Snowshoeing in the Engadine
16 minute read
For those who wish to enjoy the serenity of winter mountain landscapes away from the bustle of the main downhill skiing centres, the Engadine in south-east Switzerland is nirvana.
Switzerland is expensive, but unrivalled in the provision it makes for tourism in general and winter sports in particular. The Engadine is a particularly interesting part of Switzerland for a variety of reasons. It lies within the large canton of Graubunden and extends from the Italian border in the west to the Austrian border in the east. It comprises a linear trough drained by the infant river Inn that flows from the lakes occupying the broad glacial basin near St Moritz. Half way down the valley the gradient steepens, and rock barriers form a natural divide between the upper broad valley near St Moritz and Pontresina and the lower, more deeply incised section that comprises the Lower Engadine. This part of the Engadine is dominated by sharp dolomitic peaks to the south, which present a formidable frontier wall with Italy. To the north rise large smooth-sloped mountains of around 3000m. The area also contains Switzerland’s national park, which can be accessed at Zernez.
The whole of the valley is serviced by the efficient Rhaetian railway, linking St Moritz in the upper valley to the railhead at Scuol in the lower valley. The timetables are scrupulously kept and link impeccably with local bus services. The railway company enjoys the distinction of World Heritage status for the spectacular engineering that has been deployed in linking the valley with Chur to the north and Poschiavo, via the Bernina, to the south.
The Engadine is also the main bastion of Switzerland’s fourth language, Romansch, which is spoken by only 1% of the population (about 60,000 people), most of whom are concentrated in the Engadine. To the outsider it has an almost lisping soft susurration that makes it readily distinguishable from the more overtly flamboyant Italian with which it shares some Latinate roots. School children in the valley are taught Romansch as their first language before moving on to German and English. Like many world minority languages, Romansch is under pressure but is seen locally, like Welsh or Gaelic, as reinforcing cultural traditions and distinctiveness. Standard phrases soon become adopted: ‘Allegra’ is the common greeting, ‘Bun di’ – good morning and ‘Buna Sera’ – good evening.
The ‘posh’ part of the Engadine is undoubtedly the upper part of the valley, centred on St Moritz, where most of the skiing and the Cresta Bobsleigh run are situated. In St Moritz the fur coats are real, shops do not display prices (how common would that be?) and a cup of coffee is made to last while observing the moneyed folk strutting by.
The Lower Engadine could not be more different. It is quiet and classically alpine, with a variety of outdoor options to attract the more discerning. In summer, the upper meadows must be seen to be believed. The natural displays of alpine flowers are a sensory delight, luxuriant, colourful and sweetly-scented. In winter, there is some downhill skiing at Scuol, but this is mainly an area for langlauf (cross-country) skiing, snowshoeing and winter walking. It is sublime.
The Swiss expect snow in winter and deal with it effectively. Within hours of snow falling on the surrounding slopes mechanical equipment clears and levels the snow, slicing double grooves into its now compacted surface for the cross-country skiers to use and preparing the local snowshoeing routes, which are normally marked with directional arrows and pink snowman signs. Inevitably, most of the signed routes follow relatively gentle gradients, but there is abundant scope to go off-piste as well.
With air temperatures below freezing, but in brilliant sunshine and a complete lack of wind, it does not feel like winter and with the scent of sun cream and lip salve assailing the nostrils, it becomes a glorious way to explore winter mountain landscapes.
It would be difficult to cover all the snowshoeing routes that the Engadine offers, but the availability of frequent and reliable public transport enables the full riches of the entire valley to be experienced. Our preferred base is Guarda. It is a lovely village, characterised by its sensitively restored medieval buildings embellished with decorative plaster work called ‘sgraffiti’. There are a couple of hotels and some hostels. The place sits idyllically on a south-facing bench at an altitude of 1600 metres and has an old-fashioned feel to it. The smell of real hay, redolent of summer meadows, drifts over the one cobbled street; ancient troughs and wash-basins are decorated with icicles and the church clock rings out the hours with gentle peals. It is an excellent base.
A variety of snowshoe routes begin in the village itself, of which two are classics: the first is the four-hour walk along a high-level balcony that connects villages such as Bos Charl and Ardez with Scuol lower down the Inn valley. The second is the more challenging proposition of climbing up the spectacular Val Tuoi to the mountain refuge of Chamanna Tuoi, which stands on a ledge below the shark’s fin peak of Piz Buin. The former follows the northern side of the valley to Ftan above Scuol and looks out over the dolomitic spires to the south that form the Italian border and across to the ancient redoubt of the castle at Tarasp, which guards the main route up the Inn valley from the Austrian border. The latter is sometimes barred because of avalanche risk but, in most years, it is possible to venture as far as the high alpine chalet of Alp Suot.
To re-acclimatise winter-starved limbs to the rhythms of snowshoeing, the walk along the balcony to Scuol is an excellent first day’s outing. Even after the heaviest snowfall, the track carries a little local traffic, including the school bus, so it is always impeccably cleared. It winds across embayments on the slopes with gentle ascents and descents between walls of snow. Black squirrels scamper up the trees, choughs congregate on the chimney pots above wood fires and shy deer sidle among the tree trunks. Tracks in the snow point to the passage of chamois and fox. The eyes are drawn ineluctably to the spectacular serrated mountain wall to the south. The trail passes above Ardez and its elegant church spire, the village huddled astride the valley and the railway, and follows the summer line of the Via Engadina, an ancient trading route. Photographers are spoilt for choice such is the magnificence of the panorama. For the weary, the larger village of Ftan offers both refreshment and a bus service back down to the valley, but most would want to carry on to Scuol, the main town of the lower Engadine, nestling in its constricted valley. It is only on the latter part of the day’s walking that skiers are encountered. On numerous occasions we have halted at Ftan to watch the cross-country skiers engage in competition or training. These are athletes!
Scuol is the antithesis to St Moritz at the opposite end of the Engadine. It has a functional bustle about it without the same level of pretension. As the railhead in the Lower Engadine it has a constant procession of trains arriving from Klosters, Landquart, Chur and Samedan, where the line divides for St Moritz and Pontresina. As in all parts of Switzerland, passengers are met by a phalanx of buses connecting the station to the many villages that surround it.
Scuol does have tourism credentials in a more down-to-earth manner than its more famous counterpart at the other end of the Engadine. In the season, skiers disembark for the only major ski-lift in this part of the valley, clunking their way over the platforms to reach the lift only 100 metres away. Ski-boarders are a different breed, predominantly young and wearing their distinctive ‘uniforms’. With boys, it is the jeans casually allowed to fall well below hip height so that they are in danger of dropping off; for girls, the bare midriffs. All carry their multi-decorated boards with casual nonchalance, the epitome of cool! Commercial traffic by-passes above the town en route to the Austrian border only 20 minutes away, leaving the old heart of the place peaceful with its narrow, cobbled streets and sgraffiti-decorated medieval buildings.
Bustle does not really apply to Guarda; its attractions are exactly the reverse. The finest snowshoe trail from Guarda is to climb above the village and enter Val Tuoi at the head of which stands the spectacular Piz Buin, of sun cream fame. The trail is normally prepared in winter, but for only a certain distance, making snowshoes imperative if progress is to be made. The track climbs steadily to the summer chalet at Alp Suot, the view from which back down the valley is magnificent. In summer the meadows are a blaze of colour. Cattle are kept off the pastures until the flowers have seeded, a policy supported by most of the village communities in the Lower Engadine, maintaining a famous visitor attraction in June and July. In the muted colours of winter, valley streams are subdued and both chamois and ibex inhabit the lower slopes. Golden eagles and buzzards quarter the ground and choughs gather in excitable squadrons.
This is the alpine landscape of Heidi. At the head of the valley stands the refuge of Chamanna Tuoi, which opens its doors in late June, and in winter offers a welcome balcony and seats.
When brushed clear of snow these allow the snowshoer and skier to rest weary limbs after the 800-metre climb and gaze on the awesome sight of the wonderfully aesthetic peak of Piz Buin. Sunshine at this altitude is a winter balm, a harbinger of warmer days to come. It is remarkably therapeutic.
It was on one such walk that we looked down from the Chamanna Tuoi to see one figure making slow but steady progress towards us across the sea of dazzling white. It turned out to be an 80-year-old Swiss chap, who plodded on to join us looking the acme of health. His English was limited but, somehow, we managed to exchange pleasantries. He lived in Zurich but spent as much time as possible in the Engadine, either cross-country skiing or snowshoeing. His creased bronzed features testified to a lifetime spent in the outdoors and advertised the benefits of maintaining physical activity as long as possible.
It takes about 45 minutes on the regular train service to reach St Moritz, with all its glitz and ostentation. There is an abundance of downhill skiing runs near St Moritz and it is also, of course, the home of the Cresta Run, but this journey to the upper valley opens up a range of superb snowshoe routes, two of which are absolute classics, Val Roseg and Morteratsch.
Val Roseg is approached via a well-maintained track that in winter is used by horse-drawn sledges to carry tourists up to the Hotel Roseg, a hotel restaurant with one of the finest views in the Alps.
The head of the valley is an amphitheatre of ice and snow dominated by the shapely peaks of the Bernina Alps, including Switzerland’s most southerly 4000-metre giant, the Piz Bernina.
The hardened track can be walked but separate trails exist for snowshoes and skis that wind through the forests before the valley opens out into a broad, flat glacial basin. It takes nearly two hours to walk up to this point from the station in Pontresina, but throughout the walk the wildlife continually captures interest. Snow muffles sound and in winter herds of chamois and ibex descend from the more exposed slopes towards the more accessible lower pastures and are often oblivious to human presence. Black squirrels scamper and the birdlife is astonishing – Alpine jays, woodpeckers, crested, marsh and willow tits, finches and pheasants all congregate near the many feeders. The woods are alive.
It is a justifiably popular walk, as is the Hotel Roseg as a refreshment stop, and most people avail themselves of tasty but pricey food and drink and then return via the same route. For cross-country skiers and snowshoers, however, the best is yet to come. It is about 4km to the beginning of the jumbled moraines of the Tschierva Glacier, where the going in winter becomes tough, but this is a splendid extension. The curved lateral moraines of the glacier betray its existence, even though the whole of this mighty river of ice is blanketed in snow. Small Arolla pines, which are normally the first trees to colonise this glacial desert of rubble, stand out from the snow like hundreds of Christmas trees decorated with icy baubles. Soaring into the brilliant blue of an alpine sky are the main Bernina peaks of Piz Bernina, Piz Roseg and Piz Scerscen, all at or slightly below 4000 metres. It is jaw-droppingly beautiful and spectacular.
We do not often in this world just take the time to stop and stare, to assimilate the natural beauties all around us. The head of Val Roseg is one such place where this becomes almost obligatory, when scenes and sights become seared on the memory for a lifetime.
At the back of one’s mind, however, is the fact that the return journey is likely to take the better part of 3½ hours but, despite a train to catch, this is not a journey to hurry.
Pontresina is also the starting point for the second snowshoe classic – the Morteratsch valley. One of the engineering marvels of the Rhaetian Railway is the Bernina railway line, which climbs to nearly 2300 metres near Alp Grum before descending in a maze of tunnels and hairpins to the warmer plain at Poschiavo and Tirano in Italy. For walkers, or those with snowshoes, the stopping place is just up the line from Pontresina at Morteratsch, where a station and restaurant were built in the late 19th Century to cater for visitors who had taken the train to gaze at the glacier snout within a couple of hundred metres of the railway. The Morteratsch Glacier is the largest in the Bernina Alps and its melt waters drain into the Inn and thence to the Danube and the Black Sea. In the last 130 years the ice front has receded by 2km. The rate of melting has increased in the past 50 years and the speed of recession has accelerated to the order of 30 metres per year. This is a chastening testimony to the effect of global warming and the location of the ice front is marked by notice boards at regular intervals up the valley to the present snout. Significantly, the intervals between the posts measuring the scale of retreat have shortened over time.
The Morteratsch valley
With its ease of access and the stunning views that await walkers, the Morteratsch valley is undeniably popular and, while most keep to the main track, there are abundant off-piste options. Skiers disembarking at Diavolezza can ski down the glacier to the Morteratsch valley to complete a spectacular loop back to the railway. Cross country skiers have various prepared pistes to choose from, which separate them from walkers, and for those with snowshoes, it is possible to explore the full environs of the glacial outwash plain as well as return to Pontresina by snowshoe track through the forest.
The head of the valley, with its collecting basins and its glistening, shapely, icy peaks must be one of the finest panoramas in the Alps. From Piz Bernina to the west to Piz Palu in the east, this amphitheatre could quite easily justify the description of ‘the throne room of the Gods’. Piz Palu, with its distinctive triple snow-clad ridges, is aesthetically one of the finest peaks in the Alps and resembles Blencathra in its architecture, give or take a few hundred million years. For those who wish to obtain a bird’s eye view of the Morteratsch Glacier and its mountain fastness, it is a great end to a day’s snowshoeing to take the railway up to Diavolezza, hop on to the cable-car and take a brief walk on this high snowy crest. You will share the cable car with hundreds of skiers on the way up but be in splendid isolation on the return journey. The view from this 3000-metre bench fully justifies the additional expense.
Each time we travel to the Engadine it is possible to find new snowshoe routes. Beyond St Moritz the frozen lakes are mainly the province of legions of cross-country skiers, but there are numerous ways of avoiding the crowds by taking the hourly bus to Maloja where the road drops down steeply to the Italian-speaking Val Bregaglia. From Maloja, winter paths, often virgin, allow snowshoers to walk back to Sils St Maria or Silvaplana on undulating trails along the lake margins to the east. Our favourite, however, is to head due south to Lej Cavloc and then to traverse round to Val Forno. This is a relatively quiet valley, normally free of other winter walkers or skiers and its charms are abundant. The closed mountain restaurant on the shores of the lake is a good place to rest and bask in the surroundings and to feed the hordes of marsh/willow tits that descend magically from the adjacent conifers. The route round to Val Forno, like so many of the routes described in the Engadine, is transformed in summer by the sheer profusion of alpine flowers. Even in winter, when the colours are more limited, the picturesque blue-shaded ice-bound waterfalls catch the eye and herds of ibex look down from the rocky ramparts above. Val Foro itself is a narrow, constricted avalanche-prone valley, but again a discreetly placed seat allows for rest and the assimilation of some pristine mountain views.
Since learning to snowshoe another facet of mountain exploration has been revealed. Joints creak, muscles ache but nothing that a hot bath and, in extremis, a couple of painkillers cannot resolve. The rewards are enormous. To sit down at a refuge listening to a babble of languages at the end of the day sipping a hot chocolate and consuming apfelstrudel or tarte myrtille, and to look out on exquisite mountain landscapes with the sun on your face, is heavenly. It is one of life’s inestimable pleasures.
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