Friday, February 1, 2008

I may not be in the tropics but it's warmer here than back home!

So last I wrote Sean, Tony and I were beginning our first full day off since arriving here. Darlene had taken off with her snowboard to find more Canadians and we three headed into town. She seems to have acquired a knack for travelling partway around the world, only to meet people from back home. This has been attributed to the Canadian habits of being polite and speaking to strangers whereas a lot of the other people we are encountering are rather gruff or silent to us, perhaps due to language barriers. So far D has met a family from Toronto, two guys from the GTA, a woman from Waterloo and who knows who else? A pretty low key day was spent by the rest of us. We did some shopping and browsing, got my new snowboarding tool engraved and bought a few more groceries. I love the milk here!! It’s so delicious and creamy and hey, it does a body good. We found the post office too. Did you know you can mail chocolate bars to people? I don’t mean you go to a store, buy a chocolate bar, wrap it up and put postage on it. Nope, instead they have a rack of chocolate bars (100g) with packaging that includes an area to put postage, an address section and a part to write a message. Are these people smart or what? Sorry but I should warn you now that I’m too cheap to send any of these. Coming out of the post office involved some unplanned hilarity. Sean, who was exiting ahead of me, provoked a little yappy dog tied up outside the door but got no reaction so he carried on. As I blithely followed him out the door, the dog took one look at me and began to yap hysterically, causing me to shriek loudly in alarm and leap a foot off the ground, much to the complete amusement of Tony behind me.

Our day of R&R also included a trip to the Matterhorn Museum which is not only located underground in Zermatt but is also very informative and interesting. They’ve designed it as something of an archaeological dig under a little square by the church where you turn left and a bank where I opened my Swiss account to use as a tax shelter. Oops, inside voice. The exterior of the museum is something of a glass dome which contains a gift shop (hey Mum, a gift shop!) and some lockers, then you descend underneath to begin exploring. Upon closer inspection from outside, the dome is actually shaped like the Matterhorn. Unlike a lot of museums I’ve been to, this one had a lot of stuff you could touch which was great. We learned things like an awful lot of people have died trying to climb the Matterhorn and nearby peaks, that Theodore Roosevelt likened his ascent and descent of the Matterhorn to climbing up and down stairs on his hands and knees for 9 hours, that the railway to get to Zermatt came about in 1891, that winter visitors weren’t common in Zermatt until the railway started operating in the winter more than 20 years later. We also learned that the number of visitors to Zermatt dropped dramatically during both world wars, and that the oldest person to climb the Matterhorn was 92 at the time. One of the features we’ve been noticing here is that most of the barns and outbuildings are built off the ground. This in itself isn’t terribly dramatic, especially if you’ve been to Cape Hatteras, N.C. for example. However, the part that interested us was the use of large slabs of stone as part of the pilings on which the structures are built. Think of it as similar to putting up a bird feeder on a pole and below the feeder you put an inverted dome around the pole to deter squirrels from raiding the feeders. We learned that these slabs of stone are designed to deter mice from raiding the grains and feeds stored for animals. Slate roofs are also very popular here. The museum taught us that often these roofs will shift during winter under the load of snow and have to be rechecked each spring. A great museum indeed!

On Wednesday, I had been hopeful to take Luna back to Italy but this was not meant to be. The weather was co-operative (albeit viciously windy up top) but my body was not. In order to snowboard over to Italy, one ascends first to an altitude of over 12,000ft by various gondolas, then rides down to a slightly lower altitude stop which is on the border. The top most Glacier Paradise has numerous dire signs posted to warn people about the extreme altitude and to emphasize taking things slowly. My body has been reluctant to adapt to the altitude changes here, mostly resulting in breathlessness and decreased energy at higher altitudes. My boots have also been causing me discomfort and apparently my day off in running shoes was not enough rest. We’re SO not in Kansas anymore! Anyway, to make a long story short, our group managed to get to the lower Plateau Rosa but at that point I decided it would not be a good idea to try and force myself into Italy with painful feet and intermittent shortness of breath. Instead we rode down further to our oft-visited locale at Trockener Stag. This area seems to have runs that suit both Sean’s carving board and our standard all-around boards since the riding styles for the two types are different. This area also provided me an opportunity to try out a T bar lift for the first time. Not to be confused with a beginner hill T bar lift back home, this one is about 2.5 km long which is great if you ski, torture if you ride a snowboard. Skiiers most often don’t mind the T bar lifts because they basically sit on it and admire the scenery while being calmly propelled along. Snowboarders, on the other hand, need to point their boards uphill in the direction the lift is travelling while their bodies torque sideways yet forward to accommodate their riding stance and the complexities of how the lift is designed. Daunting. Not only was Tony nice enough to try and explain to me how to get hold of it but he also forgave my blonde moment with only a few quiet snickers. A polite fellow on a snowboard with a charming British accent who was trying to master the T bar just ahead of us asked (in English) if we spoke English to which I brightly replied, “Yes. Do you?” Sean treated me to a great guffaw when this story was related to him later. Eventually the Brit grabbed hold of a bar and was whisked away. Some whimpering, a few blind misses and then I was being dragged uphill. With one arm keeping the bar in a stranglehold I worked hard at maintaining my precarious balance. Did I mention that one of the runs intersects the T bar towing line? As in the people coming downhill at high rates of speed with varying degrees of control must wend themselves between the people riding the T bar lift. Tony has a good story about that but I’ll save it for another time. First ride up, I fell off about ¼ of the way along. After waiting for Sean and Tony to ride down, it was time to try again. This time we all made it up to the halfway point which was about as far as we could tolerate. A few runs down and we met up with Darlene to begin the trek back to our hostel, always an uphill climb at the end.

Holy cow, it’s already Friday! Soon (too soon) we will be heading back to Canada and reality. First, however, we had a great night out yesterday. Since Sean tends to sleep until noon, Tony, D and I headed up to Rothorn Paradise, located at 3103m for some daytime runs. The first leg of this journey involves another peculiar train system, this time at an angle of about 45 degrees by our best guess. The station where you load is pitched at that angle and you climb up the stairs until you reach a car that you want to enter. The train descends into the pitched station and when the little gates lift, you can enter the cars where you stand and get pulled up the mountain for lack of a more technical explanation. We were hoping to get a car to ourselves but ended up with about 10 of us, including our boards and a baby carriage. Two women got on with the carriage and we were figuring for full. However, as soon as the announcement came that the doors were closing, some Italian man carrying two pairs of skiis decided he needed to wedge himself in our compartment. Crashing his skiis into the doorframe a few times, he barrelled into one of the baby carriage women, repeatedly saying , “Scuzzi” and effectively pushing her companion out the opposite door. Needless to say, his victims did not feel very kindly toward him and the lady he was shoving released a barrage of French invectives as she fought to maintain her balance and not squash her baby. We three rolled our eyes but he remained oblivious to his ignorance. Two more gondolas later and we were through the cloud covering the valley, gazing out in wonder from Rothorn. Earlier in the morning I had been worried that it might not be a good day to ride since it had snowed overnight for the first time since we got here and none of the town was visible from the windows of our hostel at breakfast time due to low lying cloud. From Rothorn there weren’t many choices of runs to try if we wanted to remain in an area with easy gondola accessibility to descend when ready but we chose right and headed off. Did I mention that on the first gondola up from the train station we saw two little goat-type creatures on the rocks as well as two parasailers who were not on the rocks but in the air? I also broke a nail rather nastily doing up my boots at the top. Too bad I left all my fun bandaids at home. My leadership decision to “go right” would prove to be rather controversial later. Soon we came to another fork and again, I suggested taking the right fork which, according to the trail map, would get us down to a gondola station should we want to take it back up and do another run from the top. Wending our way down with me leading, I came upon a long narrow fairly flat stretch of run no more than 10-12 feet wide. Flat terrain is not snowboarder friendly for the record. This skimpy stretch, which felt 3 inches wide, was cut into the side of the mountain with a precipice plummeting an unknown distance down on the other side. Did I mention there was no snow fence on the cliff side? The run seemed to go on forever so I’ve no idea how long it really was but it was no picnic. I had to hurl myself into the snow on the mountain side at one point to give my burning toes and calves a break (mostly toe edge terrain so much pain involved) as well as to let the other two catch up to me. After a breather we regrouped at the gondola station to plan our next section. We decided to head lower since, although the views were gorgeous, we hadn’t particularly enjoyed our suicide ride along the cliff edge and had no desire to do that run again. Once more we encountered some crazy stuff, this time more flat parts preceded by some seriously steep sections. I like those seriously steep parts but I was alone in my sentiments this time. We headed back to the hostel where Tony departed to find Sean who was riding elsewhere while I hit the showers.

Normally the hostel provides us with dinner but last night we had a special treat. Stopping for some hostel soup first as a snack, we then took a gondola up to Furi (1864m) where we hiked up some ski area to a restaurant that has probably been there for over 100 years. It’s perched up on a steep hill overlooking the valley with great views. It’s such a cool little place, made of wood primarily, with an open fire place by the front door, gorgeous curving staircases, and old pictures of the Matterhorn everywhere. Ambiance indeed. Too bad I hadn’t brought my camera. Four hours later, our 13 course (!) fancy pants dinner wound down and we struggled into our snow pants and outerwear. I nearly fell asleep during the three desserts but the bracing air outside woke me up. We had been expecting to toboggan back to Zermatt but what we hadn’t realized from the wording in the brochure where we learned about this dinner was that we would have had to bring our own toboggans up with us from a rental place in town. Considering the ski run we followed back to town on foot was not lit at all and had sharp drop offs, I’m not sure it’s an entirely bad thing that we didn’t have sleds to ride at high rates of speed in the dark on unknown terrain with only some control. We did find some poles to use as sleds with varying degrees of success so we made good use of those on the steep sections. Luckily Sean had had the foresight to bring a headlamp with him so we weren’t entirely in the dark. Long night but lots of fun was had.


John said...

First rule of chocolate club: Don't talk about chocolate you didn't mail :P

Anonymous said...

well I for one WILL be checking my mail and there better be some chocolate in the box.....

I had a call from Sean, and you are probably in Geneva now, It is saturday nite in Calgary...Safe travels

Hear from yu all soon...