GRINDELWALD, SWITZERLAND / / It is a rare but real phenomenon that mountaineers can sunburn the roofs of their mouths. I know this because I think I have just done it, standing atop the 14,019-foot Finsteraarhorn, crown of the Swiss Alps region known as the Bernese Oberland.
My jaw has been unhinged long enough for the snow glare to singe my palate because I have been gasping desperately for oxygen in the stingy air since our group left at dawn to ski-climb 4,000 feet toward the summit; for the last hour, I've been slack-jawed, walking within one misstep of a void that would make a mountain goat queasy; and all week I've been "aaahing" my way through a Switzerland that few tourists ever see -- skiing past prickly peaks with slopes smothered by ancient snows, and without a single twee cowbell in sight.
Fortunately, my roof-burn is nothing that can't be salved by a poultice of cold beer and hazelnut kuchen down at the well-equipped and thoroughly civilized ski hut.
A backcountry ski tour of the high Alps is akin to the Catholic's trip to Rome -- a journey to the spiritual epicenter of the sport. The Bernese Oberland and its well-known cousin, the Haute Route, are particularly alluring to U.S. off-piste skiers because the experience is so different from that in North America.
Here, in central-southern Switzerland, the immense and wild glacial terrain supports improbable necklaces of full-service huts (Beer! Hazelnut torte! Padded bunks, some even with down comforters!) that free up skiers to leave tents, sleeping bags and camp stoves behind. Traveling light, they can move faster, see more country and string together weeklong hut-to-hut traverses.
A skier's journey
Having joined the backcountry-skiing religion a few years ago, I thought the time was right for my own pilgrimage. I signed on with Pro Guiding Service, a Seattle-area company run by Martin Volken. The 40-year-old mountain guide, born and trained in Switzerland, has made a name for himself in the United States as an evangelist of beyond-the-chairlift skiing and ski-mountaineering.
Volken's plan for us was to hopscotch across the eastern end of the Bernese Alps and stay in four huts over five nights. My objectives: bag a few peaks, ski some nice lines, cross at least eight glaciers, sponge up the pluperfect scenery and consume much apres-ski rvsti, that Swiss comfort food of pan-fried potatoes, smoked ham, cheese and eggs.
I had conveniently forgotten the immutable rule of backcountry skiing: Its pleasures must be earned by suffering.
Getting a lift
In Grindelwald, our group throws skis and packs on the train. American backcountry skiers often have an "earn-your-turn" ethos: What skis down must come up - under its own human power. That notion seems quaint in the highly developed Alps, where ski lifts and trains are everywhere. We board the first train at 3,400 feet, then transfer to another that burrows through the famed peak the Eiger. An hour later, we pop out on the Jungfrau, 8,000 feet higher, and get ready to ski.
Mike Hattrup, a ski-movie-star-turned-mountain-guide who works with Volken, checks our avalanche beacons and gives us the once-over. It has been awhile since I have skied in true wild country. I feel rusty. Hattrup looks at my waist harness - we'll wear these every day for attaching ropes to one another when crossing glaciers - and notices that it is sitting a bit low on my hips. "No gunslingers," he says, giving it a tight cinch. Then we push out the big metal doors, and the world goes to white.
Switzerland's glory is out here, somewhere, under a dropcloth of fog. It's a complete whiteout. We feel our way east, behind the guides.
I take some comfort in the fact that the rest of our group seems a bit rusty too. Not an hour out, we pause at a saddle to take off our climbing skins, those strips that adhere to the base of skis with synthetic "fur" to grip the snow, allowing backcountry skiers to climb uphill. Volken points out a crack in the ice that a few of us have unwittingly paused atop. No one had a clue we were even on a glacier.
"Guys," he says, his voice erased of all jocularity, "I need you to be focused this week."
Backcountry skiing is all about pace. The six of us have trained for this tour, but we are all from sea-level Seattle. An elevation of 11,000 feet takes its toll, as do our 20-pound packs. After making a few turns, we put on our skins and climb again, groping for a rhythm. Mouths hang open. Blood pushes through my eardrums. My heartbeat is a timpani. I can actually hear my heart valves squeaking. So this, I think, is what a goldfish's final moments on the carpet feel like as it drowns in air.
Mercifully, the curtain of fog peels back and the views distract. The Bernese Oberland (literally the high country of Switzerland's Berne canton, or state) is a backcountry skier's dream, a ragged icebox of black peaks pushing through snow with about two-dozen huts.
Above us, fat-lipped glaciers pour off the Trugberg, a neighbor of the 13,445-foot Mvnch. There is surprising color: white ice, blue ice and blue ice tinged with green - the color of water with power. I remember what an Alaska salmon fisherman once told me about this hue - how it is the last thing a sea captain sees as a storm wave collapses onto his wheelhouse.
Cutting through all this uplift and dangling ice are glaciers so fat and long and nearly tennis-court flat that when we traverse them we lengthen our adjustable ski poles and kick and slide like Nordic skiers. We glide that afternoon toward the Konkordiaplatz ("the confluence place"), where five glaciers meet. On my topographic map, this is the center of a sprawling starfish of ice, its arms wrinkled with crevasses. Below us, the ice is half a mile deep.
"So," I ask out loud, "where's tonight's hut?"
In the distance
There it is, somebody says, pointing to a mote on a far mountainside. We ski onward. The mote gradually grows to a speck. We ski still farther. The speck reluctantly becomes a dot. Finally, a red Swiss flag appears, snapping proudly in the wind: the Konkordia Hut.
A skier isn't likely to find a more thigh-burning illustration of global warming than the climb to the Konkordia Hut. About a century ago, the hostel-like building sat just 300 feet above the glacier, with a path through the rocks to reach it. But the glacial ice kept shrinking, so the hut's keepers kept adding stairs. By the time we arrived, in April 2005, there were 417 metal stairs to climb, plus a temporary painter's ladder at the bottom.
There is no more dramatic example, either, of how differently nations enjoy their wilderness. The United States offers very few hut-to-hut systems for skiers, and the few that exist are relatively spartan. At Colorado's 10th Mountain Division Hut Association, for example, skiers must haul their own food and sleeping bags. The Canadian province of British Columbia, by contrast, has dozens of public and private huts, some of them with catering, and they are modest in size.
An oasis found
Only in Europe, birthplace of the grand hotels, would a skier in the middle of an ice-smothered nowhere find a lodge that could sleep 100-plus people, with electricity, full kitchen and beer on tap. When I crest the last flight, I find a giant sundeck filled with Germans playing cards and drinking radler, a mix of beer and lemon-lime soda. That night, the large dining room is a babel: English, Spanish, French, German, Dutch. Each ski group eats family-style at long tables. The food is simple but hearty, and after a hard day it tastes as if it deserves a Michelin star. Helicopters drop deliveries by giant cargo net a few times a week.
Meals are included in our tour package, but prices for nearly every luxury are dear. Occasionally, someone breaks down and buys a 30-ounce bottle of spring water. It costs 15 Swiss francs - (about $12) - more than beer. Most people drink a cheaper fruit tea made from boiled snow.
Purists may scoff that this is not a wilderness experience. But it has its benefits. For one, I've never seen so many gray-haired skiers enjoying the backcountry, people who likely wouldn't be out here if they had to carry 50-pound packs.
If sleeping arrangements at the Konkordia aren't the Ritz - long top and bottom bunks, each sleeping eight, like I imagine a Swiss orphanage would have - we are too tired to care. We crawl under our comforters by 9 p.m. while the Europeans play cards, drink beer, laugh. Volken sits at a table with the rest of the handsome Swiss guides with their strong chins and rotisserie tans and 30-mile stares. They drink wine and tell stories. For them, these trips are like class reunions.
The first night, none of us sleeps much, but it's not because of the paucity of personal space. It's more that at 9,350 feet, our resting heart rates are an accelerated 100 beats per minute.
The ski conditions all week are terrible - the worst Hattrup says he has ever seen on the tour: a breakable crust that body-slams almost anyone who tries an aggressive turn. It's another reminder of just how fickle and arduous backcountry skiing can be: Skiers push all day to earn a few turns in snow that may or may not reward their efforts.
Almost all uphill
It takes a while to come to terms with this: If you love a sport in which 90 percent of the day is spent going uphill, you had better learn to appreciate the ascent.
The next morning, we rise at dawn, pack, fuel up on muesli and cheese and spend the day skiing east through crusty conditions to the Finsteraarhorn Hut. As we approach from below, our night's lodging resembles Noah's Ark nailed to the grand old Paramount Pictures logo - the Finsteraarhorn. The hut was recently rebuilt and is a step up from the Konkordia, with a main room of blond wood, a trickle of (unpotable) running water in the bathroom and private bunks.
"Breakfast is at 5," Hattrup says that night over dessert. "Moving at 6." Talk has turned to the next day's plan.
We all want to summit the peak that looms above us - the Finsteraarhorn, highest point of the Bernese Oberland. But eyebrows raise at the call for a predawn reveille. As the Brits at the next table would say, I'm "knackered." Everybody slumps off to bed by 8:30 p.m.
At 6:01 a.m., I look up from pulling on my ski boots and find Volken standing over me.
"Chris, what do you think this is - a ski vacation?" He's joking. Sort of.
He reappears a minute later as I'm pulling on my pack. I give him my most apologetic look.
"It's OK," he says, aiming for reassurance. "It won't be light out for a few minutes."
Oh, that's motivating.
In Volken's defense, all the mountain guides I've met play the martinet at times. Efficiency is safety in the mountains. The corners of Volken's eyes seem to uncrinkle only when he has brought us back safely to each night's hut and he has his fork in a plate of rvsti. Until then, he keeps us on schedule like a Swiss watch.
We ski uphill for hours in the dawn of another windless day, the sun lighting the neighboring peaks. A score of other skiers is pushing for the summit today too, but the groups quickly spread out. The mountain feels as if it's ours.
We ski upward slowly and steadily, trying not to let those sea-level lungs realize that they are gunning for a summit today only 500 or so feet shorter than California's Mount Whitney. By 13,000 feet, they are no longer fooled. Where the slope steepens and turns rocky, we take off our skis and put on crampons. Hattrup ties a short length of rope between each skier, and we climb the final thousand feet to the summit.
At the top, I'm tired. I'm hungry. The last of my water and food is down with my skis. The roof of my mouth feels as if it needs Solarcaine. Then we see the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc and a hundred other peaks whose names I'll never know. Words from city-bred writer Jack Kerouac, who once spent a tortured, wondrous summer as a fire lookout in the Pacific Northwest, come to mind: "But let the mind beware, that though the flesh be bugged, the circumstances of existence are pretty glorious."
The next day, thanks to some careful navigation by our guides, we make it to the Monchsjoch Hut. The weather has, in skiers' argot, gone utterly "Scottish" - blowing snow, high winds - and promises to stay that way. Instead of continuing to the Hollandia Hut, summiting another peak and concluding with an 8,000-foot descent to Blatten, we turn tail and head down the Jungfrau cog train. It's sunny on the descent to Grindelwald, so we hop out early and traverse under the famous northern face of the Eiger. It's the same story: not great skiing, but views too great to complain. We ski to the wildflowers.
In Grindelwald, we sit for hours at a cafe, drinking radlers, drinking in air that's as thick as syrup and savoring the fact that, finally, nobody's ordering us to move. Sometimes, the next best thing to a great adventure is just having finished one.
Christopher Solomon is a freelance reporter for the Los Angeles Times.
IF YOU GO
Bernese Oberland hut-to-hut ski trips usually begin in Grindelwald, Switzerland, which can be reached by train within a few hours from airports in Zurich or Geneva.
From Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, Delta, Continental, American, United, Air Canada and British Airways offer connecting flights to Zurich. British Airways, Delta and American offer connecting flights to Geneva.
Pro Guiding Service, Martin Volken's Seattle-based company, does its next hut-to-hut tour April 17 to 22. Previous ski-touring experience is required. The tour costs $1,650 and includes two meals daily, lodging and certified guides. 425-888-6397 or proguiding.com.
Alpine Skills International, based in Truckee, Calif., leads a hut trip April 21 to 25 for $1,448. Previous courses with ASI or proof of skills may be required. 530-582-9170 or alpineskills.com.
WHAT TO KNOW
Ski-touring season in the Alps is April to early May. The ski huts generally don't open until the last week of March. The spring weather can do anything, anytime. Only skiers who are of advanced-intermediate ability who can handle any kind of snow conditions while wearing a backpack should sign up.
Get in shape. Plan to climb 3,000 to 5,000 vertical feet per day, at high elevations. Itineraries vary with a group's experience, conditioning and desires; know what kind of group with whom you are signing up. If you arrive early and ski a few days, you will shake off jet lag, acclimatize and therefore sleep better all week in the high-elevation huts.
Travel light. Ruthlessly pare down your load before you go. (You might be surprised how long a good pair of wool long underwear remains fresh!)
TO LEARN MORE
Information in English about backcountry skiing in the Bernese Oberland is sparse. One resource is Alpine Ski Mountaineering Volume 2: Eastern Alps by Bill O'Connor. Available at cicerone.co.uk.
General information about the region is available on a few Web sites, including www.berneroberland.ch and tiscover.ch. Some of the ski huts mentioned have their own Web sites, including moenchsjoch.ch, www.hollandiahuette.ch and konkordiahuette.ch.