How to hit the slopes and keep your dignity intact

By Patrick Howse
BBC News, Saas-Fee

Image caption,
Stefan and Melanie: "We don't ski and we don't want to ski"

What do you do on a winter break in the mountains if you don't want to ski? If you haven't learned to ski at an early age, you might feel that there is nothing for you to do. But there is.

I've never learned to ski, and at 47 I doubted my joints, bones and dignity would survive an attempt to learn.

But my partner is an expert skier, and I love mountains. So when she suggested a trip to Saas-Fee in Switzerland, I didn't want to say no. I just had to look for other activities.

The first I tried was snowshoe hiking.

Image caption,
Tea trays with teeth: Just what you need for a walk on a glacier

The snowshoes and ski poles required can be hired in many Alpine resorts, and there's no shortage of footpaths and slopes where you can get used to the awkwardness of having something very like a small plastic tea tray strapped to each foot.

They have metal teeth in the bottom that help you get a purchase on icy sections, and they spread your weight to stop you sinking waist-deep into snow drifts.

I spent a couple of days trampling and clanking round the remoter parts of the valley and the lower slopes of the mountains, meeting my girlfriend for lunch in mountain cafes, then tramping down again.

Strain on the body

At last I felt ready for the challenge of a high-level trek.

We were a party of seven, led by a guide who knew every crag and stone, but more importantly every glacial crevasse on our route.

We started at a little-used stop on the Alpine Express funicular railway, and emerged through a gap in a corrugated metal tunnel 3,000m above sea level.

The scenery was stunning, and soon we were tramping laboriously 6km across the Fee glacier, a journey that took us four hours.

Our group ranged in age from 16 to 48, and we all agreed it had been a special experience.

Ursula and Hubi Wyler, from Berne, are good skiers, but they are beginning to feel the strain on their bodies of downhill skiing. They were glad they had tried an alternative.

"I saw the back of the mountain for the first time," Hubi told me. "You never see it when you're skiing."

Ursula was delighted by the experience.

Image caption,
Ursula Wyler enjoyed the isolation

"We were alone on the glacier - it was a very special feeling not being surrounded by other people. It was great to feel that isolation in such a beautiful place, and being alone with nature."

Their son Patrick agreed it had been a nice way to spend time in the mountains, but on further questioning revealed he was less impressed than his parents.

"It was hard work, and it wasn't that exciting. I prefer snowboarding."

Well, he is 16.

Another option is Nordic hiking. This is power walking with ski poles, and there's no shortage in Switzerland of prepared paths where the art can be practised.

On one walk I met Anke Schuetzer, a German who lives in Berne. She can ski, but chose not to on that day.

More time to look

The snow was too icy, so she walked up to a restaurant for a gluewein and apple strudel.

"It gave me more time to look at the mountains," she said.

And there's a further bonus to this approach. Anke was intending to sledge down the mountain after her drink and dessert, and felt this was the best way to enjoy the day.

On the fast, but not terrifying trip down the mountainside on my hired sledge, I met Melanie and Stefan Reichl. They grew up in the Black Forest in Germany, where there are mountains but not much snow.

"We don't ski and we don't want to ski. Sledging gives us all the thrills we need," said Melanie. "We have our own sledges, and we go on sledging holidays every year."

"We like being in the mountains, and the rush of going down the slopes fast - this is perfect."

I found anecdotal evidence that alternatives to skiing are becoming more popular - the staff in the equipment hire shop told me there's been an increase in snow-shoe use, and the sledge-hire business is also booming, especially for people with young families, and couples, who often share a sledge (and a cuddle) on their way down the mountain.

After quality time in the mountains I returned with my joints, bones and dignity all intact.