Five days in Engelberg, Switzerland

Nice little stash on the Laub

Nice little stash on the Laub

Engelberg is definitive; here’s how to take a mixed group of skiers there and keep everyone happy, oh yes!

A small group of semi-intrigued friends and distinctly underwhelmed partners was assembled for a freeride extravaganza/cosy, calm dawdle around a beautiful mountain in a classic resort (adjust sales pitch depending on audience). Most of them trust Dickie to find his way around… Sure, he’s been down the Laub before (twice, in mist, following a bunch of crazed Utah-dwellers).

So, we do three things that should make life a lot more pleasant than the usual Fall-Line ‘shove it in the car until the wheels creak, and then find a doss-house’ trip. We fly from Birmingham at a sensible time with Swiss – a shameless plug but it’s won our ‘fave ski airline’ gong every year since the Wright brothers first took off for giving free ski carriage and making life astoundingly easy. We hop straight onto the train and then we walk 80 yards to the Ski Lodge Engelberg, which is a dudey Swedish-run private hotel with a great half-board package.

Sunday

The male part of the party arrive first, using the tactics outlined above. Birmingham is easy, Swiss is easy with skis, train is easy, walk is easy, hotel is expecting us. 

3pm: Stroll into town to sort ski passes. All is shut. Stroll back to the Ski Lodge and commence drinking. The package price is fine, but bar prices are fierce. £11 for a gin and tonic and 7 for a beer. Yowza!

4pm: Terminate drinking for a bit and head down to the boot room to plug everyone into the clobber I’ve brought out. We’ve Black Diamond Reverts, Head Magnums, a new Head freeride ski which doesn’t have any graphics or name, pair of his ‘n’ hers Nordica Helles Belles and Hell n Backs and some odds and sods from the shed. 

5pm: I am secured to the mystery Head. It’s got a weird tip (and is eventually revealed to be the Cyclic). Everyone else seems to be happy. We deserve a beer.

8pm: They’re seven quid, you know. Hey, who cares. Time for the half-board package supper.

10pm: That was very, very good. A bit quirky and the presentation was fancier than we needed, but the grub was truly first class. Over the week we get steak, chicken, fish, a mysterious-looking but inevitably tasty rouladey thingy and all sorts of nibbles, soups and spirally puds. A couple of the portions could have been heftier, but everyone was impressed by the food. The Ski Lodge make a deal of the owners being mad keen skiers and serious hoteliers, and we believe them.

11pm: And so to bed. The mattresses are a bit hard. Swedish hospitality-mongers take note.

Monday

7am: Brekkie includes porridge, so I indulge my inner Scot and stock up for the day.

0830: We decide to scope the resort on day one so we have an itinerary planned for when the rest arrive. Knocking off the smaller Brunni area, up to the left as you look up the valley, was the plan for the morning, or more if it held any promise. It’s a bus ride from the railway station to get there.

0915: We’re at the top after a very quiet ride up the Ristis car. This side faces south, and there hasn’t been much snow for a week or so, plus the temperatures are 20 degrees warmer than last January. That’s still minus two, but the runs are looking rather springy. 

10.15: We’re fizzing through stale snow on the red to Ristis, which is the main base. There’s a nice view… Er, maybe we’d better head up to Brunnihutte and on to Schonegg, or ‘Brunni’s Hut’ and ‘Beautiful Egg’ if you want the translation. Probably.

10.44: At Schonegg. There’s a semi-shaded, sloping ridge below us with a red and lots around it to go at, but the snow is shattered – re-frozen mini-slide debris everywhere. We stick to the piste.

11.15: Back up to the top to try the black down to Ristis. It’s not very black. We have a coffee.

13.20: We’re eating a pleasingly gloopy goulasch at the Brunnihutte, and, in the words of Steppenwolf, Looking For Adventure. My early adopter crew are starting to think that I’ve sold them a pup, and increasingly klutzy plans are evolving. We take a look at the piste map and hang our hats on the worst of the lot: a couple more laps off the Beautiful Egg and then ski back to town. There’s no snow, we don’t know the way but I can categorically state there aren’t any crevasses. We ‘drop in’.

14.30: Boy, this adventuring is hard work. We think we’ve followed the sledge run and then cut skier’s right onto the snowshoe trail, before merging back with the Bergli itinerary. 

15.02: This is odd. We’ve strolled down a road for a bit, lost one of the party to a passing bus (you’ll be pleased to hear he got on it in a fit of common sense, rather than ending up under it) and are debating the final few turns.

15.14: Well, it’s unusual to plan a ski run down some steps, over a locked garden gate, across a couple of lawns and through a school, but hey, this is freeriding. 

15.55: The Yucatan bar, with its two parts – youth in the front and sophisticates like ourselves through the doors – sees our group reunited. The bus was the better option for getting down the hill…

20.35: Excellent grub at the Ski Lodge, yet again. We chug wine, slowly, until the day’s scrambling, slithering and strolling overtakes us. 

Tuesday

8.42am: We’ve strolled five minutes along the valley to the Gerschnialp main lift, bought tickets and are ready to roll. Outstanding hire shop at the base; we clock some super-fatties in case a dump blows in. Trubsee is the destination station with links to the rest of the higher ski area.

9am: Past the beginner area at Gerschnialp and onwards towards the main zone. We’ll save heading up Titlis until later, and get a few pistes cracked off below Jochstock, where it looks as though there are more blues, so we know what to offer the more sedate party arriving later in the week.

10.30am: This effing resort is a right jumble. Head up one lift and get a short dribble down to one station, then walk up that trail to link up the next blue piste. Maybe it’s time to have a look at the beginner area.

Noon: It’s rubbish. Skiing from the mid station means wriggling through a narrow tree track, or beginners can get a lift in an old minibus to a bum-basic area. It’s almost as though the resort is daring newbies to head straight up to the Laub and lob themselves off because it couldn’t be any harder. After fruitlessly poling through the forest towards some shonky old drags we turn around, ski back to the base and decide to start over.

1pm: Head up skier’s right towards Titlis. The snow cover is fine, but there’s no off-piste to go at – it was skied out weeks ago and is as rattly as a stagecoach. We know; we tried. 

2.45: We’ve avoided the Rotair up to the summit to give us something to do tomorrow. Is it just is, or is this a one-horse resort with an overblown rep? We peer over the Laub and gaze up at the glacier. It had better snow.

3.18: From Jochpass we head down to Alpstubli – the other side of Trubsee’s frozen lake. From there it’s a goodly cruise back to the base station, with no surprises like you’d get in, say, Chamonix where the return to the valley floor off the Grands Montets can be the coup de grace for an intermediate.

3.35: There’s a little wooden bar at the base, just on the way over to the car park. Rude not too.

17.35: Back to the Lodge in time for a refresher, shower and grub. 80cm of snow is expected tomorrow.

10.40: The rest of the party joins us. We know the resort is about to kick off, which is exactly what they probably don’t need. A group of buoyant Swedes arrives in the bar. We suspect we’ll be seeing more of them.

Wednesday

0735: Well, everybody made it up. Decent brekkie followed by bit of boot-into-ski faffing. The snow is falling and the vis is thin down at 1000m. Just as well we know our way around… We decide not to engage everyone with our off-piste jaunt down from Brunihutte, and head straight for the top.

8.45: Booted and spurred at the base station. We just missed frequently-featured Fall-Line photo genius Oscar Enander in the Ski Lodge bar last night and he’s off to Utah today, so our inside track to secret stashes has gone. We decide to go Trubsee, Jochpass and down the blues to Engstlenalp for a warm up. 

10.20: That went well. No, really. The blues wriggle around with plenty of relief either side and are easy to pick along, even with a fair old snowstorm. Let’s try Titlis.

11.40: I like the Rotair. It’s unique ability is almost completely pointless, but very clever. The floor rotates through 360 degrees on the trip, which means my skis fall over as the windows move away.

At the top we are the sudden stars of a lot of Japanese photographs. They travel to the top, rush out inadequately dressed, snap a random skier and then dive back inside. It passes the time for us. We now have to find the piste, find a linking run, carry on to skier’s left of the resort and finally feel like we’ve actually done something. 

Lunch at Stand: All very pleasant on a sunny terrace, and highly bearable in the large, sort-of charming restaurant. As with town, it ain’t cheap but the goulash is good: actually, all the food is good.

13.55: Back over to Jochpass and we lap the increasingly entertaining Graustock area using the Alpstubli lift. It’s a bit exposed, but there’s a speed trap, a nice black pitch and plenty of filling off-piste to play with.

1535: After a cofee at Jochpass, it’s time to head up Jochstock and head down through the sketchy visibility in a oner. Last one down’s a… Lost, as it turns out. 

1635: All found. A couple of the group raid the rental centre – which is the best I’ve come across for choice – and scoop up Salomon Rocker 2s in the larger widths. 

2132; The Swedes, wearing swimmers, are scampering around outside urging us to join them in the hot tub, fresh snow and sauna. I knew we’d see more of them. 

Thursday

The BD lip drop with an angle

Black Diamond Megawatts – a useful choice and tastefully displayed

0755: Tenterhooks for the first lift. There’s blue sky and been a lot of Scandi-plated vehicles trundling through town. I’m keen to let a few of them and the locals stick a few tracks in and work out what’s up. It’s a big mountain and there’s plenty of snow to go around. Will from Black Diamond calls to say he’s on his way.

0840: Up past the Laub – Engelberg’s signature off-piste run – to end up at Jochstock to reveal an epic set of runs down to Engstenalp. Anyone looking down is faced with vast amounts to go at. We follow a couple of sane-looking but still extremely rapid riders through a leg-stretcher of a series of pitches, rock formations and micro-drops to pick up the piste below the fun park. The snow is just what’s promised – effortless, good lift and vastly forgiving.

0955: First coffee at Jochpass – time to go high.

10.27: Next set of photo-opps for the Japanese at the top of Titlis. I decide to head down the glacier rather than over to the Laub. It turns out to be an inspired choice; not because we later skiied the Laub and it disappointed, but the glacier is just such a belting itinerary. You’re always thinking, always relating where the turns are compared to your mental map from the lift on the way up. Picking your way down, taking time to absorb the shape, the clues, the ice walls. It’s a beautiful ski, let alone a decent challenge. 

11.40: Will is here, and group breaks up into those looking for laps and those soaking up the beauty. The mountain is being torn to pieces all around us, and we settle on skier’s right of the Jochpass delivering the most pow-per-uplift-per-minute.

16.23: We finish off with a series of mini-drops down to the clunky chair at Engstlenalp, then a haul back to base. It’s powder all the way.

1934: Hot tub, snow angels, exuberant Swedes, lots of toasting of mighty deeds: it’s like being in Valhalla.

BEST PISTES

BEST BLUE TO LEARN SWITCH AND BUTTERS ON…

Piste 7 down from Jochpass is wide, then narrow, wriggles between exotic terrain and generally engages any member of a party.

BEST RED FOR A WARM-UP…

Jochstock down to Alpstubli. Great visibility, wide runs, coupla steepish bits. Nice view from the top, too.

BEST BLACK TO SCARE THE HELL OUT OF YOURSELF…

To be frank, there isn’t one. There are a couple of blacks in the resort, but the steepest longish sections are off Stand and involve linking the blacks off the Lubersgrat chair into the reds down to Trubsee, Piste 3 into Piste 2.

BEST OFF-PISTE IN THE AREA…

Ah, now we’re talking. The Laub is the big draw because it is such a lengthy, wide area, but the Steinberg Glacier off Klein Titlis is another 1200m descent with dozens of routes and every kind of challenge. Huckers, rippers and coo-look-at-thatters will all get an epic run.

Anyone looking to practice drops can head along the ridge above Blue 10 from Jochpass to Engstlealp and plop into the deep snow off there.

IN NUMBERS

  • Number of runs:  25 (plus a few unlisted beginner runs at Gershnialp)
  • Number of lifts: 24
  • Terrain Parks:  1
  • Highest Altitude:  3020m
  • Village altitude:  1150m
  • Beginner pistes: 33%
  • Intermediate pistes: 57%
  • Advanced pistes: 10%

LIFT PASSES

Adult one-day pass costs CH62 (c.£42)

GETTING THERE

We used Swiss from Birmingham to Zurich, cost approx £150 including luggage and ski carriage which makes it one of the cheapest scheduled ski flights. Flights are also from City and Manchester. Zurich is the best airport because of the connections.

Next step is either a Swiss Pass for all onward travel, or simply buy a train ticket on arrival. The station is below the airport and couldn’t be easier. Change at Lucerne. Many hotels are a short walk from the station.

STAYING THERE

BUDGET

There’s a hostel just out of town; the Berghaus. Prices start at 31CHF per person per night.Basic but clean, warm and friendly. www.familienherberge.ch

There’s also a monastery. 

MID-PRICE

The Ski Lodge – go for the non-peak deals and they work out at approx £110 per head half board.

 EXPENSIVE

Engelberg has large Victorian-era spa hotels with big rooms and well-heeled Grand Tourists. Not completely our bag, but the Edelweiss is around £180 for a large double room, with food on top.

 EATING & DRINKING

Bar: Either the Ski Lodge for dudey Scandi vibe, or the Yucatan, or the apres at the base station.

Food: Er, we only ate at the Ski Lodge because of the package – it was very, very good. A meal there is 45CHF for the Skier’s Supper, but a ribeye is 48CHF by itself.

 

 

 

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