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Steamboat Magazine

Get Out

01/19/2024 07:00AM ● By Jennie Lay
(Photo: On piste in Chamonix. Courtesy of Jennie Lay.) 

Featured in Steamboat Magazine Ski Edition 2023-2024
Renewal for your ski town roots. | Story & Photos by Jennie Lay

Snowcapped mountains are big medicine for those of us who live deep in the grind of a real-life ski town existence. Let’s be honest: Some days, winter traffic on streets, sidewalks and slopes feels bananas. But then you snap on your skis. Your eyeballs make a 360-degree sweep from the top of Storm Peak. And your Rocky Mountain high is restored. 

Found allllll the tasty hot beverages for a cold winter day at adorable indie Pages & Sips bookstore in Old Town Geneva.

First Stop: Geneva
“Do not forget the awe. And when we inevitably slip, there’s one surefire remedy for ill-placed ski season angst: Clean out the tip jar; cash in the miles; and take your own ski vacation.”

Full-timers in paradisiacal mountain places like Steamboat Springs can get infected by moments of numbness to the magic that inoculates visitors with love at first sight. For every local who has experienced the Yampa Valley curse, the mythos that once you land here you’re always destined to return, this is an important reminder: Do not forget the awe. And when we inevitably slip, there’s one surefire remedy for ill-placed ski season angst: Clean out the tip jar; cash in the miles; and take your own ski vacation. 

Last winter I learned that sometimes we all need to take a hot minute to stop and feast our eyes on an alternate summit in order to wake up and remember what landed us in this lifestyle in the first place. And so, in the middle of my 31st winter in Steamboat, reveling in some of the most continuously epic snow days I’d ever experienced, my husband (mid-39th season) and I boarded a plane with skis and IKON passes for 2023’s drought-suffering Alps. 

“What are you doing here?” Euro bums inquired with horror. We laughed, and we considered the times we’d scoffed at tourists in our hometown for venturing out in highly imperfect conditions. We were tourists now. We were all in.

Giant chess board in the Parc des Bastions near Old Town Geneva.

Euro Escape Tip: Planning an Itinerary
Considering the travel time, plan on at least a week and don’t try to ski everywhere. Schedule yourself with time to stop and sink into the local culture of the distinctly different resorts. Three weeks felt perfect for as much terrain as we covered (Geneva-Chamonix-Zermatt-St. Moritz-Zurich) and left me dreaming about a future return – especially during a bigger snow year when off-piste skiing is more widely safe and available with local guides. The Alps feature glacier skiing, and those crevasses are no joke.

Gaping at Mont Blanc and stepping out for a vertical adrenaline surge atop the Aiguille du Midi. Also, Swiss cable cars are crazy! 

Second Stop: Chamonix
"Find the funky après, milk the half-board breakfast, and navigate a whole different style of glacial piste. Turns out, the language of ski works everywhere.”

The thing is, France, Switzerland and Italy consistently reminded us that our passion for skiing is about so much more than snowpack. We turned giddy with adventure on fancy trams, egg-like gondolas, rope tows, Pomas, funiculars, buses, trains and plain old chair lifts. We learned to jostle in the lineups, squeeze in public transport, savor languorous lunches, find the funky après, milk the half-board breakfast, and navigate a whole different style of glacial piste. Turns out, the language of ski works everywhere. 

Each day, we were amped anew to ski hard and fast in the sunshine. On vacation, there wasn’t a hint of complaint when there was nary a pow morning to be had. 

Not that we wouldn’t die to go back and do it all again after a massive dump. We would. We will. But ski culture on and off the mountain is as fun as it gets and dipping into someone else’s ski scene is cause for outright jubilant celebration, no matter how many flakes are flying. 

In Chamonix, Zermatt, Cervinia and St. Moritz, we fell in love with historic villages at the foot of ancient ice floes and communities that play with winter a little differently than we do in Steamboat. Maybe it’s the remarkable landscape and the rich food. It became impossible to peel our eyes off the majesty of Mont Blanc, Aiguille du Midi or the Matterhorn. We ate crepes off the street and slabs of Läderach chocolate for dinner. Swiss cheeses proved irresistible in every molten format, and stately cities romanced us at both ends of the journey. 

Tram to Aiguille du Midi, Chamonix.

Euro Escape Tip: Ski Passes
With the full IKON pass, you get seven days with no blackouts in the Chamonix Mont Blanc Valley in France. That includes the five ski areas: Grands Montets, Les Houches, Le Tour/Balme, La Flegere and Le Brevent. Ski or ride seven days with no blackouts at Zermatt Matterhorn in Switzerland, and schuss over to Breuil-Cervinia in Italy for an easy $50 add-on at any ticket window. St. Moritz isn’t on the IKON, but lift tickets cost about $45/day through your local hotel.

When in Chamonix, do not second-guess the cost of adding the Aiguille du Midi cable car to your IKON pass – you will regret missing an epic experience. 

Am I dreaming? Fondue crepe for dinner, then back in line for a Toblerone crepe for dessert. Devoured on a main drag bench, i.e. a catwalk for fancy ski fashion.

Third Stop: Zermatt
“It takes serious persistence to live in a Colorado resort town, and we talked shop with enough European ski town brethren to know that it’s a lot of work to live in theirs, too.”

It takes serious persistence to live in a Colorado resort town, and we talked shop with enough European ski town brethren to know that it’s a lot of work to live in theirs, too. Play time is precious, and we all tend to protect our personal spaces in the wild. Which is why I admire those French, Swiss and Italian ski bums for every generous tip to hit a wacky hut, pack a picnic for the ride, eat pizza in front of the palace, watch for the street dancers, or make sure to hang a hard right so you can peer deep into the steel blue seracs. Their offhand suggestions were windows into the small entitlements that many living near ski slopes start to take for granted – the proverbial “my life is your vacation.” Still, their generosity gifted us with magical vacation moments that made our experience, and my love for skiing bigger and better. 

Did a winter vacation in the Alps really make me a better ski bum? Common sense says we should have cashed in those airline miles for a tropical escape. Instead, a ski trip made me consciously enthusiastic to “pass it on” at home, grounding us in the global connection of mountain-obsessed skiers in a more mindful and meaningful way. 

The Matterhorn looms large over everything in Zermatt.

Euro Escape Tip: Packing for Train Travel
Pairing a roller ski bag and individual boot backpacks (which you can pack tight and carry on the plane, too) makes train-schlepping easy. The Db snow bags we used both held a lot of stuff and kept it super organized. We packed into a single Db ski bag, two individual Db boot backpacks and one roller suitcase for all the ski and après gear for two people for three weeks. Even those two-minute Swiss train transitions were smooth and simple.

Crossing the World Heritage-listed Landwasser Viaduct on the Glacier Express.

Glacier Express

Euro Escape Tip:
Getting Around
Trains may be the most exciting part of skiing in Europe. We rode the rails everywhere, starting in Geneva and ending in Zurich – we saved considerable cash by buying a flexible Swiss Rail travel pass in advance. And that pass even allowed us a glorious, slow and scenic day on the historic Glacier Express between Zermatt and St. Moritz. (Pro tip: Skip the multi-course meal and B.Y.O. picnic on the train).

Bonus: In big cities, Swiss hotels generally include local transport passes during your stay – a great perk when you want to cruise across the lake or pop up to visit the scientific wonders at CERN when you’re in Geneva.

Groomed bliss: endless corduroy and nonexistent crowds at St. Moritz.

Fourth Stop:
St. Moritz 

Sign not pictured above the diner: “Cheese is the new gold.” 

Euro Escape Tip: 
Cheese and Wine 
Fondue and raclette are abundant in this part of the world, and feasts of both are highly recommended. Mid-day, it’s hard to top the savory goodness of a hot cheese and potato rosti for lunch on the mountain. Swiss wines are delicious, varied and inexpensive by American standards – a great opportunity to taste the remarkable fruits of Old World vines. 

There are lots of Michelin stars to be explored in Zermatt. Or you can save a lot of bucks, sit on a bench, people watch, and thoroughly enjoy divine sweet and savory creations from the sub-street-level Stefanie’s Creperie. 

Badrutt’s Palace, extreme luxury in St. Moritz. 

Euro Escape Tip: Where to Stay 
Skip renting a condo and opt for local inns, hotels and hostels where you can book half board. That means you’ll get hearty breakfasts, bottomless cappuccinos, and likely, firsthand advice from local skiers. Charming comes in spades in these towns. And it does not mean more expensive, but it does make things feel more interesting.

Final Stop: Zurich 
It’s no small feat to get to the mountains. Between transport, lift tickets, ski bags, lodging and the financial commitment, I’ve raised my bar on the respect for the thousands of people who somehow manage to make it to our town every winter. When I think about climate change and how all of this might look in a warmer world, I worry that this magnificent ski culture is an endangered species everywhere. 

What a beautiful privilege it has been to be a hard-working Steamboat ski bum all these decades. There is a wild, adrenaline-fueled, intangible spirit tucked into the world’s high Alpine spaces. I’m newly inspired by the idea that we have purpose and power as a community to keep our ski culture vibrant and connected to it all. 

Skiers and riders are interdependent, and the faster we surrender to being fellow citizens of the slopes, the faster we’ll move past the limiting beliefs of tourist vs. local and remember that we’re in a symbiotic relationship. And everyone needs a ski vacation. 

Boutique chocolate shops prove mouthwatering and plentiful in Zurich. 

Euro Escape Tip: 
Slabs of Läderach chocolate can be found at their enticing shops throughout Switzerland. Every flavor was delicious, and the wide variety made sure there was a perfect flavor for every day, and every mood. Visit Shoukâ in Chamonix for a delightful and authentic bean-to-bar cocoa experience, plus fresh-roasted coffee and tantalizing pastries. 

Editor’s Note: Jennie Lay is a freelance writer and one of those rare, certified ski bums who turn ski towns into hometowns.