I see Ba¯nz Simmer before he sees me. He pulls up to Hotel Bären in Andermatt, Switzerland, on a fat bike, leaping off the way a thirsty cowboy might dismount a horse outside a saloon, flying past the window to reappear, out of breath, at my elbow in the hotel's bar. He's 10 minutes late — unconscionable in this clockwork country — but he gets a pass as a last-minute stand-in for the woman from the tourism office who has somehow double-booked herself. Ba¯nz (pronounced Baynes), she assured me in a handwritten note, "is an interesting person and knows more about Andermatt than most." This proves both understatement, and that she has clear command of the pejorative use of "interesting" common to English-speaking nations.
Wild-eyed and stubbly under a newsboy cap, Ba¯nz introduces himself... for five straight minutes. The crux: He's a snowboarder of the old school variety, travelled North America back in '85 (or maybe '87). Was only allowed to snowboard at three of the 17 resorts he visited. Then he decided to cycle from Switzerland to China, and become "a bike tourist" (I'm pretty sure he means tourer). These days he mostly shepherds visitors on snowshoe tours — and knows things.
To begin, I learn that An-der-matt means "at the meadow." The stream-of-consciousness information dump continues over lunch in Toutoune, an airy, modern restaurant-café on the main strasse. What follows, I'm convinced, would comprise a bachelor's degree in European history, with a minor in Swiss political science. Topics range from trivial to astounding, hop-scotching from the Swiss work ethic, to the headless state's direct-democracy governance, to its 400-year reputation of mercenaries whose last remnant comprises the Vatican-stationed Swiss Guard, a medieval-costumed platoon largely for show (the Pope is actually guarded by a private security firm). He touches on the valley's earliest semi-nomadic visitors (traces go back 5,000 years), its once populous bears and wolves, the Romans (they were everywhere), the arrival of Walsers and their miraculous constructions, the village's founding, and the catastrophic avalanches that razed it on more than one occasion. Ba¯nz sidenotes Switzerland's complicity in moving Nazi troops across the Alps and its purchasing of their ill-gained gold, before segueing to cheese, free trade, architecture, and various takes on tourism (the village's and his). On the fascination ledger, Ba¯nz offers asides on the similar histories of national icons like chocolate and watches, carried back from abroad to be improved upon in order to better Swiss lives — mostly, it turned out, through making bundles of money from the export of vastly better versions, the reason Switzerland went from a poor, illiterate country at the time of its 1848 constitution, to one of the world's richest.
None of this seems to have anything to do with skiing, and yet, ultimately, it all does.
Beginning with the country's historical co-opting of the Alps themselves as de facto defence.
The town of Andermatt began as a crossroads of east-west and north-south travel and commerce through the Alps, an alpine Shangri-La encircled by mountains that fortuitously connected the country's various cultural corners with the motherlands of Germany, Austria, Italy and France. Its isolated character not only attracted wealthy types to vacation here but also made it a good place for a fortified garrison — its mountains and passes riddled with tunnels and a warren of underground compounds.
Thousands were stationed here to defend the nation against incursion from any direction. But what to do while waiting (in vain, it turns out)? Ski, of course. Which is why Andermatt was one of the first places in Switzerland to have a ski club and a lift.
The end of the Cold War soured taxpayers on the $1 million CHF/day bill for the garrison, and the subsequent departure of most of the soldiers forced Andermatters to formally turn to something they'd only really ever tolerated: tourism. Nevertheless, the town soon fell into a funk of empty streets and empty mountain faces both on- and off-piste below the tram-serviced, 1,600-vertical-metre Gemstock. Because it was one of the most reliably snowy places in Switzerland and you could easily rack up 10,000 to 15,000 vertical metres in a day, it became a freerider's paradise, for which its reputation had solidified by the time I first visited 20 years ago.
Though known as a ski resort, Andermatt also portrays a realm of myth, legend and fantasy visited by, among others, the Devil, Elvis Presley, William Tell, Goethe, James Bond, and an Egyptian property developer named Samih Sawiris, who has kick-started the town's transformation by opening its first five-star hotel — the Chedi — in 2013. The Chedi is being followed by additional similar projects and a plan to link Andermatt's lifts with the adjacent but moribund Sedrun and Dissentis ski areas to become another Euro mega-resort.
With a new tunnel now bypassing the ancient trade route through the valley to Italy, townsfolk see this regalization as the resort's only salvation: get big or perish. But that suddenly makes freeriders like Ba¯nz — who've kept Andermatt afloat through the bad times — poor men in a rich man's world.
Next week: Regalization II: The Way it Was
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.