Why Laax could be Switzerland’s greenest ski town

Wolves and lynx are returning to the mountains around this sustainable ski resort, where solar-powered lifts serve the grand prix runs and snow parks


There’s a sense of healing among the pines and tangled roots. Skulking somewhere in the snowy woodlands is an Alpine ibex, a distinctly Viking-horned goat, once hunted to extinction in Switzerland before being reintroduced a century ago. Hidden in the forest, an endangered black grouse is whistling as it forages for dwarf shrub needles. Fresh fox-print trails wind through stone pine and spruce, though the grey wolf and bat-eared lynx that have begun to return to these mountains are more elusive.

I’m in Laax in Graubünden (70 miles south-east of Zurich), the Swiss Alps’ traditional home of winter sports, but it’s a ski holiday that most people wouldn’t recognise. The down-to-earth resort pitches itself as Switzerland’s most sustainable playground and I’m exploring from on-high on the new Senda dil Dragun (Way of the Dragon) treetop walkway. The raised, mile-long pathway towers 28 metres above the pillowy snow drifts and I keep my eyes peeled, scouting for ghostly predators and their prey. Though there might not be dragons, the woods are home to an ark’s worth of Alpine species, from chamois and mountain hare to marmots and ptarmigan. In the stillness I spy a red deer through a knot of snow-laden pines. The quiet drama is just as nerve-tingling as any black run.

The Way of the Dragon walkway.
The Way of the Dragon walkway. Photograph: Philipp Ruggli

Regardless of what you see, the walkway’s purpose is to help educate and connect visitors with the valley’s larger rewilding story and the evergreen forests away from the piste map squiggles. Once the preserve of loggers and hunters, a dozen evergreen forests around the resort have been left to rewild by an alliance of wildlife, cantonal and government authorities, including the country’s Federal Office for the Environment, and species like endangered wood grouse are now making a comeback. Spend a few days in the area and you may also hear stories or see a pack of free-roaming wolves, which have returned to the upper mountains from Italy and are now protected and considered a native species.

Certainly, the mountains are the reason people started coming to Laax 60 years ago, when the first ski lift opened in 1962. On the piste map, the resort fractures into a series of snow-globe bowls, spurs, cleft valleys and off-limits forest sanctuaries – all in the shadow of the Vorab Glacier and fanged tops of Unesco site Tectonic Arena Sardona.

But unlike so many other sophisticated Swiss ski towns, the youthful main centre is a purpose-built affair jam-packed with eco design – and there’s been a concerted effort to ensure visitors can explore the mountains in as environmentally friendly a way as possible. In recent years, all lifts have been run on CO2-neutral hydro and solar power. Water stations are plentiful and free, as are e-shuttles around the resort.

Artificially produced snow is CO2 neutral and every restaurant has a bird-friendly windshield; stunned jays and woodpeckers are a problem here. There is a free repair service for ski clothing to extend its lifecycle and the latest addition is vertical gardens on ski-lift base stations, to help nurture bee, bird and insect life year round. The planet-loving ethos extends as far as the food, too: on my first night, hunkered beneath a huge solar rooftop at Riders Hotel, I’m served a three-course vegan menu; the beetroot steak feels sacrilegious in the spiritual home of capuns, meat wrapped in spaetzle dough. It’s all quietly impressive for a town with a population of less than 2,000.

“Sustainability is an obsession here,” says Martina Calonder of Weisse Arena Gruppe, the company operating the wider Flims Laax Falera resort. “We can’t save the Vorab Glacier. It’s too warm already and we’re losing it. But what we can do is create awareness throughout the resort, hoping people learn from our example.”

Rocks Resort in Laax Murschetg
Rocks Resort hotel is made from local slate and wood. Photograph: Mike MacEacheran

The resort’s most intriguing proposition is the Last Day Pass, a CHF80 (£70) donation for a supplementary lift ticket that skiers will probably never be able to use for the “day that will hopefully never come”, as Martina puts it. Launched in 2020, the concept sees the proceeds of every lift pass sold “offsetting” 1,000kg of CO2 by supporting climate-protection projects that work to slow down the melting of glaciers by 10 minutes. Meticulous timekeeping is a tradition in Switzerland, after all, and the current last day is calculated to be 7 April 2056. “It shows skiers how they can make a difference,” adds Martina. “Even in a small way.”

A bonus for winter visitors is that this is one of Switzerland’s most snow-sure spots. From Crap Sogn Gion station there’s a top-notch run in every direction, and for snowboarders there is the world’s biggest halfpipe, plus an Olympic-sized kicker, and five snow parks. It’s a tough call, but the black grand prix run from the 3,000-metre Vorab Glacier is hard to beat. Below in the valley, fellow skiers are tiny dots.

The litmus test for Laax as a superlative green destination might well be the Weisse Arena Gruppe’s latest blue-sky idea: Flem Express, the world’s first on-demand cable car. Always, gondolas have spun from first run to last light, but here engineers have invented a demand-driven, energy-reducing way to get riders into the mountains.

Currently, six stations are being built between the neighbouring village of Flims and the upper amphitheatres of Tectonic Arena Sardona, with skiers (and hikers and bikers in summer) able to choose where they want to go and when, with unoccupied gondolas detached from the line. It is Uber with cable cars, like something brainstormed by a Silicon Valley tech innovator, and it is expected to open in late 2023 to connect to the wider Laax playground.

Mike MacEacheran on the slopes at Laax.
Mike MacEacheran on the slopes at Laax. Photograph: Mike MacEacheran

On my last night I snow-shuffle around the residential area of Laax Murschetg, where buildings are made from local slate and wood – cuboid Rocks Resort looks like pieces from a scattered Jenga tower. The views of the Lepontine Alps are bang-on, as are the restaurants and bars squirrelled into the surrounding precinct. At Grandis Ustria da Vin, it’s raclette with foraged mushrooms and the cheapest of the cellar’s 800 wines. Then, it’s negronis in Tankstelle, an upcycled vintage clothing store and bar. A suitably stylish yet simple end to a break in a resort that understands the challenges of climate change better than most.

The trip was provided by Flims Laax Falera. Doubles at Riders Hotel from £150, room only. Further information from myswitzerland.com. Travelling from Zürich to Laax by public transport takes just over two hours. InterCity trains run every half hour from Zürich hauptbahnhof, with a straightforward change onto an iconic yellow PostBus in Churin Graubünden. For timetables and tickets, visit sbb.ch/en

Contributor

Mike MacEacheran

The GuardianTramp

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