The Urner High Route- A Swiss High Country Tour
Andermatt, Switzerland was first brought to the attention of American freeskiers because it gets tons of snow. So much consequence came from snowfall there that in the 13th century Benedictine monks from the Abbey of Disentis, located less than 20 miles away over the pass, dubbed it “the Valley of the Devil”.
My first time there was on a trip to Andermatt and Engelberg for a Skiing magazine story. Looking at the map I noticed that as the crow flies Engelberg was not that far away. Driving around takes at least an hour and a half—you have to go north, then west, then come back south to the end of the road in Engelberg. The distance in the winter void over snow is a little more than 30 miles. The thought of touring between the two was immediately embedded in my brain. I believe the words that came out were, “There must be huts out there, this is Switzerland.”
The tour is known as the Urner Haute Route, also called the Central Switzerland Haute Route. One outfitter description is, ”This is the great alternative for those who have already done the classic Haute Route, or who prefer something off the beaten path in remote areas of the Alps.”
It remained on the radar but took a few years until we got it together. Four of us made the journey—Rob and Travis from Telluride, Tyler and me from Salt Lake. From Zurich we took trains to Andermatt, rolling into town for what people were saying was the best storm of the year.
We’d made preparations to take the mission on our own but bringing someone local who knew the turf was certainly better. Rob and I had met Dan Loutrel, maker of Birdos Freeride Skis during our previous visit to Andermatt, and it turned out he had a few free days and was excited to go with us. He’d done it before and could use the practice as part of fulfilling his UIAGM Mountain Guide qualifications he was working towards. Dan had moved to Andermatt from the Boston area, married a Swiss miss, and started a boutique ski company in Andermatt. He’d connected with freeriders when he made a ski called the Puder Luder (Powder Whore). A fat ski that sported a scantily clad stripper for graphics.
Andermatt is a small village in high central Switzerland in the midst of undergoing a transformation from a quaint off the beaten path ski town that was only several blocks long to a major resort. In 2006 Egyptian tycoon Samih Sawiris, announced that he intended to put 500 million dollars into development. It’s taking time but plans are in place to change its face forever.
The Chedi Andermatt hotel, which opened in December 2013, is the beginning of the transformation. The New York Times, rated the resort in its “52 Places to Go in 2014.” Does that list suggest that there are magnates out there who travel to a different place each week of the year?
Lifts with huge vert are all over small towns none of us have ever heard of in the Alps. It’s the ones Americans discover that we hear about, and they soon become the ones we read about, see photos of, and see in ski films. It’s kind of funny how we all flock to the same few places when there are so many more waiting to be discovered.
Americans have known about Engelberg for a long time, it started getting considerable attention in the late 90’s. Irresistible stuff,, like huge vertical and big off-piste skiing. The Galtiberg is an enormous couloir which runs about 7K from where you duck a rope at the end of a cat track all the way to the valley floor. The word got out on Engelberg and it became a freeride haven for Swedes. Andermatt’s isolated location kept it off the radar until people started hearing about its prodigious snowfall and lack of crowds.
It’s isolation is punctuated by being connected to the world by four Alpine passes, three of which have roads that are closed during winter. The Oberalp Pass (6,706 ft; 2,044 m.) to the East, the St. Gotthard Pass (6,909 ft; 2,106 m.) to the South, the Furka Pass (7,992 ft; 2,436 m.) to the West, and the Göschenertal Pass (4,652 ft; 1,418 m.) to the North.
Heading up out of Göschenen the road switches back and forth, negotiating the final approach to Andermatt. A few huge chutes that tower over the road can be skied when conditions are right but are wicked avi paths when big snow comes. Snow sheds protect cars and trains from the threats above.
By scheduling our tour in late March we were avoiding the onslaught of touring season but would be staying at some huts that were not yet open. Many European huts can be closed but have access to winter rooms which are accessible and stocked with beds and wool blankets. Sometimes with a stove and some cookware. The beauty of ski touring in Europe is not having to carry much weight—no sleeping bags or camping gear—just snacks, bread, cheese, dried fruit, nuts, wine, booze. During touring season you can travel even lighter than we did, but staying in unmanned huts meant we’d have to bring some food. Can you say pasta? Oatmeal? Whiiiiisky?
After a night in Andermatt we take a one stop train ride down to Realp, a tiny village at the bottom of the Furka Pass. Cars get on the train here to head almost 10 miles through the tunnel to Oberwald. Realp is a little hamlet with mostly barren hills rising around it, kind of reminds me of Wyoming. One tier back the mountains jut majestically toward the sky.
The climb to the Albert Heim Hütte is 3300 vert. We pass a couple of inns that are boarded up for winter. The Albert Heim is an overnight stop but sees a lot of day traffic from Realp too. A solid stone block building that was built in 1918, it’s perched on a little mountain of rock that lies just below the uppermost peaks. As we get towards the hut skies are clearing as the storm moves out.
The hut is prim, and somewhat stark, in classic Swiss-German style. The most attractive feature is its exterior. On our night there its patrons were varied, mostly snowshoers and snowboarders out for a leisurely overnight and then back down to Realp. Only a few other people present were on a multi-day tour.
It was supposed to stay clear, but when I got up to hit the WC in the middle of the night it was snowing, a piece of the storm must have circled back. By morning the micro-system had dropped about ten inches and was still doing its thing. The proprietors and other guests were outspokenly against us trying to head up and over toward our next stop, the Chelenalp Hütte, making us feel that they thought we were bozo American dumbkopfs who didn’t know squat about what we were doing. Which is exactly what they thought. Regardless of the fact that they were a bunch of backcountry numb-nuts themselves. It was obvious they didn’t spend much time out in the mountains during weather.
Few Europeans are as caught up in gear culture as Americans are, and most of them sport equipment at least a few years old. Skiing being integrated into their lifestyle for hundreds of years is much more a part of their culture than the gear. For me, that’s one of the most refreshing and charming things about skiing in Europe to begin with.
So when we headed out into the storm that morning they thought we were fools but we thought we should at least go and see if there was any chance we could proceed with the original plan. We would not be back here again and would never know unless we checked it out. Within an hour we got up into steeps where there were accumulations and steady sluffing. We decided to bag it. At least we explored and knew for sure. I was relieved we were in agreement that it was for naught and no one was pushing to continue up. We skied down out of the cloud back to Realp, playing round in some decent snow, milking it until it became mank down low. Then we caught the train back to Andermatt.
Now what? We’d just gotten completely bucked off our itinerary. We could not make the Chelenalp Hutte, but we could get to the Steingletscher Hotel scheduled for the following night by taking a train around and skinning up the closed Sustenpass Road, over the pass and down to the hotel. It would be long and warm with no skiing to speak of but it would get us back on our itinerary.
On the train ride from Realp Dan had mentioned something about a heli. Ah yes, a heli! A few calls back and forth and the possibility of a single lift hung in the air. Back in Andermatt we passed time at the Spycher, the local watering hole across the street from Dan’s shop. Perfect ski town loitering while we waited to hear about the heli—pizza, drink and a luscious Scandanavian bartender who enjoyed being gawked at by her patrons. The word came that we were good to go on the heli.
Getting the lift was a Godsend. Did it taint the purity of the grand scheme of our mission? Aye. Did we care? Nay. What it did do was save us hours of traveling around. We missed the ski down to Goschener Alpsee but still got to ski the entire downhill run we would have had after the night at the Chelenalp. The alternative would have seen us slogging and missing the best skiing of the trip while all the blower pow settled out. Then we would have been hiking up the heated south faces the next day. Travis sprang for a heli lift and magnified our lives, sporting us the best turns of the trip.
The heli-op’s rules were no skiers without a guide, but since Dan knew them they let us slide in for a single lift, “Good luck, be on your way suckahs!” We got dropped on the Sustenlimi, the saddle below the Sustenhorn, a 3500 meter peak with glacier on both sides.
The first pitch was wind affected but after that it pure deepness, the snow below the peaks was sheltered and stacked. Almost 4500 vert to the valley floor, where we rolled into the Steingletscher pre-season. We had the place completely to ourselves. The manager was doing his pre-season prep, and practiced by preparing us a magnificent treat of rot hirsch, what we call elk in North America.
One more night to go. We leave the Steingletscher after breakfast and head out, it’s a steady climb and takes hours. This south facing snow could not be more unlike the blower we skied the previous day. We stop and picnic. We cut a few giant switchbacks as we gain altitude, looking behind us we can see the path of our descent from the day before. The mountains are BIG. At the top we look over into the next drainage and can see this evening’s destination a few miles away on top of a ridgeline below. Beyond that fog fills the Engelberg valley in the distance.
We feast on some low angle easy pow turns before we have to find a line through the glacier where the picking is slim. Luckily Dan knew where a thin ribbon of snow ran through along the far right edge, it was the steepest skiing of the trip. A little pucker factor is always good to keep things real. The narrow steep emptied into a great untracked open bowl with hero snow for one and all.
One more short climb to get to the Grässen Bivouac, an octagonal hut made almost entirely of copper. Tight quarters that can sleep, it says, up to twenty. Wood for the stove is below, accessed through a hatch in the floor. A cool and funky place to be spending our last night.
Meanwhile Dan and Tyler skin up for one more line while we watch from the hut. They are on a slightly glaciated face with super cool looking wind striations in the snow. End of day light is casting a glow as they rip their respective lines and quickly rally up to the hut.
We settle in and claim our bunks. Get a big pot of snow going for water. Unpack packs. Then we raid the wine stash, it was hard to hold back but we only drank two bottles. Bestowing Francs into the depository as the sheet on the wall requests. I’m guessing this wine get restocked from Engelberg, seems unlikely touring parties coming the way we had would have anything left. Especially before touring season started.
In the middle of the night the hexagonal window of the octagonal hut swings open on its hinge, blasting a home run and smashing an empty bottle of wine to bits. Waking us all instantaneously, we were pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t the window that broke. That would have sucked, the Americans leaving their indelible mark by breaking the window of the little gem shelter.
We scoot around the corner from the Grassen in the morning, onto what starts as a steep but depleting glacier. One of the many European glaciers that will soon disappear. Above us is the wall to Titlis, one of the mountains that’s part of the Engelberg ski area.
As we head down Rob kicks a ski and it takes off like a shot but it catches some air and somehow impails itself in the snow. I watch him descend waiting for the inevitable slide for life but it never happens. The last part of the descent is through thin snowpack, then it’s skis off for the final few hundred yards out to the trailhead. We continue walking across meadows alongside a little road toward a bus stop that heads down the valley to Engelberg.