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Secret Switzerland: Day 6

Secret No Longer: Disentis, site of two Skiing Magazine cover shots.
posted: 03/20/2009

“Mach schnell!” Travis Redd follows orders at Disentis. Photo: Tom Winter

So I’m about to reveal the secret. If you read the Day 4 or Day 5 dispatch, you’ll know that this is the place with alpine terrain that dwarfs Snowbird, Jackson, or Blackcomb. The place with the 6,000 vertical foot runs but a trail map that makes it look like Kansas. Between 2005 and 2006, photographer Martin Soderqvist shot more than 5,000 images of skiers tearing up this mountain. Two of these images became cover shots for Skiing magazine.

The mountain is called Disentis. It’s been off the map because of its big, hairy neighbor, Andermatt. About ten years ago, North Americans “discovered” Andermatt and it’s been the place to be ever since. But I’m not sure why everyone bypassed Disentis, and I mean this literally: Most travelers who land in Zurich have to go through Disentis to access Andermatt.


Some of the Disentis green terrain. If you look carefully, you’ll see a magic carpet lift. Photo: Tom Winter

I don’t get it. Disentis is a mountain with a laughably cheap $43 lift ticket. It’s loaded with lots of open space and lets you leave Super G tracks through uncontested powder. And in all that open space, there are only a handful of groomers to interrupt it.

Weather wise, it’s a crapshoot just like the rest of the Alps. Unlike North America, where you watch the storms stack up on the Pacific or a Nor’easter to blow in, the weather in the Alps has a lot of variables. But a southern storm track absolutely nails Disentis. And we got a mini-dump before it cleared up. One night, at the 17th century church next door to our homestay, we heard the church bells. The church had been locked all week. So I went inside to see what was up.


The Swiss healthcare system is a mix of public and private coverage. Travis Redd has neither. Photo: Tom Winter

The church was empty…aside from the elfin woman of about 70 who stood on the altar. She said something to me in what I thought was Swiss-German. So I said “ich spreche kein deutsche”—I don’t speak much German. “Nay-nay,” she said, “Romansh.” Romansh is one of Switzerland’s four official languages. In all my trips here I’d yet to meet a Romansh speaker. In a country of 7.5 million, they number less than one percent of the population. Most Romansh speakers are concentrated here in the Graubunden region.

Romansh descends directly from a backwoods Latin. So it was only fitting that my first encounter with the language happened inside a 400 year-old Catholic church. The old woman put her hands together and invited me to do the same and pray with her. I’m about as Catholic as Woody Allen. So, inside an empty church, a 6’3” guy from Canada and a 4’11” grandma of Graubunden, prayed together. I don’t know what she was praying for. But after about a minute of awkward silence, I looked toward the ornate inlays of the church ceiling and said the German word “schnee”— snow. The old woman found this much more hilarious than she should have. Only I was dead serious. To really know Disentis, you need to experience it as we did, under a blanket of new snow.

That night, lenticular clouds formed on the 10,000-foot peaks encircling the valley, telegraphing future precip. We’d need that new snow for the third and final leg of Secret Switzerland.


Travis Redd hates beer. Look at that face! Photo: Tom Winter

HOW TO SKI DISENTIS

Getting There: Into Zurich on Swiss International Airlines (swiss.com). The airport is directly across the street from the rail station. Buy a ticket to Disentis (about $54). It’s three hours of easy travel.

Stay: There are a zillion choices for staying in Disentis. But we went with a private, ski-in/ski-out apartment that sleeps six, and has a kitchen for self-catering to keep costs down—it came to roughly $100 per night. Divided by the five of us, that’s less than a hostel, only you don’t have to share the can with rank strangers. Call Contact Maria or Rico Flury-Valier at (+41) 81 947 46 49 to book it.

Disentis Info: disentis-sedrun.info

Swiss Tourism Info: Hit up myswitzerland.com. It’s a one-stop resource to plan any trip to Switzerland.

Check out all of Jake's Secret Switzerland updates here.

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