Thursday, February 25, 2010

Andermatt - the end is neigh

After a month in Andermatt, it is clear that this isn't a resort for every skier. If cruising groomers on perfect corduroy is your thing, you'd be better off heading for Val d'Isere, St Anton or Meribel. However, for powder and open terrain, this place - at least of the places we've been - is hard to beat. It is also true that this place isn't solely for the extreme rider - on the contrary, Andermatt has a lot to offer for the competent skier wishing to take the first steps off the beaten track. From our experiences here, some recommendations if you're thinking of coming here to ski.

1. Get some basic (at least) understanding of avalanches, and make sure you carry, and know how to use a transceiver, shovel and probe. All the quality riding here is in avalanche terrain. If you're an occasional skier - get a triple antenna, digital transceiver, as this will save you valuable minutes. Get a metal shovel - polycarbonate ones just won't work. Get a rucksack capable of ski-carry, and make sure that you can put the skis on your pack and get them off again whilst wearing your gloves or mitts of choice. Sure, this is expensive stuff which you hopefully will never need to use, but it's worth getting your own, rather than hiring it, as you will get used to your own kit. Andermatt has a very nice avalanche training facility - just punch in the number of victims, and a time, and start searching. If you can't find a single burial within 5 minutes, you need to practice more before heading out. You should demand that your riding partners can locate 3 burials within 15 minutes, and they should demand the same of you.

2. Get some touring-capable kit - even if you don't envisage doing any actual touring. Being able to release the heel of your bindings is a great help on pole-outs, if nothing else. However, being prepared to skin even for 15 minutes opens up a host of possibilities. It really isn't any more difficult than hill walking. Strenuous, certainly - especially at altitude. Touring boots have Vibram soles which is a great help when boot-packing with the skis on your pack. If you're renting kit, note that fat, rockered skis don't really work for skinning.

3. Get a map. There is a freeride map available showing the regions with their associated level of difficulty. It also shows some of the 'up' routes for skinning. If you're thinking of doing any more touring, it's worth getting a proper ski-touring map. There is a whole series of them, showing both ups and downs. Annoyingly, Andermatt itself sits right in the corner of 4 different sheets. We got the 'Disentis-Muster' ski tour sheet, as this shows the area most accessible on the train, and the freeride map for the area around the Gemsstock. The Swiss maps are beautifully constructed, unsurprisingly, and the ski touring maps are about 23 SFR. There is also a larger-scale walking map that has better coverage for the Andermatt-based, but it lacks the marked routes. However, if you're a seasoned navigator it may be another option.

4. Consider using a guide. A guide is a short-cut to having fun, and well worth it when coming to an unfamiliar place. If there is a group of you, the cost is easier to bear. Having a guide showing you around for a day or two is likely more beneficial to your health than following other people's tracks if you don't know where you're going. Although a guide isn't an instructor, you will learn a lot from them.

5. Wear a helmet. You probably do anyway, as most skiers and boarders have already reached the same conclusion. For riding in unknown, unsecured terrain there are no excuses not to.

6. Don't - ever - ski the main piste back down to the village. It's horrid. Make your last run of the day be either Felsental (which drops you right at the lift base station, if you're clever), or one of the back bowls feeding into the Avalanche Alley pole-out (Unteralp, by its proper name). Failing that, swallow your pride and take the lift down - your skis will last longer!

7. Note that the valley is prone to cloud inversion, so even if it looks like a complete white-out from your window, the sun may well be beating down on the top of Gemsstock.

8. The kit shops in the village are well equipped, but - even by ski resort standards - very expensive. Lift passes are very reasonably priced, however. A four week pass is less than a one week pass in Colorado or Washington.

9. Alt Apothek is a very nice, low-key bar in a posh hotel where it is pleasant to have a drink apres-ski. They also do nice food, and with 30 mins free WiFi for customers. Note that a 'large chips' is a bowl of crisps. People with baggy clothes and unkept hair seems to prefer the Spycher Bar.

10. Goechenen train station has three platforms, numbers 1 and 2, and the somewhat Harry Potteresque number 13. You want number 13, which is out the door, to the right where you pick up the little cog train the Matterhorn-Gotthard Bahn.

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