It was height of winter and I found myself deep in the Alps in Andermatt, the largest ski resort in central Switzerland in the canton of Uri.
I had skied all morning, making long, sweeping runs through the moderately steep terrain between the Gutsch Express gondola and Dieni lift, taking in panoramic views of massive, snow-draped mountain peaks and distant valley views. It felt unfamiliar, foreign and thoroughly exciting.
When it was time for a break, I decided to treat myself to a top-notch lunch at the mid-mountain, Michelin-starred Japanese restaurant known as The Japanese by The Chedi, operated by the luxurious Chedi lodge in the heart of the town.
From the wide deck of this Swiss aerie, set at an elevation of 2,344 meters (7,690 feet), I savored delicate sushi and sparkling sake and took in views of the Gotthard Pass, the Oberalp Pass and the lightly inhabited Urseren Valley below. Here, at the foot of the Gotthard Pass, is where four European major rivers — the Rhine, Reuss, Ticino and Rhone — originate and start their start their run toward to sea. The locals here converse in Swiss German and Romansh, two of the countries four official languages. This is the center of Switzerland, and it captures the very essence of Swiss winter skiing.
As I enjoyed lunch and the amazing scenery, I pinched myself: all of this was made possible by my Epic Pass, an unassuming piece of RFID-embedded plastic that usually is my carte blanche access to Tahoe’s Northstar, Heavenly and Kirkwood resorts, with occasional forays to Utah’s Park City resort. This winter, however, I decided to mix it up and take advantage of the Epic Pass’ remarkable overseas reach and to head to Switzerland, one of its several international ski destinations (along with Italy, France, Austria, Australia and Japan).
After an overnight flight from SFO to Zurich on Swiss Airlines, followed by a three-hour train ride to Andermatt, I arrived in the valley by mid-afternoon and checked into my splendid lodging, the Radison Blu Hotel Reussen, where that evening I enjoyed Swiss fondue and a crisp Swiss beer at their excellent restaurant, Spun.
Up early the next morning for a full power of breakfast (eggs, fresh rustic bread, yogurt, delicious Swiss cheeses — included, like most good Swiss hotels, in the daily room rate), I walked a short distance to the base area ticket office, where I simply showed my Epic Pass and passport and received a multi-day ticket to unrestricted ski fun on the slopes. It was like magic, a sweet start to three days of memorable skiing in the mighty Swiss Alps.
Situated at 1,444 meters above sea level, Andermatt-Sedrun-Disentis, now partly owned and fully operated by Vail Resorts, is an official Epic Pass resort and attracts guests from all over the world. Its charming, traditional village centre is the base camp for skiers seeking perfect deep powder, challenging steep slopes, and descents with a vertical drop of 1,500 metres. Some 180 kilometers of pistes and 33 lifts climb as high as 3,000 metres amid spectacular Alpine peaks. Andermatt has one of the best snow records in the Alps, with a season that typically offers skiing from mid-November to late April.
On the other side of the Oberalp Pass, Sedrun and (new for Epic Pass holders this season) Disentis feature wide slopes perfectly suitable for families and beginner and intermediate skiers. Epic Pass holders can purchase an upgrade with access to the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn Glacier Express train for the ride back to Andermatt.
After lunch, I hit the slopes, making more long runs on the Gemstock and back to Oberalpp Pass, where I caught the Glacier Express’ very fun apres ski train back to Andermatt.
Before I wrapped up my Andermatt ski visit, I joined a nighttime snowshoe walk above the old town with local guide Banz Simmen. Banz, a veteran snowboarder and mountain guide, gave an entertaining 90-minute walk in the snowy slopes above town, giving me the fascinating history and insights about the geography and geology of the region. I finished the evening with another fondue meal at the local’s favorite restaurant, Ochsen, set in the cellar of a historic building in the Old Town section of Andermatt.
Switzerland Winter Festivals
Instead of heading directly back to Zurich, I decided to extend my Swiss visit and check out one of the country’s not-to miss, incredibly colorful, and thoroughly strange, winter traditions: the Basel Carnival, a three-day nonstop celebration of winter that harks back to medieval times.
Also known as Fasnacht, Switzerland’s winter carnivals are held either pre-Lent or post-Ash Wednesday, mainly in the cities of Basel, Bern and Lucerne. They combine ancient and arcane traditions — and a lot of drinking — with Fasnachters wearing wildly colorful, hilarious and often macabre costumes and hordes of masked musicians playing traditional “guggenmusik” with piccolos, brass instruments and drums while parading non-stop through the medieval streets. The roots of the Basel Fasnacht trace back to ancient Celtic and Germanic origins and practices relating to ancestor worship, fertility rites, and the expulsion of winter. It’s a party like no other and one of the strangest sights you’ll ever see.
After visiting Switzerland for a long winter week and I sadly headed home to California and our Sierra Nevada mountains. Skiing in Switzerland is not just a pastime, it’s a religion. Being able to experience this is should be on any traveler’s bucket list. My memories of epic Alpine skiing and scenery followed by the fanatical partying and parading in Basel’s Fasnacht still feels unreal, like a dream, a really intense dream, and I can’t wait to visit again and say “Uela” or “hello” in Romansh or “Gruetzi” in Swiss-German to Switzerland once again.
Ben Davidson is a Bay Area native and spent his early years in Mill Valley. He is a former Sunset staff travel writer and also contributes to Diablo, Westways, VIA and 7×7.com. He has lived in Fairfax since 1997.