If I told you that a Swiss mountain with just one red run and one black run from its summit was one of the most sensational ski areas in the Alps, would you believe me? Well you’d better because I have just clapped eyes on it properly for the first time, and it exceeded all expectations. During two earlier visits the mountain was immersed in a foggy, misty white-out – and my first visit was so long ago that it was my very first time on skis.
This time there wasn’t a single cloud in the sky for three days, the snow was sweet, and I can’t think of a single mountain in the Alps with such extensive or sublime off-piste. And there’s the rub. If you want groomed runs, forget Andermatt’s Gemsstock Mountain.
However, for lower intermediates there are some enjoyable pistes at Hospental, just up the road, and at Nätschen, on the “sunny side” of the valley – and also further afield at the Oberalp Pass (2044m), which can be accessed by mountain railway.
For hard-core skiers, Gemsstock (base 1445m, summit 2965m) is reached only by a two-stage cable car. From here you’ll gasp at the view of some of the highest peaks of four different cantons. And you could spend a week – a month even – on the same mountain, and never ski the same run twice.
Our guide was Andrea Enzio, a delightful, floppy-haired Roger Federer look-alike Italian, who comes here regularly from Alagna to lead the Ski Club of Great Britain’s Ski Freshtracks holidays. Even following his huge, sweeping and graceful turns we barely scratched the surface.
On our last day, as a break from the Gemsstock’s tantalisingly wild terrain, we set off by train for the more benign slopes of Nätschen, across the valley, and the Oberalp Pass. We could have got as far afield as Sedrun before skiing (almost) all the way back to Andermatt, apart from a brief train journey back over the Oberalp Pass. This will soon become unnecessary as a new lift connection is imminently planned.
Hand in hand with this is the major ongoing development, partly prompted by the departure of the 1400 Swiss Army troops, which had used Andermatt as a military base for decades. Soldiers once outnumbered skiers by around five to one. Although the army still uses the area for training, and soldiers can still be seen in some of the bars at night, they’ve pretty much moved out. Without an army to maintain its economy, the resort, facing an uncertain future and sometimes feeling like a ghost town, has warmly welcomed a wealthy Egyptian businessman’s backing for a major new luxury resort here.
Already well underway, with the recent opening of the impressive Chedi Andermatt Hotel, the project has been compared by the Andermatt authorities and officials of canton Uri to winning the lottery. Samih Sawiris’ decision to invest hundreds of millions of francs on the project has even been described as a “fairy tale from the Arabian Nights”.
The plans include building six “five and six star” luxury hotels comprising 844 guestrooms, plus 20-30 private villas, 490 apartment units, a sports and leisure centre, congress and concert facilities for up to 600 people, and an 18-hole golf course. The plan also envisages new lifts in the Nätschen-Oberalp Pass-Sedrun sectors of the ski area – where once upon a time the only up-hill transport was the railway and a rope tow above the station at Nätschen. How things have changed since then!
Arnie’s visit to Andermatt was organised by the Ski Club of Great Britain’s Ski Freshtracks programme. The Andermatt Escape (Weekend) for advanced skiers (Thursday 19 – Monday 23 March 2015) comprises four days with the mountain guides Andrea Enzio and Sandro Borini, staying at the 3-star Hotel Sonne. The cost, based on two sharing (half board) is £850 pp, and includes scheduled flights from Heathrow to Zurich and a two-hour coach transfer. Week-long trips are also available.
Arnie flew with Swiss International Air Lines. SWISS offers weekly flights to Zurich from London Heathrow, London City, London Gatwick (seasonal during winter), Birmingham and Manchester. Fares start from £65 one-way. For more information visit www.swiss.com.
Transfers were provided by the Swiss Travel System, which provides a range of combined travel passes and tickets by train, bus and boat – find out more at www.swisstravelsystem.co.uk