When I Looked down into the vast ski terrain of Andermatt for the very first time I immediately understood what all the fuss has been about. Our Italian Guide, Andrea, a mixture between the suaveness of Roger Federer and the intensity of a Jedi Knight looked ahead, ‘follow me’ he said, and we did. Andrea is one of the few people to have skied the Matterhorn and it showed – he seemed to dominate one of the Alps most dominating mountains, the Gemsstock.
Fortunately our group were all able skiers and we took full opportunity of the recent snowfall, combined with the clearing skies. I was on a Freshtracks trip, run by the Ski Club of Great Britain and aimed at people who want to ski off-piste with qualified mountain guides in exciting, world-class resorts, also accompanied by a ski club leader. There’s no instruction, just pure solid skiing with a highly experienced local guide who knows how to find the best spots.
After a couple of warm up runs on the piste (there’s two pistes on the upper Gemsstock, one red, one black, both empty on this mid-February morning and groomed to perfection), we dropped over onto the St Anna Glacier and into a huge off-piste area called the Felsental. For anyone who enjoys off-piste skiing and has experienced some the Alps most famous areas (think Verbier, Zermatt, St Anton and La Grave), the Gemsstock is like waking up on a cold, damp and grey morning and discovering that it’s actually Christmas Day and you’re eight years old.
What a revelation. The first thing that hits you is the sheer size of the mountain and the available off-piste (or Freeride) terrain that’s all around you, mostly north facing so it holds the snow well. It’s also easily accessible and whilst you wouldn’t want to ski it without a guide, there’s no real ‘shock moments’ getting into the off-piste areas.
The next thing that gets you is the lack of people. Yes, there are tracks all over the mountain, but no-one seems to be around and there’s certainly plenty of options available, several days after the last heavy snowfall. You can choose your lines here and there’s options for everyone whether you’re just getting into off-piste skiing or you’re looking for steeper, more challenging slopes.
Making our way down through the Felsental during our 45 minute descent we skied wide open bowls, narrow gullies full of powder snow, natural half-pipes and finally into a section with small trees and bushes that provided a bit of a challenge towards the end – although there was powder snow all the way down, in what is a fifteen hundred vertical meter descent, ending in the village of Hospental (1453 meters) where an ancient roadside Inn (Gasthaus St Gottard) serves traditional Swiss food and the bus transports you directly back to Andermatt in under five minutes.
The two section cable car from the town takes you quickly up to the 2,963 meter Gemsstock peak. It’s a basic lift system and not particularly modern compared to major resorts in Switzerland, but it seems to shift people pretty quickly and there was very little queuing, although at peak times this can apparently be an issue.
There’s also not many other lifts on the mountain, a couple of slower chairs, but these are merely side dishes and not the main focus – for me, the cable car accessed terrain easily provides the starter, main course and dessert in one hit and if this was a restaurant, it would be equivalent to the one housed in the Hotel Chedi, a five star hotel with a two starred Michelin Chef that opened for the 2013/14 winter season.
The town of Andermatt is dominated by the new hotel, but in no-way is it a blot on the snowscape – in fact the soft wood façade blends immaculately with the smaller and charming old chalets that surround it. Situated at over fourteen hundred meters, Andermatt is a snow sure place and has one of the best snow records in Europe, partly due to its location in the centre of the Alps where it catches the storms coming in from all directions.
There’s an old school Swiss quaintness about the town that’s retained a local feel whist tourism continues to grow. There are big plans here – the Egyptian investor, Samih Sawiris, who founded the Chedi Hotel is also expanding his portfolio to include more hotels and apartment blocks. The evolution of the town, formally a major Swiss army garrison for centuries until very recently, will now look towards tourism as its main raison d’etre.
There’s plans for the skiing too, and whilst the Gemsstock hosts the ultimate freeride terrain that’s craved more and more by the ski enthusiast, there’s a whole separate area stretching from the opposite end of the town, across into the neighbouring Canton of Graubünden (Andermatt is in the smaller Canton of Uri) and the village of Dieni, near to the town of Sedrun – the ski region therefore named as Ski Arena Andermatt – Sedrun.
This area has a very different feel and the slopes are mostly blue’s and red’s, catering for beginners, intermediates and families. There’s a huge contrast in two areas and you could be in a different resort altogether when on the south facing slopes of the Gütsch Mountain that tops out at 2,344m.
Right now, the connection is still only possible by taking a train between Nätshchen (the mid station of Gütsch, just above Andermatt) to the Oberalppass, where you can then continue skiing across to Dieni, but within the next two years, this connection will be completed with a number of ski lifts linking the two together. The combination of the two areas and the expansion of the town’s facilities will establish Andermatt as one of Switzerland’s leading resorts. Will it change the exclusive feel of the Gemsstock Mountain? Perhaps a little, but that exclusivity will always be governed by the ability of skiers to enjoy its terrain and the Sedrun side certainly felt busier and more commercial.
Because the focus of a Freshtracks holiday is to search out the best powder snow, we spent most of our time on the Gemstock and continued to explore areas of the mountain that opened up vast bowls of high-altitude powder fields. Diving (it felt a little like that) off the back of the Gemstock right at the top lift station, with a short ski down, brings you the start of a short but sharp hike of around two hundred meters. It takes about twenty minutes to walk, but provides access to what’s known as the Guspis, a whole new glacial valley running parallel to the Felsental. Like its neighbour, the descent is long and varied and eventually you end up on the St. Gotthardpass road, open only in the summer and providing our group with an easy, quick descent back into Hospental.
It’s important to remember that this area should only be tackled with a qualified Mountain Guide (UIAGM) – a Mountain Guide is someone who has spent several years training in high-altitude mountaineering and skiing and they are the only people qualified to lead skiers into glaciated off-piste terrain. Even the highest qualified ski instructors in Switzerland are forbidden to take their clients into somewhere like the Guspis. The added bonus with a Freshtracks trip is that you also have a qualified Ski Club of Great Britain Ski Leader with the group too, meaning that there’s someone at the back should it be required.
Andermatt is a truly unique and special place – when entering or leaving, whilst by road or rail (trains from Zurich Airport efficiently provide transport with a couple of changes), you feel like you’re in your very own mountain enclave. It’s not a party town, it doesn’t have rows of shops with designer labels, but it does have a petrol station used in a scene from James Bond’s Goldfinger filmed in 1964, and if all of the above isn’t a reason to come, then that definitely is.
Andermatt Trip Video Summary
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Freshtracks from the Ski Club of Great Britain:
Andermatt Escape (Weekend)
For advanced skiers.
Four days with mountain guides: Andrea Enzio and Sandro Borini
Cosy & centrally located 3*star hotel
Evening flights and short transfer
Thursday 19 March – Monday 23 March 2015
4 nights stay at the 3* Hotel Sonne, half board, twin share.
Cost £850pp, includes scheduled flights from Heathrow to Zurich and a 2hr coach transfer.
Full Details: Andermatt Escape 2
Andermatt Adventure (Week)
For advanced skiers.
-Six days with mountain guides
-Four separate ski areas to explore
-North facing, snow sure slopes offering brilliant off-piste skiing
7 nights at the 3* Hotel Sonne with half-board, twin share.
From £1,099 includes rail transfer. (Excludes flights)
Full Details: Andermatt Adventure 3
Swiss International Air Lines
UK to Zurich:
SWISS offers up to 86 weekly flights from London Heathrow, London City, London Gatwick (seasonal during winter), Birmingham and Manchester to Zurich.
Fares start from £65* one-way. Fares include all airport taxes, one piece hold luggage and free ski carriage (exclude “hand luggage only” fare). (*Please note this is a leading fare and is subject to change, availability and may not be available on all flights. Terms and conditions apply.)
For reservations call 0845 6010956 or visit: www.swiss.com.
Swiss Travel System:
The Swiss Travel System provides a dedicated range of travel passes and tickets exclusively for visitors from abroad. The Swiss Transfer Ticket covers a round-trip between the airport/Swiss border and your destination.
Prices are £104 in second class and £167 in first class.
Telephone 00800 100 200 30 or visit www.swisstravelsystem.co.uk.
Rob used the Purple Parking Meet & Greet service at Heathrow Airport – perfect for short ski trips: www.purpleparking.com/airports/heathrow.htm