Glacier days and fondue nights
Heliskiing in the Swiss Alps at Glacier 300 above Les Diablerets and staying in the Alpine village of Leysin
Heliskiing is the best way to commute to a glacier 10,000 feet up in the Swiss Alps. (Photo by Reid Bramblett)
I'm not saying the shots at the Yeti Bar were powerful, but the next morning, when I got on the shuttle bus to the heliport, it took a fellow passenger to point out I wasn't wearing any pants.
"Un moment, s'il vous plait!" I said to the driver, and dashed back into the hotel.
I must have been a sight, clumping through the lobby in ski boots, jacket, and skintight thermal underwear, but half an hour later—fully clothed—I was flying over the Swiss Alps, and the pilot was pointing out Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn on our way to Glacier 3000.
Skiing Glacier 3000
This snow-covered sea of ice sitting at 10,000 feet (whcih is 3,000 meters, hence the name) above the village of Les Diablerets is the secret weapon of the greater Vaudoise Alps ski area, allowing for year-round skiing and snowboarding in a French-speaking corner of the Swiss Alps that sees a mere fraction of the crowds that clog the lift lines in chichi resorts like Zermatt, St. Moritz, and Verbier.
Though you can get to the glacier via cable car, the chopper makes for a far more scenic commute. Mine landed next to a rock pinnacle called the Devil's Bowling Pin, at the very top the glacier. The strings of T-bars chugged along empty, and the only tracks through the powder were from the four folks in an earlier helicopter.
Skiing Glacier 3000 high in the Swiss Alps above Les Diablerets. (Photo by Reid Bramblett)
Cruising across the glacier was great, but I kept getting distracted by the breathtaking 360-degree Alpine panorama, so to keep my eyes on my skis I traversed to the Combe d'Audon on the shady north face of the 10,306-foot Oldenhorn. From there I snaked down a six-mile run with plenty of deep stuff between the switchbacks.
The other major ski area above Les Diablerets, Meilleret, is a pretty mountain of intermediate and beginner runs (perfect family mountain).
It also sports an interconnect lift to swanky Villars —the only Vaudoise resort that could count as "famous" (though the regional lift pass does also cover nearby Gstaad in the Berner Oberland)—and has the 4.6-mile Col de la Croix sledge run.
Sledging - Long-distance sledding for grown-ups
Sledging now ranks as my favorite way to get to the bottom of a mountain: perched atop a tiny wooden sled, slipping softly through the forest in crystalline Alpine silence—and wiping out spectacularly every time I try to steer around a sharp turn.
At the bottom I nursed my bruised pride over a cup of mulled wine and hopped a bus into Les Diablerets for a bubbling pot of fondue at the 215-year-old Auberge de la Poste.
And then? I taxied back to my hotel in the town of Leysin for another round at the Yeti Bar.
When You Go
The Alpine panorama is practically a distraction when skiing Glacier 3000. (Photo by Reid Bramblett)
You have two choices for setting up camp in this valley: Les Diablerets (www.diablerets.ch), which lies at the foot of the Glacier 3000 (www.glacier3000.ch) and Meilleret, and the laid-back village of Leysin (www.leysin.ch), sashaying up the mountainside below its own ski area (featuring a couple of sweet black runs, a revolving restaurant, and a World Cup half-pipe where Olympic snowboarders qualified for the Games).
Leysin, a 25-minute scenic cog train ride from Aigle (just south of Montreaux), was renowned in the 19th century for its TB sanitariums—patients would lie on giant terraces soaking in the all-day sun that graces the valley—but the sanitariums have since been converted into international schools, and the village has become gateway to the Vaudoise.
Where to Stay: The cheapest digs in Leysin are at the Hiking Sheep (+41-24/494-3535, www.hikingsheep.com), a bohemian mix of private rooms ($57-$62 double) and shared dorms (sleeping up to eight, $21-$23 per person) in a converted 19th-century hospice way at the top of town. In Les Diablerets, Auberge de la Poste (+41-24/492-3124, www.aubergedelaposte.ch) has cozy doubles for $54-$77. You can find more hotels in Leysin here.
Activities: Grab a group of five and a helicopter ride to the glacier —or just a scenic buzz around the top of Europe—is $38 per person (+41-24/494-3434). Rent a sledge for $6-$9 from Mountain Evasion (+41-24/492-1232, www.mountain-evasion.ch).
Moonrise over the village of Leysin in the Vaudoise Alps. (Photo by Reid Bramblett)
Where to Eat: Switzerland is no place for the lactose intolerant; the main dinner choices seem to be fondue or raclette (a deliciously gooey pile of melted cheese served with potatoes, gherkins, and tomatoes).
This goes doubly at Leysin's Le Fromagerie (+41-24/494-2205), installed in the oldest chalet in town, dating to the 17th century. Cheese makes up most of the menu here, and they're constantly making more of it right in the middle of the dining room (they love it when you ask to help stir the cauldron). Artisinal cheese-making demonstrations are held Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Mondays at 7pm. The restaurant is closed Wednesdays in summer.
You can also get cheap grub at Leysin's après ski hot spots, Le Lynx, where the ski school guides tend to chill, and the Yeti Bar with its free WiFi—though once the staff locks the front doors at 1am and starts passing around beer and shots for free, don't say I didn't warn you.