“Where are you from?” asked the skier with a Swiss-German accent. It was a familiar question at this point. We were three days into a five-day ski outing through the Swiss Alps – known as the Urner Traverse – and we had yet to meet another American. Our American English accents stood out every time we spoke and the locals were understandably curious.
The Urner Traverse follows a circuitous route through the Urner Alps of central Switzerland for approximately 40 miles, connecting the two Swiss ski resorts of Andermatt and Engelberg. Its route is similar to that of the famous Haute Route, which connects Chamonix and Zermatt. But the Urner hasn’t caught the same attention from the international crowd, so it offers a slightly different experience.
Compared to other more popular alpine crossings, there are fewer guided groups, fewer Americans and non-Europeans, and a more local feel. But that wasn’t the only factor that brought us here. The Urner Alps often receive more snow than other areas of the Alps, and this season was no exception. The tour is also a favorite of the Swiss due to the many peaks to climb and ski along the route, which makes it even more appealing.
My wife and I first caught the bug of this style of ski travel after an initial foray onto the Haute Route in 2004. of this spring was our first overseas since the pandemic began. The mountains are beautiful and it’s fun to get from town to town on skis. But what got us hooked was the cabin experience and the amenities that made the adventure so enjoyable.
Unlike the huts we have here in Colorado, the European counterparts are larger – sometimes with capacity for 100 or more guests. They are also usually staffed, and this team will prepare breakfast and dinner. They offer a la carte lunch options for your day on the trail, and they even sell beer and wine.
It’s very convenient after a long day. This also results in a much lighter backpack since you don’t need to carry several days worth of supplies for your trip.
You can book individual bunk beds or private rooms, which include bedding. Leave your sleeping bag at home. A silk sheet is sufficient. Bathrooms are often a step up from Colorado outbuildings, sometimes even offering a proper shower. You might even find a hot tub or sauna available in some cabins.
You will still need your cross-country ski kit, clothing and personal belongings. But with food, water, and other cabin supplies, your pack might only weigh 25 to 30 pounds—pleasantly light for multi-day ski adventures in the mountains.
After a day of skiing at Andermatt resort, shaking off our jet lag, it was time to start. We loaded our bags and shipped our luggage to Engelberg by train, where it was stored until our arrival. What service.
From Andermatt, a 10-minute train ride brought us to our starting point in the small town of Realp. Spring had come early and the snow in the valley had melted. So our adventure started with a short drive on the Furka Pass road, made famous by the James Bond movie “Goldfinger”. Shortly after, we were on the snow and heading towards the Albert Heim hut.
A cabin staff member, called a caretaker, greeted us when we arrived. She offered an overview of everything – the gear room, the drying room, the bathrooms, our bunks, scheduled dinner time, quiet hours, etc. We dropped some gear, repacked for skiing and headed out for an afternoon tour. An hour later we were on our first peak of the trip, Chli Bielenhorn.
The snow was well within the spring cycle and the conditions on our afternoon visit were representative of what we would experience the entire trip – frozen snow in the morning and corn skiing in the afternoon.
After descending into the slushy snow, we were on the deck of the newly remodeled century-old stone cabin, having a beer, watching the sunset, and adjusting to the new surroundings and routine.
Over the next few days, we settled more into this routine. We got up early every morning, around 6 or 7 am, having breakfast, packing our gear and getting ready to ski. We usually left the hut around 7:30 am, alongside other small groups also aiming to ski down to Engelberg.
The ski tour always started with a steep climb to a pass or high pass. Then, if the weather was favorable, there was usually an option to climb a peak or two. A long descent usually followed and by early afternoon we reached our destination for the night.
We spent the afternoons settling in, drying our skins and booties, and changing from our ski clothes to our more comfortable cabin clothes. After that there was usually plenty of time to relax, have a beer, journal, read, plan for the next day, chat with other groups, etc.
As the days went by, the rhythm of the journey took over. We adapted to skiing with weight on our backs, and our pace and movement became more and more comfortable and efficient.
We also got to know the others who cross with us. The two Swedes from Stockholm were relaxed and often laughed at something. Two young German buddies always started early, aiming for important skiing goals. Not far behind them were two college students and aspiring guides from the Geneva region every day. They were always optimistic and excited. The Urner was their first ski crossing of the Alps.
There was also a second group of Swedes, two couples. Like us, they had many years under their belt and were quite laid back in their pace and attitude – treating it like a vacation, just like us.
You might hear four or five languages in conversations in the dining room at any time. Yet everyone also spoke English to some degree, and there were always questions about skiing in Colorado.
We crossed passes and peaks with foreign names like the Winterlücke, the Lochberg, the Fünffingerstöck and the Sustenhorn, which at 3,502 meters (11,490 feet) was the highest point of the trip.
On the morning of the fifth day we left the Sustli Hut and climbed a peak called Grassen. Two thousand meters below, we could see the lush green valley that led to Engelberg, our final destination. We took some pictures and said our goodbyes to everyone. After this descent, we would all go our separate ways.
Christy and I stayed at the top of Grassen for a while, enjoying it all, watching the others descend, each group at their own pace. We were grateful for the five days of good weather, without which we might not have been able to complete this whole route successfully. The favorable conditions also allowed us to climb nearby peaks every day – six new peaks in all.
All that was left was nearly 4,500 vertical feet of skiing. We took our time, enjoying the corn snow which got better as we descended. Arrived at the end of the snow, a little above the bottom of the valley, we continued on foot.
There was a lot to process as we descended to the valley floor through the postcard-like green and vibrant Swiss mountainside.
What a fun way to arrive in a new city. What a memorable adventure to end the ski season. But the main thought that crossed our minds – after a few years of restricted travel, we were back on a remote, feel-good skiing adventure.
Ted Mahon moved to Aspen to ski for a season 25 years ago and has been stuck in the Rockies ever since. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Instagram @tedmahon