Mark Latham

For those who take them, the annual winter holiday generally means a week of downhill skiing at one of the big alpine resorts. Sadly, only a small percentage of Scots have even tried cross-country skiing, the niche sport that flashes across our television screens every four years during the Winter Olympics.

However, away from the Alps and in Scandinavia in particular, it is the other way round: cross-country skiing (or Nordic skiing as it is also called) is the equivalent of going for a jog in the park while downhill skiing is, comparatively, the minority sport.

Interest in cross-country skiing in Scotland has been growing in recent years, as witness the opening of some prepared trails at Aviemore. Meanwhile, in the Alps, there are now over a dozen valleys dedicated to the sport, of which the Obergoms (Upper Goms) valley in Switzerland is considered to be one of the best.

The location at the centre of the Alpine chain could not be more dramatic. The German-speaking valley at the eastern end of the canton of Valais – often referred to simply as The Goms – runs parallel to the mighty Aletsch glacier, the longest glacier in the Alps which winds its way down 23km from the base of the Jungfrau and the Eiger.

The lower part of the valley, between Fiesch and Brig, does not have sufficiently reliable snow cover for cross-country skiing. But in winter the Upper Goms, at an altitude of over 1300m, is covered in thick snow for the whole season – making it ideal for cross-country skiing.

Skiing largely takes place on a high alpine plateau close to the meltwater source of the River Rhone, which at this early stage of its journey to the Mediterranean flows alongside the ski tracks as a small stream.

If you are looking for a skiing experience that is altogether quieter and closer to nature than downhill skiing, the relatively undiscovered Obergoms offers some 90km of well-groomed cross-country skiing tracks (or Loipen as the trails are called in German) that feel a world away from the nearby glitzy mega-resorts of Zermatt, Crans-Montana and Verbier.

The ski tracks wind their way through tranquil pine and larch forests and connect the valley’s bijou villages of traditional dark-timber wooden chalets.

Among the dozen villages in the valley, Munster is particularly worth visiting for its baroque church and atmospheric coaching inn, the 17th-century Croix d’Or et Poste.

Also of interest, and dotted throughout the valley, are wooden houses and barns, some dating from the 14th-century, precariously built on piles of stones to avoid rodent infestations.

The lowest village in the Upper Goms valley is Niederwald, birthplace of the hotelier Cesar Ritz – who founded the Ritz hotels in Paris and London and what later became the global RitzCarlton hotel chain. His modest childhood home is commemorated by a plaque.

All of the villages in the valley are pleasant places to stop for lunch, a coffee or a bowl of goulash soup after an hour or two of skiing.

As an alternative to the traditional alpine fare of fondue or raclette, try the valley’s strangely-named traditional pie called cholera. The dish dates from the time of a cholera epidemic in 1836 when embattled locals, not daring to leave home, conjured up dishes from scraps in the store cupboard.

After the epidemic, local chefs promoted the concept of putting regional ingredients into a savoury pie, and the cholera dish has remained a classic of the region – and kept its bizarre name to this day.

With stations in all the villages, you can get back to your hotel at the end of the day by using one of the cheery red trains which chug through the valley at half-hourly intervals. The trains are free, paid for through the modest tourist tax imposed for each night’s stay in the valley.

One of the first things that alpine skiers like about cross-country skiing is that the skis, boots and clothing are all lighter than that used for downhill skiing. However, it is mistake to think that cross-country skiing is easier. Because cross-country skis lack the metal edges and weight of alpine skis, braking is harder and requires more practice.

Particularly when conditions are icy, the edges of cross-country skis don’t bite into the snow like alpine skis and even the most extreme snow plough will not bring you to a stop on a steep slope, as I know to my cost.

On the plus side, cross-country skiing involves less pressure on the knees as the more sedate speeds do not require crouching into the tuck position as much as alpine skiing.

Another bonus of cross-country compared with alpine skiing is that, if you fall down, it is far less likely to be painful or involve a visit to the local A&E department.

As the terrain often involves sections of propelling oneself uphill it is better for fitness than downhill skiing, which is entirely reliant on gravity.

As our genial instructor Roland told us while running through the rudiments of moving, stopping and overtaking, there are two styles of cross-country skiing. The first technique that beginners are taught is the so-called classic style which involves kicking your skis forward so that the skis glide forward in pre-cut tram lines.

The classic style is not only technically easier to learn, it also requires less effort on uphill sections. This is because a grip wax is applied to the central cambered section of the ski that helps you move uphill without the ski sliding backwards.

The second slightly harder style is skating which, as the name suggests, involves a motion that resembles ice-skating, where your entire body weight is alternately transferred from one ski to the other in a V-shape.

For skating, the parallel tracks are not used and shorter skis (without grip wax on the central zone) and longer poles are used. Skating is more strenuous than the classic technique, but the rewards are that you go faster and get an even more intensive workout.

Another peculiarity of cross-country skiing is the need to apply a softer or harder grip wax to your classic-style skis when the temperature changes. If that is too much hassle, you can instead use waxless cross-country skis which have a fish scale pattern in the central ‘kick’ zone.

All the tracks (prepared by special piste bashers, similar to those used for preparing downhill runs) are made up of three sections: a set of cut tram lines for classic-style skiers heading uphill, a central section for skaters (also used for overtaking) and a second set of tram lines for descending skiers.

Another technique is double-poling which is commonly used on flat trails where gliding is difficult. This involves pushing with both poles at the same time while keeping the skis together while occasionally introducing a kick into the motion to keep up the momentum.

For uphill sections, a technique called herring-boning is used, which is similar to speed skating. As with downhill skiing, cross-country skiing pistes are, in descending order of difficulty, graded black, red, blue and green. Like downhill skiing, you also have the option of going off piste and cutting your own tracks through virgin snow.

A worthy objective for the last day of the holiday was to ski the length of the valley from Oberwald to Niederwald, a distance of around 20km. An even worthier objective would have been to ski back but, with the weather closing in, we instead we took the train.

After several seasons of alternating cross-country and downhill skiing I increasingly find I prefer cross-country skiing, and not just because of the absence of queues and lifts and the expense of downhill skiing. Compared with the faff of donning helmets and the heavy plastic boots used for downhill skiing, I love the freedom and simplicity of clipping on some cross-country skis and being able to head off into quiet forests for a day in the snow and the invigorating mountain air.

How to get there

Getting there: Swiss operates weekly direct flights from Edinburgh to Zurich from £115 return.

From Zürich airport, the Obergoms valley can be reached in three and a half hours with a single change of train in Brig.

From Brig, there are hourly trains to Obergoms that run along a scenic narrow-gauge railway line that forms part of the legendary Glacier Express.

The Swiss Transfer Ticket covers a round trip between any Swiss airport and your holiday destination (£112 in second class or £182 in first class). /

For the ultimate in hassle-free travel and Swiss efficiency you can check your baggage all the way from Edinburgh airport to your hotel in Switzerland using the “door-to-door flight luggage system”.

Where to stay

The agreeable three-star Hotel Ahorni in Oberwald has double rooms which, including breakfast, vary in price between 180 Swiss francs (£138) a night in low season to 220 francs (£168) in high season. There is a supplement for half-board of 35 francs per person per night.

Cross-country skiing lessons

Learn to cross-country ski in the classic or skating style at the WakeUp ski school, which charges 160 Swiss francs (£125) for a two-hour lesson.

Alpine skiing

Go downhill skiing at the nearby Aletsch Arena at Fiesch (a 20-minute drive or half an hour by train from the Upper Goms valley). Zermatt, in the shadow of the mighty Matterhorn, is just over an hour away by car or three hours by train.

Spa day

Relax at Brigerbad, a thermal “wellness” complex between Brig and Visp (a 40-minute drive or just over an hour by train) which boasts 12 indoor and outdoor pools, heated by effervescent mineral-rich geo-thermal water which bubbles up from a spring at a toasty warm 50°C. Enjoy a wide variety of saunas, hot pots and steam baths while kids throw themselves down the curly-wurly waterslides. Admission: 19 Swiss francs (£15).


Curling in Scotland is practised in indoors but at this altitude, because of the constant sub-zero temperatures in winter, you can try it outdoors. The Curling Club Goms ice rink at Obergesteln offers taster sessions for beginners as well as advanced training for experienced curlers. 25 Swiss francs (£19).

Snowshoeing, snow biking and sledging

A popular snowshoe expedition from Oberwald involves a two-hour walk following the Huswäg-Trail up to the cosy Restaurant Rhonequelle, perched some 200m above the village close to the Rhône Glacier which is the source of the River Rhône. The local outdoor hire firms allow you to leave your snowshoes at the restaurant and use a sledge or snow bike to return to the valley along a dedicated sledge track.