Mastering the ski slopes in Engelberg, Switzerland

Learning how to ski was a steep learning curve for Eoghan O’Sullivan in Engelberg.

I don’t remember falling this often when I was learning to ride a bike. Turn left — fall. Lean right — fall. Stop — fall intentionally because those tree trunks in the distance look a little too close for comfort.

Maybe they should introduce stabilisers for skis. It would make life a lot easier for people still coming to grips with the sport of leaning-slightly-forward-while-going-downhill.

Of course it helps that the ground is made up of some 2ft-deep of snow, a safety net so deep at some points that I actually have to be freed from it a couple of times.

And I don’t remember ever being as embarrassed riding a bike as I was when I couldn’t actually stand up on the ski slope – it’s an art, I was told; you have to angle yourself correctly and then push up with your poles. Nope – fall.

I’m on the beginner slope, Gerschnialp, on the Titlis mountain in the ski-resort town of Engelberg, located about two hours away from Zurich by train.

The beginners area is some 1,200m above sea level which might sound impressive until I tell you Engelberg itself is already about 1,000m up.

Mastering the ski slopes in Engelberg, Switzerland

And it’s dwarfed by the immense Titlis mountaintop, towering over 2,000m further up than I am; maybe tomorrow, I think.

Learning to ski is hard, I was told. It’s more frustrating than anything else.

The instructor is yelling “pizza! pizza! pizza” to make me remember to snowplough (point the front of the skis together) to stop, but I can’t, deciding it’s easier to jump into the blanket of snow again.

It helps that the surroundings are breathtaking.

We stop to take some pictures of the sun breaking over the other mountaintops dotted around Engelberg: Gr Spannort, Kl Spannort, Hahnen, Engelberger Rotstock, and Ruchstock all stand 2,600m and higher.

I appreciate the breather by just standing upright.

Engelberg is a pretty little resort town, a great place for a weekend getaway, skiing or no.

Titlis Resort is our base, about five minutes’ walk (a 10-minute hike in ski gear) from the cable cars up the eponymous slope.

It’s surprising how many people make the ascent without snow gear. They must know how difficult it is, I think later.

There is certainly enough to keep the ‘un-intrepid’ explorer entertained, which we try on day one. Trübsee is about halfway up the mountain, 20 minutes in the cable car.

There’s a hotel here for the eager slopeseeker (and it’s handy to escape the crowds post-snowfall. The last time I saw a crowd so tightly packed waiting for the cablecars was when Outkast played Electric Picnic last year), and the restaurant is a good place for an espresso.

No matter where you are on the slopes, the views are breathtaking.

Mastering the ski slopes in Engelberg, Switzerland

There’s an igloo village (Iglu Dorf) where you can stay overnight, which sounds magical. Nearby is SnowXPark, electric snowmobiles which you can ride around the track for CHF 5 (€4.60) plus CHF 2 per minute (it’s best to book online, snowxpark.ch/en).

Speeds reach 40kph and I take to it easier than I do skiing.

We continue our ascent to the Titlis peak, another 20 minutes in the cable car from Trübsee.

The wind is howling up here, the snow is icier, attacking my uncovered face.

There are also cutouts of a slew of Bollywood stars, with Chinese tourists preferring to queue up to take photographs of these than step outside in the whipping weather.

A cliff walk is what we’re here for though. Some 500m off the ground, a suspension bridge stretches 100m long and takes you to the Ice Flyer glacier chairlift station.

Unsurprisingly, the wind on the day is too much for us as well as the bridge, which is closed for the day.

Blue in the face, we head instead for the turquoise-enlightened glacier cave, a 150m-race to an anticlimax, a nice sojourn but there’s a sense of ‘is that it?’ to proceedings.

There is a panoramic viewing area up here and again, it’s amazing, almost putting Carrauntohill to shame.

The various restaurants dotted around the Titlis wonderland are charming, explorers in dayglo jumpsuits and skiboots relaxing with a warming rosti (worth a return visit on its own), meatballs, and a beer.

Outside, their skis all sit together, variously coloured in the brightest greens, blues and yellows, like an artist’s mixing palette.

Wouldn’t they be worried about somebody stealing their skis, I ask, forgetting I’m in Switzerland and not Cork.

On day two, we ascend ridiculously early.

The snow won’t be letting up for the day, hitting Engelberg for the first time in a week.

It’s my first day learning to ski.

The instructor compliments me on figuring out the snowplough for the first time. This is easy, I think.

It’s an odd thing, skiing, hours and hours of going up a mountain and coming down again. But time curiously flies.

It’s lunchtime before I know it and then it’s time to leave.

How did seven hours pass so quickly?

How have I only just figured out how to turn?

As well as the frustration at not being an expert after seven hours, I also have to contend with the embarrassment of a host of under-tens zipping past me on the pistes. Nobody falls.

When my group reconvenes, they talk of whiteouts at the top of Titlis, how difficult the conditions were, and how thrilling it was. It sounds like we’re doing different sports.

I was expecting some pains after my first day on the slopes.

But I hadn’t felt such aches in my calves before (note to self: build calves up in the gym before thinking of going skiing again).

I’m grateful the accommodation is so close and so relaxing.

After a shower, I lie on the sofa and am no good for anything. I find BBC1 and watch Final Score for the next few hours. What a holiday!

The town has plenty choice for food, though if you suggest to friends your plans for going to Switzerland for a holiday, they won’t be lying when they tell you how expensive it is. But the experience can certainly be worth it.

A five-minute drive outside the town is Ende Der Welt, which translates as, yes, you’ve guessed it, End of the World.

A small tavern, the owner usually hunts for the food, with the special on the menu being venison.

However, it’s not prime hunting season and we’re told to go for its second delicacy: Er, mac and cheese.

The transition from venison to pasta is an odd though delicious one (seconds are not a problem), made stranger by the fact we’re in the side room of the restaurant; the local yodellers group are having what looks like their AGM.

They sing for us at the end, and it’s amazing. ‘Ende Der Welt’ suddenly makes sense.

Back in Engelberg we have made the Hoheneck bar our local.

Doubling as a hotel, it seems like an ‘Irish band’ has a residency there, but upstairs is a delightful lounge area that serves some excellent local beers. The Australian-style pale ale was a favourite.

Daythree and it’s back to the pistes. And things are reassuring.

The tricks learned on the first day are sticking, I can turn both left and right, can stop two different ways, and go an hour without falling over.

It’s not as easy as riding a bike but it’s certainly an accomplishment when you don’t fall over.

I’m already planning my return to Engelberg.

It’s an angelic little place, rarely mentioned alongside the most popular of ski resorts, but it’s got charm in spades, and enough snow to throw Ireland into a ‘big freeze’ frenzy for years.

Learning to ski is daunting, but even going down a slight incline is exhilarating, something that makes all the falls worthwhile.

But you’ll probably need another holiday to recover.

Eoghan O’Sullivan travelled as a guest of Swiss International Air Lines

GETTING THERE

Swiss International Air Lines ( www.swiss.com/ie/en ) offers year-round flights from Dublin to Zurich. All-inclusive fares start from €65 one way, including all airport taxes. Aer Lingus also offers flights from Dublin to Zurich.

How to get around: The Swiss Travel Pass (from CHF179, around €165) is your best friend. Offering total travel freedom, it’s an all-in-one ticket to get around the country by rail, road, and water.

Where to stay: Titlis Resort (titlisresort.ch/en) is a five-minute walk to the TItlis mountain. Offering studio flats to four-person apartments, free wifi, a big-screen TV, washing machine and dryer (a godsend for a ski holiday, as you go through clothes quickly), and drops breakfast to your door. Prices from CHF120 (€111).

Where to eat: There are plenty of restaurants around the town of Engelberg. We ate at Spannort, which serves traditional fare; Ende Der Welt, a must for mac-and-cheese fans; and Alpenclub (opposite Hoheneck bar), which does a mean schnitzel which offers a warm, close-knit atmosphere.

Other things to do: Between Zurich and Engelberg lies the pleasant town of Lucerne. Lying on a lake, it’s gorgeous on a sunny day, a quiet, relaxing way to prepare for or relax after a ski holiday. 

The wooden Chapel Bridge dates to 1333, the town’s tiny streets have a Venetian feel, and there’s so much fondue, you won’t know what to do with yourself (have seconds!). The Swiss Travel Pass allows you free boat rides onto the stunning Lake Lucerne, too, a must in winter or summer.


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