A resurgence in Engelberg, Switzerland’s best-kept secret
This story originally printed in the October 2014 issue of POWDER (44.2).
Snowflake didn’t know what time it was. He only follows the position of the sun so he can traverse beneath the granite spires of Engelberg’s Titlis Mountain, pull out a sheet of plastic he keeps hidden between the rocks, spread it out on the snow, and relax for the hour or two that the sun’s rays crest the ridge. “I am timeless,” he said when we met at the Skihütte Stand one afternoon, two-thirds of the way up the 10,623-foot-high Titlis. Which was a great relief coming from a Swiss. I had been late to every meeting I’d scheduled since I landed in Switzerland three days ago—they’ll kill you for five minutes—and was starting to feel like a degenerate.
It’s not in a ski bum’s nature to be on time. Or to be early or late for that matter. Ski time is measured in storms, temperature, lift openings, road closures, avalanche danger, happy hour, hangovers, work shifts, etc. But for most Swiss, meeting them 10 minutes late is like showing up with their wife’s underwear hanging out of your pocket. Thankfully, Snowflake is cool in a 1968 way—meaning he never wears a hat, no matter how cold it is, and just being alive and in the mountains is reason enough to be happy. It helps that the only thing he cares about, or has seemingly ever cared about his entire life, is flying downhill on skis.
Beyond the Stand’s hand-hewn deck, the Steinberg Glacier—the main artery of Engelberg Ski Resort—flowed from the summit of Klein Titlis, running over moraines, bergschrunds, granite needles, granite fins, a few crevasses, and some of the most epic cliff lines I’d ever seen. Due west was Jochstock, an entirely different mountain connected by a horizontal chairlift, and to the east was the famed Laub, a 3,900-vertical-foot pyramid of perfect turns that stands as the longest continuous lift-served powder field in Europe. Overall, Engelberg has 24 lifts, 50 miles of piste, and 25 official trails over 6,500 vertical feet—misleading stats when you consider that one trail is seven miles long and there are about 100,000 acres of accessible backcountry skiing if you pack a pair of climbing skins. Still, somehow, set an hour south of Zürich in the exact middle of Switzerland, the resort has remained largely undiscovered.
It was getting close to the end of the season when I visited, and the rest of the Alps were melting. Portes du Soleil was 60 degrees; Chamonix was grass from mid-station down. Yet Engelberg, set on the northwestern edge of the Alps like a speed bump to storms racing down from the North Atlantic, was freezing cold and stacked with snow. Everything on the hill was white, including Snowflake, who was starting to get antsy. He was dressed in a white sweater, white leather gloves, white ski pants, and a white windbreaker with a white drawstring around the hem. He had a silk bandana—white—tied around his neck and patches of white duct tape covering tears in his pants. He is 65 and started wearing white in the 1970s in Andermatt, so he and his girlfriend could ski and canoodle after hours without the ski patrol spotting them. It worked so well that he kept wearing it, surprising ski patrollers, bergführers, and unsuspecting ibex all over Switzerland on his sunset runs.
Snowflake is cool in a 1968 way—meaning he never wears a hat, no matter how cold it is, and just being alive and in the mountains is reason enough to be happy.
The clouds were moving east so we decided to ride the Titlis Rotair tram—it spins 360 degrees as it rises—and ski the glacier while there was still light. Snowflake led the way from the top, dropping down the steep upper flank. The snow was smooth and hard but took an edge nicely. We made long, wide turns down the right side then followed the arc of the ice flow. “Watch out for the crevasse on your left,” Snowflake said halfway down. A young boy had fallen into it at 10 a.m. the day before and didn’t get out until 3 p.m. The rescuer who pulled him out took a mini-fridge-sized chunk of ice to the back and broke his arm, three ribs, and three vertebrae.
The glacier continues on skier’s left from there, with one route dropping around the icefall and another arcing over a smooth rollover. Everything in Engelberg is constantly rolling over. The mountain is that big and the terrain is that varied and steep. It makes for great skiing: the rush of going over the edge every 30 seconds, feeling gravity release for a moment, then pull you down. It’s the kind of terrain that is heaven in powder, and I could imagine floating down in waist-deep smoke as Snowflake explained he often did.
The glacier opens up at the bottom of the headwall with Jochstock on the left and the entrance to the Laub far to the right. We skied left into the clouds and found softer snow. The fog was so thick I couldn’t let Snowflake get more than 10 feet in front of me or I’d lose him. We skied right under a massive icefall to a long traverse. Then, in an instant, we were under the lift line making a beeline for the maze to make another lap.
In antiquity, one way that Swiss aristocracy guaranteed passage to heaven was by building a monastery. Blessed Konrad, Count of Sellenbüeren, was a Swiss warrior and nobleman and secured his ascension in 1120 when he laid the foundation for the Engelberg Abbey. The original site for the Benedictine monastery was not in the mountains. Sellenbüeren had a vision at the first site and was told by a divine spirit to follow an ox to the proper location. When the ox stopped at the eastern end of Engelberg Valley, the Count looked around and saw cherubs on the summit of Hahnen Mountain. He named the area “Angel Mountain,” or “Engelberg,” and a new mountain town was born.
There’s another story about why the ox stopped at the head of the valley. There isn’t anywhere else to go. Some of the tallest mountains in central Switzerland, many above 10,000 feet, crowd the valley: Hahnen, Spannort, Reissend Nollen. After the abbey was built, the Holy See ruled Engelberg for 600 years. It became a center of learning in Switzerland and a hub of trade. Soft cheese crafted by the monks in the abbey was renowned in the region and traders carried it over Jochpass to Italy to exchange for leather and other goods. The monastery even raised its own army to protect trade routes and was considered its own nation until 1798, when it joined the Swiss Federation.
The mountains have always been integral to Engelberg. The first English visitors in the mid-19th century made them profitable, too. As in the rest of Switzerland, the Brits came for “wellness spas,” which European doctors—who expounded on the curing capacity of altitude, though it was likely the clean air unspoiled by coal soot—prescribed. The migration spurred the world’s first mass alpine tourism, mountaineering, and, eventually, skiing. St. Moritz and Davos take credit for the first dedicated ski resorts, but Engelberg was on par as a mountain resort from the beginning. The five-star Hotel Titlis was built in 1865 and Queen Victoria overnighted in the valley in 1869. In 1883, Eugene Hess-Waser built the Hotel Trübsee for mountaineers and outdoorsmen and, after designing a hydro plant, brought electricity to the valley in 1888—years before Zürich was electrified. The railroad came 10 years later—the longest electric mountain railway in the world—and in 1926 Hess-Waser’s swan song was the first licensed aerial cableway in Switzerland, running from Gerschnialp to Trübsee, where it continued to carry skiers until 1984.
Another Hess—Geny Hess—was hitting his prime around that time. He is the great-grandson of Eugene. His family tree reaches back to 1620 in Engelberg, which you can see if you visit him in his basement wine cellar. The tree goes back 10 generations and hangs next to a small room that contains most of the things Geny Hess holds dear: photos of him with big hair and a powder mustache from the 1980s, Rossignol posters featuring him skiing the Laub, 800 bottles of wine, and a scrapbook that includes entries from several Powder contributors and a check for $1 million written by former editor Les Anthony. The check is signed by Captain Powder, for “guiding services.”
Hess was Rossignol’s poster boy for years and opened most of the first descents in Engelberg, including the white-knuckler Galtiberg, off Titlis. He remembers the old days at Hotel Hess when British guests drank gin for four hours before dinner and live music played every night. He remembers resorts like Zermatt, St. Anton, and Verbier slowly eclipsing Engelberg, the rich and famous flocking to them as his little town slid into their shadow. And he remembers his first Swedish client, a journalist in the early 1990s, who came back every year and may well have helped instigate the Swedish invasion—that would change Engelberg forever.
Every ski town has its moment. Engelberg has had many, but undeniably the most recent was the arrival of a few dozen Swedish freeriders looking for a place to ski big lines. It’s difficult to figure out who came first. There were many over the years. Not all of them came back and not all of them skied. What everyone seems to remember is an Engelberg segment in one of the Swedish Free Radicals movies that put the mountain on the map.
By 2002, when photographer Oskar Enander arrived, the invasion was in full effect. Many Swedes lived on the fourth floor of the Bellevue Hotel in downtown Engelberg. The Bellevue was one of the first hotels in town and the fourth floor hadn’t changed much since. The rooms were tiny, only a bed and no other furniture. The bathrooms were shared and skiers cooked pasta with tomato sauce on hotplates they snuck into their rooms. Enander arrived with some friends in a beat-up RV that he lived in all winter. With fat skis and a growing posse, the Swedes hit the main powder stashes of Engelberg and began opening up others.
It was a scene not so dissimilar from Whistler or Crested Butte in the 1980s, except that it was 2003 and it seemed like every hidden stash in the world had been discovered and overrun. Eden Bar was the place to be back then, and the Yucatan in the basement of the Bellevue. Swedes stormed the bar there, smoked weed, and danced all night. (They still do.) If you had it in you, and it wasn’t snowing, the night ended at Spindle—Switzerland’s first disco set under the Alpenclub in the center of town. As soon as the sun came up, though, everything revolved around skiing.
The Swedes embraced freeriding early, along with Americans and well before most Europeans. As for the migration to Engelberg, pro skier Matilda Rapaport said, it was natural. “Travel and adventure have been in our blood forever,” she says. “It is also freezing cold and dark for many hours a day in Sweden in the winter, so everyone wants to get out.”
Rapaport first came to Switzerland to attend business school. But after a trip to Engelberg, she decided to be a skier there. Two other Swedes, Niklas Möller and Eric Spongberg, had taken over a bed and breakfast and were renovating it into what would become the Ski Lodge. They hired Rapaport as the hotel manager and one of the greatest renaissances in modern European skiing took shape.
The Ski Lodge, along with the Okay Ski Shop, is the center of the freeskiing world in Engelberg. The rooms, restaurant, and bar are immaculate, like Swedish homes typically are, with lampshades, trim, molding, and walls all perfectly matched. Every surface, corner, and amenity caters to skiers who want to drop giant lines all day, party all night, and afterward, fall sleep under a goose-down comforter. The food is perfect; après ski is packed. It is not the cheapest place in town, but it’s far from expensive. It is the kind of place you don’t want to leave, sometimes even to ski.
Throughout all the changes in Engelberg, and central Switzerland for that matter, Snowflake has remained the constant. He lived a typical Swiss childhood near Lucerne in the 1950s. His father rented an apartment in a farmer’s house near a ski resort and he skied every weekend. To get there, the family rode in a horse-drawn sleigh. Like many homes in Switzerland at the time, there was a slalom course made of saplings stuck in the snow behind the house. He and his brother raced each other and when their father gave them lift tickets, they would get a ride up, ski two-thirds of the way down, duck the rope, and grab the T-bar for another run. (One ticket equals one run.)
“The beauty in life is the big things like the mountains, against the little things like the snow bells growing from a drift—all equally majestic,” the monastery’s priest, Berchtold Müller, told me one afternoon.
In high school, Snowflake visited Geneva, learned about The Beach Boys and Motown, and tried the first modern skis he’d ever seen. From then on, he spent weeks in crappy hotels in Zermatt and Andermatt, skiing all day and partying at places like Zermatt’s Hotel Post, a favorite hangout of the Rolling Stones.
It was the skiing life—a Swiss life spent living in nature, Snowflake said. Driving around the country you see that there are many like him. You see it in the houses, the oriel windows, and thick, broad roofs built to withstand 20 feet of snow; snowflakes carved into eaves; and log walls orientated to the south to maximize solar heat. The Engelberg Abbey at the head of the valley is framed by mountains and snow. “The beauty in life is the big things like the mountains, against the little things like the snow bells growing from a drift—all equally majestic,” the monastery’s priest, Berchtold Müller, told me one afternoon. We had just viewed the crypt, a dark cave beneath the church where monks are buried. He pointed cheerfully at one empty box and said, “That one’s mine.”
Like Snowflake, the monks arrived—900 years ago—on a pilgrimage. Others followed. Engelberg’s newest visitors come with logos sewn into their clothes and want to ski differently than how Geny Hess did it, with giant fat skis and snowboards. They have been changing the town for a decade in a way it has never been changed. They are bringing in new culture, new language, new food, and style. There has been pushback from locals, but a truth that no one can deny is that the newcomers have launched Engelberg back into the mix of the world’s premier mountain resorts.
Riding up the Rotair for our last run, Snowflake caught up with an old friend who took him flying in a glider the day before. The old men bid farewell at the top and we skied to the Laub. The crosscut runs through the woods, over a few logs, and leaves you standing at the top of the slope. Looking down is like looking at 25 football fields of perfect powder at the perfect pitch, stitched together. The run is so consistent and wide, it’s hard to tell exactly how long it is. “If you look at how small the skiers are on the T-bar down there, you’ll figure it out,” Snowflake said. Another way is to try to follow him downslope, which he usually skis without stopping.
I stopped five times on the way down. There was no powder, just packed snow that was hard on the knees but easy to turn on. We worked our way down, slowly, with Snowflake making giant turns and wide traverses. He apologized several times for the quality of the snow, which made me think that it’s a rare day when he is not skiing powder. As we approached the bottom, he waved and took off to ski a few more runs. Ten minutes later, I slid past old chalets and farmhouses on the way to the base area. I smelled cow manure in the thawing snowpack the lower I dropped and at the bottom, I shouldered my skis and looked back at Titlis one more time.
The sun had fallen behind the summit and beams of light shot up from the peak. The rays, set between streaks of gray shadow, were white and blue. The scene looked like the radiance behind Jesus’ halo in so many depictions of him. It looked like a host of angels welcoming skiers to the valley.
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