Tuesday, July 17, 2007

CH - Zermatt

My years of college education have jaded my ability to do simple arithmetic. I wanted to wake up at 6 am. My cell phone is still set to Eastern Standard Time, a 6-hour difference. …I set my phone’s alarm for 1am. If you don’t get it, you probably studied science or engineering. For once I was glad to have loud roommates, whom were headed for the same 7am lift so that they could go mountaineering. They woke me up at 5:50 and I was surprisingly wide awake (granted, I went to bed at about 21:00).

First two of nine roommates were up… then me… then one more… then three more… and I knew another would wake soon. This was a pretty good indication that the first lift(s) were bound to be quite crowded. Lo and behold: they were! But dagnabit I still made it on.

I emerged into a Winter Wonderland. Not knowing where to go, I followed the crowd. Mothers always tell you that just because somebody jumps off a bridge doesn’t mean you should, too. If a whole bunch of people are jumping off the bridge, however, the male mentality is that you’d better hurry up and jump so you can get to the bottom first. Surely there must be something good down there.

Yeah, so I followed the pack. This became complicated upon our arrival at a fork in the trail. As I watched people approach the decision point, I pondered the universal alignment of a woman in front of her love (assumed) looking back over her shoulder and endearingly kissing the man behind her; and I looked upon a rushed skier slicing his way through the crowd. A fork; a spoon; and a knife! This thought, however, did not assist my predicament; and I was rapidly skiing toward the pole dividing the two paths. I recalled the literature of Robert Frost and chose the road most traveled – following the bigger pack (I’m an engineer; not a poet).

I follow an icy chute, anticipating the glorious Alpine snow that surely lay ahead. It turns out even the mighty Matterhorn can succumb to the power of summer. Of five runs, I fell once right at the end – a glorious sliding finish, spraying the masses with snow and stopping just inches before the people and gear. Oh and let’s not forget the lifts: in my three or four seasons of American skiing, I’ve never had to use a pull bar lift. Well, I have for very short rides: you grab onto it with your hands and ride behind the bar. These American bars, however, were fixed and don’t spin about. Here, the bar was on a bungee cable, which kept it nice and fun. You are in front of the bar, effectively sitting on it. It took me several tries to get this figured out , including my first try where I fell shortly after grabbing on – surely to the delight of the queues beside me.

I didn’t like the course: one straight downhill run with icy conditions and pros all around me. I asked an Italian fellow (as I was, at the time, technically in beloved Italia) how to get back to the lift at the very top (the right fork I took when I first arrived ended up taking me far far away). I began making my way for the exit, which included a long ride on the pull-bar. I was getting better, but hadn’t yet realized I didn’t have to hang on with my hands whilst sitting on the bar.

I glide down a slope toward the station and think “hey… this is fun… and there’s nobody else here.” Of the two runs, this could have definitely been considered the bunny slope. It was completely straight and generally flat, but a hill at the start provided for some good speed. I stuck around here till about 13:00, when clouds began amassing just meters above. They covered the mountaineers immediately east within a shroud. Seeing as the last lift down was at 13:30, anyway, I made my way to the exit.

The real test was in getting my equipment back to the rental place. Zermatt is in a narrow valley: the cable car at the south end and both my rental place and hotel at the north. The ¾ mile / 1.2 km trek slightly uphill was a cinch in the cool morning. However, as the temperature was about 0° C in the mountains, I was equipped with a large winter coat and snowpants upon my return to the 30° C weather of a Zermatter afternoon. I had stripped off the winter clothes (don’t worry, I had clothes underneath), which added to the awkward bulk of equipment to lug about town. It actually wasn’t too bad once I got everything balanced on my shoulder.

By the time I reached the tourist zones, I drew plenty of stares… kind of amusing, really. All these people in shorts and “I’m American” t-shirts and there’s me carrying as much weight in warm clothes as I had in ski equipment. This area was particularly tricky to navigate with skis across my shoulder: there were many people I very nearly whacked in the head (and some others I wanted to). I was amused when I found myself trapped in by an East Asian tourist group (I was a bit too strained to identify from what part of Asia, exactly). With a tiny old lady and her wide hat in front of me, my skis danced about well above her head and extended about a meter in front of her; and she never noticed.

The afternoon was a holiday for my feet and legs: small errands like sending most of my winter clothes, olive oil, and some excess socks back to the USA (3 kg off my back!) and tending to laundry.

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