Freeride: perfect your ski skills in the towering Swiss resort of Engelberg

Want to sharpen your freeride skills? Head to the steep and deep camp in the towering Swiss resort of Engelberg, and learn with the pros.

Marcus Caston takes on a steep incline in| Engelberg. 

Photograph by Ross Woodhall
By Abigail Butcher
Published 20 Dec 2022, 08:00 GMT

All free-riders have the same dream. At the very top of a mountain, we scope out a line of descent among jagged ridges and powder fields. Calculating the game plan for those steeper pitches, we work out where to stop and start again safely, before letting rip, executing it all with confidence and style. The perfectly planned and executed descent is what we all aspire to but in reality, skiing that dreamy line never seems to be that predictable. Shark’s teeth rocks bite beneath the snow; the steeps get steeper the closer you get, and the powder heavier than it looked.

Prone to self-criticism, I lambast myself for not skiing better, stronger, closer to the fall line. I’m annoyed with myself that with all that fresh, fluffy powder I seem unable to truly let the handbrake off despite decades of experience skiing around the world. And so it is that I find myself at the top of Mount Titlis at 10,627 feet, it’s the highest peak in the ‘steep and deep’ Swiss resort of Engelberg standing alongside four legends of the freeride world: Marcus Caston, Dan and Johnny Egan, and former US Olympic coach Gary Miller.

Between them, these skiing greats have decades of experience both on the ground and teaching and mentoring others, passing on their skills and passion to wannabes like me. I’m here, having joined Miller’s Steep and Deep camp, a skills course with a refreshing perspective organised by Alpin Luxe, the ski company he founded to give skiers the chance to learn from the best in some of world’s most iconic locations. We begin with a warm-up, skiing pistes hopping off onto the short, fun pitches just beyond the sides. “Look around you,” says Dan. “Take in the majesty of where we are!” It’s high praise from a man who has skied his way around the globe and is known as the ‘Skiing Psychologist’. As we ride, Dan shares some of his back story.

Johnny Egan in Engelberg.

Johnny Egan in Engelberg.

Photograph by Ross Woodhall

After appearing in 13 ski films by legendary free rider Warren Miller and being named one of the most influential skiers of our time by US ski magazine Powder in 2001, Dan decided to spend his time skiing around the world helping others see the mountains in a different light and improve their skills. “I help skiers shift their thinking from self-judgement to observe their day, the conditions and the moment surrounding them instead,” he explains. “This not only changes how they see the mountains, but it shifts the paradigm of their view of themselves in the world. They become less fearful and move into performance and athleticism.”

It sounds so simple but what a difference his words make. Like so many others, I don’t respond well to intense coaching my tendency to overthink hinders improvement when my technique is simply pulled apart. But this approach is different, and it works equally well for different abilities. This week’s camp is hosting 10 skiers, ranging from good, strong freeriders capable of tackling most situations to a high-level intermediate skier taking her first turns off-piste.

We all lap up Dan and Gary’s words, fascinated to find out that during Gary’s Olympic and World Cup coaching career some 80% of the improvement he saw in alpine athletes was in their mental attitude, and just 20% physical. Dan concurs: “I ask every person I teach to explain why they ski, and then help them adapt their style and skill to that strength whether they want to keep up with the kids, or not fall over in powder.” I mention, almost in passing, that I struggle to get my mind and weight forward in variable conditions, knowing full well that successful skiing off-piste is about micro-adjustments and constantly battling to ski with confidence.

Unless you’re forward, it’s all too easy to be thrown back on the tails of your ski, lose control and risk injury. Marcus, a pro skier from Salt Lake City who has also appeared in the last eight Warren Miller films, leads the way down a steep pitch, moving effortlessly, like he’s skiing through soft butter. As we watch, Dan explains that Marcus is working hard over every lump, bump and turn, making as many adjustments as I might even if he made it look easy.

Snow-covered peaks in the Valley Titlis.

Snow-covered peaks in the Valley Titlis.

Photograph by Ross Woodhall

Free yourself from any judgement,” says Dan. “And remember to breathe.” My turn arrives and I ski the pitch, stopping beside Dan, struggling for air. I’d always assumed exerting myself at altitude made me breathless, but I now realise I’ve been holding my breath. How have I been skiing for so long without noticing that I hold my breath? I figuratively scratch my head while waiting for the rest of the group to catch up, while Dan shoots me a kind, wry grin. He’s seen it before. Making that one small adjustment and getting enough oxygen into my body turns out to make a big difference.

That and skiing for the joy of it, drawing comfort from the fact that even the pros work hard, helps shift my focus away from self-criticism on the mountain. After so long without skiing during the pandemic, it seems time to truly enjoy the moment. And an afternoon’s skiing on Galtiberg, one of Engelberg’s ‘big five’ off piste routes, really puts this to the test. The infamous run takes skiers on a descent of nearly 6,562 feet, via stretches of powder on the Galtiberggletscher glacier, occasionally perilous ledges and finally through forest crossing streams and ending in the valley for a beer. It’s a long and testing descent that can easily throw up exasperation and joy in equal measure.

But I’m off and skiing more strongly and confidently than ever before, baskin in the camaraderie of our group, each of us unlocking our own potential while descending one of the most iconic freeride runs in Europe. Even the weakest skier makes the run down, incredulous at what she’d achieved by simply stopping the chatter of inner critic. Afterwards, we head for some celebratory beers before an early dinner, and the sharing of ski footage with Marcus, Dan and his nephew Johnny guiding us through some of their most mind-boggling achievements. Being able to watch and learn from skiers at the top of their game is an absolute privilege, and there’s no doubt my skiing has changed for the better somehow less heavy once I stopped battling mental demons. It’s what Dan calls “skiing in the flow state” and I now can’t wait to just go with the flow.

What is Freeride?

A snow sport that’s boomed in popularity in the last 20 years, freeride is a form of off-piste skiing and snowboarding in open terrain away from the strict confines of the groomed runs, but usually around a resort area. Unlike ski touring, which involves uphill hiking and skiing cross-country, freeride focuses on downhill. It often uses resort lifts to get uphill, with riders sometimes hiking or using ski touring skins (grippy ski covers) to cover short distances to access fresh powder or new terrain. Freeriders often have specific skis, boards, boots and bindings to allow more control over movement in varying terrain.

How to do it

Engelberg’s Steep and Deep freeride camp, run by Alpine Luxe takes place 4-11 February 2023. Early-bird pricing is US$7,500 (£6,500) per person including instruction, accommodation, food and lift pass, but excluding travel. After 1 December 2022 the cost increases to US$8,100 (£7,015). Additional freeride camps and ski trips are planned this season in LAAX, St Anton, Bormio and Zermatt (among others). 

Engelberg Village.

Engelberg Village. 

Photograph by Ross Woodhall

Four more places to learn with the snow pros


1. Backcountry skiing & yoga with Jenny Jones: Grimentz, Switzerland

Olympic snowboarder Jenny Jones runs a selection of workshops each season working on mindset, fitness and freestyle skills for intermediate to advanced snowboarders, together with a hand-picked selection of experts. Jenny has also recently introduced a bespoke beginners programme for riders who have had a few lessons and are looking to take the next step. The course runs 5-12 February 2023, and costs from £1,499pp. 

2. Skiing Steeps with Chris Davenport: Superstars Camp, Chile

Two-time world extreme skiing champion Chris Davenport is joined every August by legends of the ski world including Cody Townsend, Mike Douglas and Ingrid Backstrom on a skills camp in Portillo, Chile. Learn how to ski steeps with the pros or work on your 360 skills with Mike Douglas, the man who invented the twin tip ski. 12-19 August 2023; recent camps have cost US$2,975pp (£2,570). 

3. Ski with Konrad Bartelski, party with Ben Kay: Sainte Foy, France 

Sporting legends Konrad Bartelski (former British World Cup racer), Austin Healey, Paul Grayson and Ben Kay (former England rugby players) host skiers on and off the slopes for a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Sainte-Foy in France, with off-piste and heli-ski, full chalet board and private transfers. In 2023 courses are 22-26 and 26-28 January, and cost £2,950pp. 

4. Take a private lesson with a pro: Various resorts Europe

Ski instructor platform Maison Sport has an option for skiers to book a range of private lessons with ex pro-skiers and snowboarders. Lessons are with the likes of former Olympians Graham Bell and Emily Sarsfield, ex World Cup Swiss ski racer Ella Alpiger and 1998 downhill gold medallist Jean-Luc Crétier.

Published in the Winter Sports 2022/23 guide, distributed with the December 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK) 

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