For A Die-hard American Skier, A Case Of Alpine Fever

Posted: February 09, 1986

The answer to my snow-filled daydreams had always been found somewhere in the Wasatch Range of Utah, where the boast of the "Greatest Snow on Earth" has a ring of truth.

Last ski season, I thought I had reached nirvana when my first day on the slopes revealed waist-deep powder in the Gad Bowl of Snowbird. I subsequently assaulted miles of white ecstasy during a five-day tour of the best Utah offers.

The convenience and relatively low cost of a three-hour flight to Utah (you can fly for $238 from Philadelphia), with less than an hour's drive from airport to slopes, made a drive to New England seem an absurd alternative to skiing the West. Even more absurd was the idea of skiing the Alps. It costs too much, entails many hours of travel and requires knowing a foreign language, I told myself. And, besides, they probably don't have powder snow.

But these thoughts were dispelled somewhat when a brochure in front of me said, "Ski the Alps for Less Than the Rockies," and boasted a fly-drive- hotel package for $499 to Interlaken, Switzerland. I found my resistance quickly melting into anticipation. Why not?

About three weeks before leaving, I went into my usual training routine of rope-jumping, jogging and side-to-side jumping exercises for the legs; lifting barbells, sit-ups and push-ups for the upper body, and long spells of sitting (without a chair) against a wall to build thigh muscles.

Simple calculations told me that this trip involved almost 24 hours of travel from home to hotel, and a wake-up call at 1 a.m. Philadelphia time the following day. But to my amazement, the exercises and strict adherence to a jet-lag diet developed at the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois left me feeling ready to hit the slopes, clearheaded and wide awake for Day One.

To my dismay, the skies were gray, the snow was falling heavily and a thick fog lay on the upper slopes - definitely not a good start to the week. I would be trading off the much-hoped-for physical experience of attacking tough runs with mounds of new snow for a gentle day of winding through easy trails.

The ride up to the ski run in a cogwheel train lasted 30 comfortable minutes, but dropped me off in a near whiteout of fog, and drifting and blowing snow. I was above the tree line, so the only points of visual reference were 6-foot-tall poles driven into the snow at about 20-foot intervals.

These were the only guides for the first mile of descent from the top of the Kleine Sheidegg back into the Grindelwald Valley, a four-mile run that wound through trees, past stables and huts and a restaurant or two, and over creek beds.

But after 20 years on the slopes, I found few thrills on this run, and I decided to find something a little tougher, despite the poor visibility. For the next run, I took the Lauberhorn T-bar lift, which rises above the upper station of the Kleine Sheidegg rail. At the top, the thick fog and dense snow blended into a shapeless scene of quiet confusion. The only sense that could be trusted was that of gravity - this was a total whiteout.

Under these conditions, when the new snow is of sufficient depth, the easiest route is down the fall line. I set out blindly and, after three delicious turns in the deep powder, shot across a groomed track and hit a wall of snow on the other side. Two soft forward rolls in the snow ripped off my skis and filled my goggles. Attempting to stand up, I sank over my waist in the fluff.

Now the really tough part began: finding my buried skis. It took me a half- hour of searching to locate them, anxiety mounting as I used my poles like long spoons to stir up the white powder.

I can't say it was panic that crept up my spine and made the back of my neck twitch, but I was not feeling too confident about getting out of this predicament. My choices were a near-vertical drop through powder, using the lift as my guide, or a traverse to where I thought the trail might be.

Then, like a white knight, a ski patrolman came up the T-bar and spotted me out in the soft stuff. He couldn't speak English, nor I German, but we quickly communicated by pointing down the hill that he was going to be my tour guide for this run.

With the patrolman making rhythmic turns, nearly disappearing in the crystallized cloud that flowed behind him, I experienced my first flash of pure joy. I could feel the snow slapping around my arms and hitting my chin as we descended the mountain. With confidence returning and fear on the wane, I loosened up and let myself be taken away in the floating experience of powder turns.

Back among the trees and skiing with visibility, I spent the remainder of the day exploring the western reaches of the Grindelwald Valley. What few buildings I could see were picture-book quaint. Small stables, warming huts, homes and cozy restaurants dotted the valley floor. At lower levels, people walked with their children in tow on wooden sleds along the same wide trails used for skiing.

The second day dawned gray and gloomy, and numerous calls by our hotel hostess to local weather stations and ski regions of the Jungfrau brought little hope of good weather. But as we drove up the Grindelwald Valley from our hotel, the skies cleared and we had our first view of the Jungfrau, Monch, Eiger and other peaks in this vast range of mountains.

In Grund, we found the GGM gondola had opened, and as we ascended from the valley floor, a sense of this region's immensity took hold. We would ski runs stretching as long as eight miles this day. You could fit four of Utah's Park City ski resorts neatly into the Jungfrau region of interconnecting ski lifts and trails.

This day, we were met not just with clear skies, but also with nearly a foot of new snow, as packing machines pushed down the slopes, grooming many trails. This wasn't the mashed-potatoes variety of snow, either. With temperatures in the low 20s and the humidity around 30 percent, the conditions were ideal. And even more pleasant was the fact that few skiers were venturing into the untracked areas.

Using T-bars in the above-tree-line terrain, I spent nearly half the day carving untracked powder snow at a leisurely pace. It was a novelty of utter delight. The pursuit of powder in Utah is done en masse, as nearly every ''powder pig" in the state forsakes his or her vocation to hit the slopes at the first report of newly fallen snow. But here in the Swiss Alps, those skiers willing to go into the unpacked snow were few.

I must have accumulated nearly 5,000 feet of descent that morning through the soft stuff, and when I took a break at 2 p.m., my thighs burned from the task of turning and my toes ached from the pressure of the rocking-horse action needed to course through the snow.

That afternoon, and on subsequent days, I explored the various lifts and trails, at one point skiing down to Wengen, a quaint village of hotels and shops perched on a plateau high above the Lauterbrunnen Valley.

As time wore on, fatigue set in and I felt my enthusiasm draining. I had suffered this problem before and found that a long soak in a whirlpool, a large meal of pasta and an early bedtime usually cured the ailment.

The treatment worked, and on the fifth and final day of my ski pass, I headed for an area stretching east of Grindelwald called First - served by the oldest chairlift in Europe. Oldest and, I was told, also coldest. Overcoats were provided to each rider for the 2 1/2-mile ride up to an elevation of 7,100 feet.

This chair offered the best view yet of the Jungfrau, and the day unfolded to one unparalleled in my memory. There were miles of untracked runs, and during the day I counted only eight skiers making turns through the waist- deep snow.

I had found the snow of fabled Utah, but without the crowds. And the Swiss charm added to the experience in innumerable ways.

At day's end in the town of Grindelwald, I sat on the porch of a food store on one of the small back streets, accessible only by ski or on foot. Sipping on a large container of bottled water, drained and delighted, I made a mental note that my first trip to Switzerland would not be my last.

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