I had been scoping it for a while: a remote cabin with a wood stove and a nice view. The access trail followed old growth forest and rolling terrain; perfect place to ski-in, make a cheese fondue, and drink some wine with friends and family.
Convincing friends to join us on a ski trip that involved a cheese fondue was usually an easy task, but somehow the timing never worked out.
Then our daughter was born, which at first seemed to cut into our backcountry adventures. Eventually we realized she wasn’t as fragile as we thought, and we picked up a pulka (a Scandinavian sled used to haul babies or gear, not the dance/music polka). Spontaneously we pitched the ski/fondue idea to our friends Knut and Julie, and to Steve and Jess, whose baby, Nathan, is just a few months older than our daughter, Aila.
Somehow everyone was free, and there was plenty of snow with more in the forecast. We gathered our gear, split up food responsibilities, and attempted to safely wedge the two kids into the pulka.
We drove two hours from Corvallis, Oregon, to Maxwell Butte Snow Park in the Cascade Mountains, a few miles from the intersection of Highway 20 and 22.
The previous two days had left about a foot of fresh snow and the trees were wearing a heavy blanket of white. We bundled up the babies — exchanging worried questions over whether the third layer of wool underwear was too much or too little — strapped 6 month old Aila into a car seat and put it in the front of the pulka. Then we squeezed Nathan in behind her and strapped him into the pulka harness. The kids looked cute, and seemed to be jammed in there pretty well. Still, we packed some bags of freshly grated French cheeses, some sleeping bags, and other odds and ends around them to make sure.
The adults loaded their packs with the remaining ingredients, including a fondue pot, and clicked into their cross country skis. We had NNN-BC bindings and fishscale skis. I opted to follow the practice of the Swedes and apply skins to my skis since I would be pulling the pulka.
The pulka attaches with a harness and rigid poles and is relatively easy to ski with. We quickly learned that it would have been a good idea to not attach it in the parking lot, since we had to scale the snowbank to get to the trail which involved some precarious poses. The kids showed their appreciation by crying the entire time. Luckily once we hit the trail they settled in and the screaming subsided.
The forest was a winter wonderland with huge Douglas firs covered in snow and a series of winding trails, many of which had not been skied since the new snow. Unfortunately, previous ski tracks had made a trough not quite as wide as the pulka, and the fresh snow didn’t completely fill it in. This meant that the sledge was often riding on one of its edges, eliciting concern from the parental parties.
The pulka has a fabric covering with a clear vinyl window which fogged up. A quick look inside revealed two very warm babies sleeping soundly in their own little sauna. We opened a vent and continued on, working our way up gently sloping hills and enjoying the clear weather. The uphills for me were hard with the weight of the pulka pulling against me but thanks to the climbing skins my skis rarely relinquished their grip.
At one point I navigated a sharp turn by swinging far out and then cutting back only to hear yelps of concern. I looked back to see that the pulka had flipped over! Parents rushed to the scene to find the babies still securely wedged in and no worse for wear. Steve and Jess decided to put Nathan in the hiking backpack where he would be able to see better and have more support for sleeping.
The trail meandered its way upward and our stomachs began to grumble for the pot of melted cheese and wine that was promised at the end of our ascent. The fondue was the carrot propelling us forward.
I personally like to refrain from eating, or eat very little, before a cheese fondue. I am not a scientist (I studied anthropology) but I believe that skiing and cheese fondue evolved together, because that is the only explanation for the synergy that occurs when you end a day on the slopes, or a tour, by dipping chunks of crusty bread in a bubbling cauldron of cheese and wine.
Thus, we put extra effort into the last push to make it to the cabin and commence the feast.
Views of the forest with lakes and few of the big Oregon peaks greeted us as we climbed a small hill, and the cabin soon appeared. Even though it was a weekend, only one other couple was there, contentedly eating granola bars and sandwiches.
The hut was equipped with wood for the stove and we began to make a fire. The babies were removed from their cocoon and some of their layers. We had decided to bring a MSR Whisperlite stove instead of the heavy cast iron base and sterno that usually accompany a fondue pot. The wood stove took off slowly so we used the MSR stove to heat the dry white wine in the fondue pot and slowly stirred in handfuls of delicious Comté and Emmental cheeses.
Comté is a French style of the Swiss Gruyère cheese. These hard mountain cheeses are made from raw milk and aged anywhere from a few months to a few years. They are nutty, salty, creamy, earthy and absolutely delicious melted or not. Emmental is the Swiss cheese that everyone thinks about (though it is also made in France), with large holes running throughout. It is a milder cheese than Comté and provides a good backbone for the fondue.
While we waited for the fondue we snacked on selections of fruits and vegetables which kept everyone happy and the kids entertained. Though it was not a particularly cold day it still was wonderful to come into a warm cabin and shed some layers. Soon the whole place smelled of the intoxicating aroma of melting French cheese and wine.
Our friend Knut, a baker who accidentally works as a computer software engineer, cut up several loaves of crusty sourdough bread. The cheese and wine had melded together to become a creamy, thick, bubbling mixture and it was now time to add the final kick, a shot of Kirsch (a colorless brandy made from a type of sour cherry). Alas I could not locate the small airplane bottle of Kirsch I had packed (we later found it lodged in the trunk of the car). Luckily cheese fondue is good even without Kirsch.
There are a few points of etiquette regarding cheese fondue that do not waver whether eating in a fancy restaurant or in a backcountry cabin. The first is that if your bread falls off your fondue fork into the cheese, there are consequences. Sometimes it means buying the next round of wine, or singing a song, kissing the person next to you, or skiing a mogul field backwards. Usually the punishment is determined before the start of the meal. The best technique I have found for keeping my bread on, is to make sure to spear some of the crust on the cube of bread. If your bread doesn’t have any crust then try to compress it a bit and then spear it.
Also it is generally ill advised to drink water or any other cold, non-alcoholic beverage while eating cheese fondue. Cold liquids, without alcohol, the story goes, can cause the melted cheese to coagulate into a cheese ball in your stomach with undesirable results. Traditionally dry white wine is consumed with cheese fondue, though hot tea or kirsch apparently work as well. Many people doubt the cheese ball theory, and I can’t say one way or another. I have never taken the chance.
While we were eating a few other skiers stopped in for lunch. I think they were surprised to see our group, sitting down to a decadent meal with Lexan wine glasses and fondue forks while they munched on energy bars.
As the last remnants of cheese were scraped up, Knut poured small glasses of port wine. Feeling like royalty, we sipped the dark wine and glowed from the hearty cheese meal. The words “cheese coma” started bouncing around the cabin. We refocused and ate top-notch chocolate covered Marizipan from the famous German company, Niedecker, and fought off the urge to take naps on the sleeping platform. We reapplied layers to ourselves and the little ones, and prepared to depart.
I opted to leave my skins on for the descent, figuring that extra speed might not actually be a desirable thing in this situation. I loaned Steve an extra set of skins as well. The snow was deep so the hills weren’t that fast, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t exciting. I have always found that to increase excitement you can either find more challenging terrain, or use more challenging equipment.
I applied some Telemark techniques and managed to look slightly better than a bear on roller skates. The pulka and myself even remained upright as I flip flopped between moments of grace and poise with wobbles and jerky pole stabs.
I descended first which meant I had front row seats to the circus that ensued. Steve carrying Nathan in the backpack made a great effort and remained upright. My wife Amanda actually got air off some little bump and kept everything pointed the right way. Knut, the 6 foot 6 inch German with his arms spread wide and yellow jacket made me think of a winter scarecrow. He hit the same bump that Amanda did but landed with an impressive cloud of powder and skis, hats, poles, and glasses all vying to escape the crash site. Knut’s head came up covered in snow but a large grin was breaking across his face.
The rest of the ski home pretty much went the same: impressively spastic gymnastic maneuvers before spectacular falls in soft snow on the steeper descents. I managed to stay upright most of the time, but the Pulka was constantly flipping as one edge rode up on the edge of the worn track. Since Aila was in a car seat her center of gravity was much higher than normal, so that may have also contributed to the Pulka’s willingness to flip. Aila didn’t seem to mind, or notice of that matter. The car seat kept her secure and she napped peacefully even when flipped on her side.
The sun began to sink from the sky and we skied the final part back to the parking lot. Everyone was happy, warm, tired, and a little less full from the fondue. We loaded the cars, said goodbye and drove home. Backcountry adventures with a baby were proving to be not only possible but delicious!
Cheese Fondue Recipe (serves 4)
My grandmother who emigrated from Switzerland in 1944, introduced me to Fondue au fromage (cheese fondue) at an early age. The simple dish is quick to make with a few ingredients, and provides a convivial atmosphere, especially if the setting is a backcountry cabin after skiing. One can imagine the cow herders who are credited with inventing the dish, holed up in a stone building high in the Alps, dipping chunks of rustic bread into the cheese from their herd, melted together with white wine.
8 oz Swiss Emmental cheese
Remove the rinds from the cheeses and grate coarsely, combine and toss with the flour if using.
Split the garlic in half and rub the cut sides all over the inside of the fondue pot and on the wooden spoon. Discard or chop fine and add to the pot if you like garlic.
Add all of the white wine to the fondue pot and heat over medium heat until just boiling. Add the cheeses by the handful while stirring. As the cheese melts, add more until all the cheese is gone.
The cheese/wine mixture should look pretty homogenous and bubbly. Keep stirring and add the kirsch with either the cornstarch or baking soda mixed into it.
Add pepper to taste.
Transfer the fondue pot to the table and set over the stove or fondue stand (make sure it is stable).
Spear some bread, dip it in the bubbling cheese, give it a swirl (very important), remove from the cheese, give it a turn or two to mitigate cheese strings and drips. Enjoy!
WildSnow guest blogger, Aaron Schorsch, loves eating and skiing, either together or separate. He is the owner of Saveur the Journey LLC, an experiential culinary, culture, and adventure travel company. If you like to shred pow and cheese, then check out his Ski trip with a Cheese Problem: March 3-11, 2017 in the French and Swiss Alps for fantastic skiing/boarding and eating the regional cheese specialties.