The Big Empty

January 31st, 2006
Email This Post  Print This Post  

Click here to view a pdf of the lay-out and photos of a story of mine published in the December 2005 issue of Ski Magazine of Holland.

The original English text is provided below:

[Original sub-hed] Huge peaks and vast backcountry on a road-trip among Switzerland’s unknown C-list resorts

The broad face fell away in an opening pitch that went for probably 500 vertical metres before gently benching out. Martin Soderqvist arced away trailing a 10-metre powder plume that hung suspended in the honeyed light of early evening. We’d slid onto the highest T-bar at Disentis just at the 4:15 closing, hiking for an hour to a high col. This was the reward: Val Strem, a side valley dropping nearly 1,800 vertical metres to the village of Sedrun, miles from Disentis. In allegedly over-populated, over-developed Europe, three of us stood alone overlooking a monumental white valley untouched by man. I stood gaping, unable to believe my great fortune. I finally pushed off into the foot-deep settled powder, heading for the two dots waiting at the second pitch.

Located along the headwaters of the Rhine, smack in the middle of Switzerland, Disentis was the start and finish of a two-week road trip through the Swiss Alps last March with my pal Soderqvist, a rising ski photographer, and his friends Daniel Johansson and Martin Webrant, both pro riders. We were deliberately avoiding not only Switzerland’s wealthy winter tourism icons – Zermatt, Davos, St. Moritz – but also the obvious staples of freeride and backcountry – Verbier and Engelberg. We were going for truly obscure resorts, mountains not just below the big ski magazines’ radar, but lacking even cult-stash-status like Andermatt. Places that make a big-city Swiss scratch his head and reach for a road map. Hence the Baron von Münchhausen-like list of destinations: Disentis, Valsertal, Toggenburg, Loetschental.

It took us a solid hour to ski Val Strem. After two further huge pitches, we merged on the valley floor with some tracks snaking down from a high bowl – the other main route from the lifts. Repeated high traverses allowed us to create mini-pitches of 10-20 turns as we followed the valley. Eventually, Val Strem’s snow-covered stream burst into the open at a small waterfall, and we crossed back and forth over snow arches or little footbridges. By now we could spot twinkling windows in Sedrun, which has its own ski area at the foot of the Oberalppass. Incongruously, our huge backcountry run ended on a freshly groomed children’s slope at the village’s fringe. We skied nearly to the train station, where we found a bunch of grizzled local railway workers puffing on smokes and slurping their third or fourth round of beers. After a round of our own we hopped the train back to Disentis and the warmth of our large, rented apartment.

Disentis and the other stops on our road trip are skied almost exclusively by locals, regional weekenders and a handful of knowledgeable outsiders. It goes without saying that they lack the lift systems of the big resorts. But by laying their meagre and motley handful of old cable cars and T-bars – plus the occasional modern gondola or detachable chairlift – end-to-end, they manage to ascend massive ridgelines or peaks, creating descents with decidedly big-resort vertical – 1,500 metres or more. All of them, we discovered, provide access to vast areas of freeride terrain, everything from glaringly obvious piste-side slopes to peak-to-valley backsides swinging back to the main lift, to hidden side-valley excursions like Val Strem, to hut-to-hut tours of 3,300-metre peaks like the Oberalpstock northwest of Disentis.

Valsertal – “I came here for the waters”
When even the Disentians – Disentisites? – feel the stress of their hurly-burly life in their bustling town of 3,000, where do they go to relax and breathe free? Why, to the Valsertal! This is a long side valley not far as the crow flies from the historic San Bernardino Pass, which branches off the main valley running from the regional center of Chur along the Vorderrhein up to Disentis and Sedrun. If the main road along the Vorderrhein is a curious confection of billiard-table-smooth pavement with guard-rails and shoulders interrupted by pot-holed horror shows routed like a telephone cord tormented by your housecat, then the way up to the village of Vals is positively a Roman-era farm track skinned over with an afterthought of asphalt.

I’d rented a diesel-powered VW Sharan minivan at Zurich airport. It was ideal for four guys packing volumes of gear, taking our skis flat on the floor (there was no roof box). Although rental cars are notoriously expensive in Switzerland, the country’s lauded rail and bus system simply can’t compete on a voyage of this nature. Tickets times three or four people easily surpass car rental, insurance and fuel costs. And you can’t move between the places we were visiting without losing skiing days. With a car, we managed all of our transits before or after skiing. In any case, Swiss-road-trippers from Holland will probably elect to drive right from home.

Humphrey Bogart claimed to have come to Casablanca “for the waters.” You can visit Vals for the same reason. The valley is home to springs producing mineral water named – wait for it – “Valser”. Valser may claim healthful properties, but it can be a mortal danger to skiers. Before you even start wondering about the avalanche hazard up on the mountain, take extra care on the road lest you be flattened by a triple-axel, diesel-belching truck laden with 10 tonnes of bottled water. On our way up, they came thundering around the bends at frightening intervals.

It was worth running this bizarre gauntlet, for Vals proved to be a sweet village of ancient, darkened timber houses set beneath huge mountains, including the 3,402-metre Rheinwaldhorn. It was a dazzling, crisp morning, with no new snow overnight but the promise of some north-facing settled powder and spring corn snow on the sunny side. We wandered from the empty parking lot over a bridge spanning a rushing stream to the base lift, a brand-new, eight-passenger high-speed gondola. It lifted us roughly to treeline, beneath broad open slopes.

To gain the rest of Vals’ nearly 1,700 vertical metres we rode three absurdly long T-bars, the last of which topped out at a col just below the 3,000-metre Dachberg. Suddenly, a lot of possibilities beckoned. The peak lift attendant happily told us that, if we hiked over a small ridge to the south, we could ski lovely corn snow slopes down to a reservoir, then traverse back to the lifts. If we headed north, we could traverse or climb to access huge open rolling snowfields cut by ravines which might hold powder on one side and corn on the other.

The crown jewel lay just over the ridge. We walked up a few steps and peered slack-jawed at one of the hugest runs I’d seen in 25 years’ exploring the Alps. It was a kilometre-wide, north-facing bowl starting with a pocket glacier, careering down for maybe 800 vertical metres before benching out in a huge boulder garden. Big rippling shoulders obscured the rest of the descent, which rocketed into a distant valley dotted with seasonal farmhouses and, in the distance, the village of Vrin. A vast expanse of prime Swiss backcountry lay at our feet, unmarred by tracks. The weather was perfect. We had all day.

Sadly, none of this was skiable. Although we were barely 35 km from Disentis by air, we’d moved into a different winter climate zone. One of the mountain’s avalanche controllers explained that Vals’s snowpack is determined by south storms, and this season the southern Alps were a desert. Vals had a base of only one metre, mostly dangerous sugary snow overlain by a thin crust. As unpleasant to turn on as it was deadly. Nobody had skied down to Vrin all year, the avalanche man said. As for the less gnarly south-facing off-piste, there was far more rock than snow.

So we contented ourselves with building a kicker on a little piste-side powder slope, with Martin Webrant and Daniel hurling themselves off in various configurations. Then followed a succession of screaming runs down the broad, freshly groomed corridors beside the T-bar. This wasn’t a bad way to spend the day at all, for the obscure, unknown, remote, small, empty non-resort of Vals had some of the nicest carving pitches, prepared with the finest grooming, I’ve encountered in the whole Alps. Plus those healthful waters.

“Hamburger, Cheeseburger – Toggenburger!”

This has to be the oddest marketing scheme in the history of advertising. It’s the official slogan of the Toggenburg-Chässerrugg ski area, in cooperation with the local McDonalds. It stood proudly on a giant poster at the mid-station of the cable car. We could never quite figure it out. While the original “hamburger” of course originates from Hamburg in Germany, no German city I know of is called Cheeseburg. Nor is there a junk-food item called a Toggenburger. Eventually, we just shrugged and put it down to Swiss mountain humour.

Our drive from Vals had taken us down to Chur and along a rapidly growing Rhine. Though steep-sided, here the valley was perfectly flat-bottomed and dotted with farms, villages, some industry, the kitschy “Heidiland” tourism attraction and several small Cold War-era airfields with hardened aircraft shelters. We spent the night in a very pleasant hotel in the lovely if slightly overtouristified Medieval town of Appenzell.

The terrain at the surprisingly sprawling area of Toggenburg proved far less, um, cheesy than its advertising. The very low base of 900 metres provides nearly 1,400 vertical metres of skiable terrain. This was also the sole stop on our trip with a complex lift system. Lifts from the villages of Alt St. Johann, Unterwasser and Wildhaus climb to treeline, with further lifts onto two strangely ramp-like, treeless peaks linked by a massive bowl with enough rows of cliffs to stage a major freeride competition.

Toggenburg has pleasant, wide and well-groomed pistes off every lift. We also found easily accessed off-piste terrain everywhere we looked, and we soon learned of two nice peak-to-valley routes, Voralpsee and Gluristal, that swing way out to the side of each mountain. But whatever you do, don’t try to scout any “backside” routes. Toggenburg’s far side is a virtually unbroken cliff-wall plunging more than 1,800 vertical metres into the icy waters of the Walensee. For the same reason, the views south towards some of Switzerland’s big peaks are stupendous.

Up on the Chässerrugg, the system’s highest spot, we ran into some youngish Germans who looked like they were getting ready to head out somewhere. Relying on the tried-and-true direct approach, I told them we were passing through on a road trip, didn’t know the terrain, and might we join them. “Yeah, man! F—— cool!” one of them replied in the universal language of the post-modern global village. Our route took us west from the peak and briefly along a ridge with that mile-high plunge close to one side. But soon we were onto big, broad slopes, already mushy in the warm spring weather. It was a pleasant, low-stress descent, long rolling slopes well past the lifts, taking us far down into the trees before regaining a piste snaking through the woods to Alt St. Johann.

With its peak elevation of under 2,300 metres, Toggenburg may never be a major centre of freeride, but its primarily below-treeline terrain makes it a natural storm hideaway. If you head down to Switzerland in mid-winter, say, and the snow (or, down in the lowlands, the rain) is pounding down, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to head for towering peaks and glaciers. The high resorts’ best lifts will be closed, and you’ll find 500 other desperate skiers fighting over the typically meagre treed zones. Instead, these are ideal conditions for a stop at Toggenburg, lying en route to the big resorts of southeast Switzerland.

You’ll also find these obscure places are remarkably cheap – especially compared to the Swiss stereotype of brutal prices. Modest pension rooms can be had for as little as €18 per night – including a Spartan breakfast – with €35-45 getting you quite a nice hotel room with bath and a solid breakfast. Lift tickets are typically around €30-40 per day, dropping far lower if you buy a five- or seven-day lift pass. All this is the polar opposite of places like Zermatt, where a beer costs €6 and you get nailed for all kinds of extras – parking down in Visp, the train ride to town, electric taxis to ferry your luggage, and on and on. The keys to a successful road-trip are to avoid going during Christmas, Easter or the February holidays, to travel without a fixed itinerary – and to make a lot of phone calls. On our drives between mountains I was constantly adjusting our itinerary according to the latest snow reports, hotel space, mountain guide availability and so on.

Lötschental – “You mean we’re not going to Kandersteg?”

“Saddle up, boys! We’re heading for Kandersteg.”

With ski gear, baggage and assorted accoutrements strewn everywhere, we’re performing an end-of-day changeover from wet ski gear into jeans and t-shirts in Toggenburg’s muddy parking lot.

“Where’s Kandersteg?” asks Daniel.

“Don’t worry, it’s all figured out.”

Our commute proves to be a trans-Switzerland epic, taking us along the lovely Walensee, southeast of Zurich, through Lucerne, along the gorgeous lakes at Interlaken and up a long valley. It’s a typical Swiss road-ratatouille, from whooshing four-lane freeways to tight passes to good rural highways that narrow abruptly in ancient villages where the upper storeys lean out so far they threaten to rip the top off any carelessly handled truck or bus. The village of Kandersteg lies beneath a string of 3,000-plus-metre peaks that form one of Switzerland’s classic touring regions.

As we near the village I reach behind my head-rest and say, “Hey Daniel, please hand me that sheaf of papers with all my contact info, and I’ll see where our hotel is.” Peering at the printed e-mail in the map-light’s glow, I search in vain for “Kandersteg.” My eyes keep settling on “Lötschental,” which I’ve never heard of. We’d been dealing with the Kandersteg tourism office, and naturally we figured that’s where we should be heading. Fumbling with my battered and torn road map of Switzerland, I finally exclaim, “Jesus Christ, we’re supposed to be in a different valley on the far side of these mountains!”

Luckily, help is close at hand. While the highway simply ends, Kandersteg is one end of the important rail tunnel that connects the Bern region to Canton Valais. With trains departing every 20 minutes, you just line up behind the other Swiss drivers, then roll onto a flatbed railcar. You don’t even have to get out of your vehicle. The Lötschental – another long valley – branched off at the tunnel exit and, less than 15 minutes later, we pulled up before a small, rustic wooden chalet-hotel in the hamlet of Blatten.

We awoke to another impossibly gorgeous day. This one followed a solid night-time freeze that held the promise of some serious corn snow descents. We were soon hooked up with Beat Dietrich, director of a small ski school. By now, we were accustomed to the standard immense morning ascent. In this case it was nearly 1,600 vertical metres from the village of Wiler onto the Hockenhorngrat via a cable car, a T-bar, a high-speed chair, and finally a swank new high-speed gondola that sails over a small glacier.

Beat immediately veered off the highest piste. The entire vast Lötschental had been frozen rock-hard, but the March sun shone bright, and after a few worrisomely skittering turns on steep crust Beat found the right exposure, and we were onto buttery corn. Some of these pitches were rock-lined gullies of 40-45 degrees, but the remarkable paradox of corn snow – firm and smooth overlain by a delicate layer of natural sherbet – made for effortless and exhilarating skiing. Despite his low-key demeanour and his 160 cm race skis, Beat proved to be the all-round wild man of the mountain, confessing that he loves nothing more than skiing as far from the lifts as possible, the steeper the better, every chance he gets.

The terrain at Lötschental is shaped like a gigantic clamshell. From the upper gondola, a ribbed ridge-line runs northeast-southwest for many kilometres in either direction. The few marked slopes go right down the middle – the shell’s cup. The rest is off-piste or backcountry. Subsidiary ridges form a giant double-basin whose slopes naturally push you back towards the lifts. You can also scuttle over the clamshell’s rim and tour the bowls and valleys beyond. These are big peak-to-valley runs, depositing you at neighbouring villages. The cleverer skiers time their descents to the valley’s sparse bus service.

After a couple of off-piste laps within the clamshell, Mühlbach and Golmbach, Beat led us out along the main ridge. We went over the shell’s rim and skied down onto the Lötschenpass, a historic trading route and still a popular summer hike, crowned by a small hut, the Lötschenpasshütte. Remarkably, a shelter for travelers and traders has stood here for nearly 500 years.

It seemed like a good time for a break. As Beat, Martin Soderqvist and I ordered a simple mountain lunch, Martin Webrant and Daniel hauled smelly cheese, stale baguettes and bottles of Valser long since refilled with tap water out of their packs. Soderqvist and I launched into our ritual scorning of their ridiculous “gypsy lunches.” But upon reflection I realized that, at 40+, I’d forgotten what it was like to be a true ski bum, and needed to feel some empathy for those who spend most of the winter in the Alps on a shoestring, so eager to ski they go there with virtually no money.

We lolled in the broiling March sun, gazing at the amazing ring of peaks above us and drinking “Radlers”, mixtures of beer and Fanta, while Beat told us about the astounding possibilities in his backyard. To the west, several people were skinning up a broad face. Its back side, Beat said, was a huge descent to the resort of Leukerbad. From there, lifts lead to another hike and, in turn, a long run to Kandersteg, from where one returns through the train tunnel. A popular circuit, each resort respects the others’ lift pass for a single daily ride.

From above the hut, you can also descend directly to Kandersteg via several long, steep, north-facing couloirs. Right now, sadly, they were a sastrugi- and crust-ridden, depth-hoar-infested death trap, but Beat said he does them in great powder several times each season, when he has clients who are good enough. Somewhere on the back of the massive east-west ridge, Beat confided, lies an even steeper route known only to himself and a few locals: a 1,200-vertical-metre-plus couloir with pitches of up to 60 degrees. Every season or two, the unflappable Beat skis it with one especially adept buddy.

We would take the south-facing slopes – still good corn snow – back into the main valley. Discarding the detritus of lunch and gathering our scattered stuff, we first traversed over some flats, and then bowl followed face followed gully followed lake-schuss followed bowl followed ravine. Pitch after pitch, finally onto a zig-zagging hiking trail through the woods. We ended up in yet another collection of ancient, timbered houses, Ferden, and passed a farmer shearing sheep on our way to the bus stop. From the gondola, we’d descended 1,800 vertical metres. We left what is surely one of the largest expanses of off-piste terrain in the Swiss Alps with major unfinished business. We must return – and catch the Beat.

Disentis

One of the great things about mountains that don’t get pounded into moguls between storm cycles is that it takes only 15 cm or so of new snow to restore the terrain. This explains our excitement when, as we clackety-clacked towards Disentis across the Oberalppass, the minivan on a flatbed behind the little coaches of the narrow-gauge Rhaetian Railway, the stars failed to appear in a black sky. As we disembarked, the first flakes drifted gently down. After this long trip, there was nothing like the certainty of fresh snow to reinvigorate the tired crew.

It seemed fitting that, after days of corn snow, we should end our voyage of discovery back where we’d started and with lovely cold powder. Due to the vagaries of late-winter weather, we’d had the best snow and the greatest variety of adventures here in Disentis. We’d skied tight trees off the lower cable car, fresh powder right beside the groomed pistes, a trio of steep and tricky couloirs beneath the outlying triple chair, and we’d knocked off the three big valleys past the lifts: Val Segnas, Val Pintscha and Val Gronda, each a microcosmic skiing world unto itself.

Now, on our last day, the mountain was all-but deserted. Slate-grey glowering clouds and banks of fog suggested the day wouldn’t bring much. But after a few piste-side laps, the nastiness began to weaken and patches of deep blue appeared. With nobody having tracked anything, there was no need to go far. Off the upper T-bar, we glided down to a saddle, then boot-packed along a narrow ridge onto La Muotta. As the light went from bearable to brilliant, we glided off the ridge and, one by one, hurtled down a vast, empty bowl which looked for all the world like the deepest Canadian Rockies.

MORE INFORMATION:

If you’re contemplating a Swiss road-trip, don’t think you need to retrace our path. For every mountain we hit, there are three others waiting to be explored. I won’t give you a list – I haven’t skied them all – but you can find them the same way I did: get a good Swiss road map, look for peaks of 2,200 meters or better that rise above obscure villages and – crucially – have one of those little black hatched lines indicating a cable car or gondola. Even if you go wrong, the next skiing village won’t be more than 25 km away.

Disentis 3000 – Major lifts: six; Peak elevation: 2,833 m; Lift-serviced vertical: 1,594 m; Contact Info: Tel. (011) (41) (0)81 920-3040; E-mail Martin Kreiliger (lift director and mountain guide) at info@disentis3000.ch   Website: www.disentis3000.ch

Vals – Major lifts: four; Peak elevation: 2,941 m; Lift-serviced vertical: 1,689 m; Contact Info: Tel. (011) (41) (0)81 935-1408 (lifts) or 920-7070 (tourism office); E-mail: info@vals3000.ch or visitvals@vals.ch   Website: www.vals3000.ch/ (ski area) or www.vals.ch (tourism region)
Toggenburg/Chaesserrugg – Major lifts: 11; Peak elevation 2,262 m; Lift-serviced vertical: 1,362 m; Contact Info: Chaeserrugg-Bergbahnen Tel. (011) (41) (0)71 999-1207; E-mail Herr Lantar (lift director): info@chaeserrugg.ch   Website: www.chaeserrugg.ch or www.toggenburg.org
Loetschental – Major lifts: six; Peak elevation 3,111 m; Lift-serviced vertical 1,692 m; Contact Info: Jerun Vils (regional tourism director) Tel. (011) (41) (0)33 675-0372; E-mail: vils@loetschberg.ch; Beat Dietrich, off-piste guide, Tel. (011) (41) 79 449-0147; E-mail: info@coolschool.ch or beat@loetschenpass.ch   Website: www.loetschberg.ch

Blogmarks BlogLines del.icio.us Digg Facebook Google Google Reader Magnolia Yahoo! MyWeb Newsgator reddit SlashDot StumbleUpon Technorati
By George Koch
Category