The Big Freeze: Ice Skating on Oeschinensee
Ever since we moved to Switzerland, people have asked us if we ski. Or, if it was any time of year besides winter, if we were looking forward to skiing. The Alps, and with them world-class skiing, are at our proverbial doorstep, so I suppose this constant inquiry is to be expected (although no one ever asks us if we like to hike, or if we are eagerly checking mountain websites to see when high-altitude alpine trails open for the season. Because we do, and we are).
The truth is, Raunaq and I don’t ski. And further, neither of us were particularly looking forward to the skiing season. Winter sports just never seemed to get me all that excited, despite a reasonable stint of ski trips in my youth, plenty of snowboarding turns in my teens and a nearly childlike giddiness over snow.
This doesn’t mean that I couldn’t wait to get to the mountains. We booked a trip to Zermatt, home of the Matterhorn, in January as our first trip of 2019, and I’ve been researching the best spots for winter hiking and snowshoeing almost religiously.
The magic only lasts as long as the snow doesn’t fall and the ice doesn’t melt.
But then, on the first Thursday night of the year, I came across something that seemed too unique to pass up - ice-skating on Oeschinensee. That is, ice-skating on deep-blue-turned-black-ice frozen lake nestled high up in the Bernese Oberland mountain range. And the closing argument: ice-skating on a frozen lake up in the mountains that’s only possible when weather conditions are exactly right -cold enough to fully freeze the water, but without snowfall to cover the lake’s surface.
Doubt of winter sports be damned, we were going ice skating.
It could last a few days, a few weeks, or simply never freeze over for nearly two decades. The magic only lasts as long as the snow doesn’t fall and the ice doesn’t melt. And right now, Lake Oeschinen was the ultimate natural ice skating rink for just a few more days, until the forecasted big snowfall on the upcoming Sunday. Doubt of winter sports be damned, we were going ice skating.
Raunaq had never skated before, on ice or otherwise. He prepped by watching instructional (authority slightly questionable) YouTube videos. I could hear him muttering a mantra of “knees bent, push off, knees bent, push off, ” as I rummaged through my dresser drawers attempting to piece together a winter-worthy outfit. With my old snowboard pants languishing away in some bin in my parent’s garage in San Diego, I figured that DIY would have to suffice. Thick fleece tights under yoga leggings under summer hiking pants, and et voila!, my makeshift snowsuit was born.
Oeschinensee is a mountain lake found high above the small town of Kandersteg. We didn’t have the chance to make it there last summer, but the turquoise waters and the surrounding evergreen-lined trails make it a storied seasonal hiking destination. South of Interlaken and smack in the middle of the Bernese Oberland Alps, it’s exactly what you come to expect of Switzerland, a scene that leaps from the pages of a storybook, a description that feels cliche until you see it for yourself and realize there is hardly a more perfect illustration.
We left Zurich just after sunrise Saturday morning, and the snow had just begun to fall. The train ride from Zurich to Kandersteg took about two hours, flurries whipping past at dizzying speed as we wound higher and higher, while cities turned to white-roofed villages and the first mountain peaks came into view. It is still mind-blowing that we could travel nearly across the country in the time it took Raunaq to commute to work every morning.
From the small Kandersteg train station, it’s just a short walk to the gondola and a 10-minute ride until you are at the top and the Alps spill out before you in all their majestic glory. The path to the lake was groomed, so there was no need for snowshoes, but most people had something even better - toboggans. There were classic wooden sleds straight from the 19th century that looked fit for Father Christmas, modern bright green plastic sleds equipped with a steering wheel, even one that look like a bicycle seat affixed to a single ski, with riders of all ages having the time of their lives.
Clearly, tobogganing is the best way to travel. Making a mental note to buy a sled for ourselves, we trekked through the snowy path, easily dodging beginner skiers with skis confidently pointed in the pie-shaped V as they snow-plowed down the mountain run.
Teeny tiny black dots appeared in the distance. The craggy granite towered above the lake as a natural backdrop, and even though the slowly thickening light gray clouds were settling in patches, they contrasted with the pure white snow that stuck to the mountains peaks and the evergreen branches below.
Raunaq and I rented skates from a small stand, 8 francs for unlimited time, which seemed like a great deal to me, by Swiss standards or otherwise. My rentals were decidedly well-loved, beige, classic figure skates with worn leather on the toes and laces that criss-crossed all the way to the top. Slightly too snug, given my multiple layers of footwear, but I was far too excited to finally get on the ice than to change sizes yet again. Better ankle support, anyway, I figured.
The frozen lake was huge and truly stunning. Those same teeny black dots were sailing all over, a few with hockey sticks, some tottering hesitantly like us, but most looked like naturals. A couple groups huddled near the edges, ice-fishing, while others took to ice-walking around the perimeter of the lake. Slowly, the decades-old muscle memory returned, and those initial timid tippy-toe steps started smoothing out into something resembling glide, and just like that, I was skating at 1,500 meters above sea level. No music, no strings of twinkling Christmas lights, no sides of the rink, no need to even follow a set path but your own.
And just like that, I was skating at 1,500 meters above sea level.
Laughter and chatter melted away, leaving just that crisp whoosh whoosh whoosh sound of the bite of the blades on the ice. It was physically meditative in a way I find climbing, mainly because I was so focused on balancing and trying not to fall. You have to be attuned to every sense of your body, understand how to interact with the nature around you, and above all remember to breath. Snow was falling, not heavily, but just enough to cover the black ice and my skates began to leave long trailing loops. Every so often, I’d stop and just stand, shaking my head in disbelief and laughing awe. It was impossible to forget you were on a lake, and at the risk of sounding completely banal, it was magical.
No winter outing is complete without glühwein, the German version of mulled wine. Starting in November, you can find it all over the country - on the streets, in the markets, at restaurants, in a mountain hut next to a lake. We warmed up with a steaming cup, drinking quickly as the falling snow was rapidly watering it down, and shared a nussgipfel, our first time trying this iconic Swiss pastry and giving it a resounding two-thumbs up.
Switzerland continues to surprise and impress me, and this entire experience was no different. It was far and away one of the coolest things we’ve done here. Raunaq is already set on getting us both to the local ice rink here in Zurich to improve our skills. Maybe not all winter sports are a lost cause for us after all.
The next day, Oeschinensee closed for the ice-skating season. The natural spectacle was over once the fresh snowfall fused to the lake’s surface, rendering it impossible to clear off without breaking the ice. There were exactly nine days of skating this winter, starting just after Christmas and ending a few days into the new year. Maybe it will freeze again, maybe not, and who knows if we will still be in the country when it finally happens. But if it does, we will be ready.