Powder your nose
Women with a taste for off-piste skiing, and fit men, should try Engelberg
Off-piste skier in powder snow. Photograh: Getty Images
A double room at the Igloo Hotel on the mountain. Photograph: Igloo Hotel
Stephan lifts the rope from which an avalanche-risk notice dangles. The four of us duck beneath the safety string and leave the groomed piste to plough down through a deep, day-old top layer of snow sliced by previous skiers. You have to be quick to get fresh powder in most European resorts nowadays, as more and more skiers lose their fear and seek more challenges. This is especially the case in resorts such as Engelberg, in Switzerland, which lures “free-riders” with its extensive off-piste offering.
Not only is there a wealth of free-ride terrain but a lot of it is accessible via the lift system, negating the need for donning skins and walking in search of powder.
Stephan grew up in Engelberg and guides visitors around the wilder parts of his home town, with Swedes and Norwegians making up a large part of his clientele (he hasn’t had any Irish customers yet).
People will go to greater and greater lengths to access fresh powder in the morning. Paying for “first tracks” – to get up the ski-lifts before they open for the hoards – has been on offer in some resorts for many years but one man was so keen to catch the powder before anyone else that he built an igloo on the slopes from which he could descend at dawn. This has now grown into a cool chain of “hotels” (see panel).
In Engelberg (or “angel mountain”, named by the Benedictine monks who established a monastery here in the 11th century), the off-piste trails outrun the on-piste but even the pistes here are quite a challenge: steep and full of moguls (although there are beginner blues). There is a smattering of blacks, challenging reds and an “itinerary” that used to be a 35 degree black run on a glacier that has now receded into a flatter bowl at the top. This is left to be contoured by carvers. The overwhelming skier profile at Engelberg, which is predominantly a weekend resort, is groups of fit men of all ages.
“Well, yes,” says a woman from the local tourist office. “In fact we have ladies’ weeks to encourage more women.” Free ski passes are offered for women who book four nights or more in the resort hotels (mainly Swiss – spotless three-star hotels).
And men, on offer too? She laughs. She doesn’t know of any resulting romances but Engelberg hasn’t heavily promoted these weeks so far.
The range of off-piste runs suits many abilities but, despite two of our party saying they have never strayed before, Stephan guides us between crevasses, takes us traversing slopes at speed wondering what might be around the corner and drops us down gullies. We turn through choppy snow, grateful for the fact that ski technology has advanced so much that the composite-planks can turn through almost anything – even if you seem to cut through challenging slush with what feels like sheer willpower and probably not a great deal of style.
While you don’t necessarily need a guide, Stephan warns that you should not rely on other people’s tracks when off-piste as you could be following the path of an expert cliff jumper, or someone who knows exactly where crevasses are and when to steer away at the last minute.