Vital Vitaliev crosses the alps without skis from Ischgl in Austria to the Swiss village of Samnaun
“Umniy v goru ne poidiot – umniy goru oboidiot” is a wise Russian proverb translating simply as “He who is clever won’t climb the mountain but would walk around it.” I had a chance to fully appreciate its wisdom during my foolhardy attempt at crossing the Alps without skis last February. As part of the research trip, which involved visiting all existing enclaves of Europe, my plan was to go across the Alps from the Austrian ski resort of Ischgl to the village of Samnaun, a Swiss semi-enclave in Austria.
Even and orderly formations, of German skiers – skis on their shoulders and hangover on their faces – were marching purposefully to Silveretta Bahn cable car station. As they were boarding, in a rush, yet without fuss, I suddenly realised that I was the only person around without skis.
I squeezed myself inside the cabin, crowded to the extent of a Moscow rush-hour tram. As it was climbing higher and higher up, I couldn’t help registering how hostile and forbidding the Alps looked from close-by. I thought of the daring smugglers, who used to criss-cross these treacherous slopes on primitive skis, with bags of cheap Swiss sugar (or flour) behind their backs.
With relief, I jumped out of the cabin at Idalp and immediately fell up to my knees through the snow. As I was trying to extricate my feet from its tight ice-cold grip, skiers were whooshing past me indifferently: the snow was “consolidated” enough to support the skis, but not my wrinkled M & S boots. Above my head, cable-car ropes criss-crossed on different levels, like roads at a spaghetti junction.
Eventually, I found the Flimjochbahn station about a hundred yards away. It was a chairlift, and the cabins were much smaller than Silveretta’s: each had only two seats. Apart from the plastic roof, they were open to the elements, with passengers’ legs hanging precariously above the abyss. Pressing my shoulder-bag to my chest, I travelled further up in the company of a sexless creature, wearing a helmet and a thick ski-suit and pressing a ski-board to his (her) chest. He (she, it) was also wearing skis, and so did everybody else in the cabins travelling in the opposite direction. They stared at my dangling boots with a mixture of pity and disdain, as if I had no feet.
Soon, I got off was on the very top of the mountain, where a heavy blizzard was raging. It suddenly became bitterly cold. My next chair-lift station was about 300 yards away. I crawled towards it on my belly to stop myself from falling through the snow. Having reached it in mere 40 minutes, I learnt that they were about to close it down because of the blizzard.
The chair lift operator must have pitied me, for after about five minutes, during which I kept cursing myself for being so stupid as to have ventured across the Alps without skis, he briskly walked out of his booth and pushed me into an open cabin with a plastic screen in front. I was shivering all the way down to Altrida – either with bone-piercing cold or with fear that they would stop the chair-lift any moment and I would be left dangling in the air above the precipice until the blizzard died down, or possibly, until spring arrived – like a frozen turkey left to thaw on a balcony of a sky-scraper.
Sinisterly, I seemed to be the only passenger going down or up. At times, my cabin would screech to a near-complete halt (“This is it! The end of the line!”), but after some shilly-shallying, it would reluctantly resume its slow downwards progress.
I was frozen stiff by the time I reached Altrida. Of course, the moment I stepped out of the chairlift, I fell through the snow again and was nearly run over by a passing skier. In the distance, about 200 yards away, I saw a large log cabin, with the word “Restaurant” on top. I needed some warming up, or rather defrosting, before I could proceed to Samnaun (there were two more chairlifts to go!). Using my freshly acquired crawling skills and propelled by a hallucinatory vision of a steaming espresso cup, I reached the log-cabin in record time of less than half-an-hour.
“It is not easy without skis,” a young man who sold me the coffee commented gravely in broken English after a quick sorrowful look at my boots. “I did not see somebody do it here…”
He was obviously telling the truth, for even the daring smugglers of yesteryear crossed the Alps on skis. I was probably the first fool to undertake a ski-less crossing after Suvorov’s soldiers in 1799. I promised to myself that I would go back to Ischgl by bus, even if took me a week.
… Samnaun was tiny: just a cluster of restaurants and duty-free shops plus a minuscule church of St Jakobus looking so neat and bright that it could pass for a duty-free item, too.
I took shelter in a small tourism office next to the post-bus station not knowing what a blow was waiting for me there. The office was empty, except for a young female tourism official, who was about to close it down to go home. She was clearly annoyed by my intrusion. She was even further irritated when I asked her to tell me a couple of words about Samnaun’s history. Yet, being Swiss, she had a high sense of duty. With a deep sigh, she told me that the duty-free status, bestowed on the village in 1892, was an object of contention for the other four villages of the area, which were desperate for the same status, but were never granted it. Like some jealous Soviet house-wives, unable to cope with their neighbour’s well-being and hence writing letters of slanderous complaints to a local party committee, the residents of the four “deprived” villages were bombarding the Swiss parliament with demands of either giving the same status to them or withdrawing it from Samnaun, using the logic of a spoilt brat: if I cannot have the sweetie, then no one can!
“The Swiss government, however, stays firm. And although Samnaun is no longer considered a semi-enclave, it keeps refusing to revoke our duty-free…”
“Wait a moment!” I interrupted her quite rudely. “What do you mean ‘no longer considered a semi-enclave’? Considered by whom?!”
“The thing is that a way has been discovered to reach Samnaun by road from Switzerland without entering Austria. This is a bad country road, but, if you follow it, you can actually arrive here without leaving Switzerland. Besides, it is only open in summer, so theoretically in wintertime Samnaun remains a pene-enclave…”
“Do you mean to say that I have crawled across the Alps on my belly all for nothing?” I yelled.
The young woman seemed unaffected by my emotional outburst. Like the Swiss government, she “stayed firm”…
For more information on the alpine village of Saumnaun please visit: www.myswitzerland.com
Vitali Vitaliev was born in Kharkiv, Ukraine. He first made a name for himself in the then Soviet Union, writing satirical journalism. He has appeared regularly on TV and radio in the UK, was a writer and researcher for QI and has contributed to newspapers and magazines all over the world and is the author of thirteen books.
Vitali’s latest book “Out of the Blu” is available from Amazon the Kobo and Apple stores.
 By “enclaves” I mean bits of one sovereign country, totally surrounded and landlocked by another sovereign country – VV