The Final Week

Day 318 (23rd of January 2017) – Zermatt, Switzerland

Today was our fourth day of skiing in the Swiss paradise that is Zermatt. Things had changed up since we’d all completed our previously-booked block of three half-day lessons. We chose to extend the family’s instructor, Max, for another three days and to use him in smaller groups. Aimee also opted to continue for another three days, but her coach had to change as she had moved up a level.

Mum and Dad decided to start their day’s skiing at lunch time and slept in as a result. Bianca, Anneke and I met Max at 9am sharp at the top of Sunnegga. It was from here that we began the most intense day of skiing we’d had on the trip so far. Max really upped the pace and guided us through new techniques to keep up. Carving was brought to a new extreme, and before we knew it we were using skills previously reserved for easier runs on the hardest of the hard. We also did what we could in the off-piste despite the relatively little snow coverage.

Throughout the runs, Max filmed us with a GoPro that he’d brought a long. I made a very short video of the skiing. This one’s worth a watch.

We spent much of the lesson zooming through the snow park hitting the ski cross, table and red jumps. It was the first time I’ve been taught proper technique for jumping which I really appreciated. No longer was it a guess, and it all felt a lot safer. I made a few bigger jumped and cleared the gaps comfortably, landing much softer than I used to.

The snow park was also where the accidents happened, though. Here’s a short compilation of them. Luckily I didn’t stack myself!

Aimee tells me that her lesson was equally enjoyable. She moved up to Level 2 today, meaning that she can confidently snow plow on blue runs and can begin experimenting with reds. Her teacher, Paul, was older and more experienced than her previous coach. Best of all, though, she was the only person in the group lesson, effectively making it a private lesson at group rates. It was during today’s lesson that Aimee’s teacher guided her down her first red run. That’s not bad for day four. Apparently it was nowhere near as daunting as she’d feared.

Following Max’s suggestions, we organised to all meet for lunch at Cervo at the bottom of the mountain.

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That way, Mum and Dad could easily access it before skiing and Aimee could catch the funicular down. We all met there just a little after 12. Max has been very helpful in booking places for us and guiding us to them, which takes away a lot of the stresses of learning a new mountain.

At Cervo, I ordered the burger. It came with Cervo’s signature “truffle and aged parmesan fries”. These things are out of this world. The restaurant’s aroma reeks of this stuff the instant you step foot into its dining room, but it tastes so darn good.

Following lunch, the whole family caught the funicular up to Sunnegga to then ski over to the Gornergrat side. In order to traverse the mountain, you have to lose altitude as you ski across. The traverse came in the form of a red run, Aimee’s second ever. Doing it without a coach is always daunting, especially on a narrow run like this one was, but she killed it. The rest of the family skied ahead and met us at Riffelalp Station. It was from here that we boarded the Matterhorn Train to Gornergrat at an altitude of 3,089 m. This rapid ascension of 1,469 m from the town of Zermatt is definitely noticeable when you take your first few big breaths of the mountain air, but it’s very bearable. Then again, nothing seems bad after my 5,265 m Everest experience.

From Gornergrat Station, we skied down the same long, open blue run that we had skied yesterday. From there the others skied ahead onto some harder runs, and Aimee and I stayed back to try a few of the other blues.

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We pushed it until near the 4pm mark again at which point we left for the town. Instead of heading straight back to the house, though, we stopped at Cervo again. Mum and Dad had predicted that the bar area would have a good après-ski vibe, and they were very right. Aimee and I secured a table on the rooftop terrace where she indulged in a cocktail and I bought a beer for Dad and I.

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Everyone else arrived soon after. We sat there chatting and eating deep-fried cheese balls as we watched the waiter attempt to start a fire just next to us. A very relaxing way to end skiing.

The bar food didn’t stop here, though. Dinner tonight was nachos. What a culinary masterpiece.

Unfortunately, Mum returned to where we had left our skis only to find that hers were no longer there. Assuming that they were taken by mistake or stolen, she returned to the rental shop and found out that her insurance meant that she could rent another pair for free and without hassle. I’ve always found it fascinating how much trust there is in other skiers not to take your skis. After all, no one ever locks them up on the slopes. I’d say that Mum’s were taken by accident, but you never know.

Bianca switched on yet another Twilight movie tonight. My questions regarding the rules surrounding vampires continued long into the night. I just couldn’t figure out the more minor details of the movie, and nor could I tell why B thinks that Robert Pattinson is so good looking.

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Day 318 (24th of January 2017) – Zermatt, Switzerland

Today was a hazy day for me. Fatigue got the better of me early on, and much of my time skiing was spent focusing on my legs not turning numb and motionless.

Dad decided to take the day off skiing to focus on work, and so Mum joined B, Annie and I in our lesson with Max. Aimee headed off on her own for her lesson with Paul. We decided that during our lesson we’d like to head back to Gornergrat and give the snow park another shot now that we’d had a night’s sleep to build some confidence and consolidate skills. Our other hidden motive was that we desperately wanted to see Mum attempt a jump, or at least the ski cross track.

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It took some time to ski over to the snow park, but by the time we did we got straight into it. Mum smashed it in the end. She strayed away from the jumps (probably a smart decision), but she did well at absorbing all of the bumps in the ski cross track.

We were all happy with the performance.

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While skiing down to the park during one of our runs through, we were all doing wide turns across the piste in a big line. After hitting one at speed, Annie didn’t notice someone zooming down the slope behind her. They collided at speed. In reality, it was the other woman’s fault more than Annie’s. It comes down to the person behind to determine where the skier in front is heading, and to avoid that part of the slope. Either way, it doesn’t really matter whose fault it was. What matters is that nobody was hurt, and that was the case. But, the reason I write about it amongst any other everyday stack was because it was followed up by the woman screaming at Annie in German.

You don’t need to speak a language to recognise that they’re hurling insults at you.

The stage was set: my brotherly role was there to be performed. A few harsh words were exchanged, she was made to realise that she was attacking a young girl, and then she skied off. Incident averted.

Lunch today was without Dad who was still back at the house working. We ate at “Findelhof”, a restaurant which was a slippery five minute walk away from the slopes in a hidden corner of Sunnegga. It was situated in such a position that the sun rose over the peak just as lunch time service started. We handled the cold while we waited for the food to come and the sun rose with perfect timing for our meals. I ordered the lamb shank, the perfect hearty meal after a cold day on the slopes.

During lunch, I could feel my yawns becoming more and more frequent. Aimee was feeling tired too, and so the two of us decided to return home early. As soon as I got back, I crashed into bed and didn’t wake up for another four hours.

When Aimee came in to wake me up, it seemed like I’d slept through a champagne party. I emerged to see everyone up and active, either messing around with music or trying to solve the jigsaw puzzle which was still on the dining room table.

We all lingered around the living room and fireplace until dinner, which was a ploughman’s platter. Tasty, easy eating to end the day.

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Day 318 (25th of January 2017) – Zermatt, Switzerland

Aimee and I were the only ones to wake up early this morning. I was joining her to drop her off at her last skiing lesson for the trip which was beginning at a location which she hadn’t visited before. We caught the bus to the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise base station together, and then we caught the chairlift up to Furi to meet her coach, Paul. We arrived a little early, and we wound down the time by looking through the ski trail map and noting down all the ones which Aimee had completed. Her skiing was advancing very fast. Her lessons comprised largely of red runs now – an incredible feat for someone’s first week of skiing.

When Paul arrived, he said that him and Aim would be continuing on the gondola to its final station, Trockener Steg. This was where I planned on heading too, so I joined in the gondola ride. When we entered the next available car, it just so happened that Aimee’s old coach, Martin, was in there. A crazy coincidence considering how many people ski on the mountain every day in the middle of winter.

I split from Aim and Paul when we reached Trockener Steg. I decided to stay in the area until Aimee’s lesson finished at 11am, at which point I would link up with her and move to wherever the rest of the family was having lunch. I wound down the hours churning through the snow park over and over, doing my best to implement the advice I’d been given on jumping and trying to get more and more air.

I also tried out the T-bar. For those who are unaware, a T-bar is a way to get up the mountain just like a chairlift or gondola. It is comprised of a T-shaped bar on a conveyer belt. You sit on the bar and let it pull you up the mountain with your skis touching the snow the whole time. I’d only used two T-bars in the past: one in Queenstown and one in Niseko. Both went for no longer than 100 metres. This one was very, very different. It was ridiculously long. So long, in fact, that I was looking for an out within ten minutes of being on it. It was made unbearable by the fact that it was the coldest day skiing yet. We’ve been lucky in that despite not having any snow days so far, the temperature had always remained close to 0℃. Today it was -9℃, though. But worse, the wind was incredibly strong. That brought the windchill down to -18℃. That’s a tough temperature to stand still in for thirty minutes while you’re dragged up a mountain.

I could have sworn that I had frostbite by the time I made it to the top, but I made the pain go away by skiing and moving all of my joints as much as I could. The long T-bar ride used up most of the time that I had to waste before the end of Aimee’s lesson. I eventually linked up with her and her coach as they were doing their last run. They were, surprise surprise, using the T-bar. Luckily, after realising how cold it was, Paul exited the T-bar early with Aimee. I was more than happy to follow.

We hadn’t communicated properly with the rest of the family and they had already organised to have lunch on the other side of the mountain, meaning that we needed to catch the gondola back into town and cross to the other base of the mountain by foot. We decided that it was a worthwhile trek. After all, we were eating at Chez Vrony, the restaurant from the first day. This was undeniably the best place we’d eaten at so far in Switzerland.

It delivered again today with an excellent burger for me and and trout for Aimee.

Perhaps the most impressive dish, though, was Bianca’s gnocchi.

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With this being the last day that Max is teaching anyone from our family, it was also our last lunch with him. He never fails to deliver with the classic British humour. He even told us about some $150k/night chalets in town which are frequently rented out by Russian oligarchs. It instantly conjured up memories of our cousin, Evie, being invited over on a “playdate” by the daughter of a Russian magnate.

After the lunch ended, we all said our goodbyes to Max. He exited in style, “boot skating” past Aimee and I down the slope (where you ski in your ski boots rather than clipping on your skis). Aimee and I decided to do one more run past the restaurant again before returning to town. Meanwhile, Mum and Dad headed to a champagne bar on the mountain.

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When Aim and I arrived in Zermatt, we decided to explore the town properly. We knew from experience over the past few days that the second you step foot into the apartment after a day’s skiing, you’re not going to emerge again. So, we decided to go on an adventure before returning home.

We wound our way through alleyways of old chalets and barns…

…eventually finding our way to the St Mauritius Church.

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We took a walk through all of the public spaces from the main square to the commercial street and ice rink.

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On the way back home, we passed through the supermarket to pick up some things for tomorrow. With it being Australia Day, Aimee figured that we could make some mini pavlova by buying some meringues, cream and berries.

Back at home, I immediately fell asleep as predicted. It’s becoming a recurring pattern. I woke up right on 6pm, however, as I was going out to dinner tonight. Realising that I don’t often fill the criteria of being a “romantic”, I figured that I’d invite Aimee out to dinner on a date. After having been travelling alone together for over a month and then having family arrive, I figured that it was a good idea to mix it up a little and have dinner on our own.

Aim wasn’t complaining.

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We walked back into town towards The Factory, an Italian restaurant which I had booked for our evening. It had a really trendy, multi-layered industrial design. We both really liked the look of the restaurant.

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To make things better, the pizzas were top notch.

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We stayed at the restaurant for some time, enjoying the chance to be with each other and reflect on the trip as a whole. In many ways, it was a symbolic end to our trip together. With us leaving in just a couple of days, this was our last time to properly focus on talking about what we enjoyed the most.

It was interesting seeing how much we agreed on our favourite parts of the trip. It was clear that we both enjoyed Kittilä in Finland, Prague in the Czech Republic and Amsterdam in the Netherlands the most. We also found that we both had a soft spot for London, particularly given how liveable and close-to-home it felt.

What was most evident was how many amazing memories we had created for ourselves. That’s the best part of travel – its retrospective power. I find that often, the greatest benefits of a holiday aren’t necessarily felt on the trip itself, but afterwards.

Aimee enjoyed her pizza so much that she packed the leftovers up and brought them home.

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Back at home, the rest of the crew was watching the Breakfast Club. Hey, hey, hey, HEY!!

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Day 318 (26th of January 2017) – Zermatt, Switzerland

Despite the plan for today being comparatively big, we all slept in by impulse. Skiing is just so tiring that you need that extra hour of sleep every now and again.

With our skiing lessons all having ended by now, today was the day when we were free to ski together. We planned to ski over to Cervinia in Italy with Aimee so that she could tick another country off her list and experience a different type of ski slope. All was going to plan until we arrived at Flexrent to put our ski boots on.

“The Matterhorn Glacier Paradise lift is closed, it’s too windy,” someone told us. That was our only link into Italy.

I didn’t really believe it. It didn’t even feel slightly windy. I quickly looked it up on my phone and the worst was confirmed. Not only was the lift into Italy closed, but all of the Italian resort was closed for the day. Apparently the wind was that severe.

I was initially very disappointed. I had really been looking forward to bringing Aimee to see Italy, and it was obvious that she had very much wanted to go as well. From the first few days, Aimee had made skiing into Italy her goal. It was only accessible by a few narrow red runs, and it was something that she couldn’t see herself doing at the beginning of the trip. But, as she improved at a faster pace than anyone had expected, she suddenly realised that it was possible. Yesterday, her coach had told her that she was more than good enough to ski into Italy.

But, the good news was that Gornergrat was still open. That’s Aimee and I’s favourite part of the mountain that we had skied together. Despite the increased crowds due to all the closures, the slopes were still wide enough that we had our own space. That is until Aimee got absolutely clobbered by a snowboarder. He came roaring down the off-piste and ran up the edge of the piste so that he could hit a jump, but he didn’t check the slope at all. I could see it all about to happen as I watched from below. Aimee’s skis both ejected, and in classic Aimee fashion, the first thing she said was:

“Oops! Sorry! I’m so sorry! Are you OK?”

Luckily she was all good herself, and we continued on down the mountain.

At Bianca’s request, the whole family linked up for a family photo. I don’t know exactly what she was expecting…

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In the background of that photo you can see the Matterhorn shrouded in cloud. Just a few minutes earlier, it looked like this.

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On the other side of the peak is Cervinia. Apparently the weather was taking a real turn for the worse over there. It was probably for the better that it was closed.

After the photo, we all split up and agreed to meet at Cervo for our last skiing lunch of the trip. Aimee and I would take a little longer to get over there, so we did two practice red runs before heading off.

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I could tell that Aim was more nervous without a coach, but her speed was much faster than just a couple of days ago.

Skiing down to Cervo took just over an hour, but Aimee and I agreed that it was undoubtedly the most enjoyable run of the trip. That’s because of the stunning views that it offered not only of the mountains, but of the village itself. It’s the closest you can ski to Zermatt.

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While going down the run I filmed Aimee skiing. This way we could see a comparison to her skiing on day two. The improvement was substantial. Great work.

Despite the length of the run, we still reached the restaurant before everyone else. I indulged in a hot chocolate while we waited.

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My braised beef ravioli was the exact kind of warm comfort food that I was looking for after our last ski of the trip.

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After returning our ski gear, our last evening in Zermatt was one filled with music and movies to celebrate the end of what was a fairytale way to end the gap year. I went to sleep like it was any other night overseas. It wasn’t until the next morning that the significance of the last day hit me.

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Day 318 (27th of January 2017) – In Transit

And so it was. The last day of the gap year. An intensely emotional experience, but one which didn’t manifest itself in tears. There’s that classic cliché in movies where, after you grow or change as a person, you look at yourself deeply in the mirror. There are a few times in life where, out of your own control, that really happens. This morning was one of those mornings.

I inadvertently fixated on myself in the bathroom mirror, and couldn’t help but smile at who I had become. One year ago, I couldn’t speak fluent Chinese. One year ago I hadn’t travelled to 23 countries and 65 cities. Those things aren’t what really mattered, though. One year ago, I wasn’t the Xavier Eales I am today.

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Through the last day’s activities, that was the thought which stuck with me. And that’s the thought which will stay with me until the day I die. This year was the year I became me.

Until next time (and there will be a next time),
Xavier.

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