Making sure that my bottom is nice and comfy, and that I’m “on the broom”, I push away from the hack. Thankfully my lead stone is no hog. However, at the right moment, I forgot to release and slide along the ice. My stone and I part company and, as my mouth fills with ice shavings, the stone veers left in an out-turn rather than an in-turn and “wickes” viciously off my instructor’s left boot.
Hopscotching in pain, he loses balance and falls backward into a one-meter snowdrift. Shortly afterward, he is taken to the hospital in St Moritz to have his broken toe dressed. Consequently, I’m not expecting a phone call from the Royal Caledonian Curling Club offering me a wild card invitation to one of its top “bonspiels”. Nor will I be competing in the Jackson Cup or any of the other curling majors on the Continent. I don’t think that I’ll be “drawing through port” for a long time to come. I learned an important lesson in Switzerland: curling is not as easy as it looks and curlers are born, not made.
I detest skiing because I’m abysmal at it. I’m congenitally unable to enjoy a skiing holiday. After five attempts I have discovered that there is little any instructor in the world can do for me. The mind, keen for endorphins, is willing, but the lower torso refuses to cooperate. Being such a chronically uncoordinated winter sports person, I was desperate to find some alpine activity that would allow me to remain vertical for more than two minutes. Curling seemed like a good idea.
The Swiss resort town of St Moritz has five ice rinks and is considered, by many, to be the home of European curling. Most hotels, such as the Suvretta House, have introductory curling breaks. Mine is sadly abbreviated on account of my instructor going lame. So I decided to flat-foot it instead. Recognizing that there are a great many ski-phobics and rabid anti-skiers, more resorts are providing snowshoeing as a safe alternative to the thrills, spills, and double fractures of downhill and extreme sports such as curling.
Leo Blattler, who has choreographed ski stunts on several James Bond films, is a snowshoe guide in the Engadine mountains at St Moritz. He teaches people the joys of being flat-footed. “Snowshoeing is very chic,” he says, as I walk a little like Pinocchio behind him into the winter wonderland. “Listen to the silence. You have the mountain to yourself. On skis, you are too wrapped up in yourself. You ignore the scenery. Snowshoeing is the most relaxing winter pursuit there is. You are at one with nature. Enjoy the peace.”
Around St Moritz, there are several walks, ranging from 5 to 15 kilometers, and half-day to full-day, depending on your speed and how many times you trip over your own outsized feet. After about 500 grueling meters, and feeling the first twinge of a bunion, I see a mirage.
“It’s a yeti! It’s a yeti!” I shout, pointing towards a hairy figure in the distance. “It’s the abominable snowman!” For a moment I forget I’m in Switzerland and not Tibet. Snowshoes can play cruel tricks on a man’s mind.
We make our way through the deep snow towards the figure. As we get closer I realize it is a bearded man holding out some wine glasses. “May I introduce Renato Giovanolo,” says Blattler, as we accept some chilled chianti and several slices of chamois salami. Giovanolo has been hunting and curing wild animals in the Malojoa pass on the Swiss-Italian border since he was a child. His father taught him. He has also started a profitable sideline of serving snacks and refreshments to famished snowshoe excursionists from nearby St Moritz.
Thanking him for being an aperitif-bearing St Bernard, we tramp off through the slush. The days of sticking a pair of wicker lacrosse racquets on your feet are long gone. Modern black canvas snowshoes are quite stylish, although mastering a pair doesn’t quite give you the same adrenalin rush or sense of high-speed adventure skis. Snowshoes aren’t for adrenaline junkies.
“Orgasmic!” sniggers a sarcastic snowboarder as we trudge past.
“Utterly awesome!” chips in another self-conscious snow show-off as I make good progress in my debut trek. “Ignore them,” advises my coach, striding ahead. “Most people treat snowshoers as third-class citizens. But they don’t know what they are missing. Snowshoeing is cool. And just as good exercise as skiing.”
We put the Corviglia, Lagalb, and Diavolezza mountains behind us, as well as all the yobs, the poseurs, the designer-earmuff brigade, the terrifying T-bars that always wrench my arms out of my sockets, and the awful mountain restaurants with their delightful and savory local sausage specialties.
Our next walk is up a toboggan run to the Renesse Tower, a belvedere folly built by a Belgian count in 1881. It was intended to be used as a bordello and casino before the count ran out of money. Now it is a breather stop for tired snowshoers in winter and a barbecue area for hikers in summer. “On a good day, it has one of the best views in Switzerland. You can see the Bergell and Engadine valleys,” says Blattler, looking out through the dense mist, his breath steaming in the cold afternoon air. “But today you will have to settle for second best. My profile.”
After my stitch subsides we resume our walk, slipping and sliding easily and enjoyably down the gentle gradients and up the not-too-taxing inclines of another well-beaten toboggan run. “Don’t click your heels. You are not a German” is the only technical instruction I receive.
“Snowshoeing is infinitesimally better than skiing,” Blattler says again, as we march through a mountain forest. “It is more social. You can talk.”
Blattler interrupts the eulogy to help me conquer another small hillock. “Skiing is like using the subway,” he continues as I follow behind in his footprints. “You are queuing all the time and going through turnstiles. You have none of that out here. Flatfoots have nature to themselves. They are at peace with themselves and the world. And they don’t have to pay for ski passes, either.”
There is a choice of snowshoe routes, including a night walk to Isola over the Grisons Valley. Blattler also leads walks to the Morteratsch Glacier with views to Bernina and Palu. He rhapsodizes about the area’s ice caves. There is also a walk down the railway track from St Moritz through the valley of Bever to Spinas. From Sils you can walk to Silvaplana and the Fedoz Valley. The Albula Pass and Puschlav Valley are also accessible to “flatfoots”.
I am a convert. Almost. In the summer, you can go goat trekking which is much less exhausting. You just watch them eat.
Snowshoeing is a good workout but without the irritations of skiing. Snowshoes don’t fall off. There are no dreaded T-bars to clamber on or off. You don’t feel your life is in danger and you are endangering the lives of others. You don’t cause pile-ups with people crashing into you as you slide and slew your way knock-kneed down the mountain. You don’t fall over and remain in the same place for a long time as you do on skis. It is a sedate and sensible way to enjoy winter.
“These are the real Alps,” Blattler says in a tone implying that, for some, skiing seems a demented impulse.
Setting off from Schweizerhaus, the birthplace of the painter Giovanni Segantini, we walked up the Piz Abris where the prehistoric glacier was halted at Maloja. There Blattler shows me the giant holes bored by glaciers. Locally, they are called “marmitte dei giganti” or giants’ cooking pots. We return to base camp for some apres-feet. The Suvretta House Hotel was where Nijinsky danced his last dance. Being St Moritz, it even has a heated car park.
Still popular with the designer-earmuff sets, at 2000 meters above sea level, the Engadine Valley is a fairly down-to-earth place. You can delight your family and amaze your friends by saying you have been on holiday to St Moritz, without breaking an arm or a leg in the process… Just somebody else’s big toe.