A Tale of Two Switzerlands

How can a couple of ski towns in one tiny country have so little in common? Our writer explores rugged Engelberg and refined St. Moritz to find out.
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It’s easy, he told me. From the top of the Rotair cable car, follow the signs, head right over here, bear left over there. You can’t miss it. Just stay on the groomed pistes. Don’t go into the freeride zones, he said ominously.

Well, I missed it. Boy, did I miss it. And now I’m sitting in the snow about 200
feet down from the entrance of a clearly ungroomed piste. There’s no one else on this run, no trail signs, and I have no idea where I am or where to go from here.

I’ve been skiing at Engelberg all day with my guide, Toni, and as the ski day was winding to a close, I wanted to take one more descent from the Rotair tram station, at 9,908 feet. Toni seemed to think that was totally doable. He gave me instructions and left to meet up with another client.

Don’t go into the freeride zones. Well, crap.

The shadowy, bumped-up slope ahead of me wends to the right, then drops out of sight. I can’t see where it leads to. The sun
is dipping behind the high peaks, and I’m shivering, my teeth chattering loudly. All I wanted was one last run. What have I gotten myself into?

“Try skiing on one ski, like this,” instructs Toni earlier in the day in his thick, bossy Swiss-German accent as he balances on one plank, arms akimbo. “It’s good for carving.” We’ve been out since nine this morning, and Toni, who I’m guessing is about 60-something and has been teaching at Skischule Engelberg for years, can’t resist ski-instructing me, even though I’ve only signed on for a mountain tour. He skis with his legs pressed together, looking graceful and from another era, which I guess he is. The resort of Engelberg, in central Switzerland, is the biggest “ski center” in
the Obwalden canton. It’s also known as the freeride capital of Switzerland, one of the few resorts where skiers can get off the neatly groomed trails and find some adventure.
In the weeks before my trip, I drooled over terrain descriptions and videos online. There’s a handful of classic routes, like the Jochstock and the Laub, with 30-degree pitches and descents of nearly 4,000 vertical feet. The Steinberg Glacier, which skiers can access right from the Rotair cable car, drops 3,937 feet over crevasses, outcroppings, and cliffs. You need a guide, of course.

But not my guide. Toni, from ski school, isn’t licensed for that kind of guiding. “You hire a mountain guide for that,” he explains as we zigzag across the resort, riding lift after lift and cruising groomed pistes. “You need a guide so you don’t fall into the...eh, what do you call in English, the big cracks?”

“Crevasse?” I reply. I get it. No freeride without a guide. Engelberg comprises 50 miles of runs accessed by 14 lifts, most high-speed and efficient. The slopes teem with instructors in tidy red jackets with white Engelberg-Titlis Skischule patches. We stop for lunch at the Trübsee Alpine Lodge and sit outside on the sunny terrace with our kurbisuppe (German- style pumpkin soup). The views of Lake Trübsee are stunning.

Engelberg isn’t well known, like Zermatt or St. Moritz. American skiers don’t talk about this place the way they prattle on about Verbier. But we should. More than the better-known Swiss Alps resorts, it has a little bit of everything: a ton of terrain, traditional mountain huts, amazing scenery, off-piste skiing, serious history (people have been skiing here since the 1850s), and an authentic, fun-loving town at its base. Oh, and cheese. Because, well, when in Switzerland...

The schaukäserei kloster Engelberg cheese shop operates out of a modern space in the old abbey buildings of Kloster Engelberg, a Benedictine monastery. I’m greeted there by Drew Crowley and his smooth Texas drawl...not what one expects at a Swiss cheese shop. (He married the cheesemaker’s daughter.) The Odermatt family took over cheesemaking operations from the monks about 15 years ago. Before that, the monks had been doing it for the past several hundred years. About 30 monks still live and work here. For the next hour we walk through the age-old process of making cheese, which culminates in sampling the goods, from the signature Brie-like Engelberg Klosterglocke (a klosterglocke is a monastery bell) to the creamy Ein Stück Schweiz (“a bit of Switzerland”).

After tasting it, it makes sense that the Swiss people (population: eight million) eat 47 pounds of cheese a year per person. (The average American goes through 31 pounds a year.) But I was surprised to learn that only about one-third of all Swiss-made cheese
is exported. “I guess we like to keep it to ourselves,” quips Crowley.

The next morning I board the train for Chur, where I catch the final leg
of the famous Glacier Express up to St. Moritz. The amazingly efficient, clean, and relaxing Swiss train system is a reminder of what we’re missing back home. I settle into a cushy seat in the panorama car, with nearly 180-degree windows overhead, and gawk at the high peaks, tiny trackside villages, and quaint train stations. Shortly before we glide into St. Moritz we cross over the Landwasser Viaduct, a single-track limestone bridge with six dramatic curved arches leading to a tunnel through the side of a mountain. Built in 1902, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and rightfully so.

At the St. Moritz station I’m promptly whisked away in a sleek BMW sedan and dropped at the steps of my opulent hotel, the Kulm. Toto, we are not in Engelberg anymore.

And there’s the rub. As skiers, we have certain preconceptions about Switzerland— that it’s all fondue and cowbells, lederhosen and dirndls. I’m instantly disabused of those notions upon my arrival in sleek, glamorous St. Moritz. It’s Aspen to Engelberg’s Alta. Stowe to its Mad River Glen. Except even that doesn’t do it justice, because nowhere in North America do we have a ski town as posh, as luxe, as completely over-the-top as St. Moritz. This really is where the beautiful people ski. And dine, shop, stroll, and party into the wee hours at its myriad nightclubs. The first visitors came from Great Britain in the mid-1800s for the wildflower-filled summers. They soaked in the region’s restorative hot springs, breathed its cool mountain air. Johannes Badrutt, the original owner of the Kulm, is credited with bringing winter tourism to town when he convinced some of his summer guests to return in the snowy months. Badrutt’s son, Caspar, eventually opened Badrutt’s Palace, the poshest hotel in town. Those early British guests left an indelible mark, with customs—such as curling, cricket, and tobogganing—that would become St. Moritz traditions. And the skiing? Oh yeah, that happens too sometimes.

Ah, the irony. Christine is a true mountain guide. Christine’s husband is also a mountain guide. Christine’s son is too. In her lovely Italian-tinged accent, she tells me stories of her son’s latest guiding adventure as we ride the gondola at Corvatsch, one of the three main ski areas around St. Moritz. It’s been snowing since last night and visibility is nil—a shame, Christine tells me, as the views from Corvatsch’s 10,836-foot summit are like no others.

It’s a complete whiteout as we walk out of the Corvatsch Bergstation, and I stay close as we begin our descent. It’s glacier skiing up here, with looooong, carvy reds (blues to us) that wind down the face like superhighways. Every once in a while she stops to point out a site of interest that I can’t see, like 13,284-foot Piz Bernina, the tallest peak in the Eastern Swiss Alps, and to identify freeride areas.

We ride the chairs and surface lifts at snowy Corvatsch all morning, stopping only once at the charming Stüvetta Giand’Alva
a tiny, cozy mountain hut with red-checked curtains and blond-wood tables and benches. Antique snowshoes and skis hang on the wood-plank walls.

The resorts around St. Moritz have some of the best snow in Switzerland thanks to their high elevation. The gondola we rode here at Corvatsch is the highest in the Engadin, and the summit-to-valley runs are among the longest. There’s some off-piste skiing, but this region isn’t known for it the way Engelberg is, Christine tells me. She takes clients into the freeride zones and even on backcountry excursions, but today is not suitable for such endeavors. Too much snow. Go figure.

Accepting that it’s not my fate to get off the groomed anytime soon, I suit up again and we leave the warmth of the hut en route to the Hahnensee, the lovely, five-plus-mile descent from midmountain down into St. Moritz Bad. (Bad is German for “baths.” This part of town is where the hot springs are.) From here we’ll head up the Signal and Piz Nair trams to Corviglia’s highest point, the 10,161-foot summit of Piz Nair. When we get there, the storm has broken and I can finally see what Christine’s been going on about. In every direction, knife-tipped peaks jut into the sky. It’s storybook Alps, and while I like a good storm as much as the next skier, I’m really glad I get a chance to enjoy these views.

Corviglia is the closest ski area to downtown St. Moritz, with twisty-turny runs that descend all the way into St. Moritz dorf (village). The area is pretty mellow, with plenty of red pistes that look like veins spreading across the trail map. We spend the afternoon making gentle turns and enjoying the views, stopping for barley soup, the local specialty, at Pizzeria Chadafö. Christine shares her Pizza al Tonno, topped with chunks of tuna. Surprisingly tasty.

On our way down into town, I marvel at how different the skiing—well, everything, really—is here in St. Moritz compared
to Engelberg. From the ambience of the mountain restaurants to the type of terrain to the layout of the mountain, the experiences are disparate. And this is in a country only half the size of Massachusetts.

Switzerland’s geography accounts for these microcultures: 70 percent of it is mountainous, and its regions are isolated by the mountains between them. Engelberg, solidly in the German-influenced part of
the country, is more classically Swiss (with a side of adrenaline). St. Moritz, on the Italian border, has a romantic feel. Red wine, pastas, and pizzas dominate the menus here. Fondue and schnitzel? Not so much. The town’s winding, cobblestoned streets are lined
with designer boutiques, Michelin-starred restaurants, and exclusive nightclubs. St. Moritz’s culture is distinctly its own, in and of itself. Especially when White Turf, its annual horse-racing spectacle, comes to town.

I’m not a gambler. I’ve never even bought a lottery ticket. So the fact that the total winnings paid out at White Turf equal about half a million Swiss francs blows my frugal mind. The event is held on three consecutive Saturdays in February on frozen Lake St. Moritz, and it attracts quite the crowd of international high rollers.

I attend on my last day in town. A metropolis of white tents sprawls behind the grandstand. Inside the tents, caviar and bubbly runneth over as fur-swathed spectators strut and mingle. Dogs in sweaters prance beside their owners. It’s an absolutely perfect blue-sky day. The clean chill in the air is the only reminder of yesterday’s storm. The slopes must be glorious today. And vacant. That’s the white turf I’d prefer to be on.

But it’s hard to imagine that caviar and champagne and sweater-wearing doggies are in my near future—if I even have a future—as I assess my predicament back on the wild freeride slopes of Engelberg.

I’m getting cold, and it’s not getting any earlier. I need to decide what to do. So much for my “one last run from the summit.”

Don’t go into the freeride zones, he said.

There’s only one thing to do. Shivering violently now, I click out of my bindings, shoulder my skis, and start climbing back up to the groomed trail, jamming my toes into the steep mountain with each step. Left. Right. Left. Fifteen minutes later, I’m sprawled on the side of the trail, exhausted, as skiers fly by. I’m covered in a film of sweat, my heart is racing, and I’m vaguely nauseated. And never more relieved to see groomed pistes in my entire life.

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