This is what being a toddler must feel like, I think, as I haul myself up for the tenth time in 20 minutes. Correction. As I try to haul myself up. My legs are splayed in an unladylike manner. My hair is flecked with snow. My right glove has come off and one of my ski poles has fallen eight feet away. To add insult to injury, a darling little girl, aged maybe five, in a pink jumper swishes by, waving her polka-dotted mittens at me as she passes. “Don’t be so hard on yourself,” Peter Niedelberger, my ski coach for the day, says laughing as he gives me a hand. “Children in Switzerland learn to ski as soon as they can walk.” I heave myself up, take a tentative step, and slip right back down again. We haven’t even reached the slopes yet.
I’m at the Titlis ski area in Engelberg, a picturesque resort town near Lucerne in the German-speaking part of central Switzerland. Perched at 3,281 feet above sea level, Engelberg is surrounded by mountains that are carpeted with fragrant alpine grass for most of the year. For a few months however, these slopes are covered in a thick, spotless blanket of snow, drawing winter sport enthusiasts from around the world. But this is not only for those familiar with winters and winter sports. I’m here after all, a complete newbie to ice and snow activity, but enjoying this winter season.
In March, the town is buzzing with energy. The hotel lobby is filled with the chatter of groups in neon ski suits. The excitement in their voices is infectious. There are also large, raucous families here on vacation. As I tucked into my bratwurst at dinner the night before, I saw doting grandfathers, mummies herding their families together for pictures, and couples bonding over glasses of wine. There were more accents in the dining room than kinds of meat in the buffet.
Like most newbies, I was a little nervous at the thought of my first ski lesson, but mostly I was excited at the thought of whizzing down slopes, wind in my hair, scarf trailing behind me. It seems laughable now, as I struggle to stand in my ski boots. In the last 30 minutes, I have been vertical for all of 30 seconds. Thankfully, the snow is powder soft. The pain I feel comes from embarrassment rather than physical injury. With every tick of the clock, this ski lesson seems increasingly futile.
But it isn’t. By the second hour, I can do more than just stand upright: I can actually ski down a small slope from start to finish. I might be moving at a precious 20 km/hr but it is thrilling nonetheless. Around me, people of all ages race down the slopes, knees bent, elbows folded, faces pinched in concentration, leaving winding trails behind. I turn around to look at my own ski trail: a wonky line that comes to a halt about 20 feet from where it begins. Not too shabby for a beginner, I wager. Maybe in a few days, under Peter’s tutelage, I too will be able to ski alongside the Swiss. But first, my coach and I have another matter to attend to.
We stomp our way to the bar at the Iglu-Dorf Engelberg for hot chocolate fortified with generous quantities of rum. Just the shot in the arm I need before I tackle these slopes again.
Where to Ski Engelberg is close to three ski areas: Mt. Titlis, Mt. Brunni, and Bannalp. Titlis ski area is the most popular (and the largest ski area in Central Switzerland) with 25 lifts and 82 km of slopes. Mt. Brunni has 7 km of slopes and is ideal for families with small children since it also has the Yeti children’s adventure park and Globis Winterland, a snow playground for children. Bannalp is the most secluded of the three with only two ski lifts.
Hiring Equipment Skiers of all levels need to hire boots, skis, poles, and a helmet from ski rental stores in Engelberg (about CHF68/₹4,500 for a single day). Equipment can also be booked online at websites like swisspasses.com and www.intersportrent.com (about $117/ ₹7,800 for 3-day rental, pickup at resort). The longer the duration, the more cost-effective it is.
Getting to the Slopes During ski season, buses transport visitors to the cable car station at the foot of the mountains free of charge. Prices of cable car rides vary and can be purchased on arrival or online in advance at a discount. If you are skiing or plan on spending the day exploring Mt. Titlis, a day pass is a good idea (CHF63/₹4,201). Passes also available for longer durations.
Getting a Guide Engelberg has three main ski schools: Prime Ski School, Ski & Snowboard School Engelberg Titlis, and Boardlocal Engelberg Snowboard School. Each offers individual and group sessions for skiers of all levels. Lessons last for a minimum of 2 days (about CHF160/₹10,700 per head for 2.5 hr sessions over 2 days). Private lessons begin at CHF115/₹7,700 for 1.5 hours and go up to CHF450/₹30,200 for 7 hours.
There’s plenty to do on Mt. Titlis even if you want to give skiing a miss.
With activities like skiing, snowboarding, and cliff walks on the agenda, cable car rides might not seem like the most thrilling thing to do, but they yield awe-inspiring views of the icy landscape. The second part of the two-part cable car journey up to Mt. Titlis is on the Titlis Rotair. The circular gondola slowly rotates 360° on its way up, affording panoramic views of rock faces and snow-covered peaks. The snow, sometimes soft, other times hard and moulded into crevasses and deep gorges, is delicate and brutal at once. Keep your eyes peeled for mountain goats hiking for their supper or trekkers making their way up the slope. The more adventurous (and energetic) like to hike up and then ski or snowboard down. But if you want to conserve your energy reserves, just cruise over a carpet of snow, legs dangling, in the Ice Flyer chairlift to reach the ski slopes. (Cable car tickets are CHF63/₹4,201 for a single trip and CHF89/₹5,934 for a round trip; Ice Flyer costs CHF12/₹800. Excursion prices come at a 50 per cent reduction with a Eurail or Swiss Travel pass.)
Exiting the cable car station atop Mt. Titlis elicits a laugh from most Indian travellers. Standing in the blistering cold is a life-size cardboard cut-out of Kajol and Shah Rukh Khan in their avatars from Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge. Further ahead is the Cliff Walk, which is well worth the queue you might have to wait in to get on it. Though incredibly sturdy, crossing this suspension bridge is a heart-thumping experience. A part of me wanted to finish the walk as quickly as possible (it’s roughly about 150 steps) but another demanded I slow down to feel the full force of the wind and soak in the view. There’s a camera set up mid-walk so visitors can get a picture of themselves crossing Europe’s highest hanging bridge which is 330 feet long and only three feet wide, sitting at a vertigo-inducing 1,500 feet above a glacier. The Glacier Cave is a tunnel cored through a part of the Titlis glacier, 66 feet under its surface. It’s a slippery stroll but walking through the tunnel, running your hands over its rippled surface, and reading the signboards along the way, gives you a sense of how large and old glaciers are. (Entry to the Titlis Cliff Walk and Glacier Cave is free. Open daily depending on weather.)
Tubing is perfect for those seeking fun minus the aches and pains. Each person is given a rubber tube, or a minibob (a plastic toy shaped like a rocking horse but with a flat base). Once seated, the tuber is given a push down a steep, narrow slope with curved, high walls. Gravity takes care of the rest, and pretty soon (under 30 seconds) the tuber is at the base of the slope, most often laughing like a child on a school trip. The snow toys go incredibly fast but the best part is that everybody falls in the end, and nobody gets hurt. It’s surprisingly addictive and I spent a very happy hour going up and down. Added benefit: It’s free of charge and no instructor is required.
For a break between activities, head over to the al fresco bar at Iglu-Dorf Engelberg: a few dozen beanbags, wooden tables, and a clutch of speakers surrounding a counter carved out of ice. Get a weissbier or a mug of hot chocolate with more rum than milk and kick back with the skiers taking a breather between rounds. The ice hotel is carved anew every winter and has dormitories and romantic suites decorated with warm rugs, lanterns, and intricate snow carvings. Rooms have expedition-grade sleeping bags (for two, if needed) to keep visitors warm, an open-air jacuzzi for late night dips, and a restaurant with furniture made entirely out of ice that serves top-notch food and wine (open from end-Dec until Mar/Apr depending on the weather; doubles from CHF259/₹17,335).
The Engelberg monastery looks deceptively simple from the outside. However, step through the magnificent wooden doors, and you enter a baroque chapel that crackles with energy, especially if one of the friars is practising on the church organ. The ceiling has detailed frescoes depicting the life of Christ and the altar is a specimen of fine wooden carving, one of the many skills practised by the Benedictine monks who live here. The abbey also has its own cheesemaking unit (and a store) where visitors can sample and purchase Gouda, feta, Brie, and the unique bell-shaped cheese known as Engelberger Klosterglocke. Other souvenirs like bottles of mountain herbs, goat milk soaps, and essential oils are also available (www.schaukaeserei-engelberg.ch/texte/schau-en; no entry fee to abbey).
Appeared in the February 2016 Swiss Special issue as “Winter Adventures on Mt. Titlis”.
Engelberg is a 35 km/30 min drive south of Lucerne and 86 km/1 hr 15 min drive south of Zurich via Lucerne. By rail, it is a 45-min train ride from Lucerne and a 2-hr journey from Zurich. There are free buses to transport travellers from Engelberg railway station to their hotels and from most hotels to the ski base at Mt. Titlis.
Intensity While it isn’t necessary to be in great physical shape to take your first ski lesson, know that there will be a fair amount of falling involved.
is Nat Geo Traveller India's perpetually hungry Web Editor. She loves exploring food markets or better still, foraging for new kitchen ingredients. She hopes to have a farm near the mountains someday. She tweets and instagrams as @nehasumitran.
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