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Searching for Klaas

Posted on February 5, 2014 by Lethbridge Sun Times

Part 2

Making our last ski run down into Davos, the warm weather we’d been experiencing the entire time got even warmer and the snow was slushy by the time we got to the bottom. It felt like it was our last run of the season as we slid through the slop although it was only early January.

One last trip up the tram had to be made for at least one sledge run. Every town tucked in a Swiss valley seemed to have at least one groomed run down the side of the nearby mountain dedicated strictly for sledges, which are small wooden sleds that glide down the slopes on top of thin wooden runners. It’s the classic sled used to slide down slopes worldwide and to the Swiss, is part of the lifestyle. They claimed more people died annually sledging than skiing and it’s easy to see why. The runs are measured in kilometres and unless you are constantly slowing yourself down with your feet Fred Flintstone-style, you reach uncontrollable speeds with the greatest of ease. When we got our sledges under control enough, we stopped at a viewpoint to have a final look down on the village of Klosters.

If Davos and Klosters are sister towns, Klosters is the pretty one. Located in the convergence of three valleys, it is a town of 4,000 with classic Swiss chalets and guesthouses lining its narrow streets. There is a traditional, authentic feel to the place and its architecture, as if an entire town could be made of real gingerbread. Davos is the larger metropolitan centre with modern accommodations and facilities that stands in stark contrast to Klosters. Separating the two is Lake Davos, a picture-perfect lake that fills the valley floor and lies as a stunning natural barrier between the two communities.

The area is steeped in skiing history. The second ski lift ever installed in Switzerland was on the western side of Klosters, the first, installed in 1934, was just down the valley near Davos. It was a J-bar (which later became the T-bar) and its development revolutionized, and in many ways created, the ski industry. Glarus, another village on the other side of Davos, was the site of one of the world’s first ski factories and ski club in the late 1800s.

Even before the introduction of the first T-bar, one of the world’s most important international downhill races in the pre-World Cup era was the Parsenn Derby, which started in 1924 and was held on the slopes that run high above the Klosters and Davos.

The Parsenn ski resort serves as a high alpine bridge between the Klosters and Davos with runs that stretch as long as 18 kilometres from mountaintop down into the Prättigau valley.

Klosters was also where Paul Klaas had grown up and an interview with Germaine Meier the next day to discuss that topic was the last stop on our trip. Finding someone that even knew who Paul Klaas was by simply asking at the ski school was a bit of a surprise so we felt we hit the jackpot with a chance to talk to his niece, Germaine Meier. It would be a unique perspective as Germaine would be the first person I had talked to who had only known him in Switzerland. Her log cabin-style home on the outer edges of Klosters was where we met. Germaine and her husband had built the house in 1975, peeling the logs with their own hands, the sort of thing you come to expect in this land of legend.

Germaine turned out to be a sweet, well-spoken and slightly reserved lady in the twilight of her life who had lasting memories of her uncle Paul. The Klaas family was a large one with nine kids but Paul’s high ambitions and drive made him stand out.

“He had a lot of ideas and, what shall I say, he was happy as long as he was working at something. And when it was finished he gave it up and moved on to other things. First he had a farm and then he changed to another thing; he also built houses here in Klosters. It was difficult for his wife (Vera) because when he had an idea, she went with him and it was through difficult times sometimes.”

When Paul was preparing to move to Canada the first time, he even invited Germaine to join him and Vera. “He wanted to take me with him; I’m glad I never did. I love Klosters and I’m glad I’m here.”

One of the biggest attractions to Canada for Paul was the availability of land and the opportunities that created.

“He always was very pleased with Canada and when he came back he felt restricted. Everything is smaller here and the rules are more difficult. You have to follow the laws here; he didn’t like that very much,” smiled Germaine.

A series of moves back and forth between Canada and Switzerland throughout his life was an indication of his restless spirit but in the end Paul still considered Switzerland home. He spent his final years in Klosters, ski instructing for guests that included celebrities and royalty.

“He had his clientele,” said Germaine coyly. “I had my clientele, too.”

Paul Klaas died in 2003 at the age of 82. Before his death Paul published two autobiographical booklets describing his life’s various endeavours and exploits. As we flipped through copies of the booklets Germaine shared with us, it was clear that Paul had made an impression on his adopted home of Alberta. Personal letters from the likes of Peter Lougheed, which is about as close as you can get to royalty in Wild Rose Country, served to demonstrate the point.

“His ashes were taken up to Silvretta Glacier, just over there,” said Germaine pointing out her window. “I can see it from here.”

High in the Alps that tower over Klosters, the Silvretta Glacier is a three-kilometre mass of snow-covered ice that flows around the mountaintop like a smear of smooth icing before giving way to a collection of jagged, rocky peaks. I’ve got to admit, a chill went up my spine as I turned to look at Silvretta. It had never felt like I was chasing the memory of Paul Klaas before, but looking up at his final resting place, it sure did at that moment. He took his knowledge from Switzerland and put in all into building Westcastle. Klaas’s Swiss knowhow and the limitless possibilities of Canada came together to create the resort. He was half Canadian cowboy and half Swiss ski instructor. The duality of his life and personality were what defined him for me. And here I was looking at the final resting place of the man who straddled two worlds to build the Westcastle ski area, an area many consider to be their favourite place in the world.

With Germaine and other members of the Klaas clan still living in Klosters, the family’s roots continue to run deep in the area. For Paul’s ashes to be interred on a glacier couldn’t have been more appropriate or fitting. As we entered the airport to leave the next day, we saw our first Swiss snowflakes falling from the sky. Otherwise our entire trip had been sunny and clear almost without exception. Our time in Switzerland was over but the eternal Swiss winter goes on. At least it will always seem that way to me.

Steven Kenworthy is a Spring Lake, Alberta-based writer who has been a ski columnist for the Lethbridge Herald and written numerous skiing articles for publications in Canada and Japan.

Pre-sales of Kenworthy’s book “A History of Westcastle to Castle Mountain Resort – 1965 to 2007” are now available by contacting Castle Mountain Resort or Alpenland in Lethbridge.

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