Railway to Heaven: All Aboard Switzerland’s Glacier Express

Photo: swiss-image.ch

The world’s slowest train, the Glacier Express, offers skiers a luxurious lift through the Swiss Alps.

by Jack Shaw

Zermatt is almost a parody of the alps — picture perfect, a pile of superlatives. The most popular destination in Switzerland, it lies in the shadow of the Matterhorn, the most recognizable peak in Europe. It is a postcard of a village, blessed with renowned luxury hotels, incredible on-slope restaurants, and Europe’s most expansive and ambitious lift system.

But today, despite one of the best early winters on record, high föhn winds are blasting the slopes, creating sastrugi — wind-packed ridges of snow — and boilerplate ice. In the world’s best ski town, the skiing is as bad as it gets.

Fortunately, Zermatt has a train station, which is served by the ultimate ski train: The Glacier Express(877/794-8037), a slow coach to St. Moritz, the other over-the-top bookend of the Swiss Alps. In a world where luxury train travel is mostly a memory, Switzerland is an exception, full of classic trains, none more so than this one.

For 75 years, the Glacier Express has wound through the most spectacular scenery on Earth, passing through some of Switzerland’s finest ski resorts along the way. With the right kind of ticket, you can ride the rails in style, stopping off wherever the snow and terrain seem inviting.

We walk to the bahnhof and reserve first-class seats. If the powder won’t come to us, we’ll go to the powder.

There is something reassuring about the steady clicking of the archetypal red train as it carries me, my skis, and my companions over magnificent mountain passes. With me are a trio of veteran free-ride ladies and a professional photographer: Jessica Quinn and Susanna Magruder run heli-ski guide operations in Alaska and Europe, respectively; Andrea Binning is an ex-pat Aussie and former world extreme skiing champ living in Chamonix; Myriam Lang-Willar knows fall lines as well as f-stops. Ours is a cross-country trek to sample the finest snow, hotels, and spas of alpine Switzerland, and our crew is grossly overqualified for the cushy job at hand.

The glass-roofed panorama cars afford an amazing view, and as the train winds up toward the Furka Pass we see countless trams, chairs, and gondolas stretching to the ridgelines. We pass through a tunnel into Andermatt — where it’s snowier than any of us can remember — making a note to stop on our way back. We creep up and over the Oberalp Pass — at 6,700 feet the route’s highest point — as we eat a civilized lunch of veal and polenta, washing it down with glasses of dôle.

Steaming down the other side, we pass into Disentis–Müster, the heart of the Romansch-speaking part of Switzerland, dropping into the Rhine River canyon, emerging in Chur before corkscrewing down the sunset stretch to St. Moritz. We jump off in Pontresina, one of the resort’s more traditional (and underhyped) suburbs, and check into the five-star Grand Hotel Kronenhof (+41 (0)81 830 30 30) a mid-1800s Belle Epoque monument to the good life. Given a $50 million face lift in 2006, the Kronenhof now boasts a massive new full-service spa and wellness center; in 2008 Gault Millau named it Hotel of the Year. Manager Heinz Hunkeler is ever-present, gracious, and familiar with every guest. The hospitality — and the sleep — are superb.

The next morning, we meet mountain guide and helicopter pilot Hansueli Baerfuss in the Heli Bernina parking lot. He regretfully informs us he can’t guide us today; he’s on duty in the Rega rescue chopper, a sleek Agusta that makes a heli-skiing B3 look like a jalopy. “But nothing bad ever happens before 10 a.m.,” he says, “so I can fly you around for a little while and show you where to ski.”

The minute we are airborne, the scope of the Engadin becomes apparent. With eight major resort bases on the Swiss side, it is far bigger that I had imagined, blanketed in a layer of snow that exceeded anything any of the locals had seen in 60 years. We fly up to Corvatsch, scoping some long, steep couloirs.

Next we’re off to Diavolezza and Lagalb, spotting powder stashes everywhere, even days after the last storm. “There are only about a dozen real free riders around here,” Hansueli says, smiling, “so the snow lasts a long time.” He points out several ideal runs and their access points, then takes us to Piz Bernina, the 4000-meter patriarch of the Engadin.

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