Alpine adventure - Urner Haute Route
The words are ringing in my ears, as they come from behind me at regular intervals, like a nagging chant you can’t escape. I struggle on upwards, step by step, breath by breath. The air is thin at this altitude, my general fitness level feels like a joke, and my thighs feel like two logs that I’m dragging myself around on.
To our guide, Markus Wey, I’m a typical example of someone who has overestimated their ability to cope at an altitude of 3,500m, compared with the lowlands. Markus is the one who’s behind me doing the nagging. He’s seen this many times before and he knows how to cope.
“Go at your own pace; find a rhythm. Slowly, slowly, then you’ll manage better,” he urges. And he’s right. When I take his advice, I can feel a world of difference. High altitude can be fun, but you have to go about it the right way.
Three days ago, we put our climbing skins on our skis and began the ascent from Realp, a small village just outside of Andermatt, up towards Albert-Heim-Hütte. This was the first leg of our five-day adventure, with our group of eight skiers with varying degrees of experience and two guides taking a summit tour across the breathtaking landscape from Andermatt to Engelberg in central Switzerland.
The tour is called the Urner Haute Route, with five days in the mountains and four nights in huts, and many call it “The Skiers’ Haute Route” because there are more meters in altitude to descend than there are to ascend.The perfect option for those who have done the classic tours and are looking for something away from it all. In other words, you can go a whole day without encountering anything other than croaking ravens. Quite simply, you’re off the beaten track.
We reach Albert-Heim-Hütte after four hours and are met by a stone house in a beautiful location on a rocky ledge. Many of the huts in the Swiss Alps are run by the Schweizer Alpen Club (SAC) and they are usually staffed by hosts. Which means they are warm and your meals are prepared for you. Others are unstaffed and, yes, without food and heating. Tonight, we’re grateful to at least have the chance to dry the inside of our boots. At five o’ clock the next morning, it’s time to put them on again, eat a hearty breakfast, and glide off on the next leg of our journey, just before the sun rises behind the mountaintops. It’s a truly magical feeling to ski in the semi-darkness, through virgin snow, and to see the mountains glow as the sun rises.
During these five days, the Swiss mountains offer an unforgettable adventure, wonderful and breathtaking downhills, and magnificent scenery.
Such as when, on the second day, we arrive on a pitch black but starry evening at the unstaffed Chelenalphütte, which was built during the early 20th century. Frédéric stands outside the door, scooping snow into a pan so he can cook the pasta for the Bolognese, and the primitive feeling of wilderness is crystal clear. Rarely has spaghetti with a meat sauce tasted as good as it did that night. Later, as we snuggle down to sleep, fully clothed, under the many woolen blankets on our beds, we realize that we’re a long way from home.
The feeling as we stand atop Sustenhorn, the highest peak on our Urner Haute Route, on day three is priceless. The journey here begins with a climb, skis on your back, of 300m in altitude at sunrise. Once up there, the climbing skins are back in action and we continue across a glacier. Four hours later, we’re standing by the big cross at the summit of Sustenhorn in the thin air at an altitude of 3,503m, and gazing out across the mountaintops, dominated by the mighty Matterhorn, the inspiration for Toblerone’s distinctive shape.
It’s at this point that I finally understand the repeated urgings of our guide Markus about taking it easy and going slowly. There’s simply not enough oxygen up here. The route down crosses the enormous Stein Glacier, between treacherous crevasses and ice-blue formations of snow and ice that only nature at this altitude can create.
At one point, after dinner on the fourth day, our guide Markus explains to me that summit tours have always been popular with the locals in this part of Switzerland, but that now they’re attracting a growing number of tourists.
“It’s a good mountain to tour, with a relatively low avalanche risk, but of course it depends on when and where you go,” he says, speaking as a man with 35 years’ experience working as a guide. The message is clear: Don’t come up here without a guide if you don’t have the experience.
The stillness, the feeling of being alone in the world, and the endless landscape that offers so much skiing – sometimes there’s too much to take in. The final day brings a run that never seems to end. We reach the summit of Grassen (2,946m above sea level) just before lunch and balance on the edge to take a selfie. Then there’s a downhill at breakneck speed behind the mighty Mount Titlis, down towards the valley in the shadow of the rock walls and across sun-drenched expanses, and before we lose momentum, we weave our way through wooded terrain and come to a final halt at a bus stop. Suddenly we find ourselves face to face with civilization again.
After ten minutes on the bus, we get off in Engelberg. Sat outside a bar, with the setting sun in my eyes, I look up towards Mount Titlis and realize that just a few hours ago we were skiing on the other side of that mighty peak. Then we were alone and there was total silence. Now they’re getting ready for the après-ski inside the bar.
Frédéric’s pasta Bolognese and a glass of wine with my sweaty summit tour companions in the dark at the unstaffed Chelenalphütte feels like another world. The real world.
From Realp via the Furka Pass to Albert-Heim-Hütte (2,542m above sea level).
Ascent: 1,000m in altitude
Steep descent, then up to Winterlücke. Steep descent again and down into the valley that leads up to Chelenalphütte (2,350m above sea level).
Ascent: 1,300m in altitude
Descent: 1,200m in altitude
Up to Sustenlimi with your skis on your back. Continue with climbing skins on your skis via the canton of Bern to Sustenhorn (3,503m above sea level). Descent across a glacier to Hotel Steingletscher (1,865m above sea level).
Ascent: 1,150m in altitude
Descent: 1,650m in altitude
Across Obertal towards Fünffingerstöck to Uratstock. Then down to Chli Sustli and up to Sustlihütte (2,257m above sea level).
Ascent: 1,300m in altitude
Descent: 900m in altitude
Up to Grassen (2,946m above sea level) near Titlis. Then all the way down to Engelberg (1,050m above sea level).
Ascent: 700m in altitude
Descent: 1,800m in altitude
Total ascent: 5,450m in altitude
Total descent: 5,550m in altitude (hence the name “The Skiers Haute Route”)
Text: Jonas Fond
Published: January 23, 2017
Last edited: January 30, 2017