Snow's up
In a world where most ski resorts offer variations on the same themes, it's good to know that there are still some special places retaining an individual character, content to appeal to a narrow market rather than the broad mass of holiday skiers. One such resort is Andermatt, where I spent a memorable day a couple of weeks ago.

Andermatt is the ultimate Alpine backwater. The valley-bottom village (traditional but slightly towny in style, despite its small size) is isolated from the Valais and Graubunden by high passes which are closed in winter - though car-carrying trains climb over the latter and burrow beneath the former. Over the equally impassable St Gotthard pass to the south lies Italy, or at least Italian Switzerland; in 1980, a road tunnel under the pass was opened, but its mouth is some miles down the valley below Andermatt, so the summer traffic that once trundled past the village on its way between Zurich and Milan is syphoned off, effectively pushing Andermatt even further from the beaten track.

The great majority of Andermatt's skiers are Swiss, barracked on the edge of the village. When the lira will stand it, the village attracts Italians through the tunnel, too. But the British, once numerous here, as in so many little old Swiss resorts, are thin on the ground.

The few who go are mostly attracted by an outfit that encapsulates the appeal of Andermatt - Alpine Adventures/Mountain Reality, an amalgam of two specialist off-piste guiding businesses, now under the direction of the founder of one of them, Alex Clapasson. AA/MR operates in various Swiss resorts, but Andermatt is home base, and Clapasson has recently tightened his grip on the resort's operations. This tall, lean mountain man now sits in an office in the smart base station of Andermatt's new cable-car as director of the lift company.

The new cable-car up the Gemsstock has twice the capacity of the old one, and runs faster; even so, it is no monster, and morning queues are still common, especially when buses arrive from Lucerne and Zurich. Are further "improvements" in store? Absolutely not, says Clapasson: "What we have is special, and we must not spoil it by opening it up to everyone." How right he is.

The delight of the Gemsstock is that it is a big, steep mountain on which those who can handle it have plenty of room to explore their limits. Practically all the marked runs are now marked black, including all three main runs from the 2963m top station. The two in the main north-facing bowl are not fearsomely steep, but offer about 800m vertical of moguls amid rugged terrain; below mid-mountain are another 700m of black skiing, again mostly moguls. But that's only the beginning as far as Clapasson's guests are concerned. Within the bowl is huge amounts of steep off-piste skiing; outside it, three or four adventurous routes in different directions. And the place gets snow. In the course of my recent Swiss tour, I visited eight resorts, and only one had something resembling powder snow - Andermatt. What's more, it was the only one with snow on the streets. That's what I call special.

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