As I'm strolling across the quad between the ski lift, the kit shops, and the icy tail-end of the valley run, I catch it. Distinctively vegetative and a little musky on the nose, hanging in the night’s cold mountain air the way bonfire smoke does. The earthy funk of marijuana. The smell wouldn’t be half as surprising were I anywhere but Switzerland, that notoriously conservative country with zero tolerance for recreational cannabis use. But then, Laax ski resort feels like nowhere else in the Swiss Alps, its culture in many ways redolent of the state of California.
Made up of three ski towns – Laax, Flims and Falera – the wider Surselva ski region is one of Switzerland’s biggest winter sports areas. Laax is the central hub, and the country’s leading freestyle centre. Looking at the local piste map, I make out a swirl of rocky spurs, bowls and valleys hemmed in by both glaciers and a snarl of sky-stabbing peaks that make up the geologically unique Weisse Arena Group. With its 28 lifts and silly-string of runs, it’s not unlike any other Swiss ski region, you might think. But on arrival, it’s clear that this particular resort, like its illicit odours and scents, harbours a rebellion against the stereotypical chocolate box Swiss ski architecture that prevails in the region.
In Laax, riders are as ubiquitous as the glitzy skiers of Zermatt, Gstaad and St Moritz, drawn by the relaxed vibe and consistent conditions of this high-altitude region, dominated by the Vorab Glacier 9,800 feet above. Evening après around here is fueled by beer, not schnapps or wine, staff are outfitted in Burton getups, and you quickly get the sense that skiing takes second place on the slopes.
Located just outside the original village of the same name, and some 75 miles from Zürich, there’s little Swiss cottage kitsch to be found in Laax’s setup, either; clean lines, cut granite, natural wood and reflective glass make up most of the resort’s palette. My suite at the Design Hotel-designated RocksResort is a minimalist cube of pale timber and polished stone, while the nearby, and recently renovated Rider’s Hotel is a monolith of raw concrete and bare bulbs. Unusually for a European resort, most of the hotels, restaurants and facilities are owned by one company, the Weisse Arena Gruppa, helping to maintain this unorthodox vibe. The wardrobes of other guests add to the aesthetic. Outside of East London, I’ve never encountered such a flagrant abundance of Dickies, Vans and Patagonia.
That urban streak reflects Laax’s unlikely legacy. Equipped with five snow parks, and the world’s biggest halfpipe, the resort’s long-standing favouritism towards snowboarders has made it a European mecca for the scene. Each year, its Goliathan superpipe plays host to the prestigious LAAX Open, an annual FIS World Cup snowboarding and freeskiing event. But the resort’s links to snowboarding and freestyle are not strictly European; Laax has an unlikely link with California’s surf scene.
I meet Reto Poltera at The Indy, a dive bar at the bottom of the valley run festooned with vintage snowboarding gear and framed shots of US skater Mark Gonzales. One of Jake Burton Carpenter’s old boards hangs on the wall. Despite being a senior board member of the Weisse Arena Gruppa, Poltera looks like a big kid. His skater boy uniform – a snapback, oversized black hoodie, utility trousers and Vans sneakers – feels like it’s more Los Angeles than Laax.
His skater boy uniform – a snapback, oversized black hoodie, utility trousers and vans sneakers – is more los angeles than laax
Poltera and his team have a reputation. Alongside moulding the surrounding slopes into a freestyle playground, they’ve designed half-pipes the world over. Case in point? The one used for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. In the 1980s, Poltera was far from his home country, soaking up the glory years of southern California’s counterculture where he learnt to surf, skate and snurf – the first iteration of snowboarding. A good chunk of our meeting involves him reminiscing about his favoured surf spots.
“The snurfer was just a board with a leash, like a surfboard,” he explains, when we get onto Laax’s origin story. “There were no bindings.” He points to a vintage poster advertising the sport on the wall: “Wild. All you need is a little snow.” Fast-forward to the 1980s, and snurfing had transitioned – fueled by the ingenuity of Jake Burton Carpenter and skateboarder Tom Sims – into the sport of snowboarding.
Back in Switzerland in the mid-1980s, Poltera headed straight to Laax, which he’d heard was an outlier in Europe’s then typical anti-snowboard attitudes. Partnering up with Reto Gurtner, now Laax’s CEO and president, Poltera planned to create a slice of the California scene – encompassing surf, skate and snowboarding – in the Swiss Alps. “This was the plan,” Poltera says. “To create the same feeling here, in Laax.” By 1985, Poltera had hand-shaped the continent’s first halfpipe and in 1992, he helped to construct the resort’s first snow park.
Chatting with Poltera has made me keen to hit the slopes myself. Thanks to the promotional powers of Olympic freeskiers like Mathilde Gremaud and Eileen Gu, and the backcountry craze provoked by freestyle filmmakers Sandra Lahnsteiner and Nicolas Schirmer, skiing is now rivalling snowboarding’s 40-year monopoly of being the cool kid’s slope sport of choice. Even in the home of European snowboarding, there’s rising interest in getting airborne on skis. For the first time this year, freeski slopestyle has been added to the Laax Open competition programme.
Suited up in the Oakley rental shop’s salopettes and jacket, I grab some skis and head up Crap Sogn Gion mountain under the watchful eye of my instructor, Sven. Laax- Flims-Falera is one of Switzerland’s biggest ski areas, with 146 miles of varied runs, and famously first-class freeride terrain, most of which sits above the tree-line, offering breathtaking panoramic views of the surrounding serrated peaks. Not that I see much of it – most of my afternoon is spent admiring the grooming at close quarters as I tumble down the slopes.
Post-ski, I head into The Galaaxy, Laax’s space-age-looking mountain station. The cylindrical building perches precariously halfway up the mountain, a neon-lit, wacky space that I’m dismayed to hear is due a refurbishment. Walking through its Austin Powers-worthy bar space – all macrame-hugged pot plants, fluoride-orange carpets and, at the centre, a wooden hut housing DJ decks manned by a life-size alien that gazes out over the ragged black and white mountain panorama beyond – I make my way to the rooftop terrace. From there, I can peer down at the vast Laax superpipe below, a 23-foot high, 660-foot long and 72-foot wide tunnel of glimmering blue-white ice.
From the terrace, i can peer down at the vast laax superpipe glittering below, a 23 ft high, 660 ft long and 72 ft wide tunnel of blue-white ice
From this vantage point, the pro snowboarder swooping between the curves looks like a stickman. It’s André Hoeflich. The German Olympian, here for the LAAX Open, is practising his grabs. I watch Hoeflich’s momentary weightlessness, abstract inversions and those teetering, heart-thumping descents. Then, he makes his way down the slope and the next athlete throws themselves to the mercy of gravity, iridescent goggles glinting in the bright January sun, skimming over the icy pipe, body braced and ready to fly.
Each January, over 300 snowboarders and freestyle skiers descend on Crap Sogn Gion to compete in the Open. Anyone with a valid lift pass can watch, but part of Laax’s enduring appeal is that you can ride the same snow parks and freeride runs used by the pros. You don’t even have to be particularly competent. Down in Flims, I visit the temporary home of the resort’s Freestyle Academy. Inside, trampolines, air bags and skate ramps provide a topography for the fearless to fling themselves around. I’m enrolled into a safety introduction course. The first skill to master? How to fall properly.
As I clamber up to progressively higher and higher platforms, before jumping off onto an air bag below – facing forwards, sidewards and backwards – a group of young boys chuck themselves off even higher ledges with careless abandon nearby. Later, they strap themselves into imitations of snowboards and strapped-together skis, jumping on the trampolines to practise grips and turns. Across the tent, two rollerblading girls swing in graceful curves along the fat U of a skateboarding halfpipe. Last month, legendary skateboarder Tony Hawk visited to teach a course for children.
It’s all slickly run, and unintimidating; a mash-up between Swiss efficiency and Californian fun. Everyone from local teens to Olympians train here. The idea is to make freestyle part of the ski school curriculum, getting barely-toddling kids to tumble, flip and complete tricks. Earlier, Poltera had summed up his freestyle ethos for me: “No rules.” Jumping around the Academy like a big kid myself, I begin to understand the prevailing attitude in Laax.
Poltera says he borrowed the motto from his beloved California surf scene. Similarly, the resort’s growing sustainable ambitions to keep the snow on the Alps mirror the surfing world’s respect for oceans. The resort’s impact on the Alps is limited, where possible. There’s a pledge to be carbon neutral by 2030, betting on hydro and wind energy, and neat hacks like on-demand lifts to hit the target. Smaller, more visible actions include all-electric vehicles, a free ski clothing repair centre, and an innovative, biodegradable board wax developed by the resort. Likewise, a new seasonal skate and BMX park, which opened this summer outside the Galaxy, has green pockets stuffed with pollinator-friendly plants.
There’s a pledge to be carbon neutral by 2030, betting on hydro and wind energy, and neat hacks like on-demand lifts to become carbon neutral
By the end of my ski trip, I’ve not managed to get on to one of the snow parks, but in line with Laax’s generosity towards beginners, I don’t feel hard doneby. Practising falling is, in itself, a little bit rebellious for someone as fearful of leaving the ground as me, and the privilege of spotting the Open’s competing pros at practice is exhilarating enough without trying my own Double McTwist. I have a feeling Poltera might agree. When talking about slopeside thrills, he refers not to jumps and rodeos, but waves – that transitional moment when you catch the air and feel the thrill. There are waves riding the slopes, when you land a jump, when you hit a rail just so, and in the joy of a skateboard session 7,338 feet up a mountain. “The root of Laax’s story is in the waves,” Poltera grins. “We are all surfers.”