Campra Trip: Attraverso & “College Skiing” in Switzerland

The crew after the University Games classic race. Note that only three of us are wearing medals - only three of us were still students! (Photo: Swiss Academic Ski Club / Facebook)

The crew after the University Games classic race. Note that only three of us are wearing medals – only three of us were still students! (Photo: Swiss Academic Ski Club / Facebook)

This weekend I went to Campra, in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland (Ticino). It was a double deal: a classic 5 k for the Swiss University Games on Saturday, and Campra’s trademark ski marathon, the Attraverso, on Sunday.

The first race gave me a chance to see what university skiing is like in Switzerland. Coming from the EISA circuit in the United States, it was quite a difference.

And the second race is part of the Swiss Loppet series, a weekly set of mostly 21-25 k races (with a few 42 k’ers) around the country which I plan to participate in this winter.

It turns out that Campra is nearly impossible to get to without a car (if you want to go there by public transport, email them at and they might be able to work something out). So luckily I was able to tag along with the Swiss Academic Ski Club folks, as I have for a few training camps so far this summer, like my trip to the Jura.

We drove from outside Zurich around the end of Lake Lucerne and into Canton Uri where we could start to see really big mountains. Then we went through the Gotthard Tunnel, at 16.9 kilometers the fourth-longest road tunnel in the world. Opened in 1980, it allowed people to get to Ticino (and Italy) far more quickly instead of going over the Gotthard Pass, the usual route since 13th century. The pass looks gorgeous, by the way. I’ve never been. Maybe I’ll take my road bike there next summer…

By the time we got to Ticino it was raining and dark. There’s a restaurant/hotel right at the tracks, so we could park the van and not move it all weekend – score! We walked into the restaurant, passing a bunch of Swiss guys playing on the outdoor hockey rink on our way in. It was like going back in time as we walked past photos of ski podiums from the 1980’s and 90’s. The décor had not been updated much either. It was fantastic.

Photos from another era in the Campra restaurant's entryway.

Photos from another era in the Campra restaurant’s entryway. Fantastic hair, ladies.

This photo, from 2012 National Championships, was perhaps the most recent one I could find.

This photo, from 2012 National Championships, was I think the most recent one I could find.

After a dinner of gnocchi we went to bed. It was cold. And I could hear the rain outside.

The next morning it was still raining/snowing, so even though we weren’t racing until 2:30 p.m. we decided to head out to see the trails (only 4 k or so were open because of snow challenges) and test some wax. It was about zero degrees (32 °F), just peachy.

Testing wax? It didn’t go so well. We all shied away from klister, and in the beginning I thought my VR65 was pretty okay. Then we went up the one big hill on the course and it started clumping like crazy. So were everyone else’s skis – it was snowing, after all.

We ate lunch (lasagna, perfect for pre-race am I right? I don’t know how the Italians do it) and watched as shifting snow and rain continued to fall outside. What would the wax be?

It was me and four guys, only two of whom were still students, the other two being alumni. So at this point I knew that all I had to do to “win” the U-Games classic race was finish. I decided to just scrape some wax off my test skis and re-test them, and not worry about the race skis I had prepared. Save those for another time.

It turned out that three of the guys had zeroes (or multis, or micros, or whatever your chosen ski company calls them). Swiss retired Olympian Remo Fischer also joined us, and he had some of the newish Fischer fishscales. The other guy with only “normal” classic skis made them into hairies. For some reason, this didn’t occur to me.

(Klister cover did occur to me, but I just didn’t want to do it. Being a one-person wax testing crew is a pain in the ass. So I guess I brought this upon myself.)

Ugh... I made it to the finish. (Photo: Philippe Döbeli / SAS)

Ugh… I made it to the finish. (Photo: Philippe Döbeli / SAS)

I slapped on some VR60 and it seemed like it wouldn’t be so bad. I could ski up a few of the very gradual hills, so how rough could it be?

It was a mass start for the six of us, with me doing two laps for a 5 k and the guys doing three laps for a 7.5 k. On the hill out of the stadium already my skis were slipping all over… for the whole 5 k I had to herringbone up the hills. It seemed pretty miserable, and I was afraid the guys would lap me. But luckily I finished before them!

In the end, nobody’s skis really worked that great, but the zeroes were the best (the hairies were slow, the fishscales even slower). We were able to laugh about it in the stadium with the Campra timing crew; another SAS club leader was there to hand out the awards. We did a one-lap cool-down and ran inside out of the snow/rain.

I really love classic skiing, and I even like classic waxing. But I realized that it has been over one year, and maybe over two years, since I’ve classic skied when it’s below freezing, much less an extra blue day. Between the fact that I can’t ski during the week in Zürich and that most citizens’ races in Switzerland are skating, it has been a long time where all the classic skiing I do is stressful, difficult, slow. It was beginning to make me turn against classic skiing. But now that I’ve realized what the culprit is, I’ll just find an extra blue day, get out there, and fall in love again.

After a nap and prepping skate skis for the next day’s race, it was another great dinner and another chance to admire the awesome photos and get inspired. Tagliatelle al funghi is definitely the dish I would recommend should you ever find yourself in Campra.

I was exhausted – it had been a while since I had done a race as short of 5 k, and I had used my arms so much to try to muscle my slippery skis up the hills. They were sore in all sorts of places and I was pretty worried that for the 16 k skate on Sunday I would be tired and lagging.

But when I warmed up the next morning, it felt so great to be on skate skis and not on alternatingly draggy and slippy classic skis. The snow was fairly fast and the course was narrow – to make the most of their limited trail length, the organizers made a course that had several sections of two-way traffic where there was only the possibility of one lane in each direction. I knew it would be a fast and hard, and worked some speed into my warmup. I felt like I was absolutely flying compared to the day before, and it boosted my confidence.

The Swiss Loppet races are a bit crazy at the start, as I soon found out. Although we were given out bibs according to some logic (I was asked when I picked mine up whether I was “strong” and then given bib 5), there was only one start section and it was a free-for-all to set your skis out as soon as people began arriving to the venue. So those bibs were meaningless.

The start had been classic tracks, which I thought would mitigate the craziness somewhat, but then people started just putting their skis in between the classic tracks. There were kids and retirees in the first few rows of the mass start next to people like Remo Fischer. Luckily there were only 100 or so of us, less than in some years because there’s been so little skiing to be had in Switzerland.

The “gun” (not a gun) went off and it was briefly chaos, but things sorted themselves out fairly quickly. After about a kilometer I managed, with a guy ahead of me, to pass one racer who had been slowing us all up on the single-lane trails, and from then on I was always in packs which were going my pace.

After feeling like skiing was just so much trouble the day before, I had a fantastic time on Sunday! It was a really fun course, with a big climb that shifted constantly between steep and more gradual, and some long flat sections where you could really get cranking.

At the top of the big climb on each lap my legs were burning, but my skis were fast (and I can also carry momentum through transitions better than most of the guys I race around) so I was always able to re-catch my pack if I had lost them. I crossed the finish line with a smile on my face, fourth in the women’s field.

I did a cool-down with the guys and then another lap with my friend Jonas, because as always on Sundays I was pretty sure I wouldn’t get to ski until the next weekend, or perhaps not even until my next race. It turned out to be a good move as later it started snowing hard again. We’d done our skiing when it was good.

From our group, Marcel Ott had finished second overall, so we shouted and clapped at the prize ceremony. The race also doubled as the second competition of the U-Games, and while two more guys had showed up for the “big” race, I was still the only lady student so I picked up another medal.

My funny moment on the podium (photo: Fabian Birbaum)

My funny moment on the podium. (photo: Fabian Birbaum)

The four guy students... Marcel Ott (second from left) was second overall, and Fabian Birbaum (second from right) is the head of the nordic team at SAS. (Photo: Philippe Döbeli)

The four guy students… Marcel Ott (second from left) was second overall, and Fabian Birbaum (second from right) is the head of the nordic team at SAS. (Photo: Philippe Döbeli)

It’s true that there were very few students overall: three total one day and five total another day, partly because some were racing at the Continental Cup in Slovenia and some had exams. In some years there are many more people at the U-Games event. I might have just hit an anomaly in terms of low turnout.

And so in terms of probabilities, it could totally be chance that only one of those was a girl, me. But the numbers from the race tell another story. There were only 19 women in the whole thing, and 77 men. There’s just a lack of women in cross-country ski races, compared to comparable running races, for example.

That makes me sad. In terms of the U-Games, I would have loved to have more women there. I would have happily stepped further down the podium if it meant we had a full and robust ladies’ field. College skiing is so great in the U.S. in terms of getting huge numbers of skiers (men and women!) to continue their athletic careers, find enjoyment in sport, and make lasting friendships. In Europe there just isn’t anything comparable for our sport.

I shouldn’t win a medal just for making the trip to a race. There should be more to it than that.

That said, SAS is a very cool club with great people! Its purpose is in some ways totally different than a college team in the U.S., combining a varsity level and a club level program and incorporating a huge alumni element.

Some athletes race really seriously, getting Continental Cup and World Cup starts. Others are like the group I travel with, training pretty seriously but not full-time, and going to a variety of different types of races, some FIS races, some marathons (“popular races” as they are called in Europe) and other national and regional races. Others still just go to ski and find a nice social group; SAS organizes a variety of different kinds of activities throughout the year.

And a big part of the club is that once you’re a member (I’m not, at the moment), you’re a member for life. And so there are always older athletes kicking around to help those who are still in university, to provide friendship and also career networking. Philippe, the guy who came on Saturday to help hand out awards, comes from the alpine side of SAS but he raced on Sunday, which was totally awesome. This pretty much sums up the SAS atmosphere as far as I can tell, and it’s a great thing.

It was also great to be at Campra. The trails there are serious – they don’t host World Cups anymore, but do put on Continental Cups, so a number of American and Canadian skiers have seen the place. And for all its decades-old charm Campra itself is perfect. As I wrote to several friends this week, I don’t think it has lost out on anything by not trying to be shiny and sleek and new.

It’s still just Campra – and it was a fantastic place to spend the weekend.

A reminder of greatness before we leave...

A reminder of greatness before we leave…

... and to eat your breakfast in a room with a disco ball whenever possible.

… and to eat your breakfast in a room with a disco ball whenever possible.

One thought on “Campra Trip: Attraverso & “College Skiing” in Switzerland

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