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Traversing the Alps, realm of the gods

For backcountry skiers, the Swiss mountains are nirvana -- majestic views, wild glacial terrain and full-service huts.

January 15, 2006|Christopher Solomon | Special to The Times

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 (a) 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; (b) for the last hour, I've been slack-jawed, walking within one misstep of a void that would make a mountain goat queasy; and (c) 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.

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 U.S. 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 rosti, that Swiss comfort food of pan-fried potatoes, smoked ham, cheese and eggs.

I'd 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's been awhile since I've 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's 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're 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.

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