Night three and we stay at the Steingletscher Hotel—a popular summer lodge that keeps a few dorm rooms open in winter for Urner skiers. We’re the only guests and, besides the taciturn Swiss hutkeeper, the only people for miles.
The next morning begins with a hefty climb from the hotel at 6,117 feet to a high point atop Obertaljoch, which sits at 9,512 feet. It’s the first day of spring, and it feels like it. Clouds have vanished. While alpine winds heave shrouds off the summits, it’s pleasant below the ridges. I unzip the vents on my ski pants and everyone strips to a single top layer.
From Obertaljoch, Dan sets a nice skin track, and thanks to efficient striding and deep yoga breaths, the 3,000-plus feet of vert submit without much of a fight. He leads us to a skinny hidden traverse that opens up into a giant snowfield, which plunges down at a puckering 52 degrees. We huff and puff through hop turns to where the slope relaxes. There, we let off the brakes and scream through fluff. “We never would have found that shot without you, Dan,” Lee says, grinning furiously beneath his Tom Selleckian mustache.
We reapply climbing skins for the hourlong ascent to our final refuge, a geodesic dome built of copper in 1970 at 8,684 feet. It doesn’t even go by hütte, the local word for a large, staffed dwelling like the Albert Heim. Rather it’s called Biwak am Grassen, meaning “bivouac on the Grassen ridge.” It’s intimate, with a single dinner table and a small self-serve kitchen dominated by a giant 15-gallon pot for melting snow into water.
While the rest of us move directly to Biwak Am Grassen, Dan pulls right and races up a 700-vertical-foot knob. At the top, he points his Jokers down a ribbon between seracs. He picks up speed, fanning giant contrails behind him. It’s a thrill to watch. And when the descent ends, Dan throws on his skins and climbs the glacier again. His second run, down untracked pow in reddening light, sets off a huge slough. He pulls right, to a sketchy spot above a homicidal cliff band. The slough roars oudly but harmlessly past him. He finishes his extreme line, then breezes happily into the Grassen bivouac.
Over dinner, Dan shares his thoughts on ski size. “I used to insist that I could skin anything on my 140-millimeter-wide skis, but touring has helped bring me back to the roots of ski design,” he says. “I’ve come to respect and appreciate the traditional ski shape. You get good stability and control on hard and icy snow and a ski that skins and traverses very well. Ninety to 100 millimeters underfoot is just enough to float in most snow but still small enough to put 2,000 vertical meters on the ski in a day.” He does have a point there.