It's said that it takes 10,000 hours to become "an expert" at something; that's 416 days continuously, but as we arrived in the Swiss resort of Riederalp we had just a maximum of 12 hours at our disposal to progress "from Zero to Hero"! What exactly constituted "Hero" in the Press Trip's title we weren't sure of - what constituted zero was going to become very apparent.
With a packed schedule in front of us the luxury of the Swiss railway system was a delight, delivering us from Zurich Airport to Morel in the Valais almost seamlessly. Rideralp and its sister resort Bettmeralp sit high above the valley with the only access by cable car; a place where even the postman delivers by skidoo.
Without cars life in Riederalp moves at a different pace and they do things a little differently. Everything is within walking distance and to help the overloaded tourist a snowplough taxi service can handle your luggage and a full family. For an even easier journey Swiss Rail operates an Express Luggage Service that allows you to drop your skis and bag at a railway station and have it delivered same day to your chosen hotel, leaving you free to soak up the views without manhandling countless bags, skis and children.
Children are an important part of what makes Riederalp and Bettmeralp a great place to take your first faltering steps on the piste. The twin centres are designated as "Family Destinations"; an exacting label guarantees guests will enjoy child-friendly accommodation, organised activities, theme trails, playgrounds and unspoilt nature, among other attractions. The awarding of the label is subject to strict conditions and criteria. These include:
- Infrastructure: Accommodation, restaurants, playgrounds,
- Adventures in summer and winter: water, animals, adventures/sports, transportation, animation, educational trails and theme walks
- Services: savety, packages deals and all-inclusive offers, general information of the guests, child care
The other thing that sets Riederalp and Bettmeralp apart is its location; The mid-mountain resort sits on a south-facing terrace, south of the 23 km (14 mi) long Aletsch Glacier — Europe's largest, in the Bernese Alps. At an altitude of 1,930 m [6,330 ft] the village boasts views of the Pennine Alps with some of the highest summits including the Fletschhorn, Dom and the iconic Matterhorn in good weather.
The hotel sightseeing board promised extensive views across Valais to some of the most iconic alpine giants......
The reality, however, was a wall of fog and visibility down to single metres.
For pretty much the whole duration of the trip we were encased in a wall of fog, the only glimpse of blue sky or sunshine coming on the final morning. A planned snowshoe to the Eggishorn viewpoint over the Aletsch Glacier was abandoned with visibilty down to single metres but even in less than ideal conditions the learner slopes provided more than acceptible entertainment. Along with the ever present fog our arrival had also brought much needed snowfall for the area, closing the kindergarten slope on our second day as the sky dumped 8 -10 inches of white, fluffy, powder a day.
Aletschgletscherin summer Photo:Christian Perret
In Britain just an inch or two of snow and everything grinds to a halt, in Switzerland they just deal with it. Hotels, appartments and chalets spent countless hours simply shifting it from where it wasn't wanted to where it didn't matter and the passage of countless feet along with regular ploughs turned powder into roads.
Our base for 3 nights was the Walliser Spycher; a classic alpine chalet style hotel with basement ski room and wood panelling.It's a tried and tested system that's so uniform across the alpine countries for the simple reason it works. The downslope sides, everything's built on a slope, gives ski in ski out access while the upslope sides lead directly out at road level. Under normal circumstances this works perfectly but for our trip we were returning skis and boots at the hire shop rather than taking them back to the hotel.
If there's one single tip you can take from a beginner that an experienced skier with their own gear takes for granted, it's get the boot fitting right! Every minute saved by accepting anything but the most comfortable boot is proportional to the number of hours you'll regret it afterwards. A slight discomfort will inevitably become a crippling pain within half an hour and the minutes saved will be lost in hobbling back to the hire shop for a refit.
Fitted and ready for ......erm....action?
Kitted out from head to toe the walk down to the kindergarden slopes is a revelation in anatomy.....the sudden loss of ankle flex revealing muscles you didn't know you had as they make their presence known through incremental growing aches. Don't panic, this is apparently normal. There's a reason why ski lessons are usually 2 or 3 hours maximum and this is just your first indication why. Other than correctly fitting boots there's no doubt that the most essential step in starting out is getting the right instruction, and Switzerland, as Donald Trump would say, has great instructors - no, really great instructors.
Ski schools are a national institution in Switzerland and an ordinary tourist signing up can expect 1:1 or at most 1:2 tuition with lessons between 2 and 3 hours in the morning and a further session in the afternoon. Riederalp boasts a specialist Kindergarden as well as learner slopes and that's where our morning was spent, where the slope is barely discernable and a fall results in nothing worse than a burst ego. The snowplough comes easily as you learn the important ability to stop before you learn to move. Learning to stop gives you confidence and in no time you're on to forward movement, downhill forward movement.
In Kindergarden, complete with smiley faces and plastic sunflowers
Progress from the Kindergarden to the learner slopes is entirely unpredicatble, it can come quickly or you can spend a whole morning riding the magic carpet and repeating step after step, negotiating small, slow turns between bollards. Surrounded by smiley face cartoons, brightly coloured boxes and plastic sunflowers the Kindergarden is a reassuring place, but the time for luch soon comes and the nearby learner slopes grow ever closer.
Lunch, like apres-ski, is a feature of a ski trip and in Switzerland it's a major highlight. The Valais region is one of the country's biggest and best wine producing areas and when it comes to cheese the famous Raclette is just the start! Unlike the major wine producing regions of France and Germany, Valais wine is a community enterprise where every house grows 3 or 4 kilos of grapes and sells them to a co-operative at a a fixed. The result of the personal attention of the families is a range of wines of real quality, overflowing with flavours, that rarely escapes the borders of Switzerland. Cheese comes in everything from raclette to Cholera - a dish originating from the middle ages and an outbreak of the disease of the same name. To avoid contact with other people the locals created dishes using just the ingredients from their gardens and stores and the result was a combined fruit, cheese and vegatable pie .......... believe me its an experience you won't forget or regret.
Local speciality Cholera - a unique combination of fruit, vegatables and chees in a patry case.
Back on the slopes the transition from kindergarden to learner progresses after lunch and suddenly you have to start getting to grips with the infrastructure and machinery of skiing. The magic carpet gives way to a T bar and all at once you feel like a real skier. This is where the instructors real work starts; as the gradient increases everything becomes less predicatable. Skis that seemed under control in the kindergaden start trying to run away with you but bit by bit as the adrenaline of the morning subsides the words of the instructor start to take effect. For those who've picked it up quickly the blue slopes await.
T bars take some getting used to but soon have you back at the top
Day 2 can seem like a steep learning curve but the freshness of day 1's lessons help them stick and as control increases you start to feel like a you're a skier! repetitions of the same route give you the chance to correct your mistakes; they're as inevitable as sunrise and sunset, and you start to discover the addictive nature of the sport. The aches will come as you stretch unused muscles but in between you get short stretches of pure heaven, gliding over the surface under momentary control and oblivious to everything that's not in front of you. In the space of 2 days you've gone from "zero to hero".