Are You an Avid Skier?
Why Iceland and Switzerland should be on your must-do list this frosty season
ELEVEN EXPERIENCE RAISES THE BAR ON HELI-SKIING IN ICELAND
BY MICHAEL FRANK
I'm standing on a mountain summit in northern Iceland, and the first thing that crosses my mind as the helicopter whirs into the sky is that I wonder: How few people have stood in this very spot? The clearest blue sky soars overhead and, in every direction, crystal-white peaks knife skyward. The emerald-blue Greenland Sea floats just at the horizon's edge. This peak rises from the Troll Peninsula, a massive 1,500-square-mile palm-shaped accumulation of rock, ice, and mountain ranges. I imagine even ancient Vikings wouldn't have bothered coming up here, and certainly they didn't arrive via a fire-engine-red helicopter. Skiing down, I let the rest of our five-person party go ahead, schussing away through the powder until I hear ... nothing. Not a single sound. This may be the most beautiful, most empty place I've ever been on the planet, and it's certainly the most pristine landscape I've ever skied.
My visceral astonishment, even weeks after returning from my four-day, all-inclusive trip, is just why Eleven Experience came here to create Deplar Farm, the boutique resort company's newest property and the base lodge for its just-launched helicopter ski-touring operation. The 13-suite lodge resides at a high point of a plain framed on three sides by treeless peaks smack in the heart of this wilderness. To get here, I took an hour flight north from Reykjavík, and then drove a few hours more. True, Eleven's other properties are indeed special: catering to skiing and alpine climbing in the French Alps; to bone fishing and diving in the Bahamas; to mountain biking and cat skiing in the Colorado Rockies; and, coming in 2018, to salmon and trout anglers at the future Rio Palena Lodge in Patagonia, Chile. But Deplar is Eleven's current crown jewel, offering exceptional luxury in one of the planet's most supremely remote locations - where you can helicopter ski and feel you truly "got away from it all," in a fashion that's increasingly rare in a too-harried world.
More pragmatically, during a ski season that starts in mid-March and ends in June, you have near midnight sun. So as long as you have the legs for it, you could ski 18 hours a day. Now the kicker: The terrain will not scare you. No pitch is steeper than you'd find inbounds at any North American resort, yet each run drops at least 3,000 feet. The altitude won't leave you winded, because you're rarely skiing from more than 4,000 feet. By contrast, Canadian or Alaskan operations are far more likely to feel extreme, and you'll be lodging at a higher altitude there.
Eyeball the ledger and you quickly realize this combination of approachable terrain, wild landscape, and endless daylight cannot be had anywhere else in the world - and don't forget the digs, which are equally singular.
Deplar's exterior melds traditional Icelandic farmhouse cues with ultramodern updates. Bluestone and black clapboard siding compose the facade, but a natural sod roof softens an otherwise austere mien. Inside, on the bottom level, you'll find a complete spa with four treatment rooms, a well-equipped gym, a steam room and saunas, and a gorgeous, sunken indoor-outdoor pool, complete with a swim-up bar.
To fuse exterior with interior, architects framed as many walls as possible with massive, floor-to-ceiling glass panes to brighten the space and let the mountainous landscape magnetically draw your gaze. Like the building's facade, the cozy suites meld modern with classic. Furnishings include Bauhaus-style desks and chairs, and walls covered in gray Harris tweed wallpaper offset a heavy, stark-white trim. Radiant heat courses beneath the wood and stone floors so you'll never be chilled. Bathrooms feature spacious shower stalls and oversize Catchpole & Rye bathtubs, as well as elegant Sbordoni ceramics for the basins and toilets.
Every suite, blessedly, also has blackout blinds to block 4 a.m. sunrises - a handy amenity because you will need your sleep. The one possible "downside" of having Eleven's helicopter whisk you from valley floor to the next piste is you're never as idle as you would be lift-riding at a resort. One day, I ski an astonishing 37,500 total feet, my legs turning to jelly by the end. On one run, our pilot, Bernd Kirchgassner, lands us at the apex of a ridge atop a tiny fin of rock. Our party piles out, keeping low, MASH-unit style, and we grab our poles and skis. Then the bird bombs off and away, leaving behind only profound isolation in every direction. We ski a wide-open, 30-degree pitch coated in fluffy spring powder all the way to the sea, high-fiving and wooting at the bottom.
Back at Deplar, I don my trunks and head directly to the steam room to sweat out some soreness, then dive into the pool, swimming up to the bar where I find Viking, our bartender. (Yes, that's his real name.) He recommends a tequila over ice, and even though we're very far from Mexico, I don't argue. One sip and in my mind I rewind the day, the terrain, the views, the helicopter rides. With my legs soaking, my head chilled by the breeze, and the adrenaline residue and firewater bathing my synapses in serotonin, I know there can't be a more superlative high. Eleven shoots straight to 12.
That night, we refuel on yet another fantastic meal. Deplar feeds guests family-style for both breakfast and dinner. (On piste, we dine alfresco on gourmet multicourse prepacked lunches.) The culinary team produces as much natively harvested food as possible, with lamb, cod, and Arctic char as mainstays. But Andrea Olette Hurra, Deplar's Swedish chef, can work around most dietary restrictions. A sample dinner might include a starter of langoustine soup with cream, followed by baked Arctic char in caramelized butter with smoked almonds and crispy kale chips, and a dessert of coffee-chocolate meringue.
Even if this sounds too hearty for your tastes or family-style isn't your thing, there are other motivations for all of the above - and they have everything to do with skiing. Heli-skiing by necessity must be a team sport, and it's very taxing. You need to eat more than you'd guess, and dining together and sharing après-drinks builds camaraderie among my party. That's important for safety; there's a protocol for entering and exiting the aircraft, and you need to watch the terrain, which isn't groomed like you may be used to at a resort. So it's key to break bread together, even among perfect strangers. Head guide Steve Banks, internationally licensed by the IFMGA (the world's highest mountain-guide accreditation), says he keeps clients out of trouble but emphasizes that guests need to watch each other's back, too, and know when to quit while they're ahead. That's just what happens on Day Three of our trip, when one member of our party asks for a helicopter ride back in the early afternoon. That evening, she reports, a staffer was waiting for her with a glass of Bordeaux before she had even removed her ski boots.
Banks says that's just what he wants - for clients to be happy, skiing as much as they want, safely - and, yes, he can find you challenging or easier terrain. Want to ski to the ocean every run? Banks will make it happen. Note: Not all heli-skiing works this way. In much of the world, the lodging is rustic and the runs are routinized to "old standbys." Banks explains there's so much terrain on the Troll Peninsula there's almost no limit to the kinds of skiing possible, and he says the sea-influenced snowpack is uniquely more stable than what you'd find in the Alps or the Rockies.
Also unique: Deplar's tone. Even though it's in a Nordic country, the property presents a laid-back Colorado vibe. Staff members exude personality, rather than being obsequious. Still, invisibly, at all hours, they communicate the location and possible want of each guest, and then magically appear just before a thought might come to mind. For instance, on one particular morning just as our group is about to load up the helicopter, one staffer asks if I would want an après-ski massage upon return. Naturally, yes! Then, just after that is through, while I sit poolside, do I want a snack? Yes again, and in what seems to be a mere instant, a delightfully eclectic choice of cheeses and charcuterie appears, all delicious and all Icelandic.
Though in many other ways Deplar might not come off as especially Icelandic, that is decidedly not the point. The aim here is a fusion of luxury accommodations, expert ski guiding, and warm, peerless hospitality. It's a ski lodge that doesn't feel like one in a location so unique it could only be called otherworldly.
DETAILS: Four-day semiprivate heli-skiing adventures start at $10,000 per person; six days start at $15,000 per person. 970-349-7761; elevenexperience.com
AN ELITE VICTORIAN PLAYGROUND TURNED SWISS ARMY HUB EMERGING AS SWITZERLAND'S NEXT GREAT SKI RESORT
BY HILARY NANGLE
On a bluebird day, the views from the 9,715-foot summit slay me. The optic white panorama encompasses more than 600 craggy peaks surrounding central Switzerland's Urseren Valley. Puffy wisps trail skiers descending marked pistes and unblemished powder fields. Far, far below and out of view on the valley floor lies the once-sleepy eye-candy village of Andermatt, now emerging as a world-class destination resort with new hotels and luxury rental apartments layering contemporary chic upon its cozy, traditional town center; speedy new high-capacity lifts zippering surrounding peaks; and cross-country trails lacing a new championship golf course.
I discovered Andermatt four years ago while riding the Glacier Express excursion train that bisects the village and zigzags through the 6,706-foot Oberalppass, a highlight on my journey between two of Switzerland's most glamorous ski destinations - stylish St. Moritz, with its modern town center, and storybook Zermatt, with centuries-old log-and-stone farm structures in the old village center. Noticing skiers and construction, I began keeping an eye on this rising Mama Bear staking out a Goldilocks-pleasing location between them as a new, major player positioned to rival, or perhaps more accurately, complement both. I kept returning, watching as a new village center took shape and mountain infrastructure improved. Now, I'm back to share the secret, so that other avid skiers like myself can discover Andermatt - before the crowds do.
Looking around, it feels as if I'm standing not only in the center of Switzerland, but also the center of Europe. Three mountain passes - Furka (think James Bond's Aston Martin DB5 chase in Goldfinger), Gotthard, and Oberalp intersect the village and four major European rivers - the Reuss, Rhine, Rhone, and Ticino - originate in the region. Thirteenth-century Benedictine monks labeled this divine landscape the Valley of the Devil, and myths still haunt the Devil's Bridge spanning Schöllenen Gorge. In Victorian times, Andermatt shined as an elite escape, attracting Queen Victoria, Charles Dickens, and Arthur Conan Doyle, among others. Then, in 1882, the Gotthard rail tunnel bypassed the village and three years later, the Swiss Federal Army garrisoned the strategically sited town to secure the passes and tunnel.
When the Army downsized in the early 2000s, Andermatt's economy sagged. In 2005, local officials consulted with Egyptian businessman Samih Sawiris about redeveloping the region as a tourism destination, and Sawaris saw potential. After rounds of discussion, during which community leaders realized they couldn't do it themselves, they agreed to acquire the Swiss Army's land and sell it to Sawaris at market price. In 2007, Sawaris launched Andermatt Swiss Alps, with a $1.8 billion plan to revive the town, promising a posh yet understated resort that preserves the region's unspoiled environment and rich cultural heritage while delivering world-class skiing. Phase I, on target for completion in the 2017-18 season, already has upgraded the overall resort and skiing experience. Phase II, as yet unscheduled, adds a new train station and more lifts. Those who crave scoring first bragging rights will find plenty to entertain them now and coo about to the folks back home.
Andermatt's transformation began with the village in December 2013, with the opening of the Chedi Andermatt, named Hotel of the Year 2017 by the respected Gault & Millau Switzerland restaurant guide. The first of six planned hotels, the Jean-Michel Gathy-designed, 123-room contemporary-chalet-style Chedi, sited in the old village, just steps from the train station, architecturally integrates Andermatt's traditional town center on the south side of the train tracks with the new developments on the north side. The hotel wins me over with soaring Asian-chic-meets-cozy-Swiss design, the sushi in the Japanese Restaurant with Switzerland's only sake sommelier, the towering walk-in cheese humidor and East-meets-West cuisine prepared in the restaurant's four open kitchens, the separate wine and cigar libraries off the main lobby, full-service spa, and especially the pampering ski butlers, who rush to buckle and unbuckle my boots and chauffeur me to the lifts.
North of the tracks, private vacation chalets sprout beside the new Kurt Rossknecht-designed golf course, where the Chedi-operated Club House and restaurant double as a base for the cross-country trails. Next season, a 180-room hotel with serviced apartments, a swimming and wellness area, and a concert-conference hall will open, joining other new and under-construction luxury complexes with rental apartments, all linked to the old village center via a pedestrian tunnel under the tracks.
Despite all the new, Andermatt's old village retains its traditional vibe. Pedestrians shouldering skis or towing kids on sleds still far outnumber cars. Horse-drawn sleighs clip-clop along narrow streets shadowed by St. Peter and Paul Church, a baroque beauty queen dating from 1602. Timber and stone buildings house restaurants such as Bären, an Italian restaurant presided over by a Ticino chef, and Ochsen, the go-to for authentic fondue, along with inviting specialty shops. I drool over local foods in Muheim's butcher shop, smile at the colorful homemade socks in aptly named Sockenfenster (Sock Window), and long for a pair of Birdos custom freeride skis, handcrafted by American ex-pat Daniel Loutrel, a pioneer in innovative powder-ski design.
Andermatt's two ski areas, Gemsstock, revered for its challenging runs and off-piste powder, and Nätschen-Gütsch, favored by intermediates and families, face each other across the village, with the latter comprising a series of peaks rising toward the Oberalppass. The Sedrun-Oberalp area, another family pleaser, flows down the other side. Currently, the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn, a cog and rack railway, provides the only winter transit between Andermatt and Sedrun. Back in 2012, with the Chedi rising, Sawaris acquired the three lift companies serving the two resorts, renaming the combined area SkiArena Andermatt-Sedrun.
In a brilliant move, Sawaris met with environmental, cultural preservation, and tourism organizations along with local residents when shaping his plans. Gemsstock, accessible via an existing two-stage cable car from Andermatt's west end, shines as an example of the resulting environmental and cultural detente. Here, Sawaris took a mostly hands-off approach, with upgrades only to make things a bit comfier, such as last season's new high-speed, bubble-covered six-pack servicing the midmountain intermediate slopes.
Of nine new lifts - including two eight-passenger gondolas - planned for the combined area, three now transport skiers, including two new-this-season six-packs on Nätschen-Gütsch's grin-inducing, sun-bathed slopes. Also noteworthy, as of this season, at least one trail from each lift has snowmaking, ensuring a longer season and giving an advantage in an era of climate warming, when many European resorts are scrambling to add it. Next season, the gondolas (one a two-stage from the new village center ascending Gütsch), two more six-packs, a children's lift, and a surface lift will complete the unification through the Oberalppass.
Focusing infrastructure development on Nätschen-Gütsch preserved Gemsstock's most-favored-nation status among freeriders, who covet the seemingly endless off-piste powder - perfect for hucking cliffs, schussing couloirs, and making first tracks. "From the summit, you can freeride in all directions, and end up in Andermatt," says Fränggi Gehrig, an Andermatt native and instructor with the Andermatt Ski School. I pirouette gracelessly in ski boots following his gloved hand as it sweeps the panorama.
The eponymous run honoring Olympic, World Cup, and World Champion downhiller Bernhard Russi, an Andermatt native still revered throughout Switzerland, belies Gemsstock's freerider rep. The summit-to-mid-mountain groomed trail plummets 3,150 feet. "The key section is the last 500 meters; it's straight down, a 60-percent grade," Russi says. "Everyone's goal is to ski it without stopping. Turning, turning, turning, and trying to carve is one challenge. The other is to put the skis in the fall line and run straight down. I've reached over 160 kilometers per hour, but I don't suggest this," he cautions. I heed his advice.
Over lunch at Restaurant Gurschenalp, renovated last season, I ponder Gemsstock's split freerider/racer personality: On one side, backpack-toting freeriders refuel with ham-and-cheese rösti, a fried grated-potato pancake gilded with ham, melted cheese, and egg; on the other, young racers clad in one-piece suits cheer and jeer a World Cup race on TV.
This yin-yang dichotomy not only distinguishes Gemsstock, but also the entire Andermatt Swiss Alps project. Intimate yet expansive, it embraces Old World traditions and contemporary style, offers racer-challenging steeps and freerider-pleasing adventures, deep powder and groomed pistes, serves rösti and sushi, and sells handmade socks and handcrafted skis. Neither St. Moritz nor Zermatt, Andermatt successfully captures the center. Donning sunglasses, I set my sight on the village far below, briefly entertain the inviting powder fields, but opt for a seemingly endless cruiser, my grin as bright as Andermatt's future. andermatt.ch