Ski Holiday 2003 (Or Shaun The Sheep's Adventures In The Bernese Alps!)

By Tony Keates

Following the success of last year's holiday with our motorhome at Bourg St Maurice, we decided that this year we would take it to Cervinia to meet up with the Ski club main holiday. After discussions with Ernie and Marjorie Di Rollo, we decided to extend our holiday to three weeks. After the week at Cervinia, we would drive down to Lauterbrunnen in Switzerland to meet them, spending a week skiing with them in Wengen, Murren and Grindelwald, as none of us had been to any of these resorts previously, before returning home.

We set off from Zeebrugge at 0830, having taken the overnight crossing from Hull. However it soon became apparent that we were making much better time than we had expected and would easily make the journey to Cervinia in two days. Our first overnight stop was in a service station on the autoroute near Besancon. From there we headed south over the Col de la Faucille towards Geneva and our first major navigational test - getting round Geneva and finding the right road for the Mont Blanc Tunnel that would take us into Italy! However, after one small hiccup, we found it quite easily. The Mont Blanc Tunnel, reopened after the disastrous fire, was very impressive - 20 km long. The toll however was not - 33 Euro one way! It was obvious right from the start of the Col de la Faucille that there was a lot of snow around - things were looking good for the skiing! The drive to the tunnel was very attractive, passing through numerous small villages, all of which seemed to have at least one ski lift and offering both downhill and cross-country skiing. Driving into Aosta, having emerged from the tunnel, we had our first major problem - I realised that the exhaust had blown and we sounded like a dragster, especially when revving hard in the lower gears, but there was nothing we could do until we got to Cervinia.

Our campsite for the first week was situated in Valtournenche, about 12 km from Cervinia itself. However there was a new gondola lift which linked with Cervinia. Having arrived a day early, we decided to go to Cervinia to find the Hotel Astoria where the club were staying and to try and find somewhere to get the exhaust repaired. Fortunately we found an extremely helpful Italian gentleman who assured us that the exhaust could be repaired, so we arranged to drop the vehicle off the following morning and pick it up after the day's skiing. We then walked into Cervinia, had a look round the village and sought out the hotel for future reference. The Matterhorn looked very impressive, towering above the village and completely dominating the landscape. We decided to have lunch in the hotel and asked about the club booking, saying that we were also members of the same club. We then explained our predicament with the van and asked if we could possibly leave our skis and boots in their ski store, to which they willingly agreed - it was very much appreciated.

Next morning (Monday) we set off early to take the van to be repaired, trying not to attract the attention of the local police with our noisy engine. We first drove to the hotel and dumped our ski gear, before dropping off the van to be repaired and then walking back to the hotel to meet up with the club for a day's skiing. Afterwards, Paul asked us if we could stop for a meal at the hotel, which was great - it was a nice change from our somewhat basic meals in the van. Having picked up the van we parked at the end of the car park just by the road tunnel then walked to the hotel for our meal. We spent the night in the car park.

For the next couple of days we caught the gondola from Valtournenche and skied that area - the high winds prevented us from linking with Cervinia as the top lift was closed, but we did get over one day when the weather improved, only to find that most of the club had gone over to Valtournenche! Because of these problems, Dot had the bright idea of leaving the campsite and spending the last two nights in the car park opposite the cable car in Cervinia - this we duly did and skied the Cervinia area. Our lasting memories of Cervinia will be the intense cold - so cold that the waste pipe from the sink and the toilet flush in the van both froze up - the superb squeaky snow, the cheerful and very helpful Italian who repaired our exhaust and the mighty Matterhorn, looking magnificent against a deep blue sky.

On the Sunday morning, as the club prepared for the journey home, we set off on the journey to our second destination - Lauterbrunnen in Switzerland and the resorts of Wengen, Murren and Grindelwald in the Bernese Oberland. Here we would meet Marjorie and Ernie, who were due to arrive a few days after us.

(At this point, the story is taken up by Shaun the Sheep.)

Hi there! My name is Shaun the Sheep, of Wallace and Grommit fame, and I am of course the fluffy backpack that Tony takes on ski holidays. Wherever I go I always cause a stir and it often helps to break the ice between the local population and ourselves, usually to a chorus of Baaaas! However I was most put out in Cervinia, when a crowd of Italian youngsters started chanting "Dolly! Dolly!" The cheek of it, fancy confusing me with a female sheep and a cloned one at that! They obviously don't have Wallace and Grommit in Italy - however Tony soon put them right. Anyway back to the trip.

Having left Cervinia (very cold - even to a tough Yorkshire sheep like me!) we drove back to Aosta and then took the road for the Grand St. Bernard Tunnel, which would take us from Italy into Switzerland. This was another very impressive tunnel, although not quite as long as the Mont Blanc Tunnel, again with an expensive toll - about 30 Euro one way. From here we drove over the Col de Martigny, to pick up the autoroute towards Lausanne, before turning off to take a scenic route between Aigle and Interlaken. Once again we passed through several attractive villages, each with their small ski lifts, the resorts of Gstaad and Chateau d'Oex both being nearby. Arriving alongside the Thunnsee, we took the autoroute towards Interlaken, before taking the local road to Lauterbrunnen.

On arriving at our chosen campsite, Camping Jungfrau, we were most impressed - the site was excellent with fabulous views up the Lauterbrunnen Valley. The facilities were superb - doors that opened automatically and lights operated by sensors. The toilet and washroom block was wonderfully warm and the whole place clean enough to have eaten your dinner off. There was also a ski store, drying room and a free shuttle bus from the site to the railway station, as well as a bar, restaurant, take-away, cyber café and quiet lounge. However, these facilities did not come cheap - about £20 per night with electricity, but worth every penny (or centime!)

Having arrived a few days before Ernie and Marjie, we decided to have a day off skiing and caught the train to Wengen. We particularly wanted to see the Hotel Falken, the home of the Downhill Only Club - a throwback to the early days of skiing in Switzerland - it was an impressive building but we thought it was beginning to look a bit jaded. We had no problem picking out members of the DHO by their accents. What was a bit of a shock was that there is no skiing actually in Wengen itself, apart from the nursery slopes, and everything depends on the cable car to Mannlichen being open to get higher up, from where it is possible to ski back down to Wengen.

That night we had a very heavy dump of snow which continued for the next few days, and we skied in an almost complete white-out each day - very Scottish! The amounts of snow caused considerable disruption to the mountain railways, due to the avalanche risk at the higher levels, and we spent about 1-2 hours each day riding in trains. To get to Grindelwald, we had to catch a train to Interlaken and then another back to Grindelwald, and we had the same performance on the way back to the site. Skiing in the deep soft snow and poor visibility was very difficult, and on several occasions Tony and Dot found themselves off the piste and up to their thighs in deep soft snow - very tiring to get out of. I was glad I was riding on Tony's back - at least I was out of the deep snow, although I got very wet - even worse than the North York Moors in winter! By the time Ernie and Marjie arrived, we were feeling somewhat fraught and wishing for France and interlinked ski resorts! However, the latter half of the week was much better - the snow stopped and the sun came out - the mountains were magnificent, especially the big three - the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau, and the snow conditions were superb.

While planning the holiday, Ernie and Tony had decided that they wanted to ski the Lauberhorn downhill race course in Wengen, so next day we all took the train for Wengen and then took the Mannlichen cable car to the top. After a few more runs and lifts, we finally arrived at the start of the Lauberhorn race piste, where Dot and Marjie set off to ski down the red runs beside the race piste, while Ernie and Tony set off down it. Even in the deep fresh snow it was challenging, Ernie faring better on his carving skis than Tony on his stiffer K2 slalom skis. The famous jumps, especially the Hundskopf, where the racers leap off a small cliff and have to turn to the right in mid-air to exit at the bottom, were mind-boggling, and the very steep schusses, just before and into the finish area, also gave cause for thought, and by the time we reached the bottom we were living on pure adrenalin! It was a superb run. Having met up again with the girls after quite a wait due to a slight misunderstanding on piste numbers (largely the boys' fault), we skied back down to Wengen to catch the train home.

Another of Ernie and Tony's ambitions was to ski the "James Bond " run above Murren, from the revolving restaurant, the Piz Gloria, at the top of the Schilthorn at a height of 10000 feet. Tony suggested that from there they could continue down another black run, the Kanonenrohr, a steep twisting route, narrow in places, which forms the course for the famous "Inferno " race. We therefore caught the mountain railway up to Murren but found that from the station we had a 10 minute walk to the first lift - not a good start! When we finally got to the lifts, we were very disappointed to find that the cable car was not running to the top, so Tony and Ernie could not do their "James Bond bit". However, the weather and snow were superb, and despite the somewhat limited runs available, we had an enjoyable day's skiing. We decided that we would ski back to Lauterbrunnen down a long itinerary run rather than catch the train. This started off well but soon became a narrow, steep and twisting run down through the trees, which meant a lot of snowploughing, the track being too cut up and too narrow in places for short swing turns to control speed. It was a very tired group who finally made it back to the site - except me of course, I was carried all the way by Tony - what a guy!

The next day we decided to visit the Grindelwald area, so we took the train from Lauterbrunnen, via Wengen, to Kleine Scheidegg, which sits directly beneath the north face of the Eiger - the view of the mountain was awe-inspiring! After a slight deviation via a very steep tee-bar tow, we skied all the way down to Grindelwald Grund. This was a very long run with a vertical drop of 4500 feet, which had been hard work in the lower flatter parts in the bad conditions earlier in the week, but this time it was very enjoyable. We then caught the train to Grindelwald and were amazed to see buses absolutely laden with toboggans and their riders - it was the weekend and very crowded and it took us over an hour to finally get back on to the snow. However the skiing in glorious sunshine was excellent and several cold beers were enjoyed in the mountain bars.

For our final day with Ernie and Marjie, Ernie suggested that we caught the shuttle bus up the Lauterbrunnen valley to the Schilthornbahn cable car, which would take us straight to the top of the Schilthorn, so that he and Tony could have another attempt at the "James Bond" run and the Kanonenrohr. However, Dot decided that she was too tired to ski any more and would have a day off, while Marjie said she would come and take some video film. This time all the links worked perfectly - we caught the shuttle bus from the campsite at 0850 and by 0930 we were at the top of the Schilthorn, in glorious sunshine, clear blue sky and superb snow. Having looked round the Piz Gloria restaurant and taken loads of photos, Marjie went back down on the cable car to meet us at the bottom, while Ernie, Tony and me set off down the mountain. The top part of the run was very steep, but wide, with no moguls, and once committed it was challenging but very enjoyable. Further down it became flat for a considerable distance, which meant a flat-out schuss to avoid poling, before steepening again as it entered the Kanonenrohr, which was steep, twisting and narrow in places but also very enjoyable. Having got back to the cable car we went back up to ski the whole run again before meeting Marjie for lunch. We spent the afternoon skiing with Marjie, enjoying the glorious sun, superb snow and magnificent views, with the odd stop at mountain hostelries! Tony declared that it was one of the best day's skiing he could remember. That night we all had a meal out at a local restaurant to finish off the week - very nice!

The next morning, having dug out the van from the two feet of snow around it, we had to use our snowchains for the first time ever to get off the site, but after that the journey back through Switzerland, Luxembourg and Belgium was uneventful.

I have attached a couple of photographs of me in a snowhole at the bottom of the Kanonenrohr, and me at the top of the Schilthorn with Uncle Ernie and Auntie Marjie. Cheers for now - Shaun the Sheep.