Pirmin Zurbriggen Switzerland’s Greatest Skier

When I was a younger skier, glued to the BBC’s BBC Ski Sunday for its dreadfully short season, the most successful ski racer of the time was Pirmin Zurbriggen, He seemed unstoppable and almost single-handed kept the Austrian challenge at bay. He retired at the peak of his career aged 27 to return to his roots in Saastal, in German-speaking Wallis/Valais.
Saastal
During his career he won he won four World Cup titles, an Olympic gold medal and 9 World Championship medals. Who knows what else he would have won if he had continued.

I know his family runs a hotel in his home town and rumour has it that if you stay there you have a chance to explore the local slopes with the great man. Anyway, the reason I bring him up is that there is an interview with him at Powder magazine, including some footage of him racing.

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Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in Switzerland

Sir Arthur Conan DoyleSir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes stories, had a long association with Switzerland, even making a claim that he was “the first to introduce [skiing] for long journeys into Switzerland”. On a trip to Switzerland his wife contracted tuberculosis and the family decided in 1893 to move to Davos (in what we call Graubünden but which the French call the Grisons) where the crisp, clean mountain air and the clinics were famous for their impact on the well-being of patients with respiratory problems. Interestingly Conan Doyle was himself an MD, having studied medicine in Edinburgh. To while away the time Conan Doyle, a keen sportsman, tried many diversions. In his autobiography, “Memories and Adventures” (1924, London) he recounts:

“As there were no particular social distractions at Davos, and as our life was bounded by the snow and fir which girt us in, I was able to devote myself to doing a good deal of work and also to taking up with some energy the winter sports for which the place is famous.”

He continues:

“There is one form of sport in which I have, I think, been able to do some practical good, for I can claim to have been the first to introduce skis into the Grisons division of Switzerland, or at least to demonstrate their practical utility as a means of getting across in winter from one valley to another. It was in 1894 that I read Nansen’s account of his crossing of Greenland, and thus became interested in the subject of ski-ing. It chanced that I was compelled to spend that winter in the Davos valley, and I spoke about the matter to Tobias Branger, a sporting tradesman in the village, who in turn interested his brother. We sent for skis from Norway, and for some weeks afforded innocent amusement to a large number of people who watched our awkward movements and complex tumbles. The Brangers made much better progress than I. At the end of a month or so we felt that we were getting more expert, and determined to climb the Jacobshorn, a considerable hill just opposite the Davos Hotel. We had to carry our unwieldy skis upon our backs until we had passed the fir trees which line its slopes, but once in the open we made splendid progress, and had the satisfaction of seeing the flags in the village dipped in our honour when we reached the summit. But it was only in returning that we got the full flavour of ski-ing. In ascending you shuffle up by long zigzags, the only advantage of your footgear being that it is carrying you over snow which would engulf you without it. But coming back you simply turn your long toes and let yourself go, gliding delightfully over the gentle slopes, flying down the steeper ones, taking an occasional cropper, but getting as near to flying as any earth-bound man can. In that glorious air it is a delightful experience.

“Encouraged by our success with the Jacobshorn, we determined to show the utility of our accomplishment by opening up communications with Arosa, which lies in a parallel valley and can only be reached in winter by a very long and roundabout railway journey. To do this we had to cross a high pass, and then drop down on the other side. It was a most interesting journey, and we felt all the pride of pioneers as we arrived in Arosa.”

It was an interesting early example of back-country skiing, and I must admit that I have not attempted to make the journey from Davos to Arosa, by skis. One to add to the list.

Conan Doyle wrote prolifically, and no doubt engendered interest in the English public (or at least a section of it) through his enthusiastic reports on “ski-running”, as he often called it. In an article in the Strand Magazine in 1894 he opined “Ski-ing opens up a field of sport which is, I think unique. I am convicted that the time will come when hundreds of Englishmen will come to Switzerland for the ski-ing season in March and April”. He described the sport as one where “You have to shuffle along the level, to zigzag, or move crab fashion, up the hills, to slide down without losing your balance, and above all to turn with facility.” Whenever I ski the Jakobshorn, I can’t help but think of Conan Doyle energetically moving crab fashion in his tweeds and eight-foot long skis, “occasionally taking a cropper”.
Conan Doyle on skis, with his wife
However Conan Doyle’s most famous association with Switzerland is entirely fictional.

Conan Doyle was frustrated that most of his writing received little attention, except for his Sherlock Holmes stories. As he wrote in his memoirs:

“It was still the Sherlock Holmes stories for which the public clamoured, and these from time to time I endeavoured to supply. At last, after I had done two series of them I saw that I was in danger of having my hand forced, and of being entirely identified with what I regarded as a lower stratum of literary achievement. Therefore as a sign of my resolution I determined to end the life of my hero. The idea was in my mind when I went with my wife for a short holiday in Switzerland, in the course of which we saw there the wonderful falls of Reichenbach, a terrible place, and one that I thought would make a worthy tomb for poor Sherlock, even if I buried my banking account along with him.”
Sherlock Holmes in an illustration for the Strand magazine meets his fate at the Reichenbach Falls
So Conan Doyle placed the demise of his most famous invention, Sherlock Holmes, at a waterfall just outside the resort of Meiringen in his story, “The Final Problem”, published in The Strand Magazine in December 1893. A small museum, below the church near the station in Meiringen, commemorates the association of Conan Doyle with the area. In the story Holmes spends his last night at the Park Hotel Du Savage (renamed by Conan Doyle as the Englischer Hof) before visiting the Reichenbach Falls, where both Holmes and Moriaty meet their fate. At the fictional spot where this happens a plaque in English, German, and French reads “At this fearful place, Sherlock Holmes vanquished Professor Moriarty, on 4 May 1891.”
Lake Geneva
According to his memoirs Conan Doyle also lived in Maloja in Graubünden for a time and in Caux, above Lake Geneva, reached by funicular railway from Montreux.

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Avalanche Risk

Eight people died in Switzerland over the weekend from avalanches, and several others have been hospitalised according to a report from SwissInfo. Seven of a party of nine on Piz Vilan in Graubünden (just North of Grüsch) were caught by an avalanche, of whom
five died. Avalanches also killed a 28yo snowboarder in Mürren, a 31yo skier in Adelboden and one of a party of three in Wildhaus, Toggenburg. Two lucky skiers in Verbier were rescued after being hit by an avalanche. However three other people died in avalanches last Thursday and Friday, bringing the total fatalities in just three days to 11 in the Swiss Alps alone. Needless to say the avalanche risk is very high, but the level of fatalities is concerning – especially as many of the victims appeared to have been well experienced winter sports enthusiasts well-prepared for off-piste conditions.

The Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research (SLF) publishes avalanche information and the map from this morning indicates just how dangerous the Alps are after the recent heavy snowfalls.
SLF Avalanche Risk
Personally I would not go outside the boundaries of marked runs anywhere at this time, but – with sufficient planning and caution – it is possible to reduce the risks of being overcome by an avalanche to near zero, even if off-piste. Indeed, it is worth bearing in mind that fatalities do occasionally occur on piste from avalanches (and in 1999 31 people were killed when the ski resort of Galtür was hit by an avalanche); knowing the level of avalanche risk and the risk factors is worthwhile even for people who do not stray off-piste.

The first consideration concerns nearby slopes as well as those you want to ski on. The overwhelming majority of avalanches occur on slopes with a gradient of greater than 35% but they can occur on slopes with a gradient of as little as 30%. Even on-piste, I tend to stay on the side furthest away from such unprepared slopes if the avalanches risk in the area is rated considerable or higher. It is also worth watching out for skiers or snowboarders traversing high on such slopes – the line that the skiers and snowboarders take can weaken a slab and initiate an avalanche. Indeed, the very presence of others skiers or snowboarders above you and off-piste is more likely to indicate heightened risk rather than relative safety since many avalanches are triggered by freeriders.

The sun helps the snow on slopes to bond, so periods without sunshine or of little sunshine, such as mid-winter, or periods of heavy snowfall and north-facing slopes tend to be associated more often with avalanches. On the SLF charts, the more avalanche prone slopes are indicated black on the compasses on the SLF chart – as the chart above shows slopes facing all directions are currently prone to avalanches. In addition wind-blown snow can often create dangerous drifts and this is more likely to happen above the treeline and at higher altitudes in general – again the SLF chart indicates that avalanches are more likely above a given altitude. The SLF will also identify whether wind-blown slopes, gullies, bowls and areas adjacent to the ridge line are particularly risky over and above the general level of risk associated with an area.

Clearly skiers and snowboarders should be prepared for off-piste conditions, with transponders, probes, shovels, ABS and cellphones amongst the minimum for back country outings, but it is a false sense of security to believe that these will be of any help in many avalanche situations. The trick is to avoid putting yourself at danger, and the signs at this time are to proceed with extreme caution, avoiding off-piste in all but the most benign circumstances.

At least the latest snow redresses a situation which left many runs patchy and off-piste snow depths often too limited to cover obstacles such as rocks and tree stumps. In the Vaud Alps well over one metre of snow has fallen in the last few days, and most of the rest of the Swiss Alps and the Western Jura have experienced up to a metre.

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Ski the Stockhorn

I was reading an article in an online version of an Australian newspaper, the Sydney Morning Herald, which was addressing the issue of global warming and its impact on the Alps. Apparently “a recent Austrian climate change report found that the country’s temperatures had risen twice as fast as the global average since 1880, with the number of sunshine hours in the Alps increasing by 20 per cent.” I have certainly seen the impact of climate change on glaciers I have visited over the years, and there is no denying it will have an impact on the Alps.

Anyway, one of the more interesting observations was that a “ski region” called Stockhorn has dispensed with its ski lifts to concentrate on snowshoe walkers and such like. Now, as a self-declared expert on skiing in Switzerland, I feel a little ashamed to say I didn’t even know there was a place called the Stockhorn which had dismantled its ski infrastructure, and don’t have it in my winter sports website. Certainly the Stockhorn (3405m) in Zermatt is not suffering from global warming or lift closures, at least not last time I visited earlier this year! But as is often the case, several mountains often share the same name in the Alps.

So I did a little research.
Ski the Simmental valley
And I found another Stockhorn. The website for the resort states “Erlenbach in the Simmental lies in the Bernese Oberland at the start of the Simmental, in the direction of Lenk and Gstaad. The valley station of the Stockhorn cableway can be reached easily in approx. 30 mins by car from Bern, and in approx. 15 minutes from Thun. The timetable of the Stockhorn cableway has been coordinated with the train timetable.” Yes, this is Switzerland, there is a railway station in Erlenbach im Simmental with lifts timetabled to connect with the train timetable. I know Erlenbach – it is a small sleepy village in the Simmental valley and at a 700m elevation never a great candidate for ski-in, ski-out facilities. Could it have once been the throbbing heart of a ski region whose fame stretched across the planet as far as Australia?

The top of the Stockhorn is 2190m, but it seems skiing off the summit is not feasible. If there ever was skiing here, it would have been from the mid-station at Chrindi at a modest elevation of 1642m or possibly from local facilities in Erlenbach, but the village is very low to sustain a decent piste for any duration – in fact I know of NO resort with runs that low.

So it does have a cableway, but appears to have no other ski facilities. But surely, then, you can ski down still? And it does appear you can. As well as snowshoe walks, winter walks, an igloo village, fabulous views and fine dining, there are ski tours you can do in the area, organised by a local ski school. Starting at 9.50am on 30th December 2014, 3rd January 2015, 17th January 2015, 1st February 2015 and 28th February 2015 for between CHF140 and CHF290 Alpinschule Bergfalke (+41 (0)795025080/info@bergfalke.ch) take guided ski tours in the area. No touring experience is necessary, just that you are a reasonably good piste skier or snowboarder and in good physical condition. It looks like you have a three hour ascent from the lifts to start the downhill section of the tour. The claim is the tour suits both beginners and connoisseurs.

And it doesn’t look like you ski the Stockhorn anyway – the area you ski is the Lasenberg (Laseberg) which peaks at 2019m and the Cheibenhorn at 1952m, but you use the Stockhorn lift to get there, getting out at the Chrindi mid-station.

The Simmental is a fabulous region, renowned for its food, at least in Switzerland, and probably best known for the ski resort at Lenk and its access to Gstaad Mountain rides from Zweisimmen. Locals also often ski the small resorts at Diemtigtal and Beatenberg.

Were there ever ski facilities at the Stockhorn? I can find no evidence it was graced with as much as a drag lift at any period, but I suspect competing resorts in the Bernese Oberland rather than global warming did for the facilities if they ever did exist. It may have been that the locals tried out a drag lift for a period, but these are usually dismantled in the summer, and hardly constitutes the making of a ski region. Sometimes it is simply not economic to re-assemble and repair, or replace, an old and little-used lift. And if there were any ski facilities in the area once I doubt if anyone other than the good citizens of Erlenbach ever used them.

But there is another more prosaic explanation for this new story. Back in 2007, a cable car system, initally constructed in 1958 linking Gornergrat (3089m) to Stockhorn (3405m) above Zermatt (1620m) was dismantled and replaced with a new lift. Could this be the origin of the news story? Possibly not, since the story cites a “refocus on winter hiking and snowshoeing” as the replacement activity to skiing. Any readers ever seen somebody snowshoe walking the Triftji Jumps? No, nor have I. But possibly the intrepid newshounds from AFP,a French news agency that seems to have originated the story, got confused and linked two events about two different mountains and came up with a whole new angle.

So hitting my inbox and that of many other people round the world, and syndicated across a whole bunch of Australian, Asian, American and European newspapers and journals (including the famously gaff-prone UK Daily Mail), is a story entitled “Dismantling ski lifts in Europe as world warms up”. And they cite the Stockhorn as their sole justification, and there is no evidence to support any mountain in Switzerland called the Stockhorn had a lift dismantled in the face of global warming. Oh well, why let the facts get in the way of a good story.

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