DUH! - Ski Mag

DUH!

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BJ Brewer Hiking

THE ROAD TO ENGELBERG KEEPS VISITORS in the dark. The perspective changes with each switchback, while an imposing canyon wall blots out the horizon. And unlike many roads in Switzerland, this one is a dead end - which may help explain Engelberg's anonymity among North Americans. While most Swiss byways are renowned for cresting historic passes trod by Hannibal's elephants, monastic Saint Bernards, and the alpenhorn-blowing dudes from the Ricola commercials, the road to Engelberg seems to lead nowhere. In the U.S., it takes some digging to learn even the basics: that Engelberg occupies a chunk of German-speaking central Switzerland not far from Zurich and Lucerne, and that it's thrived as a mountain resort since the 1880s, with thick glaciers and towering escarpments that wooed painters then and skiers now.

And you wouldn't learn any of that from the access road. Does the town sit atop a sunny plateau, like Verbier, or in the shady bottom of a narrow canyon, like Chamonix? You don't find out anything until the tarmac clambers over a final wall and levels out alongside a lake. WHAT THE #*@! or some version thereof emerges from every mouth in the car - mine, photographer Lee Cohen's, and those of Utah-based film skiers BJ Brewer and Dave McReynolds. As sunshine washes from a clear blue sky and paints the first pink strokes of alpenglow on a ring of 9,000-foot peaks, Engelberg rocks our skier consciousness. It's breathtaking: a village of well-aged, stoic buildings nestled by a green glacial river in a broad, bright basin that evokes the scale and feel of Aspen - but with monstrous vertical drops the Rockies can't match.

"This is the coolest valley I've ever seen," gasps Cohen. "It's amazing, with Grands Montets and Dolomites all around." In truth, those mountains remain in France and Italy. But they're about the only foreigners not detouring up the dead-end road this winter. Suddenly Engelberg (with its neighbor Andermatt) has become the it place with the pro freeskiing set. And while it's still possible to feel like you've discovered your own Whistler Blackcomb, central Switzerland will surely be the subject of many dreamy conversations by late fall when the new ski movies come out. The film companies Warren Miller and TGR cruise through during our trip, bringing with them a who's who of North American freeskiers: Micah Black, Seth Morrison, Shane McConkey, and more. Once, we disembark from an Engelberg lift just in time to see Utah's Jamie Pierre launch off an 80-foot cliff for the cameras.

["PAGE 2"]EIGHTEEN MILES OR SO SOUTHEAST OF ENGELBERG, NOT FAR from where William Tell shot arrows in the general direction of produce and children, you'll find the "American House." This is what Swiss locals call the four-bedroom crash pad with '70s-era yellow tile and a 1990 poster of Rob DesLauriers and Doug Coombs pointing 207-cm straight skis down Corbet's Couloir. They call it the "American House" because for three seasons now it's been home to New World ski bums who've discovered the region's other buzzworthy resort - Andermatt. We've come to see if it's true that Andermatt is to Engelberg what Alta is to Snowbird - a quieter complement, a powder skier's haven.

Right now the American House is rented for 1,500 Swiss francs a month by Oregonian Wendell Barnes and Jim Hope, who's actually from Ontario, though no one calls it the "Canadian House." Steve Janke, a Utahan who fights wildfires in the summer for the Forest Service and spends winters here, crashes at the American House most nights, too.

Cohen, McReynolds, Brewer, and I visit the house one night for dinner. Janke melts a mixture of Gruyère and Emmentaler cheeses in a beaten fondue set, then flavors the oozing mass with liberal splashes of Fendant du Valais - a cheap white wine apparently made to lubricate cheese for consumption.

["PAGE 3"]THE AMERICAN HOUSE RESIDENTS ARE ALL PROTECTIVE OF Andermatt, taking no slight pride in having sought and found a little-kwn powder paradise in the Alps. Asked for Andermatt details, Barnes, a skinny guy with a short mustache, throat beard, and green skullcap, gets cryptic and evasive, the way rich kids do when talking about money. "I'm here because...I rented a place here," he cackles.

Moving on quickly, I turn to Janke, a tall, tanned 34-year-old wearing a Wasatch PowderBird Guides hoody and an Alta baseball cap. He isn't quite so reticent. "When it came to choosing Andermatt," he says, "I realized that when the next closest place has a 40-inch base, we'll have a hundred. Since four valleys meet here, we get way more shots at snow and always fetch a little weather from someplace. There'll be high pressure over all of Switzerland and we'll still suck six to eight inches out of trapped clouds."

The next day we shoulder our skis and clomp through narrow, snow-packed streets past several blocks of 200-year-old buildings. Andermatt is a cozy, L-shaped town too tiny (population: 1,319) even for public transportation, a Swiss staple. Unless you count lifts as transportation, like the two-stage tram we take to the 9,721-foot summit of the Gemsstock. With only 34 lifts and 103 miles of groomed pistes, Andermatt officially ranks as one of the smaller ski stations in Switzerland. It just doesn't ski small. The 4,974-foot vertical drop takes you past the yawning bowls and glaciers of the Urseren Valley. It's a vast area - untracked snow lingers for days.

Janke clicks into his bindings and points his skis toward a lonely fall line. "The huts and trains and lifts here let you go four or five days into the backcountry with just a daypack! If my goal is to ski lots of big lines, why would I traipse all over the American West for two weeks, staying in a tent and freezing my ass off, just to ski stuff akin to what I can reach here in two hours? And nailing a big descent here means cruising down to a bar and drinking a glass of wine with beautiful women."

["PAGE 4"]VAGABOND SKIERS ARE NOTHING NEW, OF COURSE. THE GENERAL population recognizes and understands the term "ski bum." Of all the skiing vagabonds that Andermatt and Engelberg attract, the Scandinavians likely venture here most often. As South Africans wander warm, sandy places, Norwegians, Swedes, and Finns ply the cold and snowbound. Says Janke, "They're like Vikings, coming down from the North and laying siege, 10 of 'em in a one-room flat."

Janke's words echo in my ears as I ride Engelberg's Rotair lift, a revolving tram. I'm chatting with four Scandinavians as the Rotair, which is shaped something like the rock disk used in curling, spins slowly around, revealing a slide show of alpine landscapes. Thomas Salvesen, a 29-year-old Norwegian who partied till 5:30 this morning, tells me through his muzziness that he loves Engelberg because the nearby city of Lucerne is a place "where rich girls study, and they come up on the weekend." Behind his unshaven face, Euro headband, and iridescent Oakley goggles, the dizzying view rotates from glaciers to rock towers to couloirs.

Rotair newbies tend to snap photos or blow chunks. But these Scandinavians are wise to the whole part-time-expatriate game. Three parts Norwegian and one part Finn, they happily ski together, but the Norwegians (Thomas, plus his friends Erik and Johannes) are aware they could never live with the Finn, Petteri. "Finns drink pitchers of vodka with straws," says Erik. "I can't drink with Finns because they keep smiling when I have to crawl home."

Experience has taught them well. They choose Engelberg - instead of following the lemming tracks to Chamonix as most rookie Scandinavians do - in part because they can rage here till dawn and still score fresh tracks at noon. An enormous mountain, Engelberg boasts 25 lifts. Along with 50 miles of groomers are three legendary off-piste descents. Steinberg Glacier (a crevasse-riddled 4,000 vertical feet) and the Laub (a mostly shaded, half-mile-wide wall) are inbounds and somewhat tracked up already. Then there's the Galtiberg, a giant run off Engelberg's summit that begins as an alpine snowfield before hourglassing into a rocky canyon and worming around a series of hanging terraces. "The off-piste is the most available," Erik adds. "There's no hiking, just short traverses to 2,000 meters of poo-der."

["PAGE 5"]THE GALTIBERG TAKES NEGLIGIBLE EFFORT TO REACH. WE HIT IT with no other skiers in sight. The upper section proffers knee-deep powder with only a few tracks. It's a pitch that demands angling back and forth across the fall line, but that's okay, since it's a few football fields wide. The 1,000-foot-long, 25-foot-wide chute section, however, rattles the nerves - a number of sun-heated point-release avalanches are thundering down from the cliffs above. It's loud and there's white spray everywhere.

After determining that the point releases don't quite reach the descent route, we proceed, simultaneously wired on adrenaline and comforted by the soft, stable snow underfoot. The darkest, narrowest section of the chute feels like the esophagus of the Alps. A couple of doglegs to skier's right yank us out of the main chute and onto stair-stepping rollovers. All too quickly, the path winds back left to the lower canyon. Now avy debris from the day before constricts the descent to a four-foot-wide sideslip, which would be hairball were it not for the gradually relaxing pitch. Finally, an hour and some 6,000 vertical feet later, the Galtiberg peters out at the valley floor.

Micah Black speaks for all latecomers to Engelberg, present and future, with this reaction: "Jesus, why did it take me so long to get here? I started in Europe with Chamonix, then switched over to Italy and Austria for a while. But it took me 10 years to get to Engelberg. It's only the Swiss Alps - duh!"

GETTING THERE: Swiss International Air Lines (swiss.com) flies to Zurich from Boston, Chicago, New York, Miami, Los Angeles, and Montreal. The trip to either Andermatt or Engelberg from Zurich takes about 90 minutes by car. Check Europcar (europcar.com) for rentals at Zurich International.
STAY: At the Hotel Badus (hotelbadus.ch) in Andermatt, your room charge (starting at $55 per person per night) includes breakfast and dinner.
GENERAL INFO: SWITZERLAND For all things Switzerland, go to myswitzerland.com. ANDERMATT For Andermatt skiing info go to gemsstock.ch, and for Andermatt tourism details hit andermatt.ch. ENGELBERG Find Engelberg info at titlis.ch or engelberg.ch.
GUIDING: In Andermatt, hire a guide from Bergschule Uri (bergschule-uri.ch).

OCTOBER 2005 tracked up already. Then there's the Galtiberg, a giant run off Engelberg's summit that begins as an alpine snowfield before hourglassing into a rocky canyon and worming around a series of hanging terraces. "The off-piste is the most available," Erik adds. "There's no hiking, just short traverses to 2,000 meters of poo-der."

["PAGE 5"]THE GALTIBERG TAKES NEGLIGIBLE EFFORT TO REACH. WE HIT IT with no other skiers in sight. The upper section proffers knee-deep powder with only a few tracks. It's a pitch that demands angling back and forth across the fall line, but that's okay, since it's a few football fields wide. The 1,000-foot-long, 25-foot-wide chute section, however, rattles the nerves - a number of sun-heated point-release avalanches are thundering down from the cliffs above. It's loud and there's white spray everywhere.

After determining that the point releases don't quite reach the descent route, we proceed, simultaneously wired on adrenaline and comforted by the soft, stable snow underfoot. The darkest, narrowest section of the chute feels like the esophagus of the Alps. A couple of doglegs to skier's right yank us out of the main chute and onto stair-stepping rollovers. All too quickly, the path winds back left to the lower canyon. Now avy debris from the day before constricts the descent to a four-foot-wide sideslip, which would be hairball were it not for the gradually relaxing pitch. Finally, an hour and some 6,000 vertical feet later, the Galtiberg peters out at the valley floor.

Micah Black speaks for all latecomers to Engelberg, present and future, with this reaction: "Jesus, why did it take me so long to get here? I started in Europe with Chamonix, then switched over to Italy and Austria for a while. But it took me 10 years to get to Engelberg. It's only the Swiss Alps - duh!"

GETTING THERE: Swiss International Air Lines (swiss.com) flies to Zurich from Boston, Chicago, New York, Miami, Los Angeles, and Montreal. The trip to either Andermatt or Engelberg from Zurich takes about 90 minutes by car. Check Europcar (europcar.com) for rentals at Zurich International.
STAY: At the Hotel Badus (hotelbadus.ch) in Andermatt, your room charge (starting at $55 per person per night) includes breakfast and dinner.
GENERAL INFO: SWITZERLAND For all things Switzerland, go to myswitzerland.com. ANDERMATT For Andermatt skiing info go to gemsstock.ch, and for Andermatt tourism details hit andermatt.ch. ENGELBERG Find Engelberg info at titlis.ch or engelberg.ch.
GUIDING: In Andermatt, hire a guide from Bergschule Uri (bergschule-uri.ch).

OCTOBER 2005

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