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Freeriding in paradise.


Piz Calderas is said to be the highest peak with the most beautiful view of all Middle Bunden. Yet, the small mountain massif, which is nestled between the Upper Engadin, and the Julier- and Albula passes, takes its name not from the king of peaks but from the neighbouring, smaller Piz d'Err. With its abundance of powdery slopes, d'Err is just as much of a paradise for backcountry snowboarders as its 20-metre higher brother. One of the best starting points to reach both peaks--and the other accessible mountains exceeding 3,000 metres--is from the alpine refuge of Chamanna Jenatsch.

Ade to fur and lipstick

The most sophisticated and appealing means of reaching the Err-Massif is via cable car from St. Moritz. A one-way ticket to Piz Nair is no bargain, but it's a worthwhile expense. At the top, every step you take in the fresh snow takes you a little further away from the pistes and the glitz of the resort. About an hour into our hike to the Chamanna Jenatsch, we pause at the col (a pass between two mountains) of Fuorcla Suvretta--and we are amazed at just how much our surroundings have changed since our morning in St. Moritz. From bright shopping windows, fur coats, glamorous ski suits, lipstick, and the sweet smell of perfume--to the solitude of untouched mountain slopes, peaceful frozen peaks, and the watchful eagle circling above us. We strap our boards to our feet and melt into the landscape.

An oasis in the desert

At the Chamanna Jenatsch bothy, we are handed two large glasses of homemade herbal iced-tea: a very welcome refreshment, after our final strenuous climb in the hot midday sun. The bothy and the mountain that serves as its backdrop are named after Georg Jenatsch; a rebellious Swiss pastor and military leader who--during the Thirty Years War--fought to defend this area of modern Graubunden from Spanish invaders. He died a martyr in 1639. Why he should be the inspiration behind the names of both the peak and the bothy, nobody knows. However, we do know that it was 200 years after Jenatsch's death that the first climber reached the peak of 'his' mountain--and another fifty years on top of that, before the Chamanna Jenatsch was built in 1908.




"What makes the bothy so special is its position as a starting point right in the middle of everything," explains Huttenwart (bothy keeper) Heini, who has been spreading the good mood and feeding hungry mouths at his refuge for the past two years. During Zmittag (lunch) on the terrace, we start to understand what he means. As our eyes wander across the landscape, the Piz Traunter Ovas catches our eye. With its steep couloirs and wide, open slopes, the terrain seems straight out of a snowboarding movie. Yet, it is a mere two-hour hike away. Another ten peaks exceeding 3,000 metres above sea level can be reached in two to three hours. It's the kind of playground every backcountry snowboarder dreams of, allowing you to cover two or even three peaks in one tour. And this is exactly what we plan to do during the three days we have in this area.

Exhilarating descents

Just as there are numerous access routes into the Err-Massif, there are equally as many routes down the mountain. Studying the map as a snowboarder, two descents stand out in particular: the one to the Julier pass, down the very steep, south west facing slopes of Piz Calderas and Piz d'Err: and the route to the Alp d'Err, which descends 1,000 metres, over the long and steep north face of Piz Jenatsch. In particular, the latter option is a descent only to be taken in safe conditions, as the north face can be a dangerous place. It is reachable either via the Fuorcla Lavina--the col between Piz Jenatsch and Piz Laviner--or the Vadret d'Err via the ever-diminishing glacier tongue, with its steep drop. With our hearts set on option two, we decide to climb Piz d'Err early the next morning

Carpe diem

After the first ascent and descent of the day, the 200-metre climb to the col of Fuorcla Mulix is tough. The heavy snow sticks to our snowshoes; it is baking hot, and our tired legs remind us that this is the second peak of the day and that the last run was a long one. Of course, rather than going straight back up, we could have continued to ride down the Val d'Err valley to Tinizong on the Julier pass. But for snowboarders, this is too flat a run and, in the absence of a proper track, it would have been an huara Chrampf(quite a battle). The steeper and better route to round off a perfect day's free riding is through the Val Mulix valley to the Albula pass. When we finally reach the bottom, we look back in awe at our day's route: from the peak of Piz d'Err, to the Alp. Such a long, steep descent--the whole way through powder snow and in safe conditions is certainly not the kind of thing you get to experience every day.


A tour in rewind

The memories and images of the last few days bring smiles to our faces: the almost blind descent through thick fog, over the gently curved glacier at Piz Calderas; the snow hole at the cornice of Piz Traunter-Ovas, where we waited for a break in the weather; the lively banter we enjoyed over a glass of wine in the warm bothy; the ascent through the couloirs at Piz d'Err in powdery snow; the astonished faces of a ski touring group, as they watched us shoot out of the couloirs, right over the glacier and down into the north face; the detour we took, where parts of the glacier had broken off; the endless north face, wide and covered in fresh snow; the solitude and the warm sun--these are just some of the elements that made this such an extraordinary and special adventure.

The final descent of our three-day tour takes us once again down beautiful slopes, through a bright coniferous forest, to the Albula pass road near Preda. We end the tour in true style, aboard the Panorama Express train. And as the scenery passes by our window, we look back on the beginning of our adventure and how it all began on a swanky cable car from St. Moritz. It feels like a long, long time ago now.

Start: St. Moritz

Finish: at the Julier or Albula passes, depending on your chosen descent (there is a limited Postauto bus service along the Julier pass road at the height of the winter season).

Stages: Chamanna Jenatsch: ascent 650 altitude metres; descent 550 altitude metres; 2.5 hours to 3 hours; Ascent Piz Calderas: 750 altitude metres, 3 hours Descent via Alp Flix to Sur: 1,800 altitude metres Ascent Piz d'Err: 730 altitude metres, 3 hours Descent to Sur via Alp Flix: 1,840 altitude metres Descent to Tinizong via Alp d'Err: 2,159 altitude metres; only in safe conditions and for advanced riders (alternative route through Val Mulix to Preda)
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Title Annotation:travel: discovering switzerland
Author:Fojtu, Nicolas
Publication:Swiss News
Date:Dec 1, 2011
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