Travel: It’s worth waiting for the white stuff in Switzerland

Snowshoe hiking in Sulwald. Picture: Jost von Allmen

Snowshoe hiking in Sulwald. Picture: Jost von Allmen - Credit:

Non-skier Bridget Galton finds that snowfall is a feast or a famine during a trip to the Bernese alps.

Piz Gloria on top of the Schilthorn. Picture: Markus Zimmermann

Piz Gloria on top of the Schilthorn. Picture: Markus Zimmermann - Credit:

Snow, you might say, doesn’t always play ball.

The perennial curse of ski tourism is either waiting for the white stuff, or getting the wrong kind.

This was brought into sharp relief as I gazed dispiritedly at patches of brown earth peeking beneath greying slush in the usually idyllic resort of Wengen.

Anxious preparations were underway for the 85th international Lauberhorn ski race, but our toboggan ride had been called off in favour of the less exhilirating sport of curling.

Winter evening at the 'Raeuberegge' in Unterseen. Picture: Jost von Allmen

Winter evening at the 'Raeuberegge' in Unterseen. Picture: Jost von Allmen - Credit:

While it’s diverting to get beneath this Winter Olympics curio, with its ‘stones’ and cries of ‘sweep’, you’ll agree it’s not as exciting as bombing down a mountainside on an orange box on metal runners.

Days later, a hike in the picturesque Schwartzwaldalp valley resembled a scene from Scott of the Antarctic as like Captain Oates I ventured into a swirling storm of flakes for an all too brief trek by a near-frozen river. Eyelashes, hair, and mouth filled with cold wet stuff as I plodded like the servant in Good King Wenceslas in the footsteps of the guy in front.

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But in Switzerland, things always look better if you either venture indoors for a hot chocolate/beer before a roaring fire, or head higher up the mountain. Winter sports fans in the know at Wengen simply boarded one of the country’s limitlessly efficient trains further up the legendary Jungfrau and got on with it.

The next day, on the opposite side of the valley in the Bernese Alps we finally got a taste of the breathtaking combination of high altitude sunshine and incomparable mountain ranges. Heading up from Murren via two cable car rides and a clear-floored ‘sky walk’ cantilevered over a head spinning drop that challenged my not-so-latent vertigo, we were rewarded at the Schilthorn’s pinnacle with warming goulash in Piz Gloria’s rather camp revolving restaurant.

You come in out of the breath-snatching wind to enjoy the full slow moving panorama of peaks.

This of course was Blofeld’s lair in 1969 Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and you’ll find a fascinating museum full of artefacts on site.

The daredevil ski sequences were shot with the help of Swiss Olympic athletes and cameramen skiing backwards. Bond girl Diana Rigg couldn’t ski so had to be shot waist up kneeling on skis, and George Lazenby refused to play Bond again over contractual disagreements. The restaurant was still under construction so production crews finished it off with the look they wanted. Oh and shooting overran by 56 days because of insufficient snow…

Swiss tourism started here in the 19th Century when British mountaineers climbed the Jungfrau (1811) and travel pioneers Thomas Cook and Henry Lunn offered package deals. In Murren, the Lunns are rather feted. Henry’s son Arnold organised the first downhill slalom race in Murren. We spotted his grandson, Stephen, in the cable car on his way up to one of the vertiginous challenging runs down the Schilthorn.

Not quite of that standard, I managed a few hours of ski school in Murren on the gentlest of slopes before enjoying that precious reward of all skiers, release from the confines of those damn boots and a cold beer in warm sunshine gazing at snow-capped peaks. Bliss.

We were staying further down in Lauterbrunen, an unspectacular staging post between resorts, but with its traditional wood-framed houses, Murren looked a lovely spot for a holiday.

We found further exhiliration in Interlaken, a bustling low lying town where a skating complex of rinks and sloped runs proved a diverting alternative for non-skiers like me. Afterwards we sat on fur covered benches and enjoyed beer and cheese-topped bread from the open air bars and food stalls. It set us up the next day for a snow-shoeing foray with superfit guide Mario. After driving to a mountain refuge we strapped on tennis-raquet-sized footwear and trudged sideways up a hill using poles to dig in. Sounds arduous? It was. I’ve no doubt it works wonders for the inner thighs but I was just starting to think that, like curling, this was clearly an activity for locals not tourists, when we crested the hill and were smacked between the eyes by a monumental view: the 4,158 metre Jungfrau, or ‘Maiden’, marginally smaller Monch or ‘Monk’ and the Eiger known locally as the ‘Ogre’. Local legend that has it that the monk protects her from his advances or as Mario put it helpfully acts as “a cock block”.

A hearty bowl of meaty pasta followed all that exercise, the carb and fat-heavy cuisine is clearly designed with cold weather exertion in mind.

We ended our stay in tranquil Meiringen, home of both the meringue and the Reichenbach falls, Conan Doyle’s fictional death scene for Sherlock Holmes (pose for a pic with the bronze statue) Sadly the torrent is inaccessible in winter, but it’s a good excuse to return to this beautiful spot. Snow or no snow.