Ski instructor course 3: Killer of the Alps

Cute little creature or bloodthirsty killer? There may be more to the European marmot than meets the eye.

Looking from the top of the Mont Fort cable car towards Mont Blanc

Looking towards Mont Blanc – a field of moguls or of marmot homes?

“The biggest cause of death in the mountains,” says Jordan, our coach on the ski instructor course as we ride the chairlift to lunch, “is marmots.” He is talking about the fat rodents more familiar to summer hikers in the Alps. Usually you hear them first, whistling a warning to their neighbours, before you catch a glimpse of brown fur disappearing into a burrow.

In winter they hibernate – or so I always thought. According to Jordan, they lurk under the blanket of snow, waiting for skiers to take a face-plant. “They can strip your body of flesh in an hour,” he says. “They’re the piranhas of the mountains.”

My fellow skiers on the lift are sceptical. “Well, that’s what I tell the children in my classes anyway,” says Jordan. He also tells them that these fiercely territorial creatures hunt in packs, and that they are the real cause of death when skiers get caught in an avalanche. “You don’t asphyxiate,” he says, “you get eaten alive – fatty bits first.”

WSSA Gap-Year course 2010: Craig Roberts (left) and Jordan Revah (instructor, right)

Jordan (right) with Aussie financial wizard Craig

We think he’s telling porkies. I come up with another story: that the Swiss use them for massages. Craig, the Australian financial wizard, is incredulous. “What, they rub each other with marmots?” he asks. No, I say, they extract the fat and turn it into massage oil – to warm and relax muscles. My companions don’t believe me either. But it’s true – and to prove it, here’s a website that sells the stuff:

Susie, the physiotherapist from Jersey, says that when she worked a season in Méribel as a chalet girl (“or chalet bitch, as they called us”), a colleague told American visitors that moguls, the bumps on ungroomed slopes that intermediate skiers tumble down like rag dolls, were marmot homes. The guest was horrified. “Isn’t it real noisy for them?”

Two summers ago in the Swiss resort of Saas-Fee, I thought I would have a chance to see a marmot up close. Other guests reported that they were so tame they would eat carrots out of your hand. So one afternoon I set off up the mountain, found some burrows, and waved some freshly peeled carrot in the doorways.

Not one marmot came out. I concluded it was because of my attire: a hi-tech mountain jacket that just happened to be carrot-coloured. Presumably any semi-dozing marmot glimpsing a 6ft vegetable loitering outside its burrow would assume it was having a dream induced by a piece of undigested lunch – and would quite reasonably ignore it.

The night after Jordan tells me his marmot story, I too have a dream: I wake up to find myself in bed with a giant marmot. And it’s gnawing at my leg with its big yellow teeth.

Jordan tells me he has eaten marmot (“er … nice”), but doesn’t know any good recipes. I do some research. I can’t find anything Swiss, but learn that marmot is a popular quarry for hunters in Mongolia, and that they barbecue it to make “boodog”.

Roast marmot, Mongolian-style

1. Catch your marmot
2. Heat some stones in an open fire
3. Chop off marmot’s head and gut it; put kidneys and liver back inside, with onions and salt
4. Put hot stones in body cavity, tie up marmot again
5. Singe off fur and top layer of skin (use blowtorch if handy)
6. Stab holes into flesh, so marmot does not explode
7. When you see fat bubbling out of holes, after 1-2 hours, marmot is ready
8. Cut open. Give a fat-covered stone to each guest in your yurt to hold – said to revive spirits
9. Serve marmot.

I have yet to try this recipe, so I cannot vouch for it. But I can say that it provides happy material for opening a conversation when you are hungry and stuck on a slow chairlift with strangers. Bon appétit!