Friday, January 15, 2010

Snowboarding in Zermatt

I'm driving this little French car South, towards the Alps. Cruising down the Autobahn just East of the Rhine, I hear in the radio about a traffic jam a few kilometers ahead and decide to take a bridge into speed-limited France. From there, towards Basel, Switzerland. And South, South, South. Finally, mountains. I read off the points from a Google Maps printout, roughly following what it says. Drive to Bern - check. Drive to Thun - check. Drive to Kandersteg - check. Board the train - are you serious? Actually, yes, just park your car on the train and chill as the train disappears into a leeeeeeeengthy tunnel. The Swiss love tunnels.

After dragging my luggage from the car into a shuttle and from the shuttle to the hotel I collapse into my bed. The next morning, a quick glance out of the window to verify that I'm in Zermatt: the Matterhorn, of course.

Of course it's impossible to take a decent picture without having the Matterhorn in it. If you look closely you can also see the train tracks of the Gornergrat-Bahn.

Off the trail. -20 degrees Celsius, fluffy powder, mediocre coverage.

Recipe for pretending to be a mountaineer: (1) take the elevator to the summit of the small Matterhorn; (2) climb over a little fence; (3) take a few careful steps and put up your arms.

The big glacier. A skier's last resort in the summer - a snowboarder's icy flat groomer nightmare in the winter.

Cruising into Italy.

In Italy, coverage is even thinner. For every turn off-trail you pay with p-tex, so I decide to head back pretty soon.

Still in Italy.

Taking a gondola to escape from Italy.

Looking towards Switzerland from the top of the gondola. From their trail map, I think the top is actually the border between the two countries - but no passport control. When you cross from California into Nevada at Heavenly that's actually more noticeable...

Looking towards Italy.

A sweet line to shortcut a cat track and round off a day.

Looking towards Zermatt.

Oops! This line ended gnarlier than I had planned - I dislike unstrapping for downhill travel.

Another day, another morning view of the Matterhorn.

The Matterhorn, again. I think this might be from Blauherd or Rothorn.

The Matterhorn from Rothorn.

Just the Matterhorn.

Now the Matterhorn goes into hiding, almost.

The sign for the cat-track said "closed" - but the off-piste wasn't closed, right? So, I had a few really good runs back there behind Rothorn, drawing mellow lines into the snow - in complete solitude.

Sailing down another groomer in search of powder.

I think this is the top of the Hohtälli gondola. I took a cool run off the cat track below. There was a section in it that had a little more adrenaline than expected and hoped for, but other than that plenty of thin powder.

So, somewhere on the cat track I notice wow, this is a sweet slope right below here. Untouched, somewhat deep powder. And check this out - another cat track below it. I go for it, sweet run. Upon arriving at the cat track I notice that oops, this goes uphill on both sides - what's the way down? Turns out it's a snowshoing trail.

Another off-trail run near the Gornergrat Bahn. Low angle but sweet views of the Matterhorn, and pretty decent snow. This ended with a lengthy hike back via a snowshoe trail, too.

A police car in Zermatt. Love the tires.

My lessons learned: (1) Europeans really stick to the cat tracks when riding, for the most part. It's almost unbelievable but true - almost always I was the only dude off-trail. Often there were other tracks but not always. (2) It's very easy to get into dangerous situations off-trail. Nothing is marked, the snow can be sketchy, and if you can't see your line all the way it probably includes cliffs, ice falls, etc. and isn't necessarily rideable. (3) This resort is heavily biased towards skiers. As a snowboarder you want poles (that's what I do - I hate to unstrap) and practice at traveling on icy cat tracks that sometimes flatten out or go uphill. I was the only boarder in a gondola ride from Blauherd to Rothorn - perhaps 40-50 skiers shared the ride. (4) The Alps look beautiful and way, way, big. There's big glaciers, deep valleys, and the terrain is super interesting (and dangerous). (5) It can be very cold. -20 Celsius at the top of the hill, and now go hunting for powder on a shady north side.

Overall, these two days were a ton of fun. Sure, the snow could have been more plentiful but it was early season (before Xmas) and the weather was fantastic. No regrets!