Story by John Stifter
Photography by David Reddick

You Have Arrived

Threading the Swiss Alps on the Glacier Express

A new moon concealed the massif. We had read the stories, listened to the tales, and watched the movies of the magic carpet ride. But as our friend Turbo chucked our luggage off Switzerland’s Glacier Express and onto the cobblestone streets of Andermatt, expectations lingered in darkness.

The next morning, we stood on a ridge at 9,000 feet. Below our ski tips, a blind rollover led to a 40-degree descent. As we looked out across terrain peppered with couloirs, cliffs, bowls, consistent fall-line steeps, short backcountry tours, wavy windlips, and tramloads of snow, it felt like we were perched on Revelstoke’s Mackenzie Ridge. Yet it was 10 times larger and filled with high-alpine rocks and steeps instead of trees.

Swiss native Gilles Sierro, at Andermatt Gemsstock, does what he does best: points ’em straight down zee steeps.

“Just wait for a powder day,” said our Swiss guide, Dani. “The Swedes try and track all of this up.”

It’s no secret the powder haven of Andermatt—located 65 miles south of Zürich at the junction of four mountain passes—is on the skier’s map due in large part to those Scandinavian sojourners. Now, a billionaire developer from Egypt, who in 2010 announced a $1.5 billion development of deluxe hotels and an 18-hole golf course, hopes to transform it into Europe’s most luxurious ski town.

Still, though, Andermatt felt like the fantasy ski playground of dreams. As Goethe, the German philosopher, observed in 1779, “Of all the places I know, this is the dearest and most interesting to me.”

To the east, just beyond the Gemsstock tram, the red-wrapped and whistle-blowing Glacier Express chugged up the steep Oberalp Pass. The greatest ski transportation in the world runs 186 miles (and takes seven and a half hours) between the historical ski epicenters of Zermatt and St. Moritz, and makes stops at all the small ski areas in between. Andermatt was merely one stop on this quintessential ski ride.

Prompt, meticulous, driven, and organized—it was these characteristics that drove the Swiss to construct one of their great feats of engineering.

The golden age of railway construction occurred at the turn of the 20th century, with the insistent Swiss devising routes over precipitous gorges, through mountains via helical tunnels, and threading canyons to lay the track of the world’s best ski train. In June 1930, the first Glacier Express rolled out of St. Moritz to Zermatt with a combination of electric and steam locomotives—the latter for the vertiginous Furka and Oberalp passes. But due to heavy snows and serious avalanche terrain, it wasn’t until 1982, after the completion of the nine-and-a-half-mile-long Furka Base Tunnel, that the entire route operated during winter.

Over 150 years ago, the Swiss had the intelligence to install a rack-and-pinion wheel system that locks into the track like teeth, allowing for enough torque to safely ascend and descend steep mountain passes.

Today in Switzerland, Monday through Friday, over half of the country’s 8 million citizens commute by train. In car-free Zermatt, the beginning stage of our Glacier Express voyage, it’s clear why the Swiss want to limit pollution here. Most notably, the 14,692-foot Matterhorn towers over the Italian/Swiss border and the idyllic 6,000-person village.

The rich mountaineering history permeated the scene and culture. Led by Swiss IFMGA mountain guide Gilles Sierro, who in June 2013 put down a first descent on the nearby 14,295-foot Dent Blanche (read more about Sierro on page 54), we skied by European sunbathers and made a brief stop at Italy’s Refugio Cervina. Then we skied into town and sauntered through the narrow alleys among 16th-century Valaisian timber homes, with their disc-shaped stones sandwiched between the house and wood stilts in order to prevent vermin from infesting food. Since British artist and mountaineer Edward Whymper led the first team to the Matterhorn summit in 1865, capping off the “Golden Age of Mountaineering,” the iconic peak still seduces those looking to ascend (on a good day, an average of 300 mountaineers set out to summit). Hence, Zermatt’s well-earned reputation that combines rustic history and chic luxury.

In Zermatt, you pretty much run the town if you’re a mountain guide. Legend status, as seen here in the Refugio Cervina on the Italian/Swiss border.

“It’s a posh village, but a lot of families and older, traditional visitors still come here,” said Sierro as we passed by the Monte Rosa Hotel, where Whymper planned his Matterhorn climb. This includes the talented Anthamatten brothers—Simon, 32, and Samuel, 28—who were born in the shadow of the peak and are now regarded as two of the finest ski mountaineers in the world.

While on the comfortable three-hour train ride from Zermatt to Andermatt, Sierro, who was stationed in Andermatt for a year for his compulsory military service, explained the looming makeover Andermatt was about to experience. Five years ago, Egyptian Samih Sawiris bought land vacated by the Swiss Army with plans to transform the languid 1,500-person village into the next Verbier.

Andermatt sits at the junction of four mountain passes; prime location for the ski playground of your dreams.

As we disembarked from the train under a starry sky, we passed the new five-star hotel and apartments funded by Sawiris and hauled our ski bags through the cobblestone thoroughfare.

The next day, I asked Dani, our guide, how he felt about the proposed six hotels, 490 vacation apartments, 25 exclusive chalets, and 18-hole golf course.

“It’s a strange place to invest for a non-skier since there’s little piste and no champagne bar,” he said. The 32-year-old moved back to Andermatt last year from the more chic Davos to head the ski school. “I want to be here for something special. Andermatt is still quiet, but there’s more energy and momentum in the town.”

I pushed off and made a few teeth-chattering turns that turned into Styrofoam-like wind-buff for almost 5,000 vertical feet. The instinct was to indulge now before it changes forever. And to find the next Andermatt, which research told us was the next stop on the Glacier Express.

An hour away and over the Oberalp Pass—the highest point of the Glacier Express at 6,670 feet—sits Disentis. After ascending 2,000 feet up the pass from Andermatt with a new engine attached, it’s the most dramatic elevation change of the journey. Another example of Swiss engineering, the Glacier Express employs a rack-and-pinion wheel system that locks into the track like teeth, allowing for enough torque to safely ascend and descend—the same technology used here the last 150 years. After descending 3,000 feet, you arrive in one of the few places left in Switzerland where many residents still speak Romansch, a Latin language similar to Italian. Home to a Benedictine monastery that dates back to the eighth century, Disentis is even quieter than Andermatt.

There, the friendly yet terse Ulrich “Ulli” Forster stirred broccoli cauliflower soup as the chef of the Lodge Sax, where he’s been since 2000. He lamented Andermatt’s development but was not naive to the evolution of these small ski villages.

“What Disentis is missing is an après scene,” he said. “We need younger people, like the Swedes who just opened the hostel down the road, and to adopt the ‘One for everybody, everybody for one’ mantra.”

But here, it’s all about potential.

“Untracked powder remains a week after the storm,” said Rueven, a 30-year-old Disentis native who lives with his grandfather in the winter and builds elevators with his father and brother in Zürich during the summer. Disentis’ terrain, accessed by one tram and a few lifts and T-bars, serves a multitude of options. Most of the bigger runs force you to return all the way to the valley tram station. But it also has a giant wall of skin-to and boot-up 1,000-foot couloirs that are aesthetic, steep, and longer than they appear.

We scurried up the couloir, clicked in, and made a few soft turns before surviving wet-slide boulders. We skipped the tram download and navigated our way to the valley, passing farmhouses, cows wearing bells the size of their heads, and schoolchildren returning home. We hurried to get back on the train to reach the terminus of the Glacier Express four hours away in St. Moritz for a lively finish.

The cab driver from the train station to hotel set the tone: Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” blasted from the van speakers as we passed through the Rodeo Drive of Europe. Louis Vuitton, Cartier, and Prada storefronts glimmered back at us. In 1864, Hotelier Johannes Badrutt formed the world’s first winter resort by capitalizing on the Engadin Valley’s natural mineral springs and 322 days of sunshine. It then grew into the world’s most opulent ski town, with three primary ski areas: the white-carpet of Corviglia right above town; the freerider-haven of Corvatsch, and the one-tram ski area of Diavolezza.

For the denouement of the traverse, we shaved our weeklong train beards, threw on the only nice shirts we packed, and pointed it toward the epicenter of indulgence: Badrutt’s Palace. Striding over Italian marble floors, past bellmen dressed as real-life characters from a Wes Anderson film, and among rooms costing 20,000 Swiss francs a night, we needed cold cocktails. Bartender Mario Martinelli mixed martinis in the tiny Polo Bar in the historic Chesa Veglia farmhouse built in 1658. Smoke-stained stone ceilings provided a sophisticated ambience. That, and the woman wearing a fur coat and diamond necklace.

Badrutt’s Palace, the epicenter of opulence.
Meet Mario Martinelli, bartender of the Polo bar, with its smoke-stained ceilings dating back to 1658. 

But who were we kidding, aside from ourselves? The culmination of the Glacier Express called for a party. Max Schneider’s La Baracca, an old train car stationed in a parking lot outside the town center, was the place. Heidi Klum juniors danced on tables to Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.” Men shouted into ears, smoking cigarettes and cigars. The place felt like our own personal party, with strangers quickly becoming new friends and all sharing in the same intoxicated, smoky air.

Prost to all the Heidi Klum Jrs., La Baracca, and the Glacier Express.


The Glacier Express: Zermatt, Andermatt, Disentis, St. Moritz

Train ticket: one-way:
262 CHF, first class
149 CHF, second class

Annual snowfall: 350 inches

Where to apres: Harry’s Ski Bar, Zermatt; Spycher, Andermatt; Nangijala Hostel, Disentis; Schweizerhof, St. Moritz.

Where to stay: Hotel Perren, Zermatt; Schwarzer Baren, Andermatt; Lodge Sax, Disentis; and go into debt at Badrutt’s Palace, St. Moritz.

Don’t miss: En route to Disentis, buy a first-class ticket for the views provided by the fishbowl-like windows. 

This story appeared in the October 2015 issue of POWDER (Volume 44, Issue 2). Look for it on newsstands now.

For more POWDER digital features, click here.

To book your dream trip on the Glacier Express through the Swiss Alps, click here.

Powered by VIP