Opinion » Range Rover

Regalization II: The way it was



Though a smallish ski area by Swiss standards, Andermatt seems vast: you can ski anywhere on the Gemstock or off of any aspect, each route leading to a different valley. But on a January day, despite 40 to 60 cm of new snow, it's deserted, with no waiting for half-full trams to the 1,600-metre, glacier-rimmed summit. The steepness of the main bowl's single piste is eyebrow-raising. This is no place for punters, who stick to manicured areas around the chairlifts. Only a few plumb the off-piste. One is a French guide leading an older but competent woman. His hardened face resembles the crust of the Earth itself — an igneous fire burns behind flinty eyes, their wrinkles and creases a metamorphosis of mountain experiences laid down like sediments over the years. We flash each other knowing grins. Powder is everywhere. But so are rocks, making for cautiously giddy descents.

It's hard to imagine such a gnarly concatenation as the basis for yet another jet-set ski resort but such is the case, a renaissance embraced by all who'd witnessed the town sink into backwater status after its longtime employer — the military — pulled up stakes after the Cold War. Like other Andermatters, Ba¯nz Simmer had his eye on the salvation of luxury hotels, moneyed clientele, and consolidation — new lifts that will link Andermatt to nearby Sedrun and Dissentis to create the grand Andermatt Ski Arena already being advertised in tourism collateral. The day before, I'd lunched with the loquacious biker, snowboarder, businessman and occasional tour guide, hoping to understand the impact to locals of a new wave of four- and five-star accommodation rising on this ancient alpine crossroads.

Ba¯nz ordered falafel — his favourite — and I tried flammkuchen, a French flatbread adorned with various toppings and crème fraîche. While he unpacked the valley's (and country's) history, Ba¯nz's eyes bulged mischievously, as if he knew he was divulging information beyond the tourist office's anodyne script. When he ate, like a man possessed, those eyes seemed to disappear into his head with each swallow, much as a frog's do. Between anecdotes he wolfed and slurped with a diligence suggesting that meals on someone else's dime were for him a welcome rarity.

Afterward we strolled to his shop, the 61 Internet Kiosk Café Bar, a throwback to the early digital age, before smartphones doomed such enterprise to a new-millennial footnote. Inside, I experienced immediate déjà vu — and not because of ancient, boxy laptops cabled to the wall on small tables, the dripping old-school espresso machine, or the various racks of moldering, no-longer-in-demand products. Instead, it was the glut of rocks and crystals (70-some minerals occur in the valley) inside a glass counter and scattered elsewhere in boxes that stirred my memory. I had been here before, years ago, purchasing a map from the very stack where they still languished. Ba¯nz, with an interest in geology, used to conduct "crystal" hikes in the surrounding mountains but had to stop. What began as an enjoyable natural history enterprise had morphed into chaperoning New Agers seeking crystals not for their beauty, composition, or improbable formation, but for their supposed mystical powers. Flakes scrounging for rock flakes was too much for Ba¯nz, who claimed it put him in mind of the animistic, deeply superstitious settlers who first populated the valley. As he talked he'd passed me a rounded, fist-sized lump of stone, my hand dropping from the weight. That's a kilo of lead, he noted, nothing spiritual there. I handed it back, making sure to wipe my hands on my pants.

High on a wall was a black-and-white photo enlargement of a young, flap-eared Sean Connery leaning against an Aston Martin. When I wondered over it, Ba¯nz answered by pulling up a YouTube clip of a car chase from Goldfinger, filmed in Andermatt. Did I know why so many Bond films featured scenes in Switzerland? No. According to Ba¯nz it was because 007's creator, Ian Fleming, had a teacher during schooling in Switzerland who'd encouraged him to ignore parental pressure and continue with writing (according to Google, while attending the University of Geneva, Fleming began a romance with instructor Monique Panchaud de Bottomes before his horrified mother made him break it off). No one entered the shop while we were there. As we left, Ba¯nz offered me some old, sun-faded postcards from a dusty rack; I shuffled through what were now bygone souvenirs in an age of real-time Instagram postcards, noting how you could take better shots with an iPhone.

It occurred to me that the past is what it is, while the future is what you make it.

Next day, at the other end of the village, I ascended Gerschenalp on an ancient creaking double chair. A few lifts crisscrossed the open alps, and though the skiing was uninteresting, the snow was good and the views outstanding — the reason beginners and intermediates love such areas. Visible to the northeast was Sedrun, linchpin in the Andermatt Ski Arena concept. A few new lifts stepped out in its direction, but getting there, and bringing new life to town, might take years. Like many others, Ba¯nz was banking on it.

Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.