Changing seasons in the Urner Alps - A solo single-push

The air is thick and heavy with clouds swirling in from the distance as nightfall fast approaches. It’s 8:26pm and I’m ski touring through one of the many breathtaking glaciers surrounded by the towering peaks of the Urner Alps, a wild range nestled in the heart of Switzerland. The forecast high-pressure was expected to hold until tomorrow, but all alone at over 3000m, I’m abruptly reminded you can take nothing for granted in the mountains. The mood is somehow threatening and yet calm at the same time, although I can’t help but feel a mix of awe and trepidation, I’m all too aware of the power and unpredictability of the Alps. There is no doubt that moving through crevassed terrain in this bad weather is a serious situation indeed, but somehow I’m also overwhelmed with a sense of excitement from that natural fight or flight response. I suppose, the reason some of us choose to undertake big solo adventures like this is to test your resolve and to feel small in nature. Safe to say, watching my fifth and final climb of this traverse disappear into the white-out, I deeply feel both of these sensations around about now.

Rewind about 15 hours and I was pushing off from the train station in the iconic but quaint mountain town of Andermatt, full of excitement for the day ahead. The Urner Route or Urner Alps Traverse is a 65km multi-day ski tour between Andermatt and Engelberg, usually completed over 4-5 days. The less traveled journey is dubbed the “skier’s” haute route and offers an excellent alternative to the ever-popular Haute route from Chamonix to Zermatt for those looking to really get away from the crowds. My big plans to make a go of this earlier in the season were shelved, with very limited stable weather suitable for such an attempt. Arriving into the Engelberg ski lodge, where I’d made base for a few days, I began making some calls to enquire as to the condition of the route. The Guides office and refuges situated along the 4500m itinerary informed me that the refuges are completely closed and it’s too late in the season to ski the route now. Carefully considering my options, I felt slightly uncomfortable going against their advice but it’d been a good winter for the glaciers up high so I decided to make a go for it regardless. So ambitiously late, I found myself hiking up the summer road in my ski boots with my lightweight numbers, the Kore Tour 87’s on my back enjoying the first rays of sunrise illuminating the mountains in the distance.

Of course, the anticipation of the unknown that lies ahead provided an exciting sense of adventure and before long I’ve got my skis on and I’m making a dent into the first to 2850m. I was accompanied by good friend Mark Chase, who flirting with the idea of coming for the whole traverse, kindly joined to take some pictures of the attempt. Reaching the first peak, he unfortunately twinged and old ankle injury so made the smart call to turn back before being too committed in this remote range. Bidding farewell, I had no time to waste so I set about dropping in my first face, for which I had scoped a steeper, more direct ski line on the map. Looking over the hanging glacier, it looked like as though it would go although the steep and icy conditions this early in the morning commanded my fullest attention.


It was hard not to feel a sense of immense isolation, skiing off into these remote mountains now alone but I felt confident in my edges weaving around large chunks of frozen avalanche debris, presumably from yesterday’s natural activity. I put in some neat jump turns sliding smoothly down the 40-45 degree icy slopes until reaching the valley below which was almost completely filled in avalanche debris. Of course this early in the morning, avalanche risk was very low but skiing through and around these “death cookies” was a brutal start for the legs. Reaching the bottom of the snow line, it was clear I’ll be doing some more hiking on this trip but the valley is lush from the spring season that is flourishing.

Exiting the snow line proves even more arduous, forced to hike on and off snow patches which appeared bottomless while I sank into my thighs. I was starting to see why guides aren’t taking clients this late in the season, and although it feels like I’m working three times harder, I am slowly but surely moving forward. From here, I reached a river swollen with meltwater, and the bridge appears have been washed away. Thankfully, two rails remained so precariously bracing myself between the two, I edged myself across looking down at the raging torrent below. The hike up the next valley is pleasant and it felt a million miles away from the dangers up in the high mountains. The climb steepened into the snow and although I could have put skis back on and tour, I found a good rhythm cramponing up the icy precipice. Passing the empty refuge, the gradient mellowed into a wide-open beautiful bowl and I could finally see the col I must reach. Touring these distances breaking trail with no skin track has taken its toll on the legs, and by now the heat was stifling. For sure, the temperatures were dangerously high, however my schedule was going exactly to plan, finding myself navigating easygoing terrain when avalanche risk is at its highest. Reaching my next high point, the views opened out to glaciers that sprawled as far as the eye could see in every direction.


I was excited to rip my skins and begin this cruisy glacier ski and I’d been treated to some fresh cold snow up high which soon turned into fun spring slush lower down. Feeling good, I opened up a little, skiing hard while evading the grasp of the numerous large open crevasses which were relatively easy to spot. The ambience in this valley was amazing and I’m in awe of the vast hanging seracs which appear larger than any building I’d ever seen before. As I reach the lower slopes, there are plenty of huge glide cracks owed to the rapidly warming snow, which starts to get sticky but I make quick work of the plateau which takes me over to the next climb.

By now, my legs were feeling every kilometer covered but, I was reassured by a sense that I’m distinctly closer to Engleberg than I was to Andermatt. The temperatures cooled again and I find a rhythm once more on this long and beautiful tour all the way back up to 3000m. The sun is getting lower in the sky and vivid oranges and pinks are painting the mountains on the horizon, all the while the cool air made for a more comfortable temperature to push hard.


In a blink of an eye, it feels as though I’m in a different world. The row of peaks in front of me are being engulfed one by one by the blanket of clouds which is coming ever-nearer. Before I know it, I’m skiing the steepest segment of my route in a total white-out and it’s hard not to feel threatened. With only a few meters visibility, I’m forced to navigate methodically down the rock band which should take me onto the glacial plateau and final climb still to come. Hugging the cliff proves integral however, it takes me directly down the fall line and the slopes have to be around 50 degrees now, a serious technical challenge after such a big day out. While jump turning the lower face, my skis push right through a snow bridge into a crevasse and staying light on my feet, I’m able to land below the dark chasm. Visibility is coming in as the clouds roll in but I get a quick glimpse at the top of the col which feels like the gateway I need to pass through get out of here safely. Energized by a dose of summit fever and incentivised by making the most of the final moments of light that remain, I make quick work of the climb just as night draws in completely. Now total darkness was here, I fit my headtorch for the final descent, and as I begin skiing I finally pop-out of the clouds to reveal an incredible glacier ski back down. The final stages involve some grade A combat skiing, but now feeling less at risk, I throw myself into it skiing through trees, hopping off small cliffs with absolutely no fear.

Having seen the storm rolling in, Mark had hiked up toward my exit and it was a great relief to see a friendly face once again. Despite some immensely challenging conditions on this big challenge, I managed to make it from Andermatt to Engelberg in 18 hours and 25 minutes and even more importantly in time for last orders at the Ski Lodge. I’m told this is a new Fastest Known Time on the route, and although conditions were suboptimal, undertaking such a big adventure like this and getting to witness the seasons changing first-hand was a once in a lifetime experience.


Words by skiing by Aaron Rolph @aaronrolph


Images - Mark James Chase @markjameschase & Hilton Poultney @hiltpoult