Hanging with hags at the Belalp Hexe

I would have kissed her if I could have squeezed my lips between the points of her chin and her nose. She could sense my frustration, and it excited her.

Later, she purred as she stroked my chest.

She was as white and pockmarked as the sparse January snow in Belalp, Switzerland, the ugliest woman I ever fell for. But love is always a slippery slope; who knows if she was really beautiful beneath all that makeup?

She wore a white fright wig and white false eyelashes, a pointed black witch hat, and she carried a hags broom that she used as a ski pole. She and her friends, maybe 10 cloned from the same coven, hopped over and around the rocks as if those short skis were part of their feet.

I was pretty green in the face myself, and not from the altitude or the wine I drank the night before. One of the local frauleins had lovingly applied a thick layer of greasepaint on my cheeks and forehead so that I would be undercover on the slopes, free to be as bad an actor as I am a skier.

The Belalp Hexe, a Witches Descent, is an annual mid-January ski race. Or rather, its a costume ball on skis, disguised as a race.

Oh sure, there were a few overly anal sorts in speed suits, acting as if they actually wanted to win the thing 12 kilometers from the top of the slopes to the village of Blatten if the snow coverage permits. But about 700 of the 1,200 skiers that day were dressed in witch costumes, some more elaborate than others. Friends came in dressed-alike groups, with orange faces, brown faces, white faces, green faces. Here and there, someone had a stuffed raven on his shoulder. Nearly everyone had a bottle or a flask in a pocket, or a backpack pumper tank filled with a sweet, neon-green fizz that went down your throat with hundred-proof heat.

My white Wiccan raised a wine skin toward my face. Open der bouche, she ordered, before she squirted apricot brandy into my mouth.

Bonus, I whispered, Shes trilingual.

If youve never heard of Belalp, thats because its just a spare little day-area in the Upper Valais region near the city of Brig, about four hours south of Zurich by train. The slopes border the Aletsch Glacier, a frozen river at the bottom of a chasm that has been named a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site. Across the gorge, Riederalp, Bettmeralp and Fiescheralp are interconnected little ski villages with über-Swiss hotels and restaurants that cater to German families on holiday and can only be reached by aerial tram in the winter.

Hexe means witch, of course. And though the race is mostly an excuse to party, its allegedly based on the local legend of an adulterous witch who turned herself into a crow and bombed her pious husband with bird poop, hitting him right in the eyes. He, to his great misfortune, was climbing an apple tree at the time. He fell and died. She was burned at the stake. So obviously, that makes everyone want to drink and ski and race and party. Me included.

As I slid to the start, my white witch sidled up to me and shook her broom at me menacingly. I vill be at your side, making fire up your arsh, she said.

She was a bit loose with the vernacular, but I knew she was just flirting. The witch!

From Swiss Seasons