Checking out snow sport alternatives to skiing
You don’t have to ski to enjoy Switzerland in the winter. From snowshoeing to ski-jöring, non-skiers have plenty of ways to amuse themselves in the colder months. The Local's Caroline Bishop runs down some of the options.
It’s expensive, it involves lots of equipment and if you’ve never done it before it can seem downright scary.
But given the early morning trains packed with skiers heading for the mountains every weekend from December to April, newly arrived expats in Switzerland could be forgiven for thinking that if you don’t ski or snowboard, the mountains are off limits to you in winter.
“Skiing I don’t do that much because I didn’t grow up in a place where skiing was popular so I’m not that used to it,” Mexican-American expat Jean-Jacques Bouillet tells The Local.
“Skiing can be quite expensive and you need to already have the equipment because otherwise you have to pay the rental," he says.
"And then you have to pay for the ski lifts.”
During the three years he’s lived in Switzerland the Fribourg resident has proved that you don’t have to ski to have fun in the mountains in winter.
From snowshoeing to tobogganing, curling to snow-tubing, Bouillet has organized hundreds of winter activities for himself and other expats through networking site www.glocals.com, helping to show other non-skiers that the Swiss winter is open to them, too.
Among the activities he organized last winter was a trip to Grindelwald in the Bernese Oberland to sledge Europe’s longest toboggan run.
This winter he’s planning a visit to Leysin in the canton of Vaud to try snow-tubing, and an overnight stay in an igloo in Gstaad with night-time snowshoeing.
Snowshoeing is “much easier” than skiing, he says.
“It’s more available, it’s much easier to do, you don’t have to be carrying stuff around. You just have to put on those things [snowshoes] and out you go. It doesn’t take really any extra technique.”
Most non-ski winter activities are very accessible, and it’s simple to arrange your own alpine outings without going through a tourist office or tour operator.
“I think Switzerland is so set up for these type of activities,” Bouillet tells The Local.
“They have very good signs all over the place, and it’s easy to find all these activities. You don’t have to go that far to do this sort of thing. It’s not like you have to take a plane or something.”
Dutch expat Bert Verstappen, a long-time Geneva resident, also enjoys the freedom and ease of snowshoeing, which was new to him when he arrived in Switzerland.
“On showshoes, you are more independent [than when skiing] – you choose your own itinerary,” he tells The Local.
“You are also closer to nature – no standing in queues at ski lifts. The alternative would be off-piste skiing, but you have to be a pretty good skier.”
Photo: Christian Perret
For Verstappen, the chance to strap on snowshoes and get away from the crowds offers a new perspective on Switzerland.
“We are really lucky to have so many mountains nearby. Geneva is a pleasant town but one of the good things about it is that it is so easy to get away, especially in winter when the lakeside is covered with fog.
“It is also good to realise that so near the bustling trade, banking and UN centre there are small villages where the locals live in very different conditions.”
Echallens resident Nathalie Thum agrees.
Despite growing up in Switzerland she says skiing always felt “more an obligation than a pleasure.”
“I’m a bit afraid of skiing, it is very dangerous, especially with other people going very fast,” she tells The Local.
Instead she enjoys tobogganing, ice-skating and, as a keen horse-rider, riding on frozen lakes.
“I remember once I went [riding] in the morning and I was the first person to walk on the snowy road. It was just amazing to trot and gallop, I felt like I was alone in the universe.”
All agree that making the most of the mountains — even if you don’t ski — is essential to having a positive experience of living in Switzerland, otherwise it would be “really boring, to be honest,” says Bouillet.
“Switzerland is really about all these outdoor activities. If [people] are definitely not outdoor people then I think they would have a very hard time of it here.”