A small Swiss Alps resort with enormous off-piste terrain was first choice for a boisterous group of Ski Canada readers.
Adam, stop talking, you’re exhausting yourself!”
by GEORGE KOCH in Buyer’s Guide 2018 issue
Sweat runs in rivulets down the florid face of the chatty Ski Canada Readers’ Trip photographer, smearing his sunscreen, stinging his eyes, and soaking his one remaining clothing layer as the others rustle and flap on his backpack bulging with camera equipment. Yet as we slowly stride upward on our climbing skins above one of Disentis’s alpine T-bars, already more than 1,500 vertical metres above the village, the Montreal-based Stein can’t help himself.
Adam disgorges a stream of anecdotes from his varied life and career: skiing at his family’s Mont Habitant in the Laurentians, skiing and life at Sun Peaks, wife, children, old girlfriends, heli- and backcountry skiing, time spent in race gates, photography, health, politics, music, smoked meat and bagels, and so on and seemingly ad infinitum. But rather than annoying, I find my new friend rather entertaining. Certainly it passes the time as we ascend the amphitheatre-like, sun-blasted cauldron and slowly head for the knife-edged saddle that, in a handful of final steps, should take us into virtually another world of winter.
Never having been on a Ski Canada Readers’ Trip, I’d expected to encounter a near-uniform, predictable and sedate group of middle-aged strong intermediates focused on sunny, relaxing days sliding around on groomed runs. But this mid-February trip was marketed to strong skiers looking to explore and I’ve instead found myself hosting an unruly horde of infectiously engaging, driven skiers aged 16 to 60+ who are determined to wring every drop of excitement out of every second of their mid-winter adventure in an isolated valley of Switzerland’s Inner Alps. (More on the meaning of “hosting” in a few paragraphs.)
It’s a Monday, jet lag is fading and the horde is dispersed all over the vast terrain of the three ski areas that make up the newly interlinked Disentis-Sedrun-Andermatt ski region. The ancient village of Disentis sits at one end, Sedrun in the middle and Andermatt at the western end, creating a corridor of skiable terrain more than 30 km in length. About half is lift-serviced, the rest, freeride and open touring terrain. A charming, narrow-gauge mountain train, included in the lift pass, runs between the three ski areas but lifts are being built that will connect first Sedrun with Andermatt and, eventually, Disentis with Sedrun.
The February Readers’ Trip package included a number of days with qualified local mountain guides or senior Swiss Snow Sports School instructors. Each Reader had selected the type of adventure that best suited them. And today, some are carving the three-area system’s long groomed runs—or pistes—under the expert tutelage of ski instructor Markus. Rather than “lapping terrain pods” a la North America, they’re riding successive lifts and skiing run after run with the objective of probing to the system’s outermost reaches in distant Andermatt.
Others in the group are with charming Adi, a tall, blond Swiss of Austrian descent who’s leading the group into some big off-piste terrain. Disentis has relatively few lifts but those it has rise more than 1,500 vertical metres. Even more remarkable, three huge off-piste valleys, each large enough to swallow one or two mid-sized Western Canadian ski areas and casually spit out the remains, begin directly at Disentis’s lifts. They provide multiple full-vertical, peak-to-valley lines requiring not so much as one uphill step, and funnel skiers back to the base area cable car. That’s where Adi and his lucky guests are roaming today.
Young mountain guide aspirant Curdin passing an assortment of alarmed skiers up the steel rungs of a vertical rock face ladder with three pairs of skis on his shoulder: “Hallo, vood you like me to carry your skis?”
A third group of readers is with Curdin, a young mountain guide “aspirant” (an advanced trainee rather than mouth-breather). Curdin has a number of the group’s teenagers with him. These are still wet-behind-the-ears guys whom we hope will make up for their dearth of big-mountain experience with enthusiasm and sheer jam. They’re off who-knows-where.
And we, Group 4, have spent our first several hours poking around some upper-mountain off-piste terrain, waiting for the highest T-bar to open while our Disentis-native guide Paul Degonda chats with friends in the local mountain language Romansch. A prodigy who passed the gruelling, multi-year Swiss mountain guide’s program at the arresting age of 24, Paul now has close to two decades of experience. Having encountered a dizzying spectrum of styles and attitudes amid the hundreds of guides I’ve skied with over the decades, I still marvel at Paul’s terrain knowledge and sheer boyish enthusiasm for skiing. If there’s just one remaining patch of untouched powder hidden within the region’s jumble of peaks, glaciers, hanging bowls and valleys, Paul will find it. Last season not being the most copiously dumped upon in Disentis’s, indeed, the Alps’ history, we’re in need of his keen senses.
In addition to Adam and me, Group 4 has editor Iain, wife Ray, one of the three MacMillan girls, Meg, and friends/roommates (though not lovers, allegedly) Holly and Trevor. Normally Paul frowns at groups bigger than four and balks at anything over six. I tried explaining this to Iain, but he applied his uniquely effective recipe of vagueness, feigned misunderstanding and unstoppable persistence to avoid the politics of booting neither wife, child nor photographer from the group.
Mountain guide Paul: “Okay, it’s 13:00, I sink vee have just enough time for one more run und still make ze 16:30 train home in ze après-ski bar car.”
Despite the warm sunshine of mid-February, there’s an icy northwest flow being accelerated to gale force by the ridge’s wind-tunnel effect, so we re-layer and gear up just below the ridge. Taking those last few steps the wind nearly knocks us back, but just down the other side is like entering another room and closing the door. It’s virtually calm once more.
The group is agog at the tableau: a vast valley of rippling, rolling, bulging lines and pitches, any previous tracks covered by newly blown-in powder. Hundreds of hectares and more than a thousand vertical metres at our command, beginning with a muscular opening pitch dropping 500 vertical metres at close to 40 degrees. Val Strem, one of Paul’s “king lines.” Rather, multiple king lines. With at least eight different ways to ski it. In North America, Val Strem would be big enough to form three or four ski areas, each of which would claim 80 or so “marked runs.” But here a treeless, roadless, undeveloped Swiss alpine paradise gets one name. And today, seven skiers. Far opposite rises the rocky south face of the 3,328-metre Oberalpstock, the area’s highest peak. Its backside can be skied—another king line accessible by touring from Disentis’s lifts.
Everyone’s turns are, needless to say, fabulous. Despite spring-like weather in the valley, the shin- sometimes knee-deep powder here is cold and consistent, the slight breeze sending up long plumes that hang suspended in the crisp air and sparkle in the sun. Stopping to set up for photos proves difficult to say the least. Pure magic. Pitch after pitch goes like this before we swoop into the U-shaped valley itself, tilted just enough to allow us to glide along.
Near the bottom 45 minutes later, an open creek requires crossing and threatens to swamp everyone’s boots, as we hopscotch perilously; Holly, Meg and Ray giggling while Iain and Adam try to photograph one of them falling in. Farther along we down our packs and sprawl against the sun-baked wall of a small hay-barn for a picnic lunch, then carve down the kids’ slope at the village of Sedrun, where we hop one of those little red trains back to the railway stop just a few minutes’ walk past some friendly donkeys to our home base of Lodge Sax.
After an afternoon big-mountain lap from a different T-bar into Val Gronda, “Big Valley,” the crew disperses to their rooms, to the terrace for some après-ski refreshments, or for a stroll through the old village of Disentis to check out its monastery with roots in the Dark Ages or the Zai skis manufacturing plant. Me, I wrench off my ski boots and dive into my office. Office? Yup. As a ski writer, normally I get to do touristy things and become a kind of combined skiing/resort/hotel/restaurant/nightlife/amenities critic. I’ll survey the scenes and scrutinize every aspect, from the crispiness of the pastries to the doneness of the meat to the serving staff’s couture and grooming, to the cleanliness of nooks and shower stalls. And then I’ll write about it.
But after nearly 30 winters of this, last season some deeply buried psychic need (defect?) prompted me to step into the firing line and actually operate something: Lodge Sax, owned by my old friend Jan Pfister. Iain wrote about my plans in “George’s Gap Year” (SC, Fall 2016). Now here I am, along with the light-of-my-life, Cindy. My days are a blur of 5:00 a.m. wakeups, two or three frenzied office/reception hours working on billings, reservations and last-minute logistics or guest-related hiccups, hopefully a few hours of skiing time, followed by an evening shift of staffing plans, wine orders, minor infrastructure repairs and arrangements for next week’s guests. Repeat until season’s end.
With the tables thus turned I feel under the gun, or rather, the combined guns of three-dozen demanding, world-travelling Canadians accustomed to four-star hotels, exotic global cuisine and service perfected to the tiniest detail. It’s mid-season by the time they arrive and I should be a hardened European hotelier (minus the customary cigarette wedged into the side of my mouth). Instead, I’ve become a flibbertigibbet. I flutter about, nervous and scared like a young girl cooking her first meal for her boyfriend’s mom, worried that something might be off and provoke the Canadians into uncontrolled rage.
Ha! I should’ve known that, first off, the hotel’s mostly Swedish staff know how important this group is to me. Restaurant manager Sabine, servers Sebastian and Jaana, kitchen chefs Joakim and Anna, housekeeping manager Susanna and of course Cindy are going all-out to make things great. I should have been confident that our multi-course dinners of Wiener schnitzel, poached salmon, broiled steak and meat fondue would go over just fine.
Then there’s the irrepressible positiveness if not naïveté of the Canadian traveller. Where the Swiss or Swedish guest will scold if not scream at the slightest departure from their expected standards, repeatedly I hear a reader remark, “So this is how they do things over here.” For all I know, they’re talking about a mountain hut’s stale crusts or sandpaper-like toilet paper, a café’s $7 cappuccino or the grocery store’s stratospheric prices for dental floss and AA batteries.
Also working in my favour is the universal lubricant. I soon notice most readers never appear to have received the Health Canada memo about longevity depending on limiting oneself to two “units” per day. Two per hour, beginning around 11:00 a.m. for some, seems to be the average.
And so it is. The days and nights go swimmingly. The hotel’s buzz is palpable. The grins are huge, the laughter raucous. Iain, Switzerland Tourism, The Vacation Station, sponsors Glerups, Helly Hansen, JYTTE and Bollé and I had aimed to offer a range of experiences in which each guest could find the right level of adventure—neither too overwhelming nor too tame for them—could live their dream, feel like the skier they want to be and, oh, relax and have fun. As I circulate among the guests before the dinners, I’m thrilled to find it’s working.
There’s Clark, a dedicated veteran skier from Vancouver who’s on the trip with three close friends. “George! George!” he says excitedly. “We not only made it all the way to Andermatt today, we did five great laps off the peak! We skied right until closing and bagged more than 30,000 vertical feet today!”
Alps virgins Sacha and buddy Charles, from Ottawa, who, along with several of the other Young Invincibles and guide Curdin had ventured out into the great world beyond the ski area. “We went uphill using those climbing skins,” Sacha gushes, “and then we skied an incredibly steep couloir where we had to first lower ourselves in by rope! This was the best day of my life. Times ten. Bar none.”
Smiley Sue Oakes, not the group’s most aggressive skier but someone who has triggered universal affection, is here with husband, Wally, and sons Matthew, Collin and Scott. “It was so lovely up there today,” Sue relates. “I skied runs that I didn’t think I could manage, and all the Pirates were so nice—they gave me the encouragement I needed.”
The infamous “Pirates” were nicknamed so by the time they’d boarded the airport transfer coach. From Oshawa, Ontario, they immediately staked their ground as the most relaxed skiers and most energetic partiers, keeping things at fever pitch from morning till midnight. The group’s visual centre of gravity is the impressive silver mane and even more arresting mutton chops of Chris, a Macedonian-Canadian restaurateur and tireless raconteur. They sustain the group-wide average alcohol consumption. My initial worries that they’d spell trouble, however, are soon dispelled, for they prove pussycats. When 5’4″, 110-pound Cindy tells them to pipe down, they actually comply. One of their smiley crew, Greg, is a long-time reader of my articles and can hardly believe he’s now going to be in one of them. Frustratingly, despite our best efforts, we never quite manage to ski together.
Iain, I see, has become a true “all-terrain editor” since our first trip to the Alps together two decades ago. He’s experienced enough to instruct his family to spread farther apart for safety during our ascents beneath towering avalanche slopes, regularly do shoulder checks or warn them upon approaching an exposed traverse or difficult crux. “Okay, Frauleins, pay attention, we’re in another ‘NATF’ zone.” (That’s MacMillan-speak for “Not Allowed To Fall.”)
Clutching a fixed rope, we’ve just slid down the rocky chimney that accesses one of Val Strem’s spectacular opening couloirs. I watch Iain smoothly hop-carve the steep opening pitch that, though wide enough for turns, soon funnels into a mandatory sideslip between tight rock walls. Another NATF zone that doesn’t faze him.
Papa MacMillan is justifiably proud of Ray and his girls Heather, Meg and Sophie, who now follow him anywhere, in any snow, virtually without fear. “When you don’t get what you want at home, you just ask the other parent,” explains 19-year-old Meg. “But skiing off-piste with my parents, I listen to my dad’s instructions—and then I look at my mum’s face to see if he’s pushing it too much.”
All week the weather forecast has teased us with hints of a brewing storm. At last, its vanguard wisps waft in. Although a dull drizzle besets the valley, I work to rouse the day’s crew of Holly, Trevor and the Group 3 lads Isaac, Errol and Jonah with promises of falling snow and/or sunny breaks up high. Sedrun’s upper pistes indeed offer a dusting of fresh over perfect corduroy, delightful carving to start the day. The off-piste is marginal, however, and all want to push onward for Andermatt’s 3,000-metre-high peak. There’s lashing rain as we cross Andermatt village on foot for the cable car, but just below the mid-station it becomes sleet then giant flakes. Luckily Andermatt’s two-stage cable car enables upper mountain laps.
Visibility is close to zero on the blizzard-bound peak and I navigate on memory and occasional glimpses of a cliff wall. But there’s already 10-15 cm over a soft base beside the pistes, so leaving the groomer becomes irresistible. Andermatt’s Gemsstock is a burly, complex, unforgiving mountain, and I need to keep the young group tight to avoid mishap. The unshakeable duo of Holly and reluctant Trevor provide the required chaperoning of the Young Invincibles, and we manage successive laps in progressively deeper snow. By 3:30 the upper pitches hold thigh-deep shots where the snow piles in beside rock walls. After our fifth lap, Jonah, whose father had discussed with Iain his wishes that his 19-year-old not develop an interest in off-piste skiing, murmurs, “I never want to ski another piste again.”
It could all go on forever, but suddenly the end of the week is upon us. After our delayed shipment of Glerups après-ski and dance felted footwear arrives to great fanfare, the Pirates demand a dance party, so the fondue feast tables are yanked toward the walls, our hard-partying waitress Jaana fires up the DJ gear and despite our 8:1 ratio of males to females, the hotel’s restaurant becomes a disco. The older the skier, the harder and longer they dance. The handful of Swedes working and staying at the hotel are impressed by the Canadians. Love it.
Hosting the Ski Canada Readers’ Trip was about as different a set of tasks as I ever expected to be given—yet became one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had. I hated to see them go. Then again, my body wouldn’t have withstood another week of Pirates.
Start planning: MySwitzerland.com
Refine your search at: Disentis3000.ch
Getting there: Swiss (part of Star Alliance) has daily non-stop service between Montreal and Zurich and codeshares with Air Canada. Swiss.com
With two transfers, the world’s most enviable train system (SBB.ch) will take you from the airport to within a few hundred metres of Lodge Sax’s sunny outdoor patio in Disentis, in two hours and 58 Swiss minutes.
It’s ski-in/ski-out, part Swiss, part Swedish, at: Lodge Sax. Seven nights, with breakfast and dinner daily, from about CDN$750 per person. Lodgesax.com
Lift pass options vary widely. Ticket-wicket, single-day pass at Disentis: about CDN$75; a six-day pass for Andermatt-Sedrun-Disentis, including train: $390.