The Euro Ski Trip (the short one)
With the best ski year in Europe since 1941 swiftly melting away, it’s killing me to be stuck in a sub-par snow year in Colorado. I have to get off my Italian ass and do something, quick. And crazy. How about skiing ten European countries in five days? About as crazy as it gets, but I’ve pulled stunts like that before. Ask my lovely, selfless, understanding and considerate wife, Saint Katie.
After a few furious days working out the logistics and itinerary with my trip compatriots—two Brits named Gideon and Karen from the Good Ski Guide, who are as crazy as I am—off we went: Last minute, mid-March, with hope that the Siberian storms hadn’t lost their fury.
What I envisioned as an epic, unforgettable trip about carving up Europe quickly became a trip about people, some forgettable.
Our goal to conquer ten countries in five days is part marathon, part madness, so we have no time for tea and crumpets in not-so-great-for-skiing Great Britain. Just five minutes on the average slopes of Milton Keynes. One country down.
But leaving that isle bound for Italy and clearing the check-in at Ryanair with skis and boards is much harder than our abbreviated British run. And a test of illogical airport math. I’ll never understand why—if you have a bag that’s 18 kg and another one that’s 12 kg for a total of 30 kg and the maximum allowed per bag is 15 kg—the airline chimp still makes you shuffle clothes and boots and gear between the two bags in front of a line of annoyed people waiting their turn. Why? I’ll ask the oracle when we get to Delphi.
Things—and people—don’t get much better once at the Sixt rental car office at the Torino Airport. A 4x4 van with snow tires was what we reserved. A two-wheel-drive VW Passat wagon with summer tires was what we get. The lady at the car rental office is Italian-pretty, but her Mona Lisa smile belies her “take it or leave it” attitude. So we take it, along with a pair of chains. A smart move, the chains, or so we think.
Skiing Italy at Val di Susa is not bad. Not great, but not bad. The bad happens when we leave Italy for France.
Somehow we end up in France! We blame the lack of border patrols and flags—and that fateful jug of Chianti—for our foray into Ooh La La land. At least that’s our story and we’re sticking to it. If a French wench hadn’t clued us in, we’d still be there, captive yet contented. But we escape back to Italy and plow on toward our date with the Swiss.
Switzerland (or close to it)
A storm is battering the side of the chalet where we stop for a sobering cup of hot chocolate. I rub the rabbit’s foot that’s nailed to a wall. What was bad luck for the bunny may be good luck for us. Six hours later on the high side of the San Bernardino Pass connecting Italy to Switzerland, in the middle of the night in one of the fiercest snowstorms I’ve ever experienced, I think back to the rabbit’s foot. Would we have good luck with good snow tomorrow or bad luck with bad snow tonight? I get my answer seconds later when our car gets stuck on a ridiculous hill. No problem, we’ve got chains! It’s now 1:00 a.m., a couple miles from our destination, and we’re fixating on some better Italian wine and a soft Swiss mattress. All ours, right after we fix our predicament.
Now, I’ve put on my fair share of snow chains over the years, but getting these on the Passat tires resemble a task more appropriate for a NASA engineer on the space station. Of course, no instruction sheet, just a faint picture on the cover of the box. Somehow we manage to wrestle one on, but the second wraps around the axle. Expletive not deleted, we temporarily abandon our decommissioned v-dub on the side of the road. Bags on our shoulders, we labor toward our hotel, afoot and apissed.
Remember when I mentioned that this became a trip of people—good and bad? Well, ugly defines the Swiss taxi driver who passes us three times, twice with an empty car, not once stopping to ask if we need any help. We encounter the bastard again, when we trudge into Davos town at 2 in the morning. He wants $20 to drive us the final 200 yards to our hotel. We politely—okay, profanely—decline.
But Davos is delectable, once our Italian barman at the hotel flips a bottle of expensive wine and a plate of appetizers at 2:30 in the morning, free of charge. A paisan’s welcome to Switzerland.
Humiliation—helped by a hangover—hits us when a Swiss tow truck driver comes to rescue our vehicle at daybreak and asks us (loosely translated), “What the hell are you doing in my mountains with summer tires and a cheap set of chains not worthy of Wal-Mart?” We shrug, purchase his better chains, and sheepishly scuttle off to ski. New mail shining on those beautiful summer tires.
Upper Davos Resort, with its 1930s tram and long lines, annoy me, but the untouched tree run down to the village is sweet. It lifts our spirits. But not for long. Our cursed chariot and slick, serpentine roadways await us.
On the treacherous way to tiny Liechtenstein, the car gets stuck again, on a seriously steep mountain road. Time to manhandle the new chains, but now we’re vulnerable in a precarious blind spot. We’re winning the battle until a monster plow truck appears around the bend, barreling down on us at full speed, soon fighting for enough traction to escape our dead vehicle. A moment of pilot hesitation is all it takes for the truck to lose its dicey purchase and slip on the same patch of ice that had halted our Passat wagon. With his wheels locked and slipping downhill, the driver—cell phone in one hand and cigarette in the other—miraculously pulls a skillful plow-dragging maneuver out of his ass and steers the beast inches away from our car. I find religion on the spot, praise the Lord. I was already imagining Italian insurance speaking to Sovereign State Liechtenstein police scolding a disoriented Brit and a crazy Italian about a smashed German car on a hellacious mountain road. A nightmare in Babel, never realized. We spot the same driver 40 minutes later at the resort bar, finishing a pint of beer. Unable to communicate in his native tongue, we rely on bar-speak and buy him a shot. Peace is made.
After winning over the plowboy, we finally do what we came to Malbun to do— ski. And it’s fantastic. Remarkably, the slopes at Liechtenstein’s only ski resort are practically ours alone. We shred through feet of untouched powder in one of the most memorable runs of my life. No camera. Damn. One more awesome video I can only play in my head. It’s hard to leave such a sweet place and bid adieu to the 20 employees who had nothing to do but cater to our every whim. But we have to press on and storm Germany, where we arrive late in the evening.
Alfonso, our Cuban waiter from Guantanamo, is so friendly, so full of good intentions and so warm-hearted that we trust his entrée recommendation. Big mistake. The spreadable salty pig juice that arrives mostly stays where it’s put. We try not to disappoint our new amigo Alfonso, but leaving the slop in the dish probably does.
We ski forgettable Oberstdorf certain there’s nothing about this resort’s average hill to write home about. Oh, wait, an out-of-control skier nails me in the back at 50 miles/hour! Breaks my bindings and sends me packing. I still don’t know why neither of us ends up in traction. I call him by his name—Asshole—but before we can start sparring with our poles, he snowplows away. Apparently he noticed my broken skis and believed me when I said I’m a lawyer.
We slip into Austria, hoping for better luck in Germany’s little cousin. Soll Austria is good, but short. The pervasive storm means poor visibility, soft snow and mediocre skiing . . . but doesn’t touch the tasty après-ski chalet. It’s a cozy, converted barn, apparently a respite for locals only . . . plus a couple of crazy foreigners. We eat, drink (surprise, surprise) and stumble off to Slovenia.
We enter Slovenia at midnight, or maybe later, we’re losing track. After a few hours of sleep at a filthy flophouse, followed by an uneventful, chain-free drive, we arrive at Kranjska Gora, the famous World Cup destination. It’s an unspectacular post-Soviet resort, with very little to offer. After peeling my face in a bad spill on the icy slopes, we drive south to Bled for coffee and cream pie by Lake Bled, a mesmerizing morainal jewel surrounding Slovenia’s only natural island. A 15th century chapel—with its landmark, 52-meter steeple—reverently graces this treasured island and is often used for weddings. It’s a spectacular spot where my partner in crime, Gideon, got married three years ago. Memory lane and a million unspoken words fill the ensuing miles. Thoughts of our lovely, selfless, understanding, considerate and saintly wives back home.
Do not pass GO
Our brutal, 12-hour, non-stop drive to Slovakia is capped with a border guard telling us we were supposed to buy a pass to cross in and out of Austria. Oops, we say, but that’s not what the guard says in broken English. As best we can make out, we can either pay a 150 Euro fine now, or face a car-impound, a 4,000 Euro fine and jail time. A no-brainer, we choose the first option, but not without some grumbling, mostly about not seeing anything—in our guidebooks or at other checkpoints—about needing such a pass. Cost of the pass, by the way? 7 Euro, 50 cents. A pricey oversight.
We finally arrive at our fancy Grand Hotel Praha about 1:00 a.m. Well, we almost arrive. We’re 100 yards short, stuck at the bottom of the hotel’s driveway, way too steep for our Sunny Beef, the new nickname for our un-snow-worthy VW Passat. An embarrassing chain-fitting fiasco entertains a few late-night revelers.
The High Tatras at Tatranska Lomnika are breathtaking. Quite unlike the TV interviews we stumble through. Yes, we are trying to ski ten countries in five days. Yes, we’ll make it. No, we don’t have any chocolate. We’re surprised our adventure is considered newsworthy here. Must be a cool country.
The snow here is good, but the slopes are left to the morphology of the land. Not sure if they’re ever groomed. I pine for the perfectly kept runs of Utah’s Deer Valley, a dear place in this skier’s vault.
Poland is supposed to be only 40 minutes away from Tatranska Lomnika, but not for the newly christened Sunny Beef. After two hours of white-knuckle driving and agonizing chains-on or chains-off decisions, we finally slide into Zakopane. It’s late in the afternoon, and our buddy, Alan, is waiting for us. Another Brit, Alan fell in love with the Polish Tatras three years ago, and never left. I can see why. They’re gorgeous.
While we energize with a pricey yet savory late lunch, we see horse-driven sleds carry skiers to the base of the tram. It’s a scene right out of Doctor Zhivago. We look for the good doc, but we’re told he took the three o’clock sled. We miss ours, so we hitch a ride to the tram in a hotel van.
The ride to the top is 12 minutes long; plenty of time to comprehend the unique way Poles pay for their runs. I’ll try to explain: In Poland you can't buy a day- or season-pass the way the rest of the skiing world buys them . . . buying unlimited rides for a fixed price over a specific day or season. Instead, Poland uses a "Point System" in which skiers can load as many points as they want on a card, and then the attendants deduct them as you go, with each lift requiring a different number of points. I think it’s an efficient system and fits well with what people want to spend and ski. Maybe it would fly in America. I’ll ask around.
We use a lot of those “Polish Points” this last evening. These mountains are a huge virginal playground, every untouched inch a ski bum’s dream. Alan guides me down some crazy runs, skis exploding through untracked powder. I fight to refrain from smiling—and flat-out laughing—for fear of choking on the flying snow. So I just giggle, all the way to the bottom, loving every second of it. And the seconds add up, as we stretch our planned single run into three.
Our extended fun runs at Zakopane mean a late departure and a nighttime battle with the long, slippery journey back to Austria. We survive that drive, rest for a few hours, then wage a nine-hour push into Italy, where I say goodbye to my good-friends Gideon and Karen—who are catching a flight to England—and board a plane for the U.S. of A.
We did it. We skied ten European countries in five days. A trip of endless driving, snow-packed passes, summer tires, cheap chains, five-star hotels, zero-star dives, unusual suspects—the good, the bad, the ugly—and skiing memories that will last for the rest of our lives. Or at least until our next crazy adventure, when everything will once again blur together and people, places and slopes become nameless yet never forgotten.
The oracle said, “Go figure.”