High up on the majestic Piz Lagalb, colourful flags – blue, white,
red, green and yellow – flutter in the wind, bearing enigmatic
symbols and mysterious written characters. These are Buddhist prayer
flags, which defy the forces of nature here and recall the Himalayas.
The breathtaking mountain panorama – with the sparkling summits of the Piz Palü, Bernina and Morteratsch, Piz Tschierva and Boval – evokes the scenic grandeur of the “Roof of the world”.
No wonder this place of special energy has a unique connection to the Himalayas and to the world’s highest mountain, the 8,848-metre Mount Everest. Adventurous snow sports enthusiasts set themselves the challenge of ticking off 8,848 vertical metres here in a single day. To achieve this, they have to climb four times on foot from the upper station of the cable car to the summit of the Piz Lagalb, and ski or snowboard 11 times down the piste to the lower station. Anyone who completes this arduous task successfully becomes a member of Club 8848.
The story of the club begins in 1970 with Eugenio Rüegger, the former CEO of the Lagalb cable car. His goal was to attract more ski enthusiasts to the Lagalb, and his idea of creating a link to the world-famous Mount Everest worked. Soon, the club counted celebrities among its members, including the Canadian prime minister of the day and the Shah of Persia. The latter even had all 19 bodyguards in tow, who also qualified to become club members. By the 1980s, the club had clocked up 1,000 members – and yet was a number short. Back then it was not yet called Club 8848, but Club 8847. A British expedition in 1952 had established the height of Mount Everest as precisely 8,847.842 metres. When the club was created, its founders chose to round the figure down; for the relaunch, the club decided to round the figure up, thinking that a new name would usher in a new era. Because despite early press coverage worldwide and an international membership, from about 30 years ago the club steadily fell into oblivion.
In 2015, news emerged that the Lagalb cable car, after running at a loss for years, was to be shut down. Martina Walther, current president of Club 8848, remembers the occasion well. That cannot be, she thought. “The Lagalb has held a grip on skiers’ imagination for more than 50 years, almost unlike any other mountain,” she says. As she rode the cable car up the Lagalb for the last time that season and began her last descent, “I felt really sad,” she says.
At 8.30 am sharp, Nik Meuli from La Punt is standing with his skis
in the cable car that will bring him up the Lagalb. He is curious:
“I’m interested to see what it takes to do the distance,” he says. He
does not worry, however, that the task might be too much for him.
As a ski tourer and solo climber, he scales a good dozen mountain
summits every year. He has travelled in the Himalayas, too. He is
also tackling today’s challenge on his own.
He is not the only one bidding for membership of Club 8848 today.
Karin Thalmann from Zurich is also riding up in the first cable car.
For her, the Lagalb is full of childhood memories; she has been coming
here in winter for as long as she can remember, to her favourite
mountain. “You can really go for it on these pistes, but they are never
crowded,” she says. Joining Club 8848 is a chance for her to cement
her connection with the Lagalb. Her strategy is to be first on the
piste: she succeeds, and she’s off right away.
Nik Meuli, meanwhile, heads over to the clearly marked Club 8848
stand by the Lagalb summit station. For 10 francs he receives his
Club 8848 kit; this consists of an armband, which identifies him as
a candidate club member, and a card that gets punched each time
he arrives at the Piz Lagalb and at the cable car base station. While
Karin Thalmann is already tackling her first run, Nik Meuli is
climbing up to the summit, in line with the motto “Work before play”.
From the upper station of the cable car, the summit seems just a stroll away. But the 66 vertical metres pack a punch. The air may not be as thin as on Mount Everest, but the oxygen levels are definitely lower than down in the lowlands. Many a club member will say that the 11 descents certainly made for stiff muscles in their upper thighs, but it was the climbs to the summit on foot that really got them in a sweat. Nik Meuli walks nimbly up as if it did not involve a climb at all. “Growing up in the Engadin, you are used to exploring a lot from a young age,” he says. Sports are part of his daily life. “The natural landscapes of the Engadin are my playground.”
At the summit we also meet 11-year-old Cécile from the Valposchiavo.
Claudio Menghini, the young adventure-seeker’s uncle, is happy
that there is still skiing up on the Lagalb. “For us in the Valposchiavo,
the Lagalb is our local mountain. By joining Club 8848, we want to
support the ski business here,” he says. They have picked a magnificent
day for the challenge. The sun is shining, the wind is manageable
and the pistes are a delight to ski. The run down is a thrill: after all,
the black piste is the steepest in Graubünden. The alternative is the
rather tamer red piste.
Around noon, Karin Thalmann emerges from the Lagalb mountain
restaurant, beaming. She has treated herself to a break and a plate
of delicious Pizzoccheri. Her strategy has gone well so far: she has
only one run left to do, but she still has to hike up to the summit
three more times. “That’ll be my constitutional walk,” she laughs.
We also meet the family from the Valposchiavo in good spirits in
front of the summit station. They have already climbed up to the
summit four times, and are looking forward to their last four runs.
All seem to be on track to becoming club members and so joining
an ever-larger circle of enthusiasts.
Club president Martina Walther takes stock: “We welcomed 629 new members in the first year,” she says. They were counting on about 200.
"We even ran short of pins." These are the pride of members: they show the club logo, and prove that the bearer has mastered as many vertical metres as Mount Everest in a single day. The club has already made provision for the coming season: the pins are ready.