Swiss Blitz

The POWDER staff invades Switzerland

Two trams and two gondolas—including one that spins to give passengers a 360-degree view—later and you've reached the top of the Titlis at Engleberg. PHOTO: Julie Brown
Two trams and two gondolas—including one that spins to give passengers a 360-degree view—later and you’ve reached the top of the Titlis at Engelberg. PHOTO: Julie Brown

Gruetzi from Switzerland! Schweiz, Suisse, Svizzera—Switzerland has been the homeland for skiers since the mid-1800s, when popular summer destinations like St. Moritz, Davos, and Grindelwald first opened their doors to guests in the winter. Some 150 years later, the POWDER edit staff arrived in Engelberg, a small town set in a beautiful valley located dead-center in the country. There, we kicked off a two-week invasion to find the best this country has to offer in terms of schussing, grizzled mountain men, and wild ski resort infrastructure, not to mention the freshly baked breads and smelly cheeses. After a day of skiing at Engelberg and the Raising of the Steins party on Monday, March 9th—a celebration that started with fondue and ended at the disco in the wee hours of the morning—we’ve parted ways, traveling by train, van, Audi, gondola, chairlift, and T-bar to reach all ends of this country. Follow our travels in the running blog below, where we’ll be posting photos, videos, and narratives from our Swiss Blitz. And, of course, an On-Location issue next fall and an award-winning digital feature, to boot. —POWDER Editors

ANDERMATT/OBERALP/DISENTIS, March 13-14

Andermatt Gemstock
Yes, you can ski all of the lines in sight at Andermatt Gemstock, with straightforward access. PHOTO: David Reddick

I wonder if my friends would travel to the heart of Switzerland for my bachelor party? I’m not even engaged, but I want to return to Andermatt with all of my closest amigos for the most insane “inbounds” terrain at a ski area I’ve ever seen. I mean, we’re talking like 10 Revelstokes but with more consistent fall line, in addition to checking off my ultimate ski terrain playground checklist: steeps, couloirs, wavy windlips, short backcountry tours, boatloads of snow, and several thousand feet of drool-inducing descents. It’s no wonder why you’ve heard of Andermatt.

And, depending on whether you think it’s good or bad, you’ll probably be hearing more about it after a development group, led by an Egyptian, has invested more than 1 billion Swiss Francs into a 5-star hotel, with an 18-hole golf course currently in the works. The year-round megaresort will supposedly add 2,000 jobs to the 1,500-person town that essentially acts as the source of the Rhine River. It’s a major maturation of Andermatt, which before mainly comprised the playground slopes of Gemstock and acted as a North-South-East-West thru-route between four Alpine passes—Furka, St. Gotthard, Oberalp, and Susten. It’s also been home to a Swiss Army Training Center, with about 100 soldiers performing compulsory service. From sleepy and steep to six five-star hotels, Andermatt remains a must stop on the Glacier Express, with the terrain at 3,000-meter Gemstock and train ride up from town to the Oberalp Pass before dropping in to the sleepier village of Disentis, featuring almost-as-radical-as-Andermatt terrain at its ski area. —John Stifter

Glacier Express train
When ascending 2,000 feet in an intense elevation change from Andermatt to the Oberalp Pass before descending 1,000 meters into Disentis, leave it to Swiss engineering to create an original wheel system to ensure a safe ride up and down precipitous mountain passes. PHOTO: David Reddick
Andermatt town shot
The junction of four Alpine passes and the source of the Rhine River, Andermatt is a skier’s dream. PHOTO: David Reddick

ENGELBERG, March 14

A souvenir from the last time POWDER came to Engelberg. PHOTO: Porter Fox
A souvenir from the last time POWDER came to Engelberg. PHOTO: Porter Fox

My day started at 1:30 p.m. in the wine cellar of an old man’s basement who had entertained POWDER senior correspondent Les Anthony in that very basement 17 years ago when Doc covered Engelberg. The old cat skied most of the first descents around Engelberg. Two glasses of Riesling later, the mayor showed up and explained property law in Engelberg and how it is not going to become Andermatt. Next interview was with the Abbott of the Benedictine Monastery in his personal quarters, where he told me about goblins and angels and how the place attracts a certain kind of monk—because they get free ski tickets. In 1970 one of them patented the “chair arrestor” that slows a chairlift down before hitting the backs of your legs. Then the abbott took us to the catacombs where the dead monks rest for eternity, pointing to an open casket and saying, “That one’s mine!” Last meeting was the former head of tourism in the valley and a historian, who explained how Rudyard Kipling, the Raj of India, and Queen Mary of England used to shred the slopes of Titlis… —Porter Fox

Queen Elizabeth used to shred the slopes at Engelberg, just like this. PHOTO: Porter Fox
Queen Elizabeth used to shred the slopes at Engelberg, just like this. PHOTO: Porter Fox
TK TK TK. PHOTO: Porter Fox
Just another day in Engelberg drinking Reisling with the mayor. PHOTO: Porter Fox

Legends in Zermatt, Saturday, March 14
There is a lot of history in Zermatt. Just look to the Matterhorn, a sentry of mountaineering that has beckoned generations of climbers. The town is currently celebrating the 150th anniversary of the first successful summit of the Matterhorn, an ill-fated expedition in 1865 that turned to tragedy on the descent. Only three of the original expedition party of seven returned to town. But beyond that famous mountain and the traditional wooden homes, look to the people walking in the streets beside you, for example, Pirmin Zurbriggen, the most famous Swiss ski racer of all time. With more than 40 World Cup wins, Wikipedia states outright that Zurbriggen is “one of the most successful ski racers ever.” Once the biggest celebrity in all of Switzerland, Zurbriggen now lives the family life at his hotel in Zermatt. I sat down with him for coffee. Stay tuned for the full interview when the on-location issue comes out this fall. For now, I’ll leave you with this clip from the men’s downhill in the 1984 Winter Olympics. —Julie Brown


Spotted: Captain Powder’s Swiss Brother in Engelberg, Switzerland. March 12

ON THE ROAD, Thursday, March 12

"All aboard the car-train. PHOTO: Julie Brown
All aboard the car-train. PHOTO: Julie Brown

Most people travel through Switzerland by train. And for good reason. They’re easy. They’re always on time—to the second. And they go everywhere. But if you’ve ever had to lug a massive ski bag through the trains before, then you might understand why I opted for a set of wheels this time around. I love riding trains, but I also love whipping an Audi A4 with a diesel engine around hairpin curves that are stacked on top of each other like a paperclip, up and up and up an alpine pass.

You’ve no doubt heard about the infrastructure in Switzerland, the gondolas and trams and chairlifts, etc. But let me tell you about the pavement. The fact that the Swiss were able to build roads to tiny, little towns in the middle of the mountains is enough to stand on its own. But this is Switzerland, and Switzerland is meticulous and efficient. There are no potholes here. The pavement is smooth and the guardrails are shiny. If the mountain is too big or steep, they build a tunnel straight through the gut. If the tunnel does not fit a car, they put the cars on a train.

Today, I road my first car-train. It’s like the Swiss version of a ferry. At first I was intimidated. All the signs were in German and I was the first car to pull up to the queue. But again, this being Switzerland, the car-train is very easy to maneuver: The road ends and you drive the car straight onto the covered metal carriage. Turn off the ignition, push the e-brake, and sit back while the train tows you and a few dozen other vehicles through a pitch-black tunnel. Once the train breaks through to the other side and slows to a stop, turn the ignition, and you’re back on the road. —Julie Brown

HASLIBERG, March 10-12

The best place to find local cheese in Hasliberg is sometimes right in the parking lot. PHOTO: Christian Pondella
The best place to find local cheese in Hasliberg is sometimes right in the parking lot. PHOTO: Christian Pondella

Throughout Switzerland, skiing and farming make up a significant part of the culture and economy. But as has happened in the U.S., it’s become harder and harder to make a living as a farmer, especially in the traditional way high in the mountains. But in the ski resort of Hasliberg, in the Berner Oberland region of Switzerland, farming and skiing continue to co-exist in a way that has long vanished from many other mountain towns. You won’t find the glitz and glamour of St. Moritz and Zermatt, or the all-night discos of Verbier. Instead, you’ll small farmhouses dotted across the ski area, which includes 13 lifts across 60 kilometers. The farmhouses, which can only be owned by those in agriculture (not as second homes), are dormant in winter but provide important land during summer for cows and their tenders to provide one of the staples that has long been associated with Switzerland: cheese.

You’ll also find incredible skiing that’s known for having stellar views of the Eiger, Wetterhorn, Mittlehorn, and Rosenhorn. Hasliberg is not known for its freeride zones like nearby Engelberg, but that’s OK for the locals. That just means they have more powder to themselves. And at the end of the day, when you step out of your skis, they may just find one of their local cheese-makers selling his product off a little table in the parking lot. —Matt Hansen

Rory Bushfield (front) and Austin Ross take a chill break at one of the many farmhouses at Hasliberg.  PHOTO: Christian Pondella
Rory Bushfield (front) and Austin Ross take a chill break at one of the many farmhouses at Hasliberg. PHOTO: Christian Pondella

ZERMATT March 9-10

"That looks steeper than funnel of fondue from last night." Finding coolies in the 86,000 skiable acres of Zermatt, with the Matterhorn doing its hypnotic thing in the background. PHOTO: David Reddick
“That looks steeper than the funnel of fondue from last night.” Finding coolies in the 86,000 skiable acres of Zermatt, with the Matterhorn doing its hypnotic thing in the background. PHOTO: David Reddick

I’ve never asked so many questions about a mountain: “Can you ski that, what’s the climb like, which route is the most popular, is it good rock, does it even hold that much respect amongst the guiding community, have you skied it?” It’s hard not to when ogling 14,692-foot Matterhorn, or Monte Cervino as the Italians call it. Or any of the other 37 peaks towering 4,000-plus meters around Zermatt. Here in the Valais canton in southern Switzerland, it feels like Switzerland but Italy, too. Despite the strastugi conditions, we skied down into Italy today for cappuccinos and back to Switzerland for rosti, a Swiss dish mainly consisting of potatoes and possibly sausage and a fried egg. Alongside Swiss native Gilles Sierro, who, in June 2013, put down a first descent on the Dent Blanche, a beautifully radical peak across the valley from the Matterhorn, we traversed the 350 kilometers of skiable terrain, or 86,000 skiable acres, of Zermatt the last two days and are left in disbelief. But, since we’re riding the iconic Glacier Express train, which connects Zermatt in the south to St. Moritz in the east, the majestic Matterhorn and its surrounding wild alpine terrain full of glaciers, seracs, and couloirs, will whistle us back for more. Now, onto the smaller and less opulent ski destination of Andermatt, with a storm from the south in the forecast. —John Stifter