I don’t know where to start. It creeps up on me. I could be placating my way through a board meeting, or having drinks with friends, and then I just lose all interest. The situation, whatever it is, completely ceases to amaze me. Life just loses its colour. I try to reassure myself, whilst hopelessly attempting to coax the addiction monkey off my shoulder and back into its bloody cage. I just can’t get enough powder.
Before we go any further, and I get a call from my mother (probably to enquire into the quality, rather than express concern) I want to make it clear that I’m talking about snow. I know you are all thinking ‘skiing is so mainstream’, but the fact is, the ski-bum trades security for face-shots; the future for the moment. Considering how hollow the promise of a corporate career has become, who can say the ski-bum is not the wiser investor in his or her life.
Maybe you manage to squeeze in one yearly trip to the slopes. Perhaps that’s enough. Well, I’m afraid that once isn’t sufficient for me to get my Trainspotting-sized fix. No, I need the whole Cohiba and a magnum of champagne to be truly complete. So, as I coast through the off-season, working out plans for the on-season, and desperately trying to asses an angle that keeps the satisfying crunch under my feet, I’m reassured when I realise that there are off-season options. Earlier in the year, when we had taken our last run into the village of Verbier, nursing sore shins and sipping piping Gluhwein, the topic turned to the next trip. We are never content; we always want to know that another trip is booked. And as we tend to take trips in packs, it usually takes a good few months of planning.
I came to skiing late in life. For me, it was just something to tick off the bucket list, and I didn’t quite realise the hold it would take. The team that came on the first trip promised me that this inaugural adventure would mark an end to all beach holidays. It’s not the destination; it’s the adventure along the way. It seems cliché, but that’s really how it is. My first run was like a new state of being, a happy trance, time in motion and elation, reckless in vitality. Skiing is a physical necessity. I have a need for risk. Skiing is complete outdoor fun and knocking down trees with your face. I developed my taste for tackling perilous pistes in Zermatt, just over a year ago.
If you’ve never been to Zermatt, here are some bullet points for you: its runs are the highest in Europe, aside from Montblanc itself; the lifts are open from around 8am until 6pm in April; and it has the longest winter season in the Alps, from November to May.
So, having taken the rat-pack out last year, I asked my local alpine sherpa, Karin Kunz, hotel direktorin of the Zermatt icon, the Mont Cervin Palace, if she knew of any chalets in the region that might fit the bill. Had the Mont Cervin not been undergoing a refurbishment, there is no doubt that our first stop in town would have been the grill for a welcome lunch.
Alas, it was not to be. Karin asked me if I had ever heard of an artist called Heinz Julen. Having not, I asked for a bio. It would appear that young Heinz’s father was a mountain guide and restaurant owner. Heinz has designed internationally-renowned furniture, exhibited art work at some of the world’s most sought-after galleries, and also created one of Zermatt’s most stunning chalets, high atop the town.
The Heinz Julen Loft is managed by Mountain Exposure, a boutique holiday company with offices in Zermatt, boasting seventeen of the top luxury properties in both the town and Saas Fee. When I put my trip in the hands of a virtual manager, I take a few key things into consideration beforehand: do they have a local footing? How experienced are they? And do I like them as people? It seems, these days, a drift of new ski holiday brokers open every season, acting as little more than middlemen. Mountain Exposure is run by two kings among men, who run an experienced management team comprising Lausanne Hotel School and Oxford and Cambridge alumni, not to mention a team of more than twenty. They have assembled some of Zermatt’s most experienced Michelin-starred chefs, ski guides, chalet hosts and hostesses, to create bespoke holidays that require the lifting of only an occasional finger. Usually, it’s lifted to swipe a key card to gain access to a private lift that takes you high above the village, where the Heinz Julen Loft is perched, overlooking the snow-coated rooftops far below.
The Heinz Julen Loft is one of the finest designer chalets in the region. Sprawling some 300 square-metres, this Manhattan-style loft is incomparable. It combines acres of glass, steel, textured concrete and wood in a unique symphony of fusion architecture. The Loft was formerly Julen’s private home, where he hosted many legendary parties. When you enter the loft from the private elevator, you’re faced with an overwhelming sense of light and space, not to mention a suspended, illuminated table, which can be raised and lowered as required, or lifted completely out of the way to ceiling height. “Can it take a person’s weight?” I hear you ask. (Coughs loudly) I’m advised to maintain plausible deniability here. There is a baby grand Steinway piano in one corner, but sadly our usual maestro, Jason Shankey, couldn’t join us, so there was no late-night renditions of Tiny Dancer (though knowing the Loft’s previous guests, something by a certain Robbie Williams would probably be more fitting). Other furniture, all designed by Julen himself, included two beautiful desks, jack-in-the-box armchairs, and a rather handsome chandelier, which at closer inspection included old spoons – life imitating art, anyone for fruit tart. Staying at the Loft is very much like sleeping in an eclectic art exhibition, whilst testing ones limits to consume the finest Swiss wines – yes, that’s right, and they happen to be fantastic.
A metal staircase leads up to the mezzanine level, which has a chill-out area, kitchen and breakfast nook. Oh yes, next to the free-standing Jacuzzi bath. That’s right, no cold runs from the outside tub to the chalet. The third master bedroom is very private, with its own landing and features an island bed on a rotating floor, sofa and TV, a walk-in wardrobe, a free-standing bath with wood-slatted massage cover, his and her sinks, separate shower and a tactical nuclear missile. See, sometimes if I stop, suddenly you just fly right past! You would have thought that my star of the show would be the Vegas-style revolving baby-maker, but I’m afraid not. The stone bath was definitely the highlight: after a long day pounding the powder, you just can’t beat a long soak.
The next morning, feeling amped to get on the slopes, we headed over to Bayard Sport, opposite the train station. Let’s not kid ourselves: skiing fashion is a serious business. The sheer amount of equipment required to accurately carve your way from mountain piste to village pub would stop a herd of bison in its tracks. If you’re going to pick up some new shades, goggles, socks, or are perhaps thinking, very sensibly, of hiring, rather than paying the haulage fee to fly with your own, look no further than the team at Bayard. Although I should mention, SWISS lets your skis travel free.
Bayard’s shopping experience covers two floors and is like Alton Towers: every time you turn another corner, there appears to be an additional football field of toys. If you’re thinking about what you might need to ensure you’re kitted up with this season’s bragging toys, I suggest you read the Objets du Desir in this issue of the magazine.
Skis, boots, poles – all brand new. I wondered if we were early in the season, because we were using new equipment. Apparently not; the gear is just kept to an uber-high standard. It was also well priced. Remember skiing is free. It’s the lifts that cost money.
When we finally got to the lift, it was nearing 10am – skiing sacrilege, I know. But with a team to get kitted, it was going to take time. I sat there, grinding my teeth and staring at them. “YES, IT FITS YOU, YOU DONT NEED A SMALLER SIZE”. My temper tends to fray when I’m asked to wait patiently, instead of ‘going big’. Last year, in Flims, I made some pretty key steps in going big (taking jumps). It is not as easy as it sounds. The takeoff is simple; it’s the inevitable landing that’s the problem. And if you’re not on powder, well, just maintain a decent insurance policy. According to the Hindu religion, the world is just a dream. As soon as Shiva wakes up we all vanish. If that is true, it’s all the more reason to go big.
Once the team were expertly geared up, we headed through town to the lift in a lovely little electric taxi. Zermatt is car free – delightful, right? Despite my urbanite tendencies to drive, well, just about anywhere, it has to be said that we were about to go glacial skiing. CO2 levels are destroying the glacier and so I must buck up my ideas.
The lift ride to the Trockener Steg took about fifteen minutes, and if you ski often, you will know that the anticipation just amps faster and faster. The first runs were awesome, if not a little icey. As the sun came through the clouds, it was summer skiing weather. Higher up the pistes, near the Klein Matterhorn, conditions were much better. This was probably due to a sprinkling of powder the night before. I was honestly quite taken aback when I realised that conditions up there were so good: “Walk? No we shall ski to Mordor.” Luckily, the conditions were perfect and, as it was off-season, there were a lot less kids and families on-piste. I’m always fond of skiing past shocked-looking families, stuck in places they shouldn’t belong, shouting “It’s not going to get any greener.”
Speaking of les enfants and the semi-experienced, we had Dr. Farrow and Taya Pang with us on this occasion, and so were joined by James Puckett from the Summit Ski School. I have always wondered how instructors feel about taking lessons with more than one person, but Summit offers group lessons geared for up to six people. They are also based, conveniently, next to Bayard. Unlike other schools, they don’t charge more if you choose to add a few more people to the lesson. I gave them a little advice: if you get scared, go faster, until the thrill of speed overcomes the fear of death. Also, some basics when it comes to stopping. Traverse: one of two ways to stop while skiing; the other method: a tree.
After what seemed like a minute, Taya came flying past me at light-speed. I shouted “Where’s the doctor?” She replied “There’s no waiting for friends on a powder day.” I waited for Paul, all the same. Eventually, he made it down, looking totally immersed and very pleased with himself. “The way to ski these things, Pete, is to go to total panic, then back off.” I couldn’t agree more.
Taya had skied before, though, albeit some eight years ago. This was Paul’s second time skiing. My patience level isn’t great; patience is passion tamed. James, however, was as calm as a Hindu cow. Paul really seemed to improve and was genuinely getting better and better under James’ tutelage. This was good, because my suggestions were being met by visceral responses. We finished up the hard day’s carve with a cold beer in The Bubble, and caught up with Andres and Glenn, the little Après bar owners.
Zermatt is one of skiing’s most beautiful resorts. The restaurants garner more Gault Millau points every year; the bars are first class; the accommodation from Mountain Exposure is breathtaking; and the guiding and lessons from the team at Summitt are tip-top. If you’ve never skied Zermatt’s peaks and pistes, what are you waiting for? You can always get a job, but you can’t make it snow.
For further information, please visit http://www.mountainexposure.com