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Laax: Learning to freestyle

In the Swiss resort of Laax, freestyle capital of Europe, it’s almost impossible to keep your feet on the ground

Laax: Learning to freestyle
Snowboarding, Laax. Image: Getty

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Feet first, boards and skis shooting overhead, people are airbound above the slopes of this smart Swiss resort. There are bodies at heights that make a raspberry-blowing mockery out of gravity; from my decidedly civilised seat on a heated and Porsche-designed chairlift, it seems there are more skiiers and boarders soarinag around me at eye level than on the piste beneath.

March to April is the end of the season, a busy time for Laax. From the European Freeski Open to the Dutch Freestyle Championships, spring’s Shred Sessions and The Brits, with its impressive roll call of Team GB athletes, there’s no lack of big air events.

But I’m currently nowhere near any of these elite ski or snowboard heats. I’m not even sitting above one of the resort’s numerous snow parks. But it seems even a regular piste in these parts is populated by punters who will think nothing of taking metres-high jumps off of any lump or bump. Some of the kids, you’d swear, have springs in their skis.

In a country that owes its skiing heritage to the practical need to navigate mountains, Laax is a novel, circus-like microclimate. And it all starts in the resort’s engine room of acrobatics, the Freestyle Academy. Founded in 2003 to offer snow sports training to local children, the Academy’s Indoor Base opened in 2010, an absolutely unique offering by European standards: a warehouse-like building full of trampolines and sprung floors, a skate bowl and street course; and a swimming pool-size pit filled with a giant air bag, surrounded by halfpipes, ramps and slopes to launch yourself from on skis, boards or even bikes.

Today, everyone from local teens to Olympians comes here to fling themselves about. Traditional ski school be damned: this is the kind of place that kids, literally, do somersaults to get into. The Academy’s Mini Shredders courses accept children as soon as they can toddle straight (the under-sixes are affectionately referred to as ‘flying ants’), while pro gymnasts are jetted in to train young teachers and wannabe athletes in the art of aerial flips and tricks — all of which is mastered slightly off-axis, by riders and skiers giving their tumbling acts a decidedly edgier look than a traditional, prissy-perfect gym routine. It’s inspirational airborne stuff that translates into playful on-piste spirit.

This comes into its own in Laax’s snow parks, considered the best in Europe, the pinnacle of which is called the ‘P60’, despite being about as far from a dull tax return as you can get: a mile-long stretch tricked out with more than 90 boxes, jumps, rails, kickers. There are numerous snow-carved halfpipes, including a seven-metre deep, 200-metre long tunnel of blue-white ice: the world’s longest continuous halfpipe in which some of snow sport’s most prestigious events take place. It’s so massive you could mistake the thing for an Olympic luge run. Yet despite such superlatives, Laax is anything but an elitist resort.

“We started here 15 years ago, building big stuff for events,” says Roger Heid, one of the key architects behind Snowpark Laax. “Snowboarding had become very professional but all sorts of people wanted to try it out, so we built smaller obstacles. These are now more popular in a way. Board and freestyle culture is changing. Now the big stuff is mostly for specialists — or people use the big halfpipes to play around on rather than do crazy 360s.”

 Snowboarders on terrace of Cafe No Name, Laax

Snowboarders on terrace of Cafe No Name, Laax. Image: Alamy

We sit in No Name, a terrace café above P60 where the selection of panini is as artfully laid-back as the crowd: all beanie hats and boarding T-shirts, one that read ‘Protect our winters’.

“It’s not just about competing anymore,” says Roger. “It’s about finding your own style — the kids from the Swiss Freestyle team just finished their big jumps,” he says indicating to the mammoth halfpipe. “And they’ve immediately gone round to the quarter-pipe to see what the ‘real’ freestylers are getting up to.”

Having adapted the snow park model of US resorts, Roger and his team are now consulting on a freestyle area at Genting, China, where the 2022 winter Olympic freestyle will be held. This is the very can-do spirit that shapes the resort itself, which, pretty unique for Europe is owned by one company: Laax-based Weisse Arena Gruppe.

Founder Reto Gurtner, a sprightly man in his sixties, can often be seen zipping about town on a red Vespa, wearing skate sneakers and a jaunty trilby. Reto’s panache pervades everything from the resort’s ski-hire outlets to its restaurants which, as ski villages go, serve up genuinely good foreign food: tapas, sushi and Italian. And the sleek design is more Manhattan than Matterhorn.

Reto spent time in Aspen, Colorado, and the cool, clean lines, granite, wood and glass aesthetic of Rockies govern the Laax look, most notably in its Rock’s Resort — boutique suites and apartments that come under the Design Hotel banner. Weisse Arena’s realm reaches to the lift-linked, neighbouring resorts of Flims and little Fallera, although if you want chocolate box Swiss style, little Fallera has retained a more traditional mountain aesthetic.

It’s all such carefully curated chic, I’m almost relieved to see standard Alpine shtick hasn’t entirely been banished from the slopes. End of season means Schnulz im Sulz time — a schnapps- and  ’80s schlager music-fuelled festival where people party in the slush, dressed in retro salopettes and silly hats. It’s a notably different to the No Name scene. “Freestylers join in sometimes, though,” says my instructor, Marco Steiner. “Everyone’s allowed a bit of unstylish fun sometimes,” he smiles. “But let’s ride down before they all start to.”

I definitely don’t want to get caught in the schnapps-happy crowd. Marco is guiding me around the mountain helping me regain confidence after having broken my ribs on a boarding trip earlier in the year. I’d planned to learn some tricks in Laax but I barely want to get on my board. I suggest maybe I should return to skiing — the first snow sport I learnt, countless years ago. “Sure,” says Marco. “It’s no less fun. Freestyling and carving mean you no longer need to board to be cool.”

A wry, soft-spoken haystack of a man, Marco has been boarding since he was 12 years old. He couldn’t be a better teacher. He rides with the Zen-like calm of a ’60s surfer and before the day is out, has me boarding through the snow park “just to see what’s going on”.

It’s so densely packed with obstacles, I find it harder to avoid jumps than ride them and suddenly have to bunny hop off a ledge, simultaneously wincing and whooping. A boy zigzags past, wearing a GoPro, a grin and a T-shirt that reads: ‘Life is better when you’re winning playing’. A worthy motto for Laax.

Essentials

SWISS has flights from Gatwick to Zurich from £67 one-way. Laax is a couple of hours by rail, then bus from Zurich airport. Return fares for the journey cost from around £50pp, purchased online, in advance.

A five-night stay at the Signina Hotel costs from £468, B&B.

Six-day lift tickets from £254pp.

More information:
freestyleacademy.com/en/laax
rocksresort.com/en/rocksresort
myswitzerland.com

Published in the The Alps Winter 2016 guide, distributed with the November 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)