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ski mountaineering: my journey

From top: A Swiss flag flies in Chandolin after new snow; Chalets in the Old Village, Chandolin; Grave marker for the Zufferey family; Chandolin with the church of Sainte-Barbe on the right; Skis by a yellow Swiss postbox; Narrow ally between chalets in the Old Village, Chandolin.Illustration by Photo illustration by The Globe and Mail

There was no road to Chandolin until the late 1950s. Before that, access to the Swiss village was by mule. East of the church, a post-Baroque structure built in the 1880s, lies the vieux village, the old village, a cluster of chalets built from larch and arolla pine, granaries on stilts to discourage rodents, and the four banal, the communal oven where villagers baked a hard bread from rye, wheat and potatoes. To the west lies the Grand Hotel, built in 1896 as if early proof-of-concept for a Wes Anderson movie.

Today, there is more modern construction beyond: chalets and a few apartment blocks metastasized until 2012, when, with much gnashing of teeth, Switzerland voted to ban second homes. In between, if you look carefully, are visual tells of the curiosities of this society. There are recycling protocols of Byzantine complexity, and below one building, I found a 20-centimetre thick concrete door on heavy hinges – the state-mandated bunker.

Looking from the old village towards the church of Sainte-Barbe.Simon Akam/The Globe and Mail

I came here, or, more precisely, back here, to properly learn ski mountaineering, after I nearly died attempting it on a peak in Russia in 2017. Ski mountaineering is really about skiing uphill. But I’ve learned that the first skill to master, in particular for a big event like the race I hope to complete next year, is how to ski downhill properly, potentially on very steep ground, with a rucksack, in all conditions.

After a brush with death on Mount Elbrus, I’m on a journey to conquer ski mountaineering once again

In large resorts in the Alps there are two-month off-the-shelf training programs, but they did not appeal to me. Many aim to produce instructors, which I had no desire to become. Most are anglophone. I wanted complete linguistic immersion.

Instead, I returned to Chandolin, where I once stayed as a child. When I was growing up in Cambridge in southern England, my parents had an evangelical belief in the character-forming properties of European stints abroad. At 11, in 1996, I spent Christmas and New Years here with a Swiss family, whom my parents knew from postgraduate studies in the U.S. I had already learned to ski in a purpose-built resort in France, but this was a completely different experience. I remember skiing, cross-country and downhill, but also raclette cheese, left to soften in front of a fire, sledding, night mass at church.

A Swiss flag flies in Chandolin after new snow.Simon Akam/The Globe and Mail

I also remember being deeply homesick, but in retrospect my memories are overwhelmingly positive. I wonder if the stay left a lasting impression on me because it coincided with the beginning of the end of childhood. My first clear memories of pop music are from that year (Un-break My Heart is a standout). It was also the first time I properly kept a diary, another habit that lingered into adulthood. “The village is very high (2,000 m),” I wrote. “This also means the air is a bit thin for comfort.”

The church of Sainte-Barbe.Simon Akam/The Globe and Mail

Yet, if my memories of 26 years ago are immaculately preserved, they also show what has changed. When I came as a child to Chandolin, it was bitterly cold (by European standards); -15 C some days on the mountain. From old photographs I see the landscape was fully snow-covered, down to the lower reaches of the Val d’Anniviers.

Back then no one assumed it would be any other way, because of the village’s elevation. My childhood statement that it sits at 2,000 m is not exactly accurate. Parsing contours on the Swiss topographic maps, I put the church, the centre of gravity of this traditionally deeply Catholic settlement, at between 1,910 m and 1,920 m. Though, in fairness to my preteen self, there are postcards too that claim that Chandolin lies at 2,000 m.

In the 1990s, that elevation – which supposedly made Chandolin the highest village in French-speaking Switzerland – was considered enough to ensure reliable snow-cover from before Christmas to at least Easter. By contrast, when I drove in from France on Jan. 7 of this year to deliver my skis, there was little snow here, just sad browning banks by the roadside. “J’espère que tu trouveras un peu de neige à Chandolin pour pratiquer le ski malgré les conditions météorologiques extravagances de cette année,” the mother of my old host family e-mailed. I hope you find some snow in Chandolin to practise skiing despite the extravagant weather conditions this year. The extravaganza she referred to occurred as the new year was ushered in, when parts of Switzerland recorded a temperature above 20 C, a record for the time of year.

Chandolin is the highest village in French-speaking Switzerland.Simon Akam/Handout

Just as the stories of climatic doom hit the press, however, snow arrived. My skis delivered, I had taken my rental car back to Chamonix, and returned to Chandolin first by train, then by bus, in thickening storms. Heavy snow continued for much of the week. Last weekend I climbed the Illhorn, the 2,717-metre peak above the village, and it was again about -15 C on top. But what about next winter, or winters to come in 20 or 30 years? “The extinction of snow worries and hurts many,” the Neue Zurcher Zeitung, the major German-language Swiss paper, reported on Jan. 8. “Will the Swiss soul be able to cope?”

It is not just culture. Snow, also known as or blanc, white gold, is business. Tourism, particularly winter tourism, along with hydropower, dragged these high alpine communities out of grinding poverty. That process was not without controversy. The vote banning second homes was the result of a campaign by veteran Swiss environmentalist Franz Weber. A farmer in this valley once sprayed Weber with liquid manure in protest of his advocacy to “protect” the area from development. (“I prefer manure to concrete,” Weber quipped afterward.)

Even in the few weeks I have spent here, I have sensed an unresolved tension that goes back a century. This fault-line lies between those who covet this place for its beauty and isolation and who want it to remain as undeveloped as possible, and those for whom tourism was a way – the only way even – out of the brutalities of high-altitude subsistence agriculture. The statistics are telling. In Vernamiège for instance, a community a little to the west of here, infant mortality fell from 122.2 per 1,000 between 1915 and 1925 to 36 per 1,000 30 years later. Today I both understand why that farmer once targeted Weber with dung, and rejoice that this valley did limit its “development.”

Chalets in the old village.Simon Akam/The Globe and Mail

Global warming, though, is a whole other matter. In Chandolin, at give-or-take 2,000 m, they are more insulated from a changing climate. And no one suggests Swiss children will start dying again in droves. But if it stops snowing, they will face economic crisis, whether or not they permit second homes.

Simon Akam is a British journalist and author. His first book, The Changing of the Guard – The British Army since 9/11, published in 2021, was a Times Literary Supplement book of the year and won the Templer First Book Prize. Simon can be found at @simonakam on Twitter, @simon.akam on Instagram.

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