My biggest worry about moving to Switzerland—besides the whole moving-to-a-foreign-country thing—concerned making friends. German is hard. I’m messy, the Swiss neat and reserved.
Yet a shared love for skiing has always been a great cross-cultural connector. Why should Switzerland be different? Every town from Geneva to Davos has a ski club, the entire country takes off for a week to ride the lifts, and there was even a petition going around to declare a national holiday celebrating skiing. Finding a ski buddy shouldn’t be hard.
Unless you ski North American-style. While the Swiss probably have the most skiers per capita of any country on the globe, they tend to schuss like…Europeans. Sure, I like sunbathing by the lift as much as the next guy, but we were deep in one of the best winters of my life. I didn’t have time for two-hour lunches. Noodling around on corduroy? No thanks. I thought about putting a personal ad in the city paper (“Skier seeks bros”) but was worried I’d end up on a very awkward date.
Companionship was secondary. I needed partners who sought out untracked steeps and owned a beacon. I asked friends at work, with no luck.
“You should go out with my wife,” a colleague named Dale told me as a blizzard beat our office.
“Regula just got back from a tour this morning,” he continued. “She said they’d avoided avalanches by skiing through the trees. The trees! These women are absolute addicts.”
The Swiss tend to avoid the trees like nuclear war, so this was a very good sign. I was a little skeptical about skiing with a group of middle-aged moms—the Hausfrau (“housewife”) club, as they call themselves—but more than once Dale had come into work limping from his wife’s adventures. A little open-mindedness couldn’t hurt.
So early one icy morning I hop a train for Spiez, a village at the foot of the Oberland, where Regula meets me at the station. She is wiry with thick brown hair and a deep tan. Two more fraus, Sonja, a therapist who uses probes to tinker with people’s brain waves, and Danielle, an affable gym teacher, seem amused I’m there.
“So this is the man who wants to be with us ladies,” Sonja says, sizing me up in English as we all pile into a Peugeot. She’s tall and thin with a nimble mountaineer’s frame squeezed into baby-blue pants. She doesn’t look it but she’s tapping 50.
“Our men know better than to come. I hope you have your energy.”
I had a big breakfast, I say. “Egg sandwich with Gruyère and bacon on toast with a banana, orange juice and coffee, some yogurt and—”
“You pig,” Sonja interrupts. “That’s disgusting.”
“I had chili,” Regula says sympathetically. “I think I’m going to be ill.”
But before she can hurl, the Peugeot starts to struggle in icy ruts cut along a farm road leading to the trailhead. We can’t continue without chains so I jump out ready to donate strength and courage. But Sonja and Regula beat me to it, getting down into the muck and fastening the chains quicker than the Duke boys can change a tire. I slink back into the warm car to finish my coffee.
At last we begin skinning up a service road that narrows into a track that weaves through the firs. The trail spits us out nearly a vertical mile from the car. Untracked lines spill in every direction off ridges and easy shoulders. Lake Thun, far below, twinkles in the cold winter sun. There are at least 20 other people moving up the valley, so Sonja picks up the pace over the last section to make sure we have first tracks.
“You’re keeping up,” she taunts as she blazes up another switchback. She’s on twiggy touring skis and scowls at my fat Black Diamond Kilowatts, adding something sarcastic about Americans and bigger and better. When she calls me a pig again Regula says that Sonja must really like me.
We reach the top after about four hours. Sonja adjusts her headband and sets off down a wide face, snapping the tightest, prissiest little Ss I’ve seen since the first time baby-blue pants were hot. Regula and Danielle follow her.
I linger in the alpine air and watch the fraus rip their way down a wide gully and over a swale. The ragged summits of the Dündenhorn and the Hundshorn scream from the horizon. Eventually I drop in and arc big, fast turns to catch up. At the bottom, we strip down to baselayers, drink beer cut with lemonade, and doze in the gleaming afternoon light.
“That was a big tour for us to do with someone we don’t know,” Sonja says. She even anoints me an honorary Hausfrau. At long last, I have found my bros. They just smell a whole lot better.
Writer Tim Neville moved to Switzerland to live the dream. To read the rest of his six-part series, go to skiingmag.com/sunnyswitzerland.