Red trains whizzed by on several platforms as my wife Anna and I fumbled over directions getting from Zurich to Engelberg, Switzerland—a farm town in comparison to other Swiss ski destinations. The public transit operation was impressive, an entire country linked via trains from cities to mountains. Our ski bags were as normal as a briefcase on the New York City Subway. Boarding the final train from Lucerne to Engelberg, the whirlwind of a full day of travel from Salt Lake City via two planes and a couple train swaps was winding down. We slouch into our seats, eat a piece of Swiss chocolate and drift asleep, waking up to a quiet hum as the train makes its first stop. Snow is raging as we gain steam again, passing through farm fields and climbing into the mountain valleys.
It was late afternoon when we first arrived into the town of Engelberg. Skiers were beginning to trickle off the main mountain of Titlis while small children were pulled in wooden sleds through the snowy streets, and school aged kids ran through town in snow pants with their friends after the day was done. The town was buzzing in a classic European sort of way, with residents strolling through cobblestone streets, stopping at local stores and saying hello to friends. Low clouds hid the peaks as we rolled our ski bags through town to Hotel Hoheneck. I’ve heard of the big terrain here, the incredible off-piste powder skiing and lack of crowds other than Swedish pro-skiers. Yet it was the charm that immediately grabbed me.
Just 25 kilometers south of Lake Lucerne, Engelberg is located in central Switzerland, yet is largely undiscovered by American tourists. A seemingly classic Swiss alpine town, its namesake is translated to Angel Mountain referencing the Benedictine monastery that was founded there in 1120. The still working monastery has the largest organ in Switzerland and its bells could be heard throughout town.
The freeride scene took hold in Engelberg in the early 2000’s, at the expense of the influx of Swedish freeskiers and photographers who began to ski bum there. Though the town is far from crowded. Today the center for ski culture is minutes from the Titlis Express Gondola at Okay Ski Shop and Ski Lodge Engelberg—a hotel, restaurant and bar that began from two Swedes, Niklas and Eric who ditched their jobs in Sweden to open a now staple within the community.
We met up with Okay Ski Shop owner Dani Friedli the following morning while he whipped up espresso in the back of the shop, another local gathering place for skiers. We made plans for his afternoon lunch break before boarding the Titlis Express, and are whisked up towards Stand, a meeting ground high upon the mountain. It’s here where the backcountry potential of Engelberg displayed itself.
Last winter the early season didn’t treat the Swiss Alps well. With low snow throughout December, the few early January storms were just enough to get things going prior to our arrival. And as we pulled off at Stand, and with the Rotair Gondola accessing the glacier—blanketed in white amidst crevasses and seracs—with only a handful of skiers heading off-piste in its direction. It didn’t take long to join in the fun as we waited for Dani.
Scouting the couple tracks and the general contours of the glacier on the ride up, diving down the Steinberg was calculated and a bit cowboy at the same time. The face dove into the valley off the summit, cascading to the left and presenting a much larger run than we even knew existed. We slashed pow, pinched ourselves each time while basking in the moment, and tagged rocks as we worked the run back towards the resort. Grabbing the Titlis Express at the mid-station where we met Dani at Stand to ski Engelberg’s infamous Laub backcountry area.
The Laub zone towers above Engelberg and is visible once the Titlis Express crests the first pitch as it flies skyward from town. Its 1000 meters of vertical and perfect pitch consisting of varying degrees from 30-40 is absolutely perfect. Coupled with its gigantic width, skiers look like ants from afar as they descend.
With early season layers lingering on the broadest side of the face, Dani scoots across the top of a groomer near Stand and then jumps off trail towards the horizon, entering the far skier’s left and a run called Along the Wall. The chute started broad and then cut into the side of the rock wall, running straight until it reached the apron of the Laub. A mix of pow, wind buff and damn long. The run was amazing. And with Dani’s lunch hour gone we waved goodbye, working our way back to Stand via the old cable car, Gerschnialp—a testament of the old country’s span of lifts into the high peaks. We down a couple espressos and chocolate hazelnut croissants and spin three more laps down the chute. Taking turns watching each other drop while turning into tiny specs below, and running into Henry Giesker better known as Snowflake, an iconic Engelberg personality who lives to ski and be in the mountains.
Skiing across the valley the next day and connecting powder filled cow pastures. The church bells from the Benedictine Monastery send chills down my spine as Anna and I skip over stone barriers separating the farms. Across the street from Titlis is the family side of the ski area called Brunni. A quick shuffle or skin brings skiers rolling powder runs that bisect farms—the monks and farmers specialize in soft cheese making, while dairy cows hunkered in their warm barns. The odors of manure resonate in the air as we jump over rock walls, arcing on the powder fields below while avoiding barbed wires. At the bottom a quick call to the local taxi service brings us back up valley.
It’s 10pm and we’re all still in our ski boots. Slightly buzzed, we arrive to Ski Lodge Engelberg for a nightcap following an evening tour to Untertrubsee, on the Titlis side. The short skin precedes a simple and delicious fondue dinner in an old chalet. Large bottles of hard cider and baskets of bread and potatoes adorn the tables as we join a weekly winter tradition with Dani and locals. It was idyllic as the Swiss Alps could be, with new found friends in a magical setting, and having been my first fondue experience. I’m now forever spoiled.
Our final day in Engelberg was rewarded with ticking off one of the classic off-piste runs from Titlis called Galtiberg. With over 2000 meters of vert, Galtiberg begins high on the glacier with pitch after pitch of powder fields and knobby terrain, before plummeting into the cliff walls as it begins to choke. As the runs tunnels into a massive terrain trap, the line skirts over equally daunting exposure, where a fall could be fatal. We scoot out and away from the exposure; taking in the final fields of powder as we continue to descend to the valley floor, before finally reaching the tree line and a hiking trail which ushers us into farm land. The late afternoon sun was setting behind the imposing peaks of which just granted us passage, as slough poured off an adjacent mountain. With minutes to spare before dark, Anna and I looked in awe of our surroundings and pushed along the road before grabbing a taxi back into town. The skiing and culture were mesmerizing. I’d move there tomorrow.