A family history woven through the Swiss Alps

June 16, 2016By Nick Paumgarten

PHOTO: David Reddick

This story originally published in the October 2015 issue of POWDER (44.2).

FIRST CAME THE POSTCARDS. Every March: Mom and Dad in Klosters, Verbier, Zermatt. Switzerland: Apparently always a snowy hobbit shire surrounded by fairytale mountains. But where were the actual ski runs? I studied the cards. This was the 1970s. Images of the Alps were scarce. Heidi, James Bond, Franz Klammer, the front cover of Where Eagles Dare. It was hard to get a fix on the place. What I knew was Vermont.

In 1979, when I was 10 and my brother was 8, my parents started bringing us along. First, Zermatt. The mountains began to unfold. The runs, it turned out, were everywhere. The Alps are fractal. Guideless, we started poking around off-piste, learning to time the corn on the sunny slopes and find the fresh stuff on the shady ones. We began to learn the names for things: Hohtälli, Grünsee, Gant. We mostly stuck to the goods that were close at hand. Hardly anyone skied off-piste. This was way before helmets, transceivers, or any talk of stoke or millimeters underfoot. My father laid claim to a short pitch near Rifflealp, maybe 15 powder turns alongside the old cog railway to Gornergrat, where it oxbowed near the tree line. To get to it, we had to sidestep across the tracks—gingerly, to avoid the grease on the rail, but briskly, to avoid the oncoming trains. Then we skied down to the tracks below and stepped back across and poled into the Rifflealp station to catch the next train.

My father was scolded a few times for this. Where there is now an underground funicular from the village up to Sunnegga, there used to be a rickety double chairlift, the chairs aligned sideways, facing the Matterhorn. One afternoon, my brother and I, in a punchy mood, started rocking the chair back and forth and got roughed up a bit by the lifties at the top. Lots of angry German flying around. The men working on the mountain were a dour bunch, schnapps-faced, with killer leather jackets. An expat friend who lives in the Valais likes to say, “Guy of the Day,” whenever he sees an especially salty Walliser. Among the guys running the lifts in those days, there were a lot of candidates for Guy of the Day. The cable cars, with their prehistoric buttons and dials, brought to mind The Guns of Navarone. The tourists were mostly glowering older Germans, in farty ski suits. Every T-bar line or attempt for a train seat was a blitz. We learned to set picks and throw elbows.

To get to it, we had to sidestep across the tracks—gingerly, to avoid the grease on the rail, but briskly, to avoid the oncoming trains.

The spring snow was best before lunch, in the rocky galleries off the Rothorn. No one around, except maybe some chamois. Sometimes, to save a few francs, we picnicked on the Findeln moraine, in the lee of the Fluhalp hut, which in those days was shuttered in winter but is now a bustling restaurant with foie gras and a band playing Abba covers. Abandoned, it felt like Mars, or that research station in The Thing. Later, we found old photos of my grandparents there in the 1930s, doing the same thing, on a summer hike up to the foot of the glacier.

Also pictured with them, in those photos, was a local farm boy named Paul Julen, who, as chance would have it, was later the first mountain guide we got to know in Zermatt. By then in his 50s, Paul wore a flowery button-down wind shirt and told bawdy jokes. He was an emissary not only of the old-time Mattertalers, the weathered dudes hanging around the church square in the evenings, but also of skiing’s post-war glamming-up, when the dollar became king, and Americans worked on their tans on the decks of mountain restaurants. Paul shifted gears easily between one and the other, as Switzerland, a land of fancy-watch ads affixed to ancient sunburned barns, would learn to do well, too. In time, as the village grew more luxurious and expensive, the Julens, one of the original families of Zermatt, would become well-off—real estate, hotels, restaurants. And yet, for the love of skiing, many of them continued guiding clients.


We kept going over, usually in March. Klosters, the Engadin, and across the border to the Arlberg, where my father’s father, an Olympic skier from Austria, had lived after the war. He had also died there, in an avalanche in the 1950s, which is one reason that Switzerland eventually won out. Ghosts. An old friend had a place in Verbier, which was only just beginning to become the mecca for powder hounds and London bankers that it is now. Powder in the Vallon D’Arby, corn on the Marlène; a good morning might consist of one of each. It took time to get around. The lifts were slow, the connections often screwy. But it didn’t matter because no one else was going where you were going, anyway.

One morning, we got into trouble, my father and I, below the Col du Creblet. There was a foot and a half of fresh snow and heavy wind-loading. As we traversed out of what he knew was a dangerous place, the whole thing came down on him. It was a miracle that he popped to the surface, a quarter-mile below, as the avalanche slowed to a halt. He stumbled out of the debris field without his gear, and I skied him home on the back of my skis. A cat operator who’d seen the slide didn’t bother to call it in. Not his problem. From then on, wherever we went and whenever we could, we hired a guide.

One of the best things about skiing with a Swiss mountain guide, besides hearing him talk terrain with a fellow bergführer in local dialect, is it opens up the glaciers. Tourists shouldn’t mess around with crevasses. The glaciers may have been retreating, but we ventured farther and farther out onto them. As equipment improved and our appetite increased, guides pushed harder to find untracked snow for us.


Back in Zermatt as teenagers, my brother and I skied the Schwarztor for the first time, led by Paul Julen’s son, Norbi, a newly minted bergfuhrer who was a few years older than us. The crux involved some belays, a first for both of us. That evening in town, all hopped up on this and that, we were convinced that we could see, in the outline of the Matterhorn backlit by the setting sun, the profile of Michael Jackson, circa “Off the Wall.”

This was 30 years ago. These days, my sons, 13 and 11, come along. Now it’s three generations following Norbi Julen through the jumble of seracs. Will the kids remember the names of things? Will we? It’s sobering, both in terms of one’s own life, and the planet’s, to see how far the tip of the great Gorner Glacier has retreated in recent decades. The tongue is the only way out, if you descend the Gornergletscher’s tributaries—the Schwarz, Zwilling, Grenz, or Unter Theodul glaciers—or the Swiss side of the Monte Rosa, or the backside of Stockhorn. Every year the exit changes.

For a while, in the 1990s, the exit ended in a ravine, in a precipice of blue ice, requiring a fixed rope and a tolerance for falling rocks. Now it ends well short of that. For now, the ravine holds the snow. Some years there’s a carpeted board laid across black pools of water. The day now often ends at Norbi’s bar, the Hennu Stall, almost extortionately located on the last pitch before town—Zermatt’s Bada Bing, you might say. You didn’t have places like this on the mountain, in the Navarone days. The boys go on ahead, to run amok in town. It’s a good night at the Hennu Stall, Norbi says, when the women start shedding their fleece and dancing topless on the bar. This means he’s selling a lot of beer and booze. He probably earns more in an hour of this than he does in a week of guiding, and yet there he is the next morning, on a few hours sleep, stepping into his harness and lighting a cigarette.

Town is socked in, with a trace of wet new snow. Church bells peeling, horse hooves clomping—might as well be 1979. “We have a look,” says Norbi, which is his version of: “If you don’t go, you don’t know.” An hour later, the tram to the Klein Matterhorn breaks out of the clouds and suddenly we can see all the way past Michael Jackson to Gran Paradiso and Mont Blanc. Nothing really changes up here, anyway. Just off the top, under the rope, past ribs of ice and sastrugi, the pitch sharpens, and we find a foot of new snow on top of about that much from two days before. The plunge down the face is outrageous. Cold smoke. “Can we do that again?” the boy asks, snow caked in his helmet vents. I hope so.

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