Skiing in the Swiss Alps

I had been “promising” to visit a good friend of mine in Switzerland for a few years now.  She had taken a job with FIFA right after my wedding and I hadn’t seen her since 2008!   Knowing that she doesn’t ski and practically hates winter, I had been holding out to visit outside of ski season – but on a whim I looked at flights and they were just too cheap to pass up – so I bought a flight and let her know I was on my way!  The 10 day trip was short, but perfect because I planned to ski during the week while my friend worked and then visit on the weekends.  Now I just needed someone to ski with so I got to work convincing one of my favorite ski buddies to join the trip. After some research on expediting a passport, Domi was in! And we were off to Central CH!

We arrived in Zurich at 2pm on Saturday and were greeted at the airport by Sophia. She wasn’t looking as Euro as I expected!  That afternoon, we cruised around Zurich, ate some chocolate, and met up with “Ze French Boyz.”

Merkur Chocolates Zurich

Don't say "Sacre Bleu" to these guys.

Sunday morning we were off to Trin, near Chur, to do a hike with Sophia’s friend and co-worker. The hike was near the Rhine River, a portion which is nicknamed “the Grand Canyon of Switzerland.” I think at this point I’ve been to the actual Grand Canyon and the Grand Canyons of Oregon, Peru, and Switzerland. Knowing that we came to Switzerland to ski, Domi and I were a bit worried about the snow, which turned out to be difficult, but we made the best of it. Luckily, we fueled up with Rosti, a Swiss German plate of potatoes, cheese, and other items, before the hike.

mmm, cholesterol. this was better than fondue.

Hiking near the Rhine and the train tracks.

The cliffs of the Ruinaulta

Thoroughly exhausted from trudging through knee deep snow, we traveled back to Zurich and prepped our gear for the next 4 days of skiing – we were off to Andermatt in the AM.
Getting to Andermatt, which is usually a quick train trip from Zurich’s main station, was a bit more challenging for us with all of our gear. Furthermore, there was a “track interruption” due to a landslide. After a bus, train, bus, and train, we made it there around 11 AM, checked into our lodging, and headed over to the Gemmstock Cable Car.

Waiting for the train at the main station

Ski racks on the Swiss trains

Gemmstock Cable Car at Andermatt - giant bowl - like 4 times the size of Kirkwood!

After some advice on the cable car from a local military skier, we headed over to ski the Felsental – one of the classic off-piste Andermatt runs.

1/2 way down the 1st run on the Felsental

After a 2nd lap on the Felsentel, we decided to check out the Guspis, which we later found out ended in a different town! The snow was a bit wind affected, but it was pretty awesome to end up skiing into another village and then taking the train back to Andermatt (included in the lift ticket!).

After skiing the Guspis, heading down into Hospental

Back in Andermatt, we had missed the last cable car, so we laughed about how we did 3 runs in 4 hours over a beer. Granted they were 4,500′ vertical each. Skiing in the Alps was already different from skiing in the US.

The next day, we were excited to spend more time exploring Andermatt. We were feeling the effects of jet lag, so we hit up the piste first and skied a groomer to a T-bar. Then we scoped out “the Giraffe” from an off-piste run near the T-bar. We felt ready to hit Giraffe, which we had read ends in a 500 m couloir. After executing a sketchy traverse over some 100′ cliffs and we were standing on the top of the run. We dropped in and skied some wind affected snow down to the top of multiple chutes. It wasn’t powder, but it was consistent, steep, and aesthetic.

The Giraffe, right above the 500m couloirs (photo by Domi)

Couloir options on the Giraffe.

Avalanche debris at the bottom of the couloir

After skiing the Giraffe, there was a fairly long traverse in a river valley, which we found quite common in the region. Right before the village of Andermatt, I skied into a river while crossing over a snow bridge which was pretty hilarious. I dropped my pole and had to chase it downstream. There was a lot of commotion, but is was 50 degrees, so it turned out to be fine and after a quick stop for lunch and some gear drying at our guesthouse, we headed back out to ski a few more runs and experience some on-mountain apres.

Still some dense pow on the Felsental

Beer at the Umbrella Bar, Andermatt, mid-mountain

That night we met up with a local guide, Dan of Birdos Skis, who just happened to be from the US, at Basecamp Andermatt. Dan was incredibly helpful, lending us all the maps and beta we need to ski the 6000′ vertical North face of the Oberalpstock, near Disentis, the following day.

We headed out of Andermatt on the 7:27 train over Oberalpass and to the ski resort of Disentis. We purchased one way tickets and made our way to the top of the resort. We put skins on and hiked toward the Piz Ault, crossing the rocky ridge via a rebar ladder with 25 of other people – mostly guided parties. Along the way, we met some Swedes and marveled at the proverbial “shit show” in front of us. Making it over the ladder after watching guides carry their clients skis and clients drop helmets down the slope, we were able to sport our skis for a quick run down before the main hike began.

Traffic jam with a view at Piz Ault

Ascending the ladder at Piz Ault

We then had about an hour of skinning to reach the main run. We watched as another guided party made wedge turns down the first part of the run. Wow. I can’t even imagine how long it must have taken them to descend 6,000′! After a snack, we began our descent, which started out with wind affected and tracked snow and then opened up to some perfect powder. High-fiving at the bottom of the middle section, Domi and I agreed that it was the longest powder run we had ever experienced… and she had been heli-skiing in Alaska! And… we still had about 2,000 feet to go!

Domi skinning up the Oberalpstock

Domi tearing up some decent pow on the way down

The bottom of the run was a little dicey with an avalanche debris packed chute, but we made it down and reunited with our new Swedish friends to ski out the river valley down to Bristen.

End of skiing... for now

Grass skiing! Or it smells like manure! Or watch out for that river!

We shared a cab with the Swedes and some stories on the way back to Andermatt. We were lucky to have met them. Jimmy has incredible knowledge as a 17 year guide in Verbier, even penning a book that has been called “the Backcountry Skiing Bible,” and his wife Sara is a former competitor in both the X games and the Freeride World Tour – together they founded the clothing company Elevenate. Watch for them – it is cool, functional, and unique.
That night we met back up with Dan and received our next “assignment,” the Rossbodenstock, a peak that looms over Andermatt which both of us had admired from the lifts a few days before. We headed out Thursday on the 8:27 train to Oberalpass – only 4 Swiss Francs – our cheapest day of skiing so far! The stop at Oberalpass was 2000m and the top of the Rossbodenstock was just over 2800m. From the Rossbodenstock, we could ski back down into Andermatt, elevation 1444m. On the ridge near the peak we noticed the route required some dicey scrambling, which a few guys from the Swiss military had roped up for. We also noticed powder on the more North facing flank of the mountain. So, instead of summitting, we skinned as high as we could and dropped into the shoulder skiing powder all the way to the bottom. Woo hoo!!!!

Domi skinning up the Rossbodenstock

Swiss military in white camo!

Yeah, this looks good... dropping!

Soft snow = airing it out!

Back in Andermatt by noon, we returned the maps to Dan and jumped on the train back to Zurich. We planned on skiing Engelberg the next day and staying at Sophia’s was somewhat on the way.
Engelberg is huge, close to Zurich (1hr train), and bigger and more touristy than Andermatt. The vertical relief is 6000′. It takes 3 lifts for skiers to get to the top – a gondola, a cable car, and a rotating gondola that turns 360 degrees during the trip for a panoramic view. Then you have to climb 4 stories of stairs to get out onto the slopes, past a glacier cave, some restaurants, and jewelry and watch stores. Then you can ski. 1st run, the Steinberg, a steep long run littered with cliffs and crevasses. Some good wind buff snow at the top, a scary and icy traverse, and some powder below with difficult route-finding. Next up, the Laub – a 4,500′ run that remains 35-38 degrees in pitch the entire time. We found some excellent snow and decided to do it again before the end of the day. We skied around the lifts for a while, checked out the igloo bar and then headed back to ski the Laub again before our tired legs called it a day. We made our way back to Zurich to relax and check out some neighborhood bars with Sophia.

Glacier Cave at the top of Engelberg

the Laub - long and wide

Domi on the Laub

Meghan on the Laub (photo by Domi)

Igloo bar - and giant pillows to lay on

We originally had big plans for the 2nd weekend – maybe head to Italy or France, catch a football game, but we decided that we had not seen enough of Zurich and the weather was beautiful on Saturday so we hung out and checked out the local graffiti, markets, Lake Zurich, St. Patrick’s day scene, and finished the night with fondue.

Watch out Soph!

The weather was a lot worse on Sunday, so we headed to FIFA to check out Sophia’s work and then spent a few hours in the employee spa.

Pretending to kick a ball. Can't you tell? Yeah, I played college soccer.

We finished off the day watching football in the pub and eating some delicious raviolis we bought at a local market for approximately $25 (Switzerland is super expensive if you haven’t heard) and packed up for our journey back to the US. Despite the high prices in Switzerland, I can’t wait to ski the Alps again – we didn’t have fresh snow, but we did have amazing weather and some great ski days. I’ve been back in Tahoe for more than a week and my home resort feels small and safe – the Alps made me a better skier and should be added to any expert skier’s bucket list. Next Europe trip – Chamonix, Verbier, and La Grave – so let me know if you’re going!

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Filed under Backcountry Skiing, Skiing, Travel

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