Off-Piste

On the first weekend of April, I received my first visitor to Switzerland: the one and only Simon, my quirky friend from Ireland who was keen to catch up over a few descents down Switzerland’s snowy slopes.

Ski season varies here depending on the altitude, so I researched resorts whose heights kept them open through mid-April. We decided on Flims-Laax and booked an AirBnB in the quieter town of Laax. Before I knew it, it was April 1 and Dan and I were en route to Zurich airport to scoop Simon.

I’d been a little worried as the days led up to his arrival. Spring seemed to have sprung, with flowers bursting open and bare arms emerging from sweaters. But as luck would have it, the first weekend in April had one last breath of winter in it. As Dan and I pulled into an airplane-themed restaurant (Runway 34) near Zurich, snowflakes began to fall. (And it snowed in Basel, too!)

The food was not so impressive at the restaurant, and the set-up was gimmicky, but the planes were cool. We ended up driving to the airport after a quick meal of raw salmon on salad and parking, then having a beer in a much cooler location, Upper Deck in the airport. Soon, I received a text from Simon announcing he’d landed and was being shuffled onto the terminal train (which plays mountain music as you whizz by holographic cartoon images of Swiss countryside).

Dan and I had strategically packed the car with our boards, equipment, and luggage, making sure there was room for Simon and his. We were just finishing our beers when I heard from behind me Simon’s familiar voice:

“This place is hard to find!”

I turned and hugged my friend, and noticed the absence of a backpack.

“Where’s your luggage?” I asked him.

He held up a plastic shopping bag with a pair of shoes inside.

“I traveled light!” he laughed. This was completely unsurprising, including a few minutes later when he pulled socks out of his pockets.

We hopped in the car and Dan drove us through the snow to our apartment in Laax, where we cracked open a few cans of Valaisanne and caught up. I was clearly overly excited by Simon’s arrival and came down with a vicious case of the hiccups.

“Right, Dan, you go and write a word on her forehead,” Simon instructed.

“What?” I replied skeptically, with a hiccup.

“Any word, just use your finger and write it – slowly! Go slower. That’s it. Now do it again. Yeh’ve got to do it three times for it to work.”

Halfway through the third word, a hiccup made me doubtful, but no sooner had Dan finished writing than my hiccups were gone.

I stared at Simon in disbelief.

“Works every time. Don’t try to think about it now.”

The next morning, we drove around the corner to a breakfast spot called Romana Cafe and Bistro, which surprised us by serving eggs!

“Yeh wanna eat something that sticks with you,” Simon told us as we prepared for our day on the slopes.

We parked in Flims and went to a rental shop, where Simon rented gear and Dan got a bandana scarf thing that covered his head. He then went off to get lift tickets. When he returned, he explained that due to high winds, the lifts toward the top of the mountain were closed.

“This pass was only 65 francs, as opposed to 90,” he said, “and we won’t use the high lifts anyway.”

Simon paid for his gear, then leaned across the counter and asked, “What’s the best route that goes through the trees? Not off-piste, but like a road.” To us he added, “That’s what snowboarders dream of.”

“You want 18,” replied the guy. “It’s a red, but easy enough for beginners. You’ll see it’s gonna be crowded up there today. There’s a big party.”

This made sense. Walking into the shop, I’d seen a man run past me in a scarecrow costume.

“What kind of party?”

“Oh, they’ve got famous bands in. The music isn’t good. But everyone’ll be up there.”

Sure enough, as we scanned our passes to board the gondola, we spotted a handful of people donning colorful suits and outfits. As the day wore on and the lines for the gondola grew, we spotted more and more people in makeup, cosmic-themed ski outfits, and zero equipment. There seemed to be a no-beer rule in the gondola, so the partiers stood around chugging beers and Smirnoff before hopping on a gondola.

We took an empty gondola up to the top of our route, strapped on the boards, and headed down. Immediately, it became clear to me how excited Simon was to go off the trail. Every opportunity he got, he was cruising through powder and hollering back at us to join him.

Luckily, the red route through the trees was absolutely stunning on its own, soft and powdery as snow continued to fall fresh from the sky. Once we got the feeling of snowboarding again, Dan and I carefully followed Simon on little detours off the piste. The snow there felt way softer and fluffier.

“Like water,” Simon said, wiggling his way through the trees. “Like riding a wave. It’s so quiet. This is what snowboarders live for.”

Exhilarated at the bottom, we jumped back on the gondola for a second go. The conditions at the top were blustery and cold, but as soon as we bore left onto the 18 with the trees, it cleared up and felt warmer. We spent the morning playing in little off piste swoops, just taking a quick minute in fresh snow before getting back on the groomed piste.

We broke for a snack at the bottom and made a plan for the afternoon.

Favorite. little route

“I want to see the half-pipe,” said Dan. “It’s the biggest in Europe.”

“Okay, so half-pipe, then we stop by the party.”

This proved harder than anticipated. The half-pipe was located up a slightly different side of the mountain to us, which was more exposed to the weather and way icier. To get back down, we’d need to take a different chairlift and brave a new route. We were all very grateful we had face coverings in the chairlift. The descent here was less fun. I could barely see Simon or Dan in front of me as I guided my board over exposed swaths of ice that sounded horrible as they grated under my board.

It was cold

By the time we reached our starting point to get to the party, the descent to Nagens, I was feeling spent and frustrated. We decided that we’d go off-piste to reach the party, which Simon did easily, but I got stuck in a snowdrift and it took all of my energy to get up.

Dan waited as I tried to decide whether to walk down or board. Walking would be less of a hassle, but boarding would be (maybe) more fun. (I asked Dan if there was anything I should add to this part of the entry, and he said, ‘Include the part where you said, ‘I suck at snowboarding.’ So there it is! I’d fallen so many times by this point that I was getting frustrated, and what happened next didn’t help, but hey, I did it anyway.)

“I’m just gonna board down the sledge path,” I said. No one was on it. Dan also thought that was a great idea. By this time, the weather had shifted from fluffy gentle flakes and blue skies to pinprick snow whipping your cheeks, so I wasn’t super thrilled.

Dan went first, cruised down to where Simon was waiting, and bounced nicely over the edge of the piste to the off-piste where he sat down and took off the board. I cruised down and fell over the edge into the snow.

I guess something to reflect on is mindset. If I’d gone down convinced I was a snowboarding superstar, I bet I wouldn’t have fallen.

In any case, it was definitely time for a beer. We left our boards in the snow along the main piste and headed towards the thumping speakers where a band was shouting into a microphone in German. The frontman, clad in a blue skisuit, paused occasionally to swipe his combover down, all the while dodging snowballs being hurled at the stage by the crowd. I wasn’t sure if this was them booing the band or an expression of fun, since folks were waving their arms along with the music.

Dan and Simon grabbed us two bottles of Calanda and we popped them open with a Prost! We sipped, and then watched as the beer froze. Like, icicles grew from the surface down.

“Holy shit, our beer is frozen.”

Dan put our bottles inside his coat and zipped it up, while Simon opted to stuff his down his snow pants. We huddled together away from the wind while they defrosted. Beside us, a group of adults dressed as ewoks danced along with the music.

The party was a great spot for people-watching. Groups of intoxicated, costumed individuals congo-lined past us while children in dinosaur snowsuits flopped into the snow and lay there.

Once our beers had defrosted, we clambered up the hill to clip on our snowboards and head down. The weather had not improved, and this time our descent also involved avoiding drunk people skiing down from the party. We all survived, dumped our boards in the car, and headed back to town for a drink. The bar at the bottom of the run was pumping out rave music and the partiers were gathering there. We opted for the Arena Bar, just across the street from an American Burger place. We grabbed a spot at the bar and cheersed 3 pints of very much not-frozen beer, and then ended up with another round and dinner just as the place was filling up.

These are my favorite parts of trips: a beer that turns into dinner because the vibe is cool and the conversation is awesome. It’s also fantastic seeing an old friend after so many years but feeling like no time has passed, AND feeling like conversation is seamless even though he only knew Dan for less than 24 hours.

We were in bed as soon as we got back to the AirBnB. In the morning, I woke up at 7 to run 12km. My phone encouraged me to run from Laax to Flims, which was a little daunting as the winding mountain road didn’t seem to have much of a sidewalk yesterday. Still, I tried. The road was sleek with what could have been ice, and snow began to fall as I ran. The sun was peeking out encouragingly as I ran about 6km up 273 meters of mountain. My route took me off the road and onto some fluffy snowy woodland paths, which were an absolute joy until the snow got too deep and my sneakers too wet.

I enjoyed the run, though, and the views it provided. I ran knowing I would pack up my things and eat eggs for breakfast.

We did this at a leisurely pace, and over eggs, we discussed our plans for the day. Would we snowboard? Explore somewhere else? Hike?

Simon had been texting a girl he knew who worked as a ski instructor nearby.

“She used to work at the surf camps in Ireland,” he told us. “We’d just be in the waves, chatting.”

This is one of the things I love about Simon: he will talk to anyone, genuinely enjoys hearing about people’s experiences and lives, and he keeps in touch with so many folks he crosses paths with. (For a future entry: the sheep head story.)

“Where is she working?” asked Dan.

“Churchwald,” said Simon.

It took a few minutes for me to figure out he meant Chur, which was only 33 minutes away. Feeling spontaneous, we hopped in the car and drove over.

I had no intentions of snowboarding, and Simon was on the fence; he’d returned his rental gear already. But when we pulled into the half-empty car park at the bottom of the lift in Chur, I started itching to get on a mountain.

We spoke with the woman at the information desk and decided we’d purchase passes for the afternoon, with Dan buying a lift ticket so he could hike around for a bit, loaning Simon his own snowboarding equipment in the meantime.

We took the gondola up and Simon and I explored a few runs. I was feeling tired, and Simon was waiting to hear from his friend, who was somewhere off-piste with her friends. We had a quick Coke with Dan at a ski bar – which would have been adorable if smoking was illegal – and then decided to go up one last time. We’d meet Dan below.

Making plans

Simon and I came down a nice blue run to where a chairlift would take Simon back up for another run. I wanted to go straight down, but the red I’d planned on taking looked closed off.

“Ach, it’s not closed,” Simon said.

“But there’s a chain across it, blocking it off,” I replied.

“Nah, look, there’s tracks next to it,” he insisted. Then, after a pause, “Will I go with you?”

“That’d make me feel better,” I said.

And I’m glad he did. It was unbelievably snowy and joyful, but definitely not a piste. The absence of markers along the way confirmed it for me. Eventually, as we crashed through shrubs and beautiful off-piste snow, I spotted the posts of a red route down below.

Simon led the way down through glorious, cloud-like snow. I fell in a few times, and it’s not easy to push yourself out. It’s a full-body workout for sure.

The highlight was the end, where Simon was at the bottom of the hill I needed to go over.

“Just point your board at me and come down!” he hollered, so I did. It was then I realized how important it is to just lean back when you’re off piste, and it was marvelous.

The whole weekend felt like the most I’d ever liked snowboarding and the most I’d ever played on a board.

We ended the day with beers at a bar with Simon’s friend, who turned out to be this awesome ski-instructor/snowboarder/person who just placed fourth in a big air competition. She told us that there had been a total of 5 perfect snow days all season, where the off-piste action was superb. This had been one of them. How lucky were we?

It felt sad to leave Simon at Zurich airport, but we parted ways with promises of a return trip in the fall for more off-piste.

Categories: Switzerland

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