FOR somebody who has struggled to erect dolls’ houses in the past, building an igloo on the side of an Alpine mountain seemed a tad ambitious.

But the reality of needing to provide an overnight shelter more than 2,000 metres above sea level amid -15°C temperatures tends to harness the direst of DIY skills.

The construction of an ice dome in the most spectacular of settings was a thrillingly unique experience included as part of a five-day break in the south-west Valais canton of Switzerland that was designed to offer an “away from the hurly-burly” alternative in a country that boasts the livelier resorts of St Moritz and Klosters.

And, as the only human life left on the Lauchernalp slope at nightfall, it was difficult to comprehend a more remote and serene existence.

Igloos have been made by Eskimos and the Inuit race for centuries in places like Canada, Alaska and Russia, but our group of seven consisted of myself and fellow journalists from Hong Kong, the Czech Republic, France, Ukraine and Poland.

In short, we were more accustomed to digging for exclusives rather than snow firm enough to form bricks for our evening abodes.

Following a half-hour uphill hike in snowshoes, we arrived at our building site for noon and immediately set to work.

Splitting into three groups – one of three men and the others consisting of two women – the first task was to take it in turns creating as deep a hole as possible with a shovel, keeping the sides straight to facilitate the brick-making process.

Following a couple of hours, including a welcome lunch break of hot soup, sausages, cheese, bread and chocolate, we then moved on to the next stage – building our igloo.

That process involved three different roles – the brick maker, the brick layer and the plasterer, who transported the bricks between his two colleagues and filled in any gaps from the outside of the structure.

Supervision was provided by three members of the organising Iglu Bauen team but, with an intention for the experience to be fully-immersive, you were encouraged to solve problems using your own initiative after instruction.

As the brick maker, I spent the majority of the next five hours down the hole chiselling rectangular blocks of snow.

This was, at times, a rewarding job but, on other occasions, highly frustrating as the brick you had spent up to 15 careful minutes carving out of the snow broke either in your own arms or in transit.

Generally, though, the snow was surprisingly compact, especially the deeper down you worked and as the temperature began to drop.

Following around eight hours’ work – a time that was deemed acceptable for a ragtag bunch of newly-assigned igloo builders – the last bricks were being placed under the stars to form the roof of our snow huts.

Then, the final act was to dig another hole, allowing the base of the igloo to connect with the deep crater below where the bricks had been carved out from.

That provided an entrance to the shelter, whilst also freeing the previously-imprisoned brick layer to join the rest of the party for a well-earned evening meal in “La Salle” – the majestic master igloo that had been crafted by the Iglu Bauen team during the day.

Big enough to cosily accommodate nine diners, the interior was invitingly adorned with fairy lights and the soup, veal risotto and apricot panna cotta was deliciously hearty and gratefully washed down with Gluhwein.

With our insides warmed up, it was then time to head back to our igloos and anybody needing the toilet was free to do so the way nature intended, but at an appropriate distance from the camp!

Hauling ourselves up through the hole in the floor, myself and my new house-mates from France and the Czech Republic inflated our mattresses and wrapped ourselves in a second skin, sleeping bag and outer layer – all provided by Iglu Bauen.

Laid side-by-side with my European colleagues, I was honestly and, to my great surprise, as warm as I would have been in bed with the central heating turned on at home

But I was also grateful for a top tip, placing both my coat and boots inside the sleeping bag to avoid them freezing up overnight.

In the morning, it was then a real thrill to eat a cheese, tomato and bacon rosti for breakfast, while watching dawn break over the mountains.

After hiking back down to the Sporthaus, we then returned to the village of Wiler by grabbing toboggans and sledging an exhilarating 45-minute route.

Waving Auf Wiedersehen to Wiler, we were soon bidding Bonjour to the intimate ski resort of Arolla as, despite the latter lying just an hour’s drive away and still within the Valais region, the native language had changed from German to French.

Unlike many of its busier and brasher Swiss counterparts, Arolla is less a place to be seen, but more a place that needs to be seen.

The apres-ski scene is modest compared to the louder tourist traps but, with mountains soaring up to 4,000 metres high, if you prefer to ski quieter slopes or off-piste on some of the freshest and deepest snow Europe has to offer amid breathtaking surroundings until late in the season, then head for this Evolene municipality.

Once you’re there, seek out local mountain guide Dede Anzevui too.

Now in his 60s, nobody knows Arolla’s mountains better than Dede and he remains the only person to ever ski down the north face of the nearby Matterhorn mountain – a feat he achieved in 1989.

Dede is a charismatic maverick with many tales to tell and has acted as a guide in the region for a host of movie stars and leading sports personalities.

Having lived in the village all his life, he is the most-qualified man to introduce visitors to the mountains and, specialising in freeride experiences, he knows the safest spots to enjoy spectacular off-piste skiing.

Despite his daredevil past, Dede will tailor his routes to suit the ability of your group, while taking advantage of some of the best avalanche detection systems in the world to keep clients safe and equipping them appropriately.

He’ll also willingly direct you to the restaurant and bar, which 3,000 metres up, offers a great cheese fondue and a stunning panorama.

Another stunning method of enjoying the mountains’ beauty is booking a helicopter tour.

Heli-Swiss and around ten other operators offer flights that are now aimed at the everyday tourist, with an intention to keep prices competitive and accessible to those of us without a Swiss bank account!

Our party enjoyed a six-minute tour of the peaks and, although that doesn’t sound long, it was surprising how much could be seen, and the distance that could be covered in that time.

The views were incredible as we soared close to the mountains.

Heli-Skiing, where you can be dropped at the top of the mountain and then ski down, is another option, as is having a fondue or four-course meal cooked for you at the summit if desired.

During our visit, we stayed at the Hotel Fafleralp, near the village of Blatten, which was only accessible by an exciting snowmobile ride, with speeds touching 40 kmph.

Set amid forest and mountains, the hotel was a favourite of Charlie Chaplin’s in the past and has recently been take over by friendly and helpful host Tatiana, who used to enjoy vacations there as a child and her clear love of the place manifests itself in a very warm welcome, while the wooden rooms are cosy.

In Arolla, we stayed at the Grand Hotel Kurhaus, which is a protected historic building with comfortable formal and informal areas, including a bar area and adjacent games room, where table-football, ping pong and pool can all be played.

Both hotels served excellent locally-sourced food and offered very helpful local advice and information.


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