It was only when the doors of the train slid open that we fully realised what sort of a day lay in store for us. The occupants normally pop from the carriage like corks from a bottle, eager to snap on their skis and be first on the descent. Today, though, they paused momentarily on the threshold as a vicious gale whipped icy particles into their faces at -25C, one or two shivering before setting their shoulders against the blast.
An hour earlier, we had been sipping coffee and lounging on sofas in the well-appointed boot room of the Mont Cervin Palace hotel, one of the oldest of Zermatt’s glittering selection of lodgings. On the wall a video screen showed that high winds had closed all the main chair lifts and cable cars. So it had to be the Gornergrat train, a Swiss rack railway that has been winding its way up to 3089-metres in all weathers since 1898.
Flexibility, and a willingness to use any transport available, would be the keys to our outing. We were embarking on a “ski safari” an increasingly popular style of Alpine trip designed to revive the spirits of the piste-weary mountain enthusiast. It rests on a simple but enticing concept: rather than stay in one resort, you make a journey on skis, using cable cars, helicopters, skidoos and anything else available to “daisy-chain” across valleys and ridges, staying in different villages or mountain huts as you go. Its customisable character means groups can choose exactly how vigorously — or languidly — they want to proceed, settle on their consensus fitness level and decide whether the priority is clocking up the ski miles, communing with nature or sampling the local cuisine over long lunches.
Powder takes precedence among most of our group, which consists of several expert skiers, including our hosts, Ben Shearer and Hamish Gordon-Lennox. Their travel company, Peligoni, has long experience of running summer holidays at its beach club in Zakynthos, Greece. Last winter it expanded into winter tourism, seizing on the ski safari concept as a way of differentiating themselves — despite the inevitable logistical headaches that come with combining complicated itineraries and fickle high-altitude weather.
Our plan was to spend the morning exploring the off-piste options around Gornergrat, before making our way to a mountain refuge for the next stage of the safari. The sight of so much snow swirling around had also raised hopes of fresh powder. But our guides, Francis Kelsey and Severin Marchand, had to find it first. Looking upwards, they pointed to a mountainside that two days earlier had been knee deep in the stuff. Since then, the raging storm had simply picked up the snow and deposited it elsewhere, leaving the slope looking as if it was still early December, treetops and rocks poking out of a sandblasted base.
Fortunately, the conditions were on the turn: with every few metres we descended, the wind dropped slightly and the visibility improved. Our guides, released from subsistence skiing, suddenly dropped off the edge of the piste into a vale of untouched snow. There were surprises lurking here and there under the surface, but the occasional jolt underfoot seemed like a price worth paying for finally being let off the leash.
As the lift system gradually reopened, we worked our way towards our destination for the night, the Gandegghütte. After a day of mini adventures including being occasionally thrown off balance by the weight of rucksacks carrying avalanche airbags, shovels, probes and transceivers, as well as our night-time gear — our windswept crew drew up to the mountain refuge, fixed limpet-like on a rock beneath the Breithorn.
Built in 1885, the Gandegg is a relic of pre-developed Zermatt. It now lies within sight of pisted slopes and the cable car but it upholds all the best traditions of the genre. At night, the fug of the dining room was almost overwhelming, a wood fired stove pumping heat to radiators liberally draped with our kit. Andrea, the hut mistress, served up a meal belying the mountaintop setting — a three course feast of broth, macaroni with meat and cheese, then dessert.
For some, the chief flaw of hut living is the shock of the unheated bedroom or bunk dorm. True, the air was bitingly cold as I climbed into bed. Within minutes, however, I was stiflingly hot under the hut’s thick duvets, and flung off clothes to find a better medium.
The next day, the storm had broken glorious skies and sunshine provided perfect conditions for one of the trip’s highlights, a helicopter flight to the Château des Dames, a 3488-metre-high Italian peak, just to the west of Cervinia. After skiing to the landing zone at Plateau Rosa, we crouched low, huddling against the crescendo of noise and blasting snow that signalled the chopper’s arrival. As the guides loaded our gear, we jumped aboard, before a rapid ascent that saw the valley unfold beneath us. It was a sublime (and highly efficient) leg of our journey: within what seemed like seconds, we were disgorging on to a high shoulder of the peak.
The descent was euphoric, our fat skis carving easily through the shin deep powder on the upper slopes. Lower down, this gave way to denser, wetter snow — a choppier business altogether — but the experience of peak-to-valley fresh tracks was hard to beat.
At the bottom the question arose of how we should make our way to Cervinia, a few miles away. We could have walked along the road, it’s true, but when we saw the local bus approach, it seemed a crime not to add it to our growing list of transport modes, so we threw our skis in the trunk and climbed up with the local shoppers, apparently unruffled by our snow-dusted presence.
Ski safaris can sometimes rely on tight logistics, and our next and final day was a case in point. We were staying at the recently opened White Angel hotel, nicely positioned beside the pistes above the town of Cervinia, and with striking views of the Italian side of the Matterhorn. There was little time to admire them in the morning, though, for we were in Italy, our luggage over the border in Zermatt, and our flight was due to leave Zurich at 7pm. Added to this, our guides were worried about deteriorating weather: as we ate breakfast the cable car that rises up to the 3295-metre Theodul Pass — the route back to Switzerland — was set to open, but it might not stay that way.
We arrived so early at the first ski lift we almost had it to ourselves. But it still came as a relief when we finally crested the top of the pass, and emerged between the Matterhorn and Breithorn to see the surrounding peaks open out before us. A bittersweet off piste run towards the Hörnli ridge of the Matterhorn was our final delight, a near10km ride that brought us back, reluctant but satisfied, to Zermatt and the prospect of a return to humdrum reality.
Back on the train, speeding through the Swiss countryside towards the airport, my thoughts turned to the ski safari experience. Would I do it again? Without hesitation. It’s hard to imagine a better antidote to the piste-basher’s package week, yet it requires a relaxed approach. If you worry too much about the logistics and objectives, you are doing it all wrong. But go with the flow, and you never know where it might take you.
This article was originally published by the Financial Times
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016