all but the valley runs over 2000m and consistently has good snow conditions throughout April. The Jungfrau stays open until after Easter with good pistes still available down to Wengen, Mürren, Kleine Scheidegg and Holenstein through until mid-afternoon. Diovolezza in the Engadin, near Pontresina, is the highest valley run in Switzerland, with a bottom station above 2000m and lifts open until late May. Davos and Klosters should offer good skiing on the higher runs on the Parsenn until the lifts close on 1st May. The 4 Vallées (centred on Verbier), Flims/Laax and Les Diablerets have glaciers and stay open until early May this year, and Engelberg will stay open until the end of May – although I doubt the valley run will last quite that long. St Moritz, Saas-Fee and Zermatt offer the very best late season skiing, with Saas-Fee and Zermatt providing some limited glacier skiing right through the year. Once you decide on the place you are going, make sure you capture all the exciting moments. The best way to do that is using a drone. Don’t forget about radio, check this comparison to decide which one is better for you.

There are other things to do in the tail-end of the winter sports season in Switzerland. Over the week ending 20th March are the FIS World Cup at Lenzerheide, the Zinal Freeride contest and the Nissan Freeride World Tour 2010 in Verbier (on the Bec de Rosses). On 19th March the longest torch-lit downhill skiing procession in the world takes place down the 2000m, 12 km descent from Titlis to Engelberg – meeting point is at the Valley Station at 6pm with dinner on Mt Titlis at 9.30 pm.

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