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Robert Wernick
December 23, 1957
Powder snow and posh hotels beckon winter travelers to Switzerland's Bernese Oberland
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December 23, 1957

Heartland Of Ski

Powder snow and posh hotels beckon winter travelers to Switzerland's Bernese Oberland

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Swinging down in deep powder, Ski Guide Paul Julen carves a rhythmic track through new snow at Klosters, Switzerland

Switzerland's powder snow fields are never deeper or more sparkling than in the ranges south of Bern, where the central plateau rises into the Bernese Oberland. Here, where skiers like the two at left spend their waking hours sheering down the mountainsides, the air is crisp, the trains are loaded with skis and talk is in all languages, for pilgrims are coming from all over the world to this heartland of ski. It was in these mountains that the devoted and slightly mad pioneers of skiing, British for the most part, took over an ancient Norwegian mode of locomotion and turned it into the greatest of winter sports.

Scattered through the valleys and reached by a complex of cog railways, funiculars and buses are the Oberland's famous ski resorts. They look like Swiss villages in department store windows with their unpainted pine chalets, all with carved balconies, overhanging roofs and whisk brooms at the door. They have little stations, where the frock-coated hotel porters are lined up waiting by their sleighs for visitors' baggage. Muffled footfalls sound in the street and shouts of "Achtung! Achtung!" ring out as young daredevils brush your shins with their sleds.

Behind these similarities, each of these places has its own, sometimes fascinating, individuality. Take M�rren. It is like the end of the world, perched on the rim of a 2,785-foot chasm, across from the broad hump of the Jungfrau. As a resort, it is the creation of the English, who started coming at the turn of the century to build hotels high in the sun. Local geography is stamped with English names. Martha's Meadow commemorates young Viscount Knebworthy, who came hurtling out of the woods—wigged, skirted and registered under the name Martha Wainwaring—and wholly disrupted a ladies' race back in the 1920s.

That was the golden age of skiing, and you can hear about it nightly in the lounge of the Palace where Sir Arnold Lunn, the panchen lama of ski, holds court. Those were the days when the Kandahar Club was founded and laid down the laws of modern ski racing; the days before ski lifts, before high-powered international competitions, when only public school men were admitted to the Palace and could afford such jolly doings as throwing everything from bed to buttons out the window of a guest who had behaved like a bounder.

The setting at M�rren is always grandiose: on most of the runs the Jungfrau's huge and varied features are just out in front, golden-brown at noon, a cold purple in the evening, and when a high wind is blowing great puffs of snow move like upward mounting avalanches.

Across the Lauterbrunnen Valley lies Wengen, lower and larger, but barely more accessible. Scattered over a gently sloping plateau, it, too, has a predominantly English flavor. Its Down Hill Only Club is a companion piece to M�rren's Kandahar. From Wengen the cable car runs 3,000 feet up over the ridge at M�nnlichen, and then there are 6� miles of skiing down a broad expanse of snow to Grindlewald, gateway to the fine snow fields of the First and the extraordinary sky-high skiing of the Jungfrau. The train takes you from Grindlewald to Kleine Scheidegg, where the ski trail alongside the suicidal Lauberhorn race course runs back to Wengen. Toward the west of the Oberland, lie Kanderstag and, a range away, Adelboden, where you can take the chair lift up to Hahnenmoos Pass and ski down to Lenk on the other side, whose flat, smooth slopes are a favorite with children. Next after Lenk and at the limit of the Oberland, lies Gstaad, with main streets lined by Madison Avenue shops disguised as chalets, overlooked by the turrets and battlements of the Royal Winter Palace Hotel and the famous two-stage chair lift up the steep, open Wasserngrat. This is the end of the Oberland, but no one who has come this close to Zermatt will miss the chance of pushing on. It has everything an ideal resort would want. Plenty of space, plenty of snow, a lively crowd in a picturesque setting, and it is the start for the classical climax of any long ski vacation in the Alps: The Haute Route ski tour, five to eight days of magnificent high-altitude traveling from peak to glacier hut to peak and on to Mont Blanc and Chamonix.