Back country skiing in the Engelberg valley

I have often heard it rumoured that in the Engelberg valley lurk many hidden stashes of lift-served back country off-piste. From Titlis itself there are several areas of off-piste, the Laub being the most famous. There is also one route off Klein Titlis itself down towards Trübsee via the Steinberg some friends of mine have skied, although I have not tried it myself.

I know you can ski from the top of the Fürenalp cable car – again I have not tried it, but I know there is a trail back down to the valley floor which I guess presents at least one option. The lift company identifies a 1000m toboggan run, a 1500 winter walk and snowshoe trail as well as ski touring options at the top. There is also a restaurant. One to add to the list for sure.

Anyway, I came across an article at Worldcrunch which finally addressed the rumour. Apparently there is a lift, Sesselbahn Brisen, which ascends the Haldigrat below Engelberg to provide access to a large unprepared area of snow from 1937m.
Sesselbahn Brisen - photo: raffaconzinu via Instagram
The owner of the lift, Kurt Mathis, is quite famous, apparently, and the lift is possibly not as obscure as I had thought – even featuring in a film and having its own website. The lifts operate 9am-4pm at weekends and on public holidays in the winter season. Kurt’s wife, Antoinette, runs a restaurant and guesthouse at the top. A webcam is here. To get to the Haldigrat by train, take the Engelberg service from Luzern and get off at the request stop Niederrickenbach Station, just after Dallenwil, then take the cable car to Niederrickenbach itself and take a sign-posted 30-minute walk on a broad and well-maintained path to the valley station of the chairlift from Alpboden up to the Haldigrat. There is parking at the bottom of the Niederrickenbach cable car. Although there are no recorded fatalities or significant avalanche risks, the ski area is not only unprepared but also unpatrolled.

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Skiing in Scotland

Although I am a huge fan of skiing in Switzerland, I actually learnt to ski in Scotland, on the Cairngorm. And, although I have managed to visit every significant Swiss ski resort, I can claim to have skied ALL of the Scottish resorts. Well, all five of them – Switzerland has over two hundred.

The shortcomings of Scottish skiing are several. The weather is unpredictable, the verticals are relatively small and the public transport access is poor. However, I have had some fabulous days skiing in Scotland. Cairngorm is the best known, Nevis (with a top station around 1200m) is the highest and Glenshee the most extensive; all three, on a good day, are glorious resorts to ski and well worth the visit – as good as some of my favourite medium-sized Alpine resorts. Glencoe and the Lecht are more limited, but the Lecht is convenient for where my family live and is good to get a few turns in.

One of these days I may well put together a microsite on Scottish skiing, but in the meantime I can commend an excellent infogram on Scottish skiing, provided by Sainsbury’s Bank. They also have some basic information on each of the resorts.

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Where is the Cheapest Place to Ski?

The Crystal Ski Industry Report 2014, produced together with Post Office Holidays in the UK, has assessed a number of ski resorts popular with UK package tour travelers. They have worked out average costs in resort for a package consisting of lift pass, rental and ski school and also for an average lunch. As a result they have come up with their idea of where the cheapest place to ski is. I don’t claim to be surprised with the outcome. I have applied an index to the figures based on an average of 100 to come up with relative prices. Essentially you can read it this way: you can get almost three days in Bansko for the price of one in Zermatt. Since Zermatt is much more likely to give you good snow conditions, has better scenery, apres ski and food, is easier to get to and has five times as much piste you could actually argue Baski is over-priced, but I have had some great ski holidays in Bulgaria and I wouldn’t knock it. However I think the independent traveller, with or without a family, doesn’t need to go to Eastern Europe to find value for money.

The top American resorts seem over-priced compared to the best European resorts, and add to that the cost, time and ecological impact of getting there from Europe, it seems wise to leave them to the natives. Again, I have had some great skiing in North America, but I lived there at the time and it was on my doorstep.
Matterhorn in Zermatt
So the eternal debate is, where is the best value resort to ski or snowboard in the Alps? Italy does well, and can only be faulted on the longer transit times required to get there. For a great ski experience on a tight budget, it is probably the best value. My personal favourite in Italy – if you are watching the pennies but want a great experience – is Madesimo. The best of Austria and France seem comparably priced, with a small price premium associated with Switzerland down to the strong Swiss Franc.

The report actually showed Switzerland gaining market share in 2013/4 over 2012/3, with 6.5% of the market – largely at the expense of France. The report claims prices are going down, but that is surely down to the strong pound since all prices are converted to sterling. Overall the report doesn’t change my perspective, which is that you get what you pay for. The ski and snowboard market is very competitive and the biggest mistake you can make is not about how much you pay, but that what you pay delivers what you want. I would never recommend Zermatt to a family of beginners, but for a competent skier I would recommend you put it on the list of places you visit before you die.

Anyway, on that sobering note, here are the indicies:

 

Resort Country Index
Bansko Bulgaria 54
Kranjska Gora Slovenia 62
Ellmau Austria 64
Livigno Italy 66
Soldeu Andorra 68
Sestriere Italy 73
Morzine France 75
Ruka Finland 78
Val Gardena Italy 84
Les Deux Alpes France 87
Mayrhofen Austria 87
Serre Chevalier France 87
la Thuile Italy 89
Kaprun Austria 89
Courchevel France 104
Val d’Isere France 104
Kitzbühel Austria 111
St Anton Austria 116
Tremblant Canada 117
Saas-Fee Switzerland 118
Wengen Switzerland 122
Winter Park USA 125
Banff Canada 136
Breckenridge USA 141
Zermatt Switzerland 142
Whistler Canada 146
Vail USA 155
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Indoor skiing in the Netherlands

Researching for my new Dutch language ski website, I found that the Netherlands has a few indoor ski and snowboard areas. Of course, they do not compare to the Alps, but they have real snow and give you a good opportunity to try out a couple of turns. What’s more they are relatively inexpensive and try to have something of a ski resort ambiance.
Red Run in Snowworld

There seem to be ski areas in a number of areas – see Skihal.com. Most convenient for me is the Snowworld ski and snowboard centre at Zoetermeer, on the route between Den Haag and Utrecht, so I checked it out one lunchtime.

The ski area is well signposted once you get to Zoetermeer, and boasts three slopes – a blue run, a park with rails and jumps and what is classified as a red run (20% incline). There are nine lifts and good long opening hours throughout the year. Conveniently the Snowworld web site is in English as are some of the brochures. Four hours would set an adult back 40 Euros, and a child or senior 34 Euros, with equipment hire between about 4 and 12 euros for the same period depending on what you want etc. As you would expect there are bars, restaurants, various discounts, specials, ski and snowboard school and even a hotel if you want to stay over.
Entrance Lobby at Snowworld
The downside? Well for an experienced skier or snowboarder only the rails and jumps would set your pulse racing, and the runs are too short to really improve an already advanced technique, but it is good for finding your ski legs or for checking out some new kit. It is real snow, and so it is cold and you do need to bring a hat, gloves and winter clothes if you want to avoid getting cold. And, of course there is no sunshine – the entire complex is roofed.

For beginners, early intermediates and people wanting to perfect their technique in the park, however, it is ideal, and a nice way to prepare for the real thing.

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