There's more than one side to Switzerland's high-mountain country club.
Thwack!With a quick half swing, I buried the end of my hammer into the log. Damn. Missed by an inch. My target, a pinhead nail, stood defiantly on the second-to-last ring of the trunk. I stepped away, took a sip of Red Bull and vodka, and tried to focus.
When I arrived in the Gstaad area last winter, I never would have guessed I'd be standing in a circle playing Nail, a Swiss pub game, with five other guys -- and buying them rounds of drinks when I was the last one to bury the nail into wood. I'd thought Gstaad was a puffed-up playground with one dimension: expensive. I knew that mouthing the phrase, "Gstaad was wooonderfulthis season," in a place like Jackson Hole could win you a good asswhuppin' from the locals. But I discovered there's a flip side to all the pistes and hedonism that most true skiers (with realistic payrolls) have overlooked.
Usually the butt of yuppie jokes, Gstaad is actually just one town of many in the Saanenland region, a beautiful valley on the German-speaking side of Switzerland -- with open fields and barns that reminded me of Vermont farm country. The ski resort itself is broken into six sectors, with 69 lifts connecting eight villages. In truth, to ski the entire expanse, you never even have to set foot in downtown. Fellow editor Cameron Sterling and I stayed at the Alpine Lodge in tiny, neighboring Saanen and not in Gstaad proper. Frankly, proper wasn't what we were looking for. And it's not what we found.
Our first ski day was all drizzle and on-piste slosh. Cameron and I tried high trams and low-angle slopes to avoid the big, soggy flakes but ended up just picking our way to the base and choosing a place for dinner. We decided on Pubbles, a small restaurant tucked away in downtown Saanen. Actually, everything there seemed tucked away -- there weren't any café signs or big store windows anywhere, just a cluster of traditional post-and-beam houses. It seemed less glamorous, more authentic, and way less spendy than most spots in the big-name village nearby -- but the wine still flowed freely, the bar still filled fast. And I didn't see a single mink stole. We meandered over to strike up conversation with Lizette the Kiwi bartender, and she introduced us to a couple of the local characters: a methamphetamine dealer/artist in the corner, who was maniacally twirling his dreads, and a rotund and jovial Swiss named Michael who had a couple of women draped over him. One of them lifted up Cameron's shirt, and someone shouted out that he was wearing boxers. Everyone looked our way, then looked south. Unfortunately for us, that was as dirty as Gstaad got.
The next morning, it didn't matter: We got lucky anyway. The valley was glimmering with fresh snow. Yesterday's mush had somehow turned into powder. We crammed down a quick meal and headed by shuttle to the slopes above Saanenmoser Village to meet up with Sandra, a 20-something aerobics and ski instructor with a blazing orange pixie cut who had offered to be our guide. Finally, we could see for ourselves whether Gstaad's skiing was worth the hype.
At the summit, we took in the view: Big, thick clouds tumbled and folded, covering and releasing bright bursts of sun and deep blue sky. Treeless, jagged peaks sprawled in all directions. In the distance, the Matterhorn towered. Although the Gstaad area claims 155 miles of ski runs, every chair, gondola, and tow bar is privately owned, and the owners don't always cooperate. It sometimes took us four or five lifts to access a run that an American high-speed quad would have reached in one shot. We stuck to Snow Paradise, in Sector One, following Sandra through the untracked. By ignoring the trail markers, we found enough dips and unforeseen drop-offs to keep things interesting.
We'd already discovered the alter ego of Gstaad in the village of Saanen, but we were still searching for the hardcore ski area equivalent. With Sandra, we didn't have to search very long. It can get downright hairy in Gstaad if you know where to look -- or if you have a local to show you the way. Sandra traced the gondola line off the summit and then made a sudden break through the woods. After a couple of turns through thick brush, we paused at the top of a steep, evenly spaced glade. It was the best snow we'd seen all day and perfectly undefiled. Our run lasted about 500 vertical, and ended in a ravine. Sandra worked her way through a streambed toward the piste, and we followed, skis hooking on roots, crashing through false snow bridges into the water below. When we finally emerged under the gondola again, she assured us that we were the first Americans ever to ski that section of the mountain.
That night, we met Sandra and a dozen international ski bums at the Alpine Lodge bar. That's when someone handed me the hammer. We got through five rounds before the guys started clobbering the log into splinters. Who needs nails? Sandra and her girlfriends rolled their eyes and got up to leave. "I think they're just too civilized for us," someone muttered, swinging his hammer. Maybe they were headed back to Gstaad proper.
Swiss Air runs nonstop from New York to Zurich; 800-221-4750, swissair.com. Trains run direct from Zurich to Gstaad; Rail Europe, raileurope.com. The Alpine Lodge; 41-337-484151, alpinelodge.ch. For general info, visit Gstaad's website, gstaad.ch, or contact Switzerland Tourism, 877-794-8037, myswitzerland.com.