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Eating Horse in the Bunker

Adventure
posted: 09/08/2003

When you're jet-lagged after three days of ski touring in the Swiss Alps and have just drained four Cardinal lagers at Verbier's Pub Mont Fort, the sliced cheval looks exactly like the sliced roast beef. So you buy a baguette, some stinky cheese, and a can of French wine the size of a Red Bull—the perfect beverage to wash down a horse sandwich—stuff the dinner in your daypack, shoulder your skis, and head for the Bunker.

This is the Verbier underground. Those pragmatic Swiss, who brought you the Fritschi Freeride randonnée binding, also utilize a '50s-era atomic bomb shelter as a subterranean chalet. Forty-five Swiss francs to sleep in a dank hole with all the charm of the short-term parking garage at Salt Lake International? You bet. A demitasse of instant coffee can cost five Swiss francs; a hotel room is well over a hundred. So you pay the woman in the bar upstairs and spiral down, falling once on black ice, and enter the catacombs.

The Bunker is a rite of passage in Verbier. Many expats live here for a few days or an entire winter until they can secure an aboveground abode. As with most rites of passage—circumcision, beer bongs, whizzing on an electric fence—it's unpleasant. When you open the vault door, the tunnel of three-foot-thick concrete echoes with your boot steps. The lighting is pure Dr. Who and causes you to squint. No Toking signs and graffiti urging you to "legalize it" adorn the walls.

The original Cold War bunks are still in use here, three-high, 10-deep, two rows. The smell takes you back to your junior high locker room after a hard rain. Walking the gauntlet of sleeping bags and dirty ski socks, you reach the only bed not taken, a third-story unit with an oddly stained military mattress. After eating (horse isn't bad, a bit sweeter than beef) you repair to your bunk and unstuff your bag.

So this is how Bin Laden and his henchmen live, you think, just waiting for a Daisy Cutter to entomb you for eternity. There are many languages being spoken, none of which you understand. You fall asleep with your nose 10 centimeters from the cold, black ceiling.

Waking with a start, you whack your forehead on said ceiling. It's 3 a.m., it's dark as hell, and you have to piss. The chamber buzzes with the snoring of the damned, but above the din, you can hear a bunk squeaking rhythmically. There are girls here, too—are they allowed? Then you remember you're not in Wyoming and maybe they aren't girls and it's best not to dwell on it.

Regardless, you have to piss. In the bathroom, a drunken German in a surplus wool sweater is taking a leak next to you. He says something Germanic, and when you don't reply, he gets the message.

Exactly 20 minutes after you stumble back to your bunk, the Bulgarians arrive. They are as drunk as one would expect a group of Bulgarian skiers in a Swiss bunker to be, and one of them (who resembles Iggy Pop) has picked up a metal garbage can and is using it as a bass drum. He's singing what sounds like a punked-up Bulgarian football anthem and walking the aisles. Everyone is awake. No one protests. Not only is the Bulgarian drunk, he's also insane. After 15 minutes, he finds a cement corner and passes out. Everyone sleeps. Down here in radio-free Switzerland, you are the last people on earth. At least you are all skiers.

A few hours later, your watch tells you it's light outside, and you flee the institution. Aboveground and outside, you fill your lungs and, with renewed vigor, look at Mont Fort penetrating a blue sky. This Switzerland smells of wood smoke, snow, and sunshine, replacing the mildew and radon you'd grown accustomed to. Good morning: You have not simply slumbered, you've survived. Success as a skier in Verbier, you've determined, is not getting sponsored or getting in a video; success in Verbier is not having to live in the Bunker.

Now it's off to see the woman at the base of the gondola for another horsemeat sandwich.

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