First published in issue 16.4 of The Ski Journal.
My knee is hanging on by a thread. It’s February, the fifth day of our mission, and Remco Kayser is busy coordinating rooms and dinner at the next resort on our multiday ski-by-train journey—five Swiss ski resorts in 14 days, all connected by the country’s most-coveted public transportation. Anttu Oikkonen asks filmer Nick Meilleur to pull out his camera—he wants to peep some visual nuggets from the day’s harvest. The last bit of light is glowing behind the tips of the mountains as the hulking people mover takes off. My travel anxiety fades and a sense of gratitude washes over me. This has to be the coolest, most ridiculous way to spend my first trip to Europe.
A few months before, I’d received the call on a damp morning in Preston, WA. The hummingbirds zipped around outside my breakfast nook as I sipped my first coffee from a “Live Laugh Love” mug. It was Nick on the other line, spouting off about a master plan that involved a little skiing, a lot of trains, and more than a pinch of luck. The goal was to link a Swiss ski trip via public transportation, an accepted form of transport in much of the Alps, but a departure from North America’s carpool headaches and paid parking passes.
Remco, a rising Swiss pro skier and style dynamo, had grown up without a family car and contacted Nick about a ski journey that traced his roots through the mountains he called home. Nick had agreed to shoot video, bringing in Anttu, Finland’s “Skien’ Demon,” as a second skier on the trip. The only element missing, Nick said, was still photography. Never having been to Europe and still sitting in the soggy Pacific Northwest, my response was quick. “Say less,” I answered. “I’m in.”
Landing in Geneva, I made my way to the resort town of Leysin, a town tightly packed into a mountainside on the eastern side of massive Lake Geneva. Following the blue dot on my phone, I ended up at what the map said was our accommodations, but could best be described as a Swiss bodega. It was both dark and closed. After some investigating, I landed at what seemed like the place, knocking a few times before being greeted by an unclothed man peering from behind the door. A quick, mildly uncomfortable convo revealed I was at the right spot—it was just Remco’s friend getting ready for a night out. I was in the deep end now.
Soon, Nick, Anttu and Remco came rustling in from skiing, and our “train gang” convened over porcini risotto and a fresh green salad. Remco’s bright personality balanced out Anttu’s reservedness, but the Finn’s quick wit had the whole table laughing like we were old friends. Nick was the glue that held it all together, having spent time with both the skiers in Europe and hailing from my haunts in the Pacific Northwest.
The next morning we rolled out of Leysin to my first real glimpse of the Swiss Alps. On the descent, perfect snow-covered peaks came into frame, kissed by the reds and oranges of early morning rays. In the valley below town, we tapped into the mainframe. Snaking the valley floor, trains in Switzerland’s Vaud Alps can take you close to pretty much any ski hill. A trip like this back home isn’t possible without a personal vehicle—there is no efficient public transport connecting Baker to Stevens to Crystal, for instance—but in Switzerland, we could get off a train or bus and walk to a lift serving world-class terrain.
Even with all of that access, our schedule was tight, so tight that for much of the trip we would finish skiing for the day, pack up quickly and run to the train or bus still in our ski gear. Anttu and I do not speak French, which left Nick and Remco to steer the ship through any travel chaos. Being the anointed local, Remco took on finding last-minute places to stay in sleepy (and often shuttered) alpine towns.
Within hours of boarding our first train from Leysin, we arrived in Crans-Montana. The popular stop on the FIS World Cup circuit is one of the country’s most iconic resorts, but for our purposes it was also home to the Colorado Riders Chalet, a family-owned bed and breakfast cut straight from my European ski dreams. A large ski-club-style house with plenty of wood beams holding up its vaulted ceiling, this would end up being one of the few places we stayed for more than a day—a luxury I didn’t fully understand until the trip was well underway.
The Alps were in the midst of a seemingly endless high-pressure system, and while we didn’t know it at the time, the only pow of our entire two-week excursion would be found that second day in Crans-Montana. With the skies breaking blue, Anttu threw a 360 off a cliff on the first run and exploded, losing a ski so deep that it nearly ended his day. A coordinated group search returned ski to sender and Anttu spent the rest of the day exacting revenge, landing drop after banger drop. By afternoon we found a knoll and the boys cut out a lip, hitting it until the light started to fade.
We had little time to bask in our success. Rushing down-valley to pack up, I went over the bars in heavy afternoon snow. Laden with camera equipment and falling awkwardly, one of my skis didn’t release, hyperextending my knee. In obvious pain, I knew, knee or not, I was too committed to back out. Plus, we had a train to catch. Or rather a train, then a bus, then skiing for a couple days, then back on the rails.
After striking out at a couple of smaller mountains we landed at Les Marécottes, a steep-skiing haven in the Trient Valley and home to big mountain charger Jérémie Heitz. This cozy collection of hand-built chalets and stone churches is a little more than 40 miles from Crans-Montana via public transport, and sits at the cradle of over 3,000 vertical feet of side-hit paradise. Hobbled though I might be, it was a real exercise in creativity for both Anttu and Remco, who thrived in the area’s mix of steeps and wind lip boosters.
However, not even halfway into our trip, we quickly realized the biggest oversight of our mission: no rest days. Big slams, heavy packs and minimal breaks had caught up with our crew in a bad way. Nick’s back was giving out, my ACL was nearly shredded, Remco had compromised ribs and Anttu was trying to stave off joining the injury brigade. Worried our trip was unraveling, we took a day to slow down and soak up the experience—literally. Relaxing in a pool room cut into the side of a mountain and resembling a mix of Wes Anderson chic and a World War II bunker, we licked our wounds and counted our blessings. Our group had made it this far and the tracks all led downhill from here—to Ovronnaz, Laax and beyond.