I watched Matilda carve five graceful arcs into the pristine powder bowl below me, then turn at the bottom and wave her ski poles triumphantly. Rebecca then etched her neat turns on to a ridge on my right, whooping at the sensation of virgin powder underfoot – powder well and truly earned after two hours’ ski touring to reach the 5,483ft peak of Walenalp.
I paused to savour the views across Switzerland’s deep Engelberg valley and the spectacular Titlis mountains, before taking a deep breath and launching into the bowl. I made one turn and, for a brief moment, flew effortlessly through crisp air that sparkled with snow crystals – before being deposited face-first in the snow.
Dusting myself off, I shouted down to the girls that I was fine and continued my descent, ego bruised but otherwise unscathed. At the bottom, their supportive noises restored some confidence. I considered how much easier it is to fall in front of girlfriends – even when one is a professional freeskier – than in front of male friends.
Male readers are probably now thinking two things: “Man up” and “Three female skiers in Engelberg? Unusual…” To address the first point, the growing popularity of women-only ski classes and clinics suggests that I’m far from alone in finding an all-female environment a more supportive and forgiving one in which to learn.
And the second – Engelberg, like other resorts with a “hardcore” ski image such as St Anton in Austria and La Grave in France, has challenging terrain, which tends to appeal to male skiers and deter female skiers in equal measure. The Ski Club of Great Britain’s 2011 Snowsports Analysis shows that the balance of male to female skiers was 58 to 42 per cent last winter, but I’d wager it’s more like 70-30 in Engelberg.
The resort’s annual Ladies’ Week changes this imbalance (albeit briefly) and, for women looking to improve their mountain skills, creates an inspirational environment in which to push at their limits and watch some of the world’s freeriding élite at play.
The premise is simple: female skiers and boarders who book at least four nights’ accommodation in Engelberg during Ladies’ Week (which runs from January 19 to 27 in 2013) receive a free lift pass for the duration of their stay, saving £136 on a four-day pass (£187 on a six-day pass). Participating women also benefit from a complimentary run with an instructor, spa access and a schedule of social events throughout the week, with free entrance to night clubs and drinks in selected bars.
The social element is key because Engelberg – the “Mountain of Angels” – is no angel when the sun goes down, boasting après-ski and nightlife to rival the Alps’ finest, particularly at weekends when locals from nearby Zürich and Lucerne arrive in force.
Our week had begun with a party in the lively Bierlialp club, where a sizeable number of local men welcomed the influx of plucky women to their resort. The following day, my girlfriends and I braved the revolving cable car for the ascent to Klein Titlis (9,934ft) and a horizon of countless snowy peaks – it is said you can see 80 per cent of Switzerland from this spot.
Engelberg’s ski area is located on both sides of the deep valley in which the town lies. The main ski area, Titlis, offers challenging and varied (often cold) skiing, while the south-facing Brunni favours more tentative skiers.
If you’re up for a challenge, you can ski “Engelberg’s Big Five” in a day: five off-piste runs (Laub, Galtiberg, Steinberg, Steintal, and Kleine and Große Sulz) that deliver 32,808ft of vertical descent.
Rebecca and I elected to work our way through the Big Five at a more gentle pace. Thus, on day one, we warmed up on Titlis before tackling the Laub, Engelberg’s best-known descent and the biggest single-face, lift-accessible vertical drop in the Alps. Offering 3,675ft of sustained 35-43 degrees pitch across a north-facing bowl the width of 10 football pitches, the Laub is the stuff of skiers’ dreams.
The following day, we enjoyed a top-to-bottom run with an instructor and some other “ladies”. It was a great opportunity to pick up technical tips, orientate ourselves on the mountain and meet our fellow women skiers. They hailed predominantly from Switzerland and Scandinavia (Engelberg often feels like Stockholm-on-Snow) and I recognised several of them from our hotel, the Ski Lodge.
A popular hotel, restaurant and bar, the Ski Lodge was created by a couple of Swedish professional skiers turned stockbrokers. The duo transformed two run-down buildings by the railway station into a hip 37-room hotel whose slick Nordic design, welcoming atmosphere and excellent restaurant have inspired other properties in town to pull their socks up.
Engelberg first made it on to the tourist map in the 19th century, when its splendid 12th-century Baroque abbey and glorious Alpine setting made it the perfect spot for recuperative summer holidays. However, while other Swiss resorts such as Zermatt and St Moritz pulled in winter visitors, Engelberg struggled to generate the same appeal, leaving it a legacy of once glorious yet faded Belle Époque hotels. Today, thanks in no small part to the success of the Ski Lodge, those old properties are being given much-needed facelifts: the dormitory-style rooms of the Hotel Bellevue have been morphed into designer rooms, complete with iPod docking stations and walk-in showers, and the Hotel Hoheneck has been stripped of old-school kitsch and given a smart lounge with honesty bar.
Over beers in the Ski Lodge on “Mad Monday”, I got chatting to the (then) manager of the lodge, Matilda Rapaport. In keeping with the ethos of the hotel, she is Swedish and a professional skier, a career she has subsequently chosen to concentrate on full-time. Matilda had suggested she join us ski-touring on Brunni the following day, a spontaneous idea that had brought us to the powder of the Walenalp.
Having regained my confidence after my early tumble on the mountain, I revelled in the long, varied descent to the hamlet of Schwand, where we stopped to enjoy lunch on a sunny terrace overlooking Engelberg.
My mind was already turning to the complimentary spa session the “ladies” were to be treated to that evening. However, Matilda and our guide, Thomas, had other plans. Apparently, there was enough time to ski down to Engelberg, ride up to the top of Klein Titlis and tick off another of the Big Five, the 6,560ft vertical descent of Galtiberg.
It was a big call, but Matilda assured me it would be well worth the effort for powder bowls, couloirs and dramatic canyons, so I wolfed my rösti and followed her down the mountain. Only two days into Ladies’ Week and I still had three of the Big Five left: snowshoeing, Party Wednesday and Fondue Friday to come.
Original article published in The Daily Telegraph, in December, 2012