It was the kind of day people cross oceans for, confirmation of why people seek out mountains in winter to begin with, the reason committed skiers scour the Alps for the last hidden gems not overrun with freeriders.
We awoke to the sight of snow-draped forests rising up the valley slopes and the certainty that today would be epic. Thirty-four purple-clad Swedish skiers who had gathered at Lodge Sax for a company anniversary jostled and milled in the breakfast room and lobby, more-than-merely eager to get the morning’s logistics over with and head out the door.
The night’s light snowfall was moondust in the parking lot and my skis squeaked as I poled to the cable car for an 8:15 am opening lift. I shared the 90-passenger cabin with two ski area staff and two local skiers. At the top station, with the chairlift not being close to opening, I headed down the main piste, then veered off into a lovely lower side-valley.
Even this far down, the powder was Canadian-quality blower, and I yelled out to nobody in particular as I got the day’s opening face-shots arcing turns down the rolling open meadows, swooshing all alone past hay barns and stands of trees. (And just for the locals reading: yes I was careful to stay on the side that isn’t wildlife reserve.) Incredible to be alone for a 2,000-vertical-foot opening lap.
At 9 the Gendusas chairlift opened, followed by the Lai Alv chairlift at around quarter to 10. A few other powder skiers had woken up by now and the Swedish purple crew was up as well. After two windy, low-vis days in Sedrun and Andermatt, they seemed almost speechless at the perfect snow, clear vis and calm air. Now things began to resemble a normal ski area as 50 or so powder-starved freaks commenced shredding the slopes beneath the chairlift.
After one lap I ran into my boss Jan Pfister, owner of Lodge Sax, mountain guide Paul Degonda of Alpventura and two cronies. Paul was behaving as if he’d never seen a snowflake before, leading us on mad DH tucks and skating/poling scrambles along the connector trails to get into position for the next face-shot-filled descent, taking air off the roads and diving straight in at full speed.
Paul not only knows every terrain feature, he seems to have personally named every boulder on the mountain. He led us expertly down successive sinuous routes snaking among outcroppings and cliffs, always finding the low areas holding the deepest snow and the fewest rocks. And always staying one step ahead of the next-most-committed group, who had to content themselves with seconds.
Lap after lap our group of five laid first tracks down bowls and couloirs leading back to the chairlift. We didn’t stop, pause or even slow down, screaming hot into the lift area and shooting back onto the chairlift, then skating off at the top with barely a look around.
After half-a-dozen laps, Paul declared, “Might be nice to ski right into the valley.” A few dozen side-steps above the chairlift (the upper T-bar remaining closed) and we were positioned to put the season’s opening tracks into Val Pintga. “Little Valley” is one of Disentis’s classic peak-to-valley descents. There’s nothing little about its solid 1,250 vertical meters back to the cable car. It’s just narrow.
We definitely had to mind the rocks, and we skied every pitch spaced at least 40 meters apart given the avalanche danger of 3, Considerable. We took the most conservative line possible, but out here there’s always exposure, with huge slopes looming overhead.
For 4,200 vertical feet, every single turn was epic, knee to thigh-deep blower. Just as on my morning solo run, the snow quality held and held. Once out of Val Pintga proper, it was down a gentle fan at the valley’s base and then into The Labyrinth. This is a narrow and bush-strewn but very skiable ravine that forms the collective exit for a huge off-piste area. Later in the season the Labyrinth becomes huge, hard bumps – hence its name. Today it would have been better-named the Pussycat: smooth untracked powder the entire way, my best turns ever down this route since my first visit to Disentis in 2005.
13,000 vertical feet of perfect snow and unique terrain. The equivalent of nearly a day’s snowcat skiing. Steeper shots than most people will ever get heli-skiing. And it was only 11:15 am. Time now to head to the office.