Switzerland: It's a long way to the top

By Jennifer Ennion

In Wengen, a ski resort perched high in the centre of Switzerland, AC/DC has infiltrated.

It's a long way to the top of the slopes of Wengen, Switzerland. Photo / Thinkstock
It's a long way to the top of the slopes of Wengen, Switzerland. Photo / Thinkstock

We hear the music first. The band screeches over the crest of a hill and slaps us as we sit on the chilled chairlift.

Startled by this intrusion in a world of muffled silence we scan the mountainside until we rise above the crest and spot a small log cabin.

Once at the top of the lift tower we ride over to the building as the band's lyrics blast through our helmets - "It's a long way to the top if you wanna rock'n'roll''.

A hand-drawn AC/DC insignia, complete with lightning bolt, graces the back door of the cabin.

At a side entrance we brush snow off our ski gear with two brooms before pushing through a heavy wooden door and thick black curtains.

Inside, the scene before us could have been straight out of an American western film, the part when the new cowboy in town enters the pub. All eyes turn to us.

A grizzled man behind a wooden bar flicks his hand in our direction. At first I think he's turning us out - perhaps this is a place just for hard-knuckled locals - but when I glance at my husband I understand. His snowboard pants work like Velcro and snow clings to his legs. He's also missed clumps on his boots.

We make our way back to the front door and all heads turn to beers in hands and chatter erupts again. AC/DC can still be heard screeching from somewhere.

After dusting ourselves off a second time we re-enter and promptly order beverages.

My warm apple punch comes with three shots of heart-burning vodka from the blonde barmaid. Eight sachets of sugar later it is digestible.

We plonk ourselves down at a table among other weary skiers and their piles of wet gloves, goggles and scarves.

We search for any signs of AC/DC but this bar is so small there's no space for a rock band. The music must be coming from somewhere out the back, from where a dog repeatedly wanders into the bar and out again.

Despite our disappointment in missing a live performance, we settle in.

The barmaid brings us plastic bowls filled to the brim with thick cauliflower soup and chunks of crusty bread on a tray. It is exactly the comfort food we need to warm our souls, as snow and wind whistle against the windows outside.

The day has been a cold one. After arriving at Wengen the night before, we woke early in our cosy family-run chalet ready to hit the slopes.

At 1274m altitude, traffic-free Wengen village is a great spot to put your feet up and enjoy peace and quiet. Yet the resort isn't known for such mild pursuits.

Relaxing here, in the Jungfrau region, is not an option for the adventure traveller. Wengen is the perfect playground for skiing, snowboarding, sledding (tobogganing), paragliding and hiking (in summer).

We're on a four-week snowboarding honeymoon and this is our last ski resort stop, so we're keen to make the most of it.

That's why early in the morning we boarded the first cable car to the slopes. We couldn't see much out of the windows but were hopeful we'd rise above the clouds. When we reached top station however, the situation hadn't improved.

There was a whiteout, with a brisk wind and snow falling steadily.

The safest course of action would have been to re-board the gondola back to the village, but Lachlan had already skated to the edge of the ski runs.

A group of seven elderly skiers, some with instructors, were also clicking onto their planks ready for a day of adrenaline.

When visibility is poor you can generally expect your first run to be a little sketchy.

I had chosen a narrow traverse with a sheer drop to my left to an abyss I couldn't see. The falling flakes continued to reduce vision to only a few metres.

After dropping into a bowl, however, the atmosphere cleared and a rolling field of untouched powder opened up. The pitch was gentle and the snow light and fluffy.

The poor visibility, cool temps hovering just below zero and the snowfall had left many tourists shunning the weather from the comfort of their cosy chalet beds - but they had no idea what they were missing.

Weather in the mountains, anywhere in the world, is fickle and what's happening outside your chalet window is often not an indication of what's going on at the slopes.

On occasions it did happen to be the same, the effort required to get to the lifts generally warranted a few "test" runs until toes could no longer withstand the frozen extremities.

Although the morning had its challenges, they were not enough to consider forgoing the fresh powder.

Knowing there was likely more untouched powder higher up where the snowfall was heavier and the slopes almost vacant, we criss-crossed the mountain face, leapfrogging between chairs and T-bars until we were at the top of the highest lift at 2399m.

We were just under the infamous Eiger, upon which many mountaineers have perished. The mountain was majestic yet up that high the whiteout became thicker, reducing visibility to an arm's length.

But no matter, turning around and heading south allows you to relish surrounding gullies and hillocks.

It's an otherworldly experience when you float down a slope you can't see.

Not knowing how steep or what obstacles lay below can do two things - turn you into a quivering mess of fear or elate you to a feeling that gives you an indication of what it must be like to fly.

Experiencing the latter sends "whoops" echoing down the valley.

The morning passed this way until early afternoon when refuelling becomes a priority.

Recalling a restaurant or two on the resort map, we head in their direction and that's when we came across the AC/DC joint.

After our cauliflower soup is slurped from our plastic bowls and the last of my vodka-burning apple punch is drained, we farewell the taxidermy rodents and birds lining the walls and head back into the cold.

Swirls of snowflakes continue to lick the outside of window frames.

As it's nearing 3pm we make our way to home base, escaping the now erratic wind.

Bypassing the main trail back to the beginner's ski area and base of the cable car, we veer left toward chalet rooftops.

The track peters out but instead of unstrapping from our boards and walking, we army roll over a small fence and ride through backyards, all the while keeping a look out for angry Swiss farmers and any potentially lethal fences protruding from the snow cover.

Ours are the only lines carved in sheets of glittering white until options eventually run out and we're forced to turn pedestrian at the village road.

It's the perfect end to a day many deemed unworthy but which has in fact been a whopper way to cap off our Swiss snow tour.

Our month of resort hopping during the height of Europe's winter has left us exhausted and keen to head back to summer.

But Wengen has proven a welcome respite.

Sure, our stay here has been far from relaxing, but our looming homesickness has been satiated thanks to a pub perched high in the mountains and a little band we like to call Akka Dakka.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE:

Wengen is in the famous Jungfrau region in the canton of Bern in Switzerland. It is a traffic-free resort serviced by train. If travelling by car, there is a multi-storey car park at Lauterbrunnen, where you can leave your vehicle.

There are signs to the car park, which is linked to the train station and you can purchase car and train tickets on the day of your arrival. It takes about 15 minutes aboard the Wengernalp Railway to reach Wengen village.

You can also catch the train to Lauterbrunnen from the Swiss capital Bern, Basel, Lucerne, Geneva and Zurich, and all of those cities' airports, except for Lucerne. The nearest airport is Bern. For more about train timetables and ticket prices check out swisstravelsystem.com.

STAYING THERE:

Wengen is only a small village but there are several gorgeous timber chalets to stay in. When booking accommodation, be mindful that a lot of prices reflect a stay of a minimum number of days, especially during peak winter season. You can book accommodation online at MySwitzerland.com, while the Lonely Planet Switzerland guide is also helpful in getting to know the country.

PLAYING THERE:

Wengen ski resort has 23 lifts, 1456m of vertical descent and 112km of terrain. The resort best suits intermediate skiers and snowboarders, but there is also extensive off-piste for the advanced, and a beginners' area. There is also a small terrain park.

- AAP

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