The snow-sure areas Andermatt and Engelberg
Jealous voices claim the inhabitants of Andermatt are spoilt and that they’ve never had to work hard to live well. The village was originally an important customs station thanks to its geographic location between valleys in the Swiss Alps. Commercial travelers in those days automatically stopped over at this hub and spent money.
Altitude: 1,440m above sea level
Highest peak: 2,961m above sea level
No. of lifts: 22
Black runs: 8
Red runs: 17
Blue runs: 9
Yellow runs (freeride): 3
Later, after the WWII, soldiers stationed at the military base ensured that money continued to roll into the village and the locals enjoyed a good living.
However, when operations at the military base were reduced, a large proportion of the soldiers and their families disappeared – and Andermatt was suddenly deprived of natural and easy sources of revenue from the tourist industry.
Luckily, Egyptian billionaire Samih Sawiris would save the day by heavily investing in the town to get the resort back on its feet. Today, ten years after his entrance, he has succeeded the not inconsiderable feat of both building an enormous hotel and apartment development and new lift system, while at the same time keeping the local population on his side.
“Sawiris has definitely rescued Andermatt. The entire village has been given a lift, both for skiing and the tourist industry. His involvement and investments have had knock-on effects for the local population, people have dared to take their own initiatives for renovation projects or other investments that they hadn’t been willing to do so before,” says Mari Russi, a Swede who lives in Andermatt and is married to Bernhard Russi, the former World Cup and Olympic gold winning downhill racer.
If you want to know what’s happening in Andermatt, Mari Russi is the right person to ask. She owns a gallery, arranges events and acts as a focal point in the village. When she describes Andermatt, she uses the words “little” and “convivial” in a positive sense. And that’s the feeling you get here. Most of the hotels, restaurants and stores are clustered together on the main street. As the day’s skiing comes to a close, many head to several of the various après ski hangouts, such as Spycher, Pinte, Enoteca 1620 or the “Pharmacy”, die Alte Apotheke.
The nightlife however, lags behind other larger Alpine resorts. You can eat well – but don’t expect wall to wall nightclubs in Andermatt. What primarily attracts skiers from all around the world are the infinite expanses, the long, gentle pistes – and easily accessible off-piste opportunities. Not to mention the impressive depth of snow that averages six meters in winter.
Dan Loutrel came to Andermatt from Boston for the skiing 15 years ago and is still here. He has squeezed a gigantic ski press into his basement where he constructs his own skis. However, Loutrel’s bigger claim to fame is as the founder of Andermatt Guides, a network of mountain guides who know this vast area inside and out.
These days, the 30-year old sounds more like a Swiss person with an American accent than the other way around as he guides us around the back side of the main mountain Gemsstock, down the Monkey couloir or via the “Schweden traverse” back to the lift.
Pointing towards an untouched section with deep snow, he encourages us onto the almost hour-long journey that winds down through the Felsental valley towards Hospental, a neighboring village to Andermatt. We launch our skis and follow the gradient, down towards the valley in the shadow of rock faces and across sun-drenched expanses.
On the way down, Loutrel points to peaks and couloirs that look unreachable, but are fully possible to ski on with an experienced guide.
“If the conditions are right, you can pretty much ski anywhere, which was what really appealed to me when I came here. But you have to know what you’re doing – skiing in unfamiliar terrain without a guide is sheer suicide,” he adds.
Down in Hospental, we ski a fair way through the village before reaching the bus stop to take us back to Andermatt. Aching legs are just a beautiful reminder of a world class ski trip.
Altitude: 1,050m above sea level
Highest peak: 3,238m above sea level
No. of lifts: 27
Black runs: 2
Red runs: 12
Blue runs: 6
Engelberg is a one-hour drive from Andermatt, squeezed into a valley under the protective gaze of the mighty Titlis mountain. The history of Engelberg began in 1120 when a monk called Konrad von Sellenbüren came here and had an epiphany. He founded a Benedictine monastery in the valley and named both the village and the monastery Engelberg.
Today, the population of is just over 4,000. The monastery is still active and home to some 30 monks who make and sell cheese at the “Schaukäserei Kloster Engelberg.”
Titlis, with its beautiful but lethal glaciers, whose highest ski run starts 3,028m above sea level, stands like a gruff giant guarding the village.
However, despite its location, its history and the generations of ski aficionados, up until the late 1990s Engelberg was a relatively unknown resort that didn’t attract any great attention.
It was only when a rumor spread among Scandinavian ski fanatics about a mountain with an impressive 2,100m difference in elevation and unlimited off-piste opportunities, that tourism took off here. Today, Engelberg is a resort that sits comfortably on the list of classic Alpine skiing destinations.
When you factor in that it’s only two hours by train from Zurich, it’s pretty incomprehensible why it took so long for Engelberg to blossom.
Johan Sundqvist from Stockholm is one of those who have discovered the excitement with Engelberg and he can’t stop coming back. As he stands in the basement of the Ski Lodge hotel as he recalls a stroke of genius that would change his whole outlook on the resort – the decision to hire a private mountain guide.
“This is the third time I’ve been here and a few of the people I came with are here for the fourth or fifth,” he says. “Above all, it’s the easily accessible off-piste skiing that attracts people to Engelberg, you can enjoy a wonderful run straight from the lift. However, if there isn’t any new snow, the pistes in Jochpass and Jochstock are unbeatable for me.”
Frédéric Füssenich, Director of Tourism in Engelberg, says that excellent cooperation between the tourist office and local businesses has played an important role in the development of the resort. Engelberg is the largest winter and summer destination in central Switzerland, with some 175,000 overnight stays in winter 2017/2018.
“We in the tourist industry have to create a total experience for our visitors, which means that hotels and restaurants have a clear role to play in promoting Engelberg as a resort rather than simply worrying about what’s in it for them,” he says.
The latest proof that Engelberg is investing in the future is the cable car lift that has just been built to enable more skiers up Angel mountain.
The Rotair cable car lift takes us to the top of Titlis, whose north face is a dream when the snow is fresh. We head out into an off-piste skier’s paradise a short way down. Laub, as the area is called, looks like a sea of new snow, with a 1,100 elevation difference awaiting us downwards.
We release the handbrake and let our wide skis do the work, and as the snow billows up to ankle height, we quickly find our rhythm in our swings and feel that sense of intense pleasure building. Skiing doesn’t get much better than this.
The two ski resorts of Andermatt and Engelberg have one common denominator – people come here to ski. And at a level that more and more people are discovering – absolute top class.
Published: October 15, 2018
Last edited: November 15, 2018