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food / travel

Switzerland's No-Slope Anti-Resort For Freestyle Skiers

Kurt und der Sessellift screenshot
Kurt und der Sessellift screenshot
Charlotte Theile

LUCERNE — In 2001 Kurt Mathis bought the Haldigrat chairlift "spontaneously," after he'd read about it in the newspaper. The previous owners, two brothers from the Swiss canton of Aargau, felt that running it no longer was worth it.

"It was a little bit like when I decided to marry my wife," the 59-year-old says. "You could say I fell in love with the lift."

Since then the whole Haldigrat ski area has been a family business. It primarily attracts deep-snow skiers because there are no leveled runs. On days when it snows, the lift and its motley 12 chairs can hardly keep up with demand. But Mathis has drawn a line under his previous hourly record of 550 people. Now he'll take no more than 55 people an hour up the mountain to the station at 2,000 meters (6,562 feet) altitude.

Today Pascal gets to run the lift from the valley station, out of a small dark hut with pin-ups on the wall. It's about 28 °F (-2 °C), and piercing snow descends on the 700 meters the lift will rise from the valley to the mountain station.

"I was away for a couple of days," Mathis says as he and his wife load some cartons of drinks into the transport box. "I hope everything's still working." Wrapped in a blanket, his granddaughter sits on a chair and waits for the lift to start. Kurt is bringing an old backpack with him containing the tools he would need to repair the lift should the occasion arise, and rope to rappel. "Nothing has gone wrong for a few years now, but it can always happen that the lift gets stuck," he says.

On the way up, Mathis holds the backpack tightly. He's wearing a hunter's hat with feather, and the snow that hits him full in the face stays on his beard and jacket. He points to the cables carrying the chairs up the mountain. "They break if you use them too often." That's one of the reasons he only runs the lift on weekends during the winter. Also, he has another job — he owns a cleaning service. So the Haldigrat is his "hobby."

Since the couple bought the ski area, Mathis's wife Antoinette has also acquired a new hobby. She manages the mountain guest house with a restaurant and 70 beds. Accommodation runs the gamut from nice doubles with a broad view of the valley to simple cots in a dormitory.

"People who come here know that we're a family business and that everything doesn't run as perfectly as it does in other hotels," Mathis says. The hotel is nevertheless a favorite and was completely booked over the New Year period.

Swiss family Mathis

Mathis then leads a visitor into the family's private space. Two simple beds, a large conservatory with a view of the valley. Wood-paneled walls are hung with dozens of hunting trophies. Kurt doesn't wear a hunter's hat for nothing. He proudly shows his stuffed ibex heads, deer antlers, chamois horns. Before he bought Haldigrat, hunting was his only hobby. And he still enjoys it when he's up here.

With a bit of patience, looking out the windows can yield sightings of ibex, stags and eagles. There are hunting trophies in the restaurant too — one whole wall of stuffed animals. "Some guests have told me I should take them down, because they thought these dead animals were gruesome," Mathis says. But, he says, he didn't buy his own ski area to be told what he can and can't put on the walls.

In the restaurant, Antoinette has made apple punch. Kurt gets a photo album out of the cupboard. Nearly all the pictures in it show various aspects of the renovation that went into his investment. What does a lift like this cost?

Grinning, Mathis coyly implies he paid in the area of a million Swiss francs ($1 million) for the chairlift and the restaurant but gives no precise details. Since then every cent the couple earns has been reinvested. The Haldigrat pays for itself, excluding the fact that neither he nor his wife receive pay for their work. "That," says Kurt, "is what makes this a hobby."

Then they go fetch the drinks from the chairlift. Kurt climbs into the transport box and hands the crates down. His wife puts them on a stair lift that moves the boxes down into the cellar. "The stair lift is a present from Kurt," she says. Before it was installed, she had to schlep everything down to the cellar herself.

Kurt, who has since become quite well-known due to the short film Kurt und der Sessellift (Kurt and the Chairlift), rarely sets foot in the restaurant on a ski day. Instead, he sits in a tiny unheated wooden hut 10 meters up from where he runs the lift.

He has had some minor cases of frostbite sitting in there, but otherwise he feels comfortable in the hut, he says.

When the lift is open but there's a lull in service, clients down in the valley call his mobile — his phone number is posted at the valley station — and he gets it going again. It costs 20 Swiss francs, or 17 euros, to take the lift twice, either up and back or up twice. Mathis jots down the names of those who've already used their tickets. Anybody who wants to spend the afternoon skiing has to keep buying tickets and ends up spending quite a bit. But every year more and more skiers turn up, some from nearby Engelberg, where some ski and snowboard instructors include an excursion to Haldigrat in their program. "They call ahead and ask if I can open up for them," Kurt says.

That's why Kurt, who gets nervous attending a Christmas market in a nearby town "because it's just too far away," is now known to many Canadians, Swedes and others. He is something of a mini-celebrity in Switzerland. They call him the Chrampfer ("workaholic") because he is constantly finding something else that needs doing, and because going on holiday makes him edgy. "Since we've been married, we've been away once, to Rhodes. That was enough," he says.

A different ski experience

Many ski areas have joined forces in recent years so they can offer more runs, comfortable lifts and perfectly prepared slopes. It's all very different at the Haldigrat, where there are no runs. At the valley lift station, there's a map showing areas skiers should avoid — for example, the woods where there is a wildlife reserve. Anybody who goes in and disturbs the animals is fined. The rest is up to the individual.

"Everything is possible and nothing is certain" is the way Kurt describes it. "It's an uncontrolled skiing area, and you come here at your own risk." Since he's been here, there have been no serious accidents and no one has died in an avalanche.

During the 12 minutes it takes the lift to get to the mountain station, the view of the mountains, Lucerne and the Vierwaldstätter See (Lake Lucerne) is sensational. But the icy face-pounding snow and slowly freezing toes preclude comfort. In fact, some people opt to travel up in the transport box just to be more sheltered.

Kurt hasn't skied now for several years, but he was an enthusiastic skier in his younger years, and often skied around here. That Haldigrat might one day become a skiing area he never suspected. But then opportunity beckoned. "Those were my best years when I could throw myself into this project full steam," he says.

But the time is approaching for somebody younger to take over. He says granddaughter Ilena, who is out in the hall hanging a new Swiss flag with her grandmother, is a possible candidate. She's only eight years old, although Kurt thinks he could hold out for another 10 years or so.

Then there's Pascal, who's been sitting patiently in the hut at the valley station for two hours. He even wrote a student paper on the lift and the skiing area. "Many people think he's our son," Kurt says, adding that he doesn't bother to set them straight.

On the way down, the lift suddenly stops. Kurt calls Pascal. Far below us Lake Lucerne gleams in the evening light. Kurt tells Pascal to turn the controls off, wait, then turn them on again. Nothing happens. Kurt pounds his tool bag and wonders aloud, "Am I going to need these today after all?"

Suddenly the lift starts slowly moving again.

Kurt makes satisfied-sounding noises. Then he says that although he has to run this by his wife, a few years from now when he retires, "I think I'd like to live up here."

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