Sneaking into Switzerland: Stuck in the French Alps, with petrol in the diesel |

Sneaking into Switzerland: Stuck in the French Alps, with petrol in the diesel

Once upon a time in Chamonix, France, my friends and I experienced three days of windy, whiteout conditions that shut down gondolas, nixed our Valle Blanche excursion and really limited our riding to one day on Les Grand Montets, where visibility was … well, an issue.

Shawn Gleason, riding a whiteboard at Les Grand Montets. Photo by Sean Naylor

During those days, we entertained ourselves on foot and in town. Even though our stay was not what we intended, we found fulfillment in wandering around a winter wonderland decked out in holiday lights (in March, mind you), soaking in the world’s most awkward hot tub at the local recreation center, mingling with friendly locals and drinking Veuve Clicquot in a dive bar that looked like an igloo from the outside. Yeah, Chamonix is a lovely place to sit out a brutal storm.

Chamonix lights up at night. Photo by Sean Naylor

Though a bit defeated on the snowboarding front, we were optimistic about the second leg of our trip, set for Verbier, Switzerland. A short drive would get us out of the storm, in a new country with another chance for that dreamlike European Alps experience.

“A few hours drive,” we thought, as we loaded every cubic inch of our rental car with gear and stretched to prepare for the bodily contortion required to occupy the jam-packed, economy-sized vehicle. We were awfully prideful that we saved 20 euro (that’s 5 euro each) per day by opting for the cheaper car, though, in retrospect, we should have footed for the upgrade.

But more importantly, we should have not left refueling duties to a certain member of our party who was new to Europe, and its prevalence of diesel engines.

Days prior, the car made some strange knocking sounds on our way up the mountain, but we shrugged them off as the car drove fine. On the day of our departure, as we started to pull out of the parking lot of our Chamonix hostel, those same noises returned more aggressively. Now, we were worried.

Me, the driver, and my shotgun co-pilot were the only people with enough space to move our limbs, so we hopped out of the car to investigate. I popped the hood while the co-pilot scanned the perimeter. When he flipped open the fuel door, he sunk to his knees, with head in hands.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, noticing his reaction and walking around to observe what I could only assume he saw: The yellow label inside the fuel door saying, in all caps, “DIESEL FUEL ONLY”.

“I think I put the wrong gas in the car,” he confessed.

At that point, it was clear the car would not make it to Switzerland.

It was snowing hard that day, and now, we had to find a mechanic while driving a vehicle of worsening condition with every meter we forced it down the road.

Did I mention not one of us speaks a lick of French? That didn’t help.

After encountering one closed garage and another that had no patience for us linguistically-challenged tourists, the third was a charm. Two British fellas took us into their shop, quickly diagnosed the issues and, in their softest voices, informed us the car wouldn’t be ready for five days.

That last part left us all sinking to our knees. Chamonix is not ideal for affordable accommodations, especially at the last minute. Plus, we already paid for our stay in Verbier, and were really looking forward to it. These were our pleading arguments, made to the mercy of our mechanics.

At a time when all felt lost, our mechanic gave us a glimmer of hope.

“Oh, you guys are going to Verbier? There’s a train stop down the road.”

We quickly pulled all our gear from the car, and then dragged it through thick snow while running to a tiny hut alongside railroad tracks on an otherwise empty mountain road. We looked at the schedule, and it said another train was due to arrive in 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, nothing came. After an hour, nothing. The storm worsened and we started to wonder if the weather caused a closure on the tracks; after all, our intended driving route ended up blocked by an avalanche, so weather closures were certainly happening.  

Hopes fell again, and we found ourselves huddled and freezing in this tiny, open-air hut, mostly in silence, mostly ready to strangle each other. I had four hardboiled eggs stashed in my jacket pocket, and was hesitant to tell the crew, as I worried how badly we would need them later.  

From left to right, co-pilot Alex Cesare, Shawn Gleason and Jeff Zwolenski. Not pictured: Morale. Photo by Sean Naylor

Then, we heard the choo-choo we had been waiting for. We gleefully grabbed our gear and quickly dragged it onto the floor of the train right as the doors opened. We were greeted by a ticket inspector who brought to our attention a whole new hurdle: We didn’t have tickets, or enough cash to cover all four of us. We started scrambling through our bags, sifting for loose change. I found a handful of American dollars in the side pocket of my backpack, and the inspector laughed at me as I tried to hand them to her.

“No worries, but you will have to get cash for your transfer into Switzerland. Enjoy your meal,” she said to me, smirking at the hardboiled eggs I had in my other hand, which I pulled out of my pocket while searching for change. I handed one to each of my comrades, and we enjoyed our discounted ride to the border.

It was a short moment of relief. The train to the border was less than an hour, and once we got off, we realized the transfer station had only a few more amenities, as in benches, than the hut we occupied before. No ATM, money exchanges vendors or even another human being in sight.

Three of us left the station in search of solutions, and one stayed to watch all our gear. We all regrouped 20 minutes later, empty-handed. There were no means of getting money, and not a soul around to help.

Your humble narrator, with a status update

That’s when my co-pilot broke down in tears, apologizing to all of us for “ruining the trip.” But at that point, the rest of us were determined; we’ve made it this far, and we would get on that train, no matter what.

The train arrived, and we hopped on without a single euro on us. If we got arrested for skipping fare, at least we would have a warm place to stay that night, and we’d be going to jail together.

The circumstances, along with the scenery, helped make this the most beautiful train ride of my life. And even better, no one ever asked us for our fare, all the way to Verbier. And that’s how we snuck into Switzerland.

Right as we arrived in Verbier around dusk, the storm had cleared and the clouds made a quick enough departure for us to see the sunset, as we dragged our gear through the village for the final stretch of that interesting journey.

We woke up the next morning to bluebird powder conditions, and the next four days were lived in that very European Alps dream we had set our sights on. Verbier’s terrain absolutely blew us away. It is a massive resort, with enough above-treeline riding to impress any high-alpine enthusiast for days. Think Arapahoe Basin, but on steroids.

And we hit everything: Cliffs, chutes, cornices, bowls and pillows are just about everywhere you look. There’s a reason that Verbier regularly hosts the final event of the Freeride World Tour: It is a massive playground, with limitless options for sweet lines.

Though we still have unfinished business in Chamonix, Verbier provided us with more than enough kicks to make the snowboarding trip an overall success.

As for the car…

Well, that’s a story in itself. Despite his flaws, the aforementioned co-pilot was quite the charmer with the opposite sex. He had made himself a French girlfriend back in Chamonix, one that offered to house him if he returned to pick up the car.

So, he rode with us a few days in Verbier then hopped back on those trains, had a romantic evening with his petite amie, picked up the car, and drove it to Paris to meet up with us after the rest of us had taken trains back in.

He totally redeemed himself.

The boys, reunited in Paris. Photo by Sean Naylor

Digital Engagement Editor Sean Naylor can be reached at Follow him on Instagram @vail_naylzz.

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