Listen to this article
I am not really an emotional person, but when I arrived on Engelberg (Angel Mountain) in central Switzerland to be taken on what I had been promised was the ski of my life - and on the very first day of my 2006 ski season - I found it hard not to be overwhelmed. As we jump-turned down the Laub (Fallen Leaves) - one of the longest, continuous, steep offpiste descents in the Alps - I looked up to the summit of the singular mountain peak over which the founder of Engelberg village claimed he saw angels flying in 1120 and wondered whether I would ever enjoy a more exciting run.
Beneath us lay the village with its collection of belle epoque buildings amid a huge area of challenging offpiste ski terrain in the Swiss canton of Obwalden, just 90 minutes drive south of Zurich.
Later that afternoon Frédéric Füssenic, the ski aficionado, who as the former sales manager of Engelberg’s tourist office had done much to promote extreme skiing in the resort, suggested we also try the Galtiberg. This was an even greater test of our skiing metal than the Laub for it descends at an angle of over 47 degrees in places and traverses right under the great north-east wall of the Titlis (3,239m), the mountain which is central to many of Engelberg’s famous ski runs. The tricky final descent passes underneath a group of giant icicles, an array of enormous daggers suspended from an overhanging rock roof.
As I skied past a 75cm long icicle that had just speared the snow on the narrow track in front of me, I wished I had adopted the protective measures of the modern extreme skier and worn a helmet.
The conditions on the Galtiberg were a little thin as there had been no snow for five days and with offpiste fanatics out in force over the New Year it was difficult to find huge amounts of untracked powder. But temperatures were very cold (-15 degrees celsius) and the snow was a delightful powdery consistency, perfect for skiing.
To do two such incredible offpiste runs in blue skies on the very first day of my ski season with hardly a warm-up almost defied belief.
Over the next few days I battled to complete Engelberg’s three other great offpiste classics, the Grosse Sulz (Big Sugar Snow), the Kleine Sulz (Small Sugar Snow) and the Steinberg, (Stone Mountain) - an awesome run right through the middle of the Titlis glacier, with crevasses and great walls of ice on every side.
As I completed the final run of my offpiste itinerary, side-slipping between the steepest ice-blocks in the late afternoon sun, I wondered whether Engelberg’s decision to more than double its ski area, eating up a huge swathe of wilderness to link up with the two small nearby villages of Meiringen and Melchsee Frutt, was the correct one.
If the expansion goes ahead as planned in the next couple of years Engelberg - a charming resort of hotels and wide-open snowfields - will be able to boast the largest ski area in central Switzerland.
But the movement of a whole crowd of new skiiers, with metal chair lifts and noisy bars and restaurants into the wild, high mountain territory of the chamois and the eagle is meeting considerable opposition from Swiss greens and others who believe that modern ski infrastructure should be kept within current limits.
The faded village certainly needs a hefty dose of fresh investment to bring its hotel, house architecture and other facilities up to the level of Europe’s top ski resorts. In this respect the canton of Obwalden’s decision on in December to sharply cut tax rates on companies and rich individuals to the lowest level of any canton in Switzerland offers a great opportunity for Engelberg to do just that.
Engelberg has already won plaudits for its recent dramatic decision to elect a woman, Martha Bächler, as Tallamann (president or mayoress) for the first time in its history.
Over breakfast the much-admired Ms Bächler told me how disastrous floods and landslides last August brought the village’s 3,500 inhabitants closer together than at any time in living memory in something resembling the ‘Blitz spirit’. Many hoteliers and restaurateurs were looking forward to the future with a surprising new degree of optimism.
On the penultimate day of my sojourn I visited the great Benedictine monastery, which was founded 874 years ago and still dominates the resort of hotels. In last year’s floods when the village was all but cut off from the rest of Switzerland for three weeks the monastery and its 36 monks helped those who were stranded without electricity, food, communications or accommodation. Unlike Brienz in the Bernese Oberland where several people died, everyone was evacuated from the danger areas in time.
As I wandered the monastery’s fine wide slate-floored corridors and peeked into an array of extraordinary18th century baroque guest bedrooms hunting for Father Guido, the librarian, I knew that this was the kind of attraction that puts a ski destination into a whole different league from the modern purpose-built resort.
In the great music room with its exquisite chequered wood floors I admired the Fragonard-style painting of Konrad von Sellenbüren, the monastery’s founder, seeing his angels over the mountain.
On my last day among the Engelberg peaks, a ski tour into the wilderness with mountain guide Fredi Kummenacher* to the top of the Graustock (2,661m)** and down into the deserted summer hamlet of Engslenalp took me on a sublime 800m descent through perfect, untracked, snow.
Richard Cowper was a guest of Switzerland Tourism, travelled by Swiss and stayed at the Schweizerhof
* Fredi Kummenacher: mountain guide, 0041416111441
** Day tours: If you are prepared to fit skins to your skis and walk for a few hours, the Engelberg area has over half a dozen excellent day ski tours, including the Graustock; the Wendenlucke; the Zieblen; the Pope’s Hat; the Weissberg; the Hahnen round tour and the Titlis round tour.
■Engelberg Tourist Office: www.engelberg.ch
■Engelberg Ski School (ski teachers can take guests offpiste): firstname.lastname@example.org; www.skischule-engelberg.ch; 0041416395454
■Places to stay: Schweizerhof (newly decorated rooms and centrally located with delightful patron Iris): www.schweizerhof-engelberg.ch; 0041416371105:
■Hotel Engelberg: oldest hotel with sterling patron Robi Infanger: 0041416397979
■Hotel Terrace: faded Belle epoque grand hotel with its own funicular and impressive marble lobby: 0041416396666
■Places to eat: Alpenclub (popular all round restaurant):www.alpenclub.ch ;0041416371243
■Axel ‘s Restaurant (fine dining): 0041416370909
Previously in this series High in the Dolomites