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Skiing in Grindelwald

by Mike Cranmer

I was nervous. It had been six hundred and eighty days since I last skied. Would I still be able to? I needed somewhere to bolster my confidence, and tick all the right boxes. The solution? Grindelwald, in Switzerland’s Jungfrau region. I’d been a few times before and loved the place.

It has all the right ingredients: superb, flattering pistes; historic mountains; beautiful surroundings; state-of-the-art lifts; access by the faultless Swiss air/rail system; and a magnificent five-star hotel. All I had to do was remember how to ski.

Private helicopter aside, the best way to get to a Swiss ski resort is by Schweizerische Bundesbahnen (Swiss Rail to you and me) first class of course. Zurich Airport to Interlaken, then a simple transfer to the local train, spotting Mürren village away up to the right in the failing afternoon light, with it’s iconic Piz Gloria revolving restaurant at 2,970m, scene of James Bond’s battle with Blofeld in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

The stars were twinkling as we arrived in Grindelwald. My hotel had sent a driver and car to meet me. I sank luxuriously in the back as he stowed my luggage. “How far is it?” I asked. “300 metres sir” was his amused reply. 

The Schweizerhof is traditional family run hotel, providing discreet five-star service without pretence. Many hotels have fine paintings of mountains in the rooms. Mine trumped them all. I threw open the French windows to the balcony and stepped out. There, bathed in light from the full moon, was the Eiger. 

The Eiger. The Ogre. At least sixty-four climbers have died attempting the notorious north face, earning it the German nickname Morwand (Murder Wall) a pun on its correct title of Nordwand (North Wall). In the moonlight I felt I could reach out and touch it.

After a splendid sleep and breakfast, I was ready to answer the question that had been nagging at the back of my brain…could I still ski?

But first to get to the slopes. Back on the train, one stop to Grindelwald Terminal and into an extraordinary new construction. There, nestling, not very discreetly, in a valley is the huge complex housing one thousand parking spaces, a noodle bar, eight shops, a bistro, an E-Tron Energy Bar, a VIP Platinum Club (more later on this), and an After Slopes DJ Square. Oh, and the brand-spanking-new Eiger Express lift that transports you to the Glacier Station in just fifteen minutes. Kind of the HS2 of the mountains. Being inside the Terminal was rather like a massive out-of-town Shopping Village for the curious or adventurous.

But I’m here to ski, not shop. The lift whizzes up to 2,333m, and I found myself up-close-and-personal with the ever-present Eiger, bathed in sunshine now. I met Doris my lovely local ski guide and she immediately understood my dilemma. “We’ll take a gentle run down to Wengen. The snow is perfect, there are few people about. You can stretch yourself in your own time.”

Well, she was right. I did find my ski feet and my confidence came back. The conditions were superb. We stopped for a breather and Doris pointed out the lie of the land. Behind us, shoulder-to-shoulder with the Eiger, were the other two of the Holy Trinity, the Mönch (Monk) and Jungfrau (Virgin), topping out at 4,158m. Mürren away across to the left, Wengen below, and far, far away in the valley, Interlaken. As we continued to descend I began to revel in my skiing, carving fast GS turns, happy in the moment.

That evening’s meal was at Barry’s Restaurant, a gentle walk into the centre of the town. Despite the name it was very Swiss, all warm, welcoming and wood. As a fully paid-up no-cheese eating vegetarian I’m regarded with suspicion by most alpine eateries. Not so the lovely staff at Barry’s. I settled on a vegetarian burger which absolutely hit the spot after a day of sun, snow, and …cliff walks.

For the last day Doris suggested we take at look at preparations for the Lauberhorn downhill race which finishes in Wengen. Second only to the infamous Hahnenkamm, the Lauberhorn is the longest course in the world at 2.7 miles, racer’s top speeds around 100 mph, with a 130 ft  jump over a rock nose, the Hundschopf.  Although I’d regained my ski legs I didn’t quite feel up to all that, but Doris told me it was closed for pre-race preparations. Never mind. The red that ran nearly parallel to the race piste was exciting enough and gradually dropped into the tree line and a steep final section. I mentioned to Doris that I love tree-run skiing – the sense of speed and movement is heightened – and she suggested as our last piste, one of her favourites, a long route back through the forest, farms and houses, terminating at the Terminal. Perfect. It was as delightful as she predicted; swoopy, fast in places, the snow-laden fir-tree branches dumping snow on us as we flew past. Then, flattening out through summer pastures, farms with farm smells and sounds, and people’s homes and back gardens, and there was the Terminal. Thank goodness. My legs were like lead.

A lovely long blue run through the trees brought us to Wengen, thence via the Wengen-Mänlichenn lift to the top of a ridge above the Terminal. Down and up to lunch at Klein Scheidegg, where, during the season, the terrace is packed with people watching the Nordwand climbers through telescopes. A Swiss,

Ueli Steck, holds the utterly staggering solo speed record of  two hours, twenty-two-minutes, and fifty seconds. I pondered on that as I ate.        

There is nothing to beat a long, lazy swim and a sauna to ease the aches of the ski day and the hotel spa had it all; steam bath, glacier grotto, tropical rain shower, and various treatments. As is the custom in Austria, saunas are taken nackt.

Doris wanted to show me a different area the following morning, First. Over a ridge behind the hotel, First has a very different character to the previous day’s experience. Centred around a sunny backbowl, there are mostly blue and unchallenging reds with excellent visibility and pisted to perfection. It would be a different matter if conditions closed in, but Mr Sunshine was out for me and, after a fast morning’s work, I worked up an appetite for lunch on the terrace of the Berggasthaus, which, Doris assured me, had to be reached via the First Cliff Walk. Picture a metal walkway snaking around under a towering cliff then projecting out above the valley. Bad for vertigo. Good for photographs.

I then discovered a fatal flaw that the planners and architects of  Jungfrau Rail’s £400,000 million Terminal had made. The route from the end of the piste to the Terminal, a path flanking a river, was absolutely flat and was at least half-a-mile distant. It took me about twenty minutes of hard pushing on skis to get there. An inexpensive rope-tow would solve the world of pain I experienced. 

All was forgotten when we arrived at the Terminal. We’d been given access to the exclusive VIP Platinum Club. The lounge looked out over the very path I’d struggled across, but the free champagne and snacks quickly made me forget it. Members privileges include proximity VIP parking, lounge access, use of VIP gondola, and annual area lift pass. As I sunk into the comfy designer sofa sipping my bubbly I considered what a good deal that would be. Only CHF12,000, about £9,582.21 per person. But you’d still have that walk.

For more information on Grindelwald, the hotel and visiting Switzerland see www.swiss.com, www.sbb.ch, www.hotel-schweizerhof.com, www.jungfrau.ch and www.myswitzerland.com.

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