We recently wrestled with this teaser on a visit to Swiss freeride gem, Andermatt…
A plot to go ski guiding in Andermatt was hatched last winter while exploring its bigger brother, Engelberg. Engelberg has got some serious backcounty skiing and classic itineraries. But we couldn’t help picking up on some local guides’ chatter (while the beer monkeys were ransacking our wallets behind our backs) that when the conditions were on, the real skiing was in Andermatt. Given we’d just enjoyed three massive powder days on the trot in Engelberg, and more snow was on the way, this intel had piqued our interest to say the least.
So when we arrived in Andermatt in late January 2016 and we could see that heavy snow was forecast on day two of our three-day trip, our excitement levels resembled those of a five-year old promised free jelly and ice cream all day. We were going to gorge on powder!
Andermatt is what powder-hunters’ dreams are made of
Andermatt is basically a very big mountain (the Gemstock), with enough lifts to get you to the top and very few marked runs. But what it does have in abundance is access to a massive backcountry area, straight from the top of the Gemstock. If you know where to find it…
Andermatt isn’t a place where you can just rock up and ski what you think you see – not unless you are a fan of overnighting out on the mountain with no tent. So we spent day one scoping out the mountain with a great guide, Heinz.
Our guide, our hero!
Heinz really earned his recommendation that day. It hadn’t snowed for a couple of weeks and the conditions were truly variable. We had ice, a bit of corn, rocks, slush and powder – often in very quick succession. Andermatt’s snow gods hadn’t really helped out Heinz. He had to search hard for every pocket of powder. And search he did, relentlessly. Like a sniffer dog on a scent, he tracked down the best lines and most hidden powder fields, and wouldn’t let them go.
It was great! No, we didn’t have waist-deep powder all day, but we spent the day in the backcountry exploring and delighting in every second of Heinz’s local knowledge. We earned our turns with a couple of 45 minute climbs to access some great powder pitches, and we didn’t see a soul all day – it felt like Andermatt was all ours. In many ways, the perfect day.
Day two and the storm blew in
A real mean one: zero visibility, face stinging, almost laughably strong winds. Again, nobody on the mountain – but this was because most sensible people were holed up down in Andermatt’s valley or drinking hot chocolate in a nice warm hut. But the snow was plentiful – half a metre of powder by the end of the day.
By the evening, we reminisced about the ridiculous weather and talked up the depth of the powder that had fallen, getting itchy for turns the next day. And then the rain came. In Biblical amounts. But we weren’t concerned, this was down in Andermatt village and if it was raining here, that meant snowing up top.
We were wrong.
In this El Nino-Plus-Global-Warming-Is-Definitely-Here winter, it was still raining up at 3,000m. The next day was heart-breaking; there was deep snow everywhere, but what could have been a feast of powder, was a combination of mush, breakable crust, ice, rock and sticky porridge.
But did that ruin our weekend? Did we fall out of love with skiing as a result?
Of course not. It just raised the anticipation for the next time. No matter how many years you’ve skied or boarded, no matter where you’ve been, nature is always in charge and you never quite know where your day is going to go. The conditions also gave us a huge appreciation for our guide Heinz’s skill and local knowledge. It’s no exaggeration to say he transformed a day that could have given us a totally different impression of Andermatt.
So go and check out Andermatt. And consider hiring a guide because there’s so much sweet stuff hidden up there. It’s one of the most snow sure locations in Europe - we just caught it on a bad day. Who needs waist-deep powder everyday anyway…
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