As I tumbled over on the sheet of ice in Zermatt right outside the aptly named Hotel Pollux, I reflected that the upmarket Swiss ski resort of Zermatt should be renamed the Valley of Broken Bones. Judging from the slings and crutches of outrageous misfortune shared out among my fellow guests at the Matterhorn Hostel, the fact that I survived a visit to Zermatt with nothing more than a few bruises and a moment of embarrassment put me in a minority. The resort is 5,304ft above sea level, and you can barely move for members of a mile-high club to which you definitely don't want to belong.
Stepping into the homely chalet that asserts itself to be the Matterhorn Hostel is like stumbling upon an implausible episode of BBC1's Casualty. The communal lounge resembled the waiting room for an A&E. Jonathan, from New Zealand, was in the final stages of recovery following a leg break in Beaver Creek, Colorado (a good place to crack bones, apparently, because America's best orthopaedic surgeons converge there). Faroese snowboarder Bjorn had broken his wrist on day two in Zermatt as a result of his not being able to afford a lift pass; he and his girlfriend had touchingly built a little snow-hill for themselves in the village itself, upon which he promptly came to grief while attempting some tricks.
AS THE evening degenerated into grisly tales of the best way to reset a broken arm/ankle/ femur, and much more than you would ever want to know about ligament replacements, we helped Bjorn renew his bandages and went to the pub - which, for anyone who likes their beer served in buckets, means the Hotel Post.
The evening turned stranger still; at the next table sat Liz, from Nottingham, and her crutches. These walking aids are fitted with crampons, in the manner of ice-climbing boots, to get a grip on icy streets. Liz broke her leg last winter on the slope, but had returned to face her nemesis.
Both the able-bodied and the walking wounded demonstrated a prodigious thirst. Bear in mind that the temperature in Zermatt rarely strays above zero in winter, and that the streets are covered by sheets of ice with a negligible coefficient of friction. Then decide if Tequila Bingo, as practised in the North Face Bar, is a tremendously good idea. Prizes take the form of a shot of the dubious Mexican spirit, and if you are in no fit state to lift the glass then a helpful member of the bar staff may squirt it in to your mouth with the help of a syringe. Now join the three-legged pub crawl, an activity that the British contingent have brought to this corner of Switzerland.
THIS TRAVEL journalism lark may look easy, but for my next hard-hitting interview about the state of skiing, I had to walk all the way to the bar. There I met John Ogden from Edinburgh, who runs a chauffeur company and takes a skiing holiday in Zermatt every January. Last year, he booked with Thomson; this year, he did it on his own.
"I found a flight from Edinburgh to Geneva for £99 return on Flyglobespan.com, and phoned the hotel direct and got a deal at about £100 a night, including half-board with a five-course meal. The train worked like clockwork from Geneva. Now I've done it I'll do it every year from now."
Why not stay in Scotland? "I can drive to Glenshee in two hours, but whenever the snow's any good you find that you have to spend 45 minutes queuing for the lifts in a damp, cold wind."
"COMFORTABLE AND cosy" is how the Matterhorn Hostel describes itself. It promises that you will "feel at home", but, strangely, at home I have never felt impelled to erect a rank of bunk beds and invite seven total strangers to share my room. One final factor in its favour, though: "Showers are free", at least for anyone able to hobble that far.
Matterhorn Hostel: Schluhmattstrasse 32, 3920 Zermatt, Switzerland; 00 41 27 968 1919
HOW GREEN IS YOUR MOUNTAIN?
The truth is that it is difficult to construct a truly environmentally friendly ski holiday. You would have to cycle to a resort and hike up. Or you could pedal to a resort such as Lech in Austria or Les Gets in France and search out one of the few solar- or wind-powered lifts.
Rail travel is the next most green way to get there Fortunately there's an excellent ski train service provided by Eurostar from London to the French Alps. Switzerland is also easily accessible by rail via Paris. And Wengen, Zermatt and Saas Fee are car-free idylls.
Elsewhere in the world the complex and often conflicting issues in determining how green a resort is are a subject of eternal debate. Aspen in Colorado, for example, has won many awards for the exceptional dedication of its ski-lift company. But having its own airport frequented by private jets seems a little incongruous with being America's greenest ski resort.
Yet US resorts in general seem much more switched on to environmental issues than those in Europe. Many have appointed special environmental staff. The failure of the federal government to tackle the big issues seems to have engendered a spirit of local responsibility for the environment by resorts.
But one good sign is that the UK's biggest operator, Crystal, offers the option to make your holiday "carbon neutral", at a £5-10 supplement, although the take-up has not been especially impressive so far.
The French Alps chalet specialist LeSki has endeavoured to make all its flights carbon neutral by building into its prices a £5 carbon emissions neutralising fee. The Ski Club of Great Britain has launched a programme called Respect The Mountain and has increased its annual subscription by 50p to contribute to another carbon-neutralising scheme. The latest initiative is The Green Resort Guide, which you can find on the website at www.skiclub.co.uk. This provides basic, concise information on what each of the top 200 ski resorts is doing to minimise their impact on the environment.
Wherever you go the top tips to be as green as you can on your ski holiday correspond to many of the usual travel staples: don't litter, recycle, turn the heating down when you're out, don't rent a car - use public transport...
It all feels very much like scratching at the surface, but it's better than nothing. This issue is only going to get bigger.Reuse content