IN THE PREDAWN darkness, as we stretch climbing skins over touring skis and shoulder our backpacks, the sky above is punctured by billions of stars. The only spot not filled with pulsating dots is directly in front of us, a giant black blade blotting out the heavens. This is Dammastock, an 11,909-foot peak in the Swiss Alps’ Urner mountains. Not another light intrudes on the entire Chelenalptal Valley. Soon, though, the sun will crack like a runny egg over the high ridge, lighting the way to our next evening’s hut, with its soft beds and cold beer—but not before it illuminates some great spring skiing. Church bells rise from the village far below, as if a valediction.
“Pity about the crowds,” our guide, Tim Connelly, deadpans as he steps into his skis on the second day of our five-day trip.
If you’re a backcountry skier, you no doubt know of the Haute Route, the classic hut-to-hut mountaineering route (or ski traverse) from Chamonix to Verbier. It’s high on the tick list of anybody who chases la neige sauvage. But in Europe, there are huts everywhere in the high mountains, and because of that, there are plenty of other ski routes to link them together.
A few years ago, Larry Goldie, a mountain guide and co-owner of Washington state’s North Cascades Mountain Guides, came across one he’d never heard of: the Urner Haute Route, a five-day trek through the Urner Alps of central Switzerland. In 2017, Goldie pointed his skis to die Schweiz and returned with tales of stunning views, comfortable huts, and skiing par excellence—all of which have earned the Urner the sobriquet “the skier’s Haute Route.” The tour has another, not-insignificant allure: There are few people here.
“I just love the idea of getting off the beaten path,” says Goldie, who has led clients on the other (crowded) traverse more than a dozen times.
To start the trip, our group of five clients gathered in the off-piste skiing mecca of Engelberg. As we cinch backpacks to start the trip, Goldie dispenses last-minute advice: “Move slow but steady all day,” he says. And manage your feet, he cautions. Blisters will ruin your week. Then we’re off, climbing past alpages, large meadows anchored by stone farmhouses where all that Swiss cheese begins. For a time, we ski atop a narrow road that corkscrews toward the treeless Furka Pass.
Four hours after starting out, I spy something perched on an outcrop above: tonight’s lodging, the Albert-Heim-Hütte. The hut is like most of the more than 250 owned by the Swiss Alpine Club that dot the Alps— half-hostel, half-hotel, with a design of rough stone and blond wood that feels more at home in the pages of Architectural Digest than hosting smelly skiers at 8,340 feet.
The beauty of these huts is more than skin deep. For about 60 bucks you get a bunk with a duvet, and a hut keeper who cooks your dinner and breakfast and, for a few bucks more, will pack your lunch for the next day. There’s even a bar and a coin-operated shower. When we arrive, we string wet gear in the warm air, then kick back with a thirst-beating radler on the sun-washed deck.
The next morning, 10 minutes out of the hut, Goldie puts me atop the steepest slope I’ve skied all year. I can’t see the bottom from the ridge-top. But I trust the guides and drop in anyway. The gully rolls toward vertical and pinches between two rock walls. Snow races past, but I stay upright. By the time I reach Goldie, my body is buzzing with adrenaline. “Thank you,” is all I manage to sputter.
Goldie’s beard splits into a 100-watt grin. “Sometimes the conditions let us ski stuff like that,” he says. We watch the other guys ski down and hoots of encouragement bound off the walls. Starting the morning like that makes the next 2,300-foot climb that much less tiring. And when we reach a col at the top, an untracked, 3,000-foot powder run awaits on the far side. That kind of lopsided reward will continue. Over 36 miles during our week, we’ll climb almost 17,000 feet. But we’ll ski down 19,000 feet.
The days take on a pleasing regimen: up before dawn, hot coffee and muesli, then out the hut’s door to get the bulk of the day’s climbing done while the snow is still cold and easy to grip. “Anytime you start out in the dark, once the sun comes up, anything that happened earlier gets washed away,” Goldie says on our third morning, as we ski up a white valley ringed by a jawline of peaks. It’s true. The first bars of sunshine hit the reset button and energize us.
A few times, in places where a misstep could leave a skier cartwheeling over a cliff, the guides short-rope us down—tethering us like wayward puppies on a leash. And once or twice, when the snow peters out on the climb, we throw skis on backpacks and climb up iron ladders that the Swiss have bolted to rock faces, our asses hanging in space.
Such moments provide just enough spiciness to keep things lively. For the most part, though, we travel slowly and steadily uphill, gawking at the views. When we do bump into another party of skiers heading out from the Steingletscher Hotel on the fourth morning—a group of students from the University of Basel—it’s jarring. I resent their presence. The guides let them push ahead, and soon we’re alone again.
On the deck of our hut on the final afternoon, Goldie and Connelly note a sun dog, or ring, around the sun. “Twenty-four to 48 hours before bad weather,” Goldie predicts. We may just thread the needle, and complete the tour, before a meter of snow is predicted to smother the Alps. After a four-course meal, we crash early, wake early the final morning, and shove off. Clouds boil on the southern horizon. Still, there’s time to top one last peak, 9,665-foot Grassen, with a 5,000-foot ski run—all the way to the valley floor.
We ski down to the wildflowers and a mountain road, and Goldie calls a taxi. Ten minutes after it arrives, we’re back at the hotel, drinking another radler, already reliving the trip, already talking about the next time.
How to Explore the Untracked Alps
North Cascades Mountain Guides offers seven-day guided trips on the Urner Haute Route each spring.
[$2,900 per person; ncmountainguides.com]
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