Snowkiting In Switzerland. A Chilling Tale Of High Mountain Adventures

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My trip to Switzerland in 2006 was amazing. It was interesting to see the vast startling contrast between America and the Swiss, which was exaggerated by my choice for departure from JFK. JFK is in a serious state of disrepair, it always feels like a war zone down there. The people who work there have seriously negative attitudes and I can only imagine what most of the airlines that fly through there think. Case in point our departing plane had been at the gate all day, but no one had some to clean it so we were 30 minutes late in boarding. Once we boarded there was no ground crew to see us off, so there was another hour we had to wait. This was a huge international flight as well with maybe 200 people on it, not just a puddle jumper. Everything in Switzerland was very nice and new and clean. The public transportation was amazing, I never found myself waiting more than 10 minutes for a train or a bus and the buses were all free. When I got back to NYC and had to get in my car and drive through rush hour NYC traffic you really start to appreciate how different America is from other countries in the world.

The scenery in Switzerland was amazing, around every corner was a breathtaking view of mountains, valleys and streams. After a while I had to give up on taking pictures because there was just not enough difference between one picture and the next, they were all amazing. I decided to start my trip off going to Zermatt, which I had heard from a Norwegian friend of mine that I had met in Jamaica was simply the coolest place to go. It was easy to get to and the people were quite nice. It is a small car-less village in the mountains where everything is within a 5 minute walk. There was electric busses that ran every 5 minutes that were free as well. I stayed in a very nice hostel near the train station in a shared room with 12 other guys for about $27 a night. There was a huge kitchen in the basement where people could cook their meals and hang out. The atmosphere was really nice and I’m sure that the people in this hostel were far friendlier than the countless expensive hotels and restaurants around town. The grocery store was very close so I made frequent trips and tried lots of different Swiss food, all of which I’m happy to say was excellent. For three days I skied in the deep woods in a foot of powder with no base and shredded my skis up from the rocks and tree stumps. In the first day I broke both leashes and put a huge dent in the bottom of the board as well as a 4 inch crack in the fiberglass cap. After 3 days they looked like they needed to be thrown away.

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Zermatt

The mountains in Switzerland are quite amazing as well. There is about 3x as many lifts as big resorts in the US and the off-trail skiing is quite dangerous. There were 2 people who died in the time I was at Zermatt from avalanches caused by off-piste skiing. I was determined not to die, and the woods seemed like a safer bet than the huge expanses of steep snow with little or nothing to hold it in place. Because there was no base when the snow started to fall, it all came down because there was nothing to hold it to the mountain. I called Pascal, the owner of a small kite shop in Simplon pass about 3 hours away every day to check on the winds, but they were never favorable so after 3 days I decided to just head up there and see for myself.

Simplon Pass was a pretty out-of the way kind of place. There had been a lot of snow that had fallen there recently and so there was about 3 feet of powder everywhere. There was no wind so I got a room in the bottom of what looked like an abandoned gas station and spent the day hiking around. I walked down the road a kilometer to find a small ski area with a t-bar that was not even manned that I skied down a couple of times for $10 US, the cheapest lift ticket ever! I decided to hike around the back country and found some really cool igloos that some people had made as well as a neat room up on the side of a cliff made out of rocks. It was like a man-made cave. I quickly grew tired of the lack of wind so the next morning I hopped on a bus to St Moritz.

St Moritz was amazing and by far my favorite place. I stayed in a huge hostel in town, which was quite expensive. I paid $50 US dollars a night to sleep in a room with a stranger. That stranger, Pedro turned out to be the nicest guy I’d ever shared a room with and the best part was that he snored too! It made it much easier to sleep with someone who snores because you don’t lay awake at night wondering if you fall asleep if you’re going to keep everyone else up. Pedro’s friend Sonya was also a very nice German woman who spent a great deal of time talking to me for the week I was there. I enjoyed our conversations greatly and learned a great deal about Germans and German culture. The first night I was there I also met a backcountry snowboarder named Pascal and another Alaskan skier named Ryan. Pascal showed me his avalanche balloons and explained to me at length a great deal more about the dangers of skiing off the trails at big resorts without an avalanche balloon system and a transponder or a probe. Since I basically didn’t have any safety equipment I decided the kiting was a far safer and better option to do.

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The conditions were amazing and one kiter said is was the best it had been on over 30 years. For 7 days I kited every day except one. Two of the days were stellar with intense wind and hundreds of jumps. The snow was deep and soft so many times you would get boosted almost 20 feet in the air and then land splat like a cartoon character in the snow leaving nothing but an outline of your body in the snow. It took over an hour to get to and back from the kiting spot to the hotel and the buses were much more complicated to figure out than in Zermatt, but after 7 days I had it dialed in. It surprises me that America does not have a free bus system. I’ve heard that every bus ride in Ithaca costs about $7 and people only have to pay around $2 and the rest is subsidized by public funds. Seems like it would make more sense to have the buses be free, then I think that a lot more people would use them. Even in Zermatt and St Moritz, which were the richest of the rich spend their time, most of the people did not seem to have or want to have cars.

The hostel had a ski fixing room, so I hung out in there and kept borrowing ptex, wax, and files from the other ‘normal’ people in the ski room. It was funny to watch people tune their skis with absolutely no visable scratchs or problems. The bottom of my skis looked like they were some dog’s chew toy. There was so gouges that went all the way through the base. Other skiers would take one look at my skis and scoff and then tell their friends that I should just give up and throw the skis away. It’s funny how when people speak in another language frequently it seems like you know what they are saying even though you don’t speak the language. Oh the shame of being a good skier. Most of the people at these high-end resorts are terrible skiers so you have to stay off the trails so they don’t hit you. A rule of thumb is that the newer and more expensive the gear and outfit are the further away you should ski from them. One woman kept slamming the safety bar on the chairlift on my head three or four times before I finally had to ask her to stop. The worst part is I hadn’t even finished sitting down in the chair yet!

At the hostel they slowly degraded my accommodation as more and more people came for a large 15,000 person cross country ski race. After 5 days I got moved out of Pedro’s room and into a 4 person dorm then down into the basement which looked like a terrorist training camp room with all concrete walls and piping everywhere. It suited my just fine though for a mere $30/night! They had free all you can eat meals in the morning and evening and I felt like an animal in the zoo the way I had to show up in the kitchen at certain times to get my meals. The meals were quite tasty and cheap when compared with the price of eating out in most of St Moritz. Most of the people in this hostel were older and there were many young children there, which was nice.

When it was time to return home, I felt pretty worn out and was happy to be going home. I had been having frequent dreams of Jocelyn and she had been on my mind. Every day I woke up in Switzerland I was so happy to be alive and so thankful for everything and everyone in my life. On my way home I was struck by how unhappy so many people seem. I want to be happy and to make time for myself in my life to do the things that make me happy so I can bring joy to other people and help them see what a gift it is to be alive. That really was the best thing I got out of this trip, was an appreciation of my life and what a blessing it is.

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