Wednesday, February 12, 2014

72 Hours to Live in Zermatt: New Years in Switzerland Part II

This caption warns you that this is my longest vacation blog ever.

Two-and-a-half days. That's how long our crew of four had to take in the Swiss Alps. It takes about 3 hours or so on the Swiss Rail to get to Zermatt from Zurich. It's an easy train ride - we made just one transfer in Visp - and you can a great view of the countryside. One of the big questions I've been asked is how cold was it in Zermatt during December and January. My answer: everything was celsius so I have no idea. If I recall, it was normally between 0-15 degrees. Whatever that is. 

Much needed fire.
Zermatt is gorgeous. It's a huge ski-resort where cars aren't allowed and people get around by bus, tiny electric cab, horse, or foot. Zermatt has its own flavor, but honestly, my snow bunnies can all concur - all ski resorts kind of have a similar look. There's a few rental shops - might I recommend Matterhorn Sport if you need to rent gear (for top-end board and boots, it costs around $160 for 3 days) - some restaurants, souvenir shops, art stores, etc. What Zermatt doesn't have is a Starbucks, and if I could, I'd open one there immediately. I was battling a cold the whole time I was traveling, and constantly needed hot water for my throat. So at the Zurich train station, I got some hot water in a big Starbucks cup, then carried it around Zermatt. Without exaggeration, I had a million people ask me where the Starbucks was. Okay, slight exaggeration, but it really was a common question. In fact, we ran into one couple on different nights, and the wife saw me carrying around the same cup. Amused, perhaps disappointed again, she asked me if I used the venti to hit on women. What kind of weird question is that? Of course, I do. #IDont

Zermatt in front of train station.
Tell me this doesn't look like the most touristy place ever.

Let's talk Matterhorn. For three days of lift, it costs around $267 US, but that pass allows you to ride into Italy. Instead of attaching your lift ticket to your jacket, you just keep a credit card-like pass in your left jacket pocket, and that scans you everywhere. It's a brilliant system that we should implement more in North America if it's cost-efficient, which I'm guessing it's not. The Swiss can afford this new fangled technology because again, they charge $14 at McDonalds (see anger in previous blog entry). 

Ski lift card. If you return it, you get $5 or $10 back.

Zermatt's studio album was better.
Dec. 31

There are three main bases to explore the Matterhorn Ski Paradise, as they humbly describe. We were closest to Sunnegga, the lift furthest west. Upon getting greeted by Wolli the gigantic Zermatt sheep mascot, you walk through a tunnel to hop into an escalating tram. To get to this mountain's peak, Rothorn (around 3100 meters - stupid metric/customary conversion - I had no clue how far I was going the whole trip!), you hop onto a gondola and another tram. At Rothorn, we had our first glimpse of the Matterhorn from up above, and it's truly majestic. It might not have the same affect for non-Disneyland aficionados, but for me, to see that iconic shape, that childhood ride on a scale of 100-1 (I suck at math), it was like Teri Hatcher's boobs on "Seinfeld" - real... and spectacular. It's also hard not to marvel at the original Disney Matterhorn architects and engineers, because their meticulous attention to detail is a wonder on its own. 

Wolli world.
I already Instagrammed this. Boring!

View from Rothorn
The mountain is an easy place to lose each other, as we did on the first ride(!) but we set up a meeting point later on, so all good. The conditions were spectacular that first day. Unreal views, the sun was out. The trails, or pistes, had long rides, and going off-piste, the powder was fantastic for the time of year. The European level system is a different: blue is easy (not green), red is medium, black is black. I cut across the mountain to Gornergrat, which features some sort of James Bond like missile silo or castle (neither is true), then rode down to Riffelberg, where we almost ended up booking our hotel, which would not have been very convenient because it's 2582 meters up. There's a cool old-school train that you can take from Gornergrat (3089 m) all the way down to the Zermatt base.

Gornergrat. Hey Cpt. Lime Jacket, why you gotta mess my photo, bro?

Hotel Riffelberg

The word that you'll likely hear throughout most of Europe is that people don't party much in Switzerland. If you want crazy shenanigans, you'll probably want to head to Germany, Amsterdam, some other place. For the New Year's celebration, we headed to the church square in the center of town, next to a fancy outdoor hotel ice bar, but more importantly, next to a firepit. We brought a bottle of champagne, likely the French equivalent of Andre's. I take that back, maybe it was Brut worthy! You know, because we're classy. We met a group of friendly locals and followed them to a couple bars after the clock struck midnight. There was a long fireworks extravaganza, everyone was merry - great times were had. The only thing that was less than great, was my phone died, so I couldn't take a bunch of artistic iPhone photos. Sorry, world.

Last known photo of 2013
This appears to be post 2013. 
This is definitely 2014.
Jan. 1

Miraculously, even though my phone died, my alarm still went off at 7am, so despite little sleep, it was time to ride the Matterhorn all the way to Breuil-Cervinia, Italy, and back. I chugged a full tube of Zipfizz, so it completely mitigated the lack of sleep. Yeah, B12 vitamins! (Zipfizz is an "all-natural, "healthy" energy mix. I strongly emphasize the quotations there, but it definitely works.) We took gondolas and trams from Schwartsee to Trockener Steg to the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise (3883 m). On the way up, you can actually see glacier in the side of the mountain. You actually take the gondola past the Matterhorn, so you can practically get a 180 degree view of the peak. 

The crew.
As you might expect, the view is sick. We all rode together to Plateau Rosa Testa Grigia, over to Colle Superiore Delle Cime Bianche (2982 m), which was Italy. You can see a pair of Swiss and Italian flags, but outside of that - you would have no idea. There were some great powder on off-piste run to the furthest east lift on the map, Salette (2245 m). The problem is, the only way out of Salette is via T-bar lift. 

Plateau Rosa Testa Grigia. That's Italy in front us.

For those who don't know what a T-bar lift is - how have you not been watching my video of T-bar-kicking-Asian-American-man's-ass? 

It's an upside T that you slide between your legs and have pull you up the mountain. I've encountered these demons before without success, and was not expecting a reunion. The trail map indicates there's a 6-person chair lift over there. There is not. Let me make this perfectly clear, the map is an f'n liar and a dirty, dirty a-hole. Not only is a T-bar the only way out of the area, but it's an incredibly long and steep one. When I say long, I mean it takes around 15 minutes to pull you to the top. That's too long, bro. 

Our crew is made of 3 boarders and one skier, Jessica. T-bars are not issues for skiers. So Jessica was able to get to the top and chill for awhile. A long while. Our merry crew of boarders, kept failing. At one point, signs were promising. Thien, our most novice rider, was smoothly riding the T for about 60-90 seconds, then fell. There was one skier in-between her and I, and as soon as she fell, I did not have the navigation skills to maneuver around her, and promptly fell, as well. I quickly turn around to see Pete, who is another skier away, fall to his demise, as well. Like a pathetic set of unathletic dominoes, we all crumbled. 

Fun with reflections.

Still life.

Salette, Italy
Here's when things got all hopped up on goofballs. Thien, frustrated at the T (as we all are), was convinced that she wasn't going to be able to master the T, and seeing as how far we've already gone (90 seconds is awhile, for real), suggested we hike the rest of the lift. Huh? Come again? Hike? But we got these snowboards on our feet... The lift looks brutal, but we're maybe a third of the way there. After much debate, we all agree to hike the rest. We start hiking, get to the first lip, and realize we're not even remotely close to the top. At some point, Thien gave her board to a skier so she wouldn't have to carry it. This would be problematic later, when we were so decimated we thought of alternatives. I considered riding across some off-piste areas to get to the Italian town of Breuil-Cervinia (our original destination), then take lifts all the way up to get Thien's board. Then we would ride all the way down to another town, Valtournenche (1524 m), and take a cab over to Cervinia (which was not close), then gondola our way back. Sounds like an exhausting plan, but better than continuing to scale K2. This alternate plan went out the windows when the trail map showed I'd have to cut over scarcely snow-covered cliffs, and I figured dying probably wouldn't help our situation. So we trekked on. It probably took about two hours. It was beyond joule-draining. It was decimating. 

We made it to the top, sans Jessica, who had no clue what to make of the 2 hours she just spent waiting for us. However, the glory of scaling a mountain was short-lived as we encountered a new problem: the gondolas stop running at 4:20p (strange time, but I don't think it means the same thing in Europe). If we didn't ride across in time, we'd be stuck in Italy - with no passports. A cab ride from Cervinia to Zermatt would take about 6 hours, from what locals told us. So now it was time to basically bomb the mountain and ride like Shaun White to make multiple gondolas in time. Miraculously, we ran into Jessica cutting across to a gondola at Laghi Cime Bianche (2812 m), which was still far. That took us back up to Plateau Rosa Test Grigia (3480 m), where we raced to the gondola in Troeckner Steg (2939 m). We made it to the station as an employee was literally closing the door on me. He said the last gondola ride is over, but there's a tram available on the other side. #Elation. The tram took us to a gondola in Schwarzsee (2583 m), which took us back home. I was sapped. What's beyond fumes? Whatever that is on the Periodic Table, that's what I was. I felt sick, drained, skipped dinner, chugged some Swiss Tussin, watched a tiny bit of the last "Lord of the Rings" movie in German (it was still too long), and crashed like I was in the third "Inception" sleep level.

Jan. 2

Being one that hates failure (yet one that frequently finds it...), I couldn't stand not having made it to Cervinia the day before. I couldn't stomach going on this carpe diem trip to the Matterhorn and not visit this Italian resort. To keep with the Disneyland references - to me it felt like going to Disneyland, riding the Matterhorn, and skipping Space Mountain. So the morning three of us went back. 

The weather was far different than the previous days. It was snowing, which created white-out conditions, and the wind was strong; strong enough that the gondola to the peak of the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise was closed; strong enough that the chair lift to Theodulpass, which could take us to Cervinia, was closed. The weather created only one way to get to Italy. And you can guess what it was.

T. Mother. F'n. Bar.

After a miserable failure but quick towel throw the previous day, I was convinced that this was a new day and the T-bar would be a challenge that would soon be overcome. We established a one-for-all, all-for-one mentality, where if one person couldn't do the T, we'd all stop. I went first, wasn't ready, fell immediately. Didn't even really grab the T. Pete was right behind me, and took off like a champ. I was so pumped, but now, in addition to the pressure I put on myself to master this stupid lift, I had the pressure to make it so I don't ruin Pete and Jessica's journey to Italy (Thien sat this one out). 

The second attempt was solid. I didn't make it, but it was productive! I lasted a couple minutes, almost lost it on multiple occasions, nearly hit a pole in the process, but ultimately lost control and fell. Jessica was behind me on this one, and asked me if she should stop. I told her to keep going to the top to meet Pete. I was going to keep trying. Now mind you, since I can't do these things, it's an exhausting process. It's stressful and tense when I'm upright, then when I start to lose it, it's draining to try to keep your balance and get back on. Plus, it's cold and you're at a high elevation, so you quickly lose your breath and find yourself sucking oxygen. 

The third attempt was my epic undoing. By now, hopefully you've seen the video of my incompetence. It's below again in case you haven't. I was convinced I had this down. I rode this bad boy for about 5 minutes or so, had some close calls, was able to corral and continue. I had to get this. I'm too stubborn not to get this! Of course, everything went awry, but I was committed to not letting go. I lost control, fell, then got back up. I tried to regain control, but didn't want to just ram the T-bar between my legs, then ended up falling and getting dragged. As I turned onto my back while getting dragged, I found a brief moment of comfort and thought to myself - maybe I'll just get pulled all the way up. I still have like 15 minutes of this thing, but you gotta do what you gotta do! Forget that, I tried to flip over and pull myself up, but by this time I was losing strength fast, and let go of the bar. 

I was so annihilated that I had to lie there for awhile. I was sucking air like my lungs were empty. It felt like all the sleepless nights, my cold, my cough, boarding - everything caught up to me at that moment. To my surprise, Pete and Jessica rolled up next to me after a few minutes. Turns out, Pete didn't make it to the top like I thought. In fact, he was a little bit above me on the mountain, and he and Jessica were able to see me get dragged by the T-bar. I can only imagine what that's like to watch someone get demolished by a T-bar from afar, then realize you know who that person is. That's gotta be hilarious. They did play-by-play.
Lot of white up in there.
We weren't going to make it to Cervinia after all. We toiled on the Swiss side. Still white out conditions, it was like riding blind. You could hardly see where the boundaries were marked on the trails. I had no energy left (partially because I ran out of Zipfizz that day!), was catching edges, avoiding errant skiers, falling all over the place. It felt like I forgot how to board. As we slowly worked our way back to Sunnegga, we decided to call it. The conditions were just too rough. 

After we returned our gear and cleaned up at the apartment, the sun started to come out. I can only imagine the epic conditions. Early morning dump turned into fresh powder in the afternoon sun. Oh well. You can't win them all. Plus, by this point, my back felt more jacked up than Larry Bird's. We packed up our gear, did some quick gift shopping, then Simon picked us up and took us to the train station. 
Peace out, Suisse.
Zermatt was all I could hope for. We had an epic trip. The people were friendly (not to be confused with the restaurant service, which was less so), the scenery was chewable, and the riding spectacular. It's another notch on the non-existent bucket list that perpetually grows when more items are checked off. Switzerland is a place I would love to go back to, but highly doubt I ever will. There are just too many beautiful places in the world to experience. So many of which don't have any T-bars.


Swiss Chalet - okay "Swiss" fare. Had tasty prawn curry noodles that tasted just like Pasta Roni. I don't mean that as a slight, I actually like Pasta Roni. 

Pasta Roni at non-Pasta Roni prices.
Random Swiss beer. Tasted like random Swiss beer.
Walliserkanne - don't go to this place! Rudest servers ever. You have to wait forever. The big touristy cuisine is fondue, but if you're not a big cheese guy like myself, they have a meat fondue. It's okay, the lamb is decent, but really it's like a less flavorful, more expensive Korean BBQ. Anyway, other places have that meat fondue, so don't go to this place to try it. Unless you like being treated like doo. Then you should definitely go here.

Vegan deluxe meal of lamb and beef.
This was before service at restaurant removed all smiles.
Street vendor bratwursts - it's good, cheapest thing you'll find to eat in Zermatt. Euro note - people eat bratwursts with a slice of bread instead of buns. So stop freaking out!

Elsie Bar - this is a tiny, local spot that gets very crowded, but seems very friendly and would be fun to hang, but they didn't have a place for us to sit, so we bounced. I'd recommend visiting though.

Papa Caesar Bar - second-story bar, nice balcony overlooking "street." Don't be off-put by the name combo of two cheap pizza chains. Had an insanely delicious drink that may or may not be called "Xande." It's on the hot drinks menu, it's pear cognac, hot apple juice, cinnamon, and amazeballs. It's a must try that is perfect for the winter.

View from Papa Caesar. This name doesn't give the place justice.
Papperla Pub* - Live music that was playing a lot of Bon Jovi. They also have a lot of stereotypical European house music that has no melody and repeats a terrible bass-thumping sound. You know exactly what I'm talking about. Seems like more of the locals hang here, at least this is where they brought us. The outside bar doesn't accept credit cards, so if you're like me and Pete, it's good to become friends with locals who can buy beverages (alcoholic or non) for you because you have no local currency. 

* - designates this may or may not be the name of the bar we went to. It was very early in the New Year at the time of visitation, and I may or may not have gotten a good look at the name on the awning. Apologies if you read this post, travel to Switzerland, go to Zermatt, then head to the Papperla Pub hoping to hear some hard bass-pounding Euro house music, only to find out that the Papperla Pub is actually a Starbucks. #Samsonite

Here's our Swiss trip in 3 minutes:

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