Powder your nose

Women with a taste for off-piste skiing, and fit men, should try Engelberg


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.

We are equipped with small bright-blue metal shovels, in our backpacks, and transmitters so that we can each find a member of our party if we get buried in snow: unlikely, we are assured, but a necessity.

Inadvertently leaving the transmitter strapped to your waist during lunch in the mountain restaurant can make you feel a tad overdressed; as if you have a fear of getting lost in the cheese aisle.

As one who likes, in certain circumstances, to be pushed out of her comfort zone, I enjoy the OMG moments as Stephan goes faster than I would across a mountain side and then plunges down something I would never attempt on my own. I’m right behind you Stephs.

He’s a guide and not a teacher, but offers tips such as putting the uphill ski into a semi-snowplough to help you around corners and, to exert some control over those accelerating traverses across steep inclines (the deep channels stop you being able to slide skis sideways to stop), to steer uphill into a snow mound. A member of our party also says we should keep our skis together and try to spread our weight evenly across both.

It takes us a while to reach the top lift at Jochburg, taking a gondola up from town, a chairlift across a lake, and two chairs up to the peak, but the reward is a long ski down off-piste back to the lake (Trubsee). Then we climb into another gondola and take the world’s first revolving lift to the top of the glacier. During its ascent the lift spins 360 degrees, giving an all-round view of the mountains, villages and receding Alps that encase this pretty resort.

Up on the glacier day-trippers traverse the world’s highest suspension bridge – built to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first Engelberg cable car which opened in 1913 – and photograph each other against the dramatic backdrops. Many are Asian: Engelberg is the location for many Bollywood films. The resort is two hours from Zurich and just over an hour from Lucerne, making it accessible to locals and those on a pan-European tour.

As we take another long free-ride from the glacier to the lake – snaking through any virgin patches of powder we find and rollercoasting wildly over the varied moguls, deep clumps of snow and patches of ice that appear after each turn – we can appreciate the appeal of leaving a desk in Zurich, or flying into the city, and quickly tapping into such accessible drama.

Flaming lanterns set on the cool-crystal floor light the way into the corridor of snow where pictures and electric lights glow behind panels of ice in the wall. We are led down a tunnel, into the bar, where the mulled wine offered to the milling guests is white so as not to bloody the icy decor: the floor, walls and ceiling are all made of snow.

The first igloo hotel built here in the mid-Noughties was made using the traditional Inuit method of blocks of ice but it took thousands of hours, so now the builders blow up huge balloons and spray snow onto them. After this has set for 24 hours the mould is removed and the sculptors move in, carving benches, beds and decorative “plaster” work onto the walls.

The bar and two dining rooms are at the centre of the Igloo Village, actually one large semi-circular, snowy structure, whose bedrooms run around an outer corridor.

As we down the warm wine the contrasting cold air envelopes us. It feels both refreshing and oppressive because 14 hours in this sub-zero cavern is a chilling, but thrilling, prospect. Our guide reassures us that the sleeping bags provided keep sleepers cosy at -40 degrees, and we won’t be going that low, but she does warn us to tie them, complete with hood, up tight so as not to risk exposing any part of our body bar a bit of face.

She takes us on a tour of the bedrooms which range from family standards to romantic doubles and – for glowing luxury – the “hot igloo”, an enticing prospect: we open the flap in the white tent to reveal a real bed, carpets and a smouldering stove.

While romance at below-zero seems optimistic, it turns out the icy rooms come with double sleeping bags and, in some, ice sculptures of naked women lean out of the wall to guide inamorati.

The beds are platforms of snow on which rubber palettes, animal skins and foam mattresses are placed. The scene is a dreamy one, of colourful bed-covers and pretty wall sculptures. The whole igloo is even wired with electrical lighting. Our room, however, has six sleeping bags laid out across a platform 12ft-15ft wide. Body warmth is surely assured.

After dining on soup and flame-fired fondue, we dip into the star-lit whirlpool sunk into an open-topped igloo whose high temperature causes steam to breathe like fire.

And then to bed, never less willing. I sleep on the edge of our windowless box – surely only meant for two people? – lying rigidly straight so as not to disturb my near neighbour. I face the ice wall each time I turn to the left.

Despite the five other women on my bed being fabulous and respectful of fellow humans, it was a squash too far and I awoke many times not daring to look at the time because the prospect of knowing how many more hours I would have to spend cooped up would have led to anxious insomnia. The only escape would be a 1,000m trek down a snowy mountain in the dark.

So it was with relief that I awoke to tea handed to us and walked out to face the sun climbing over the deserted mountain. An unmissable experience but my first – and I hope last – brush with chilling claustrophobia. I’ll take a roomy double – with a quota of two – next time.

See Iglu-dorf.com. Aer Lingus flies to Zurich. The train from Zurich, changing at Lucerne, takes about 2.5 hours.

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