The Ski Runs of Switzerland, a 1957 volume by early British ski journalist James Riddell, opens with a black-and-white frontispiece depicting a monstrous, ski-tracked face. Despite straight-on framing, light-play highlights the sustained 35-40 degrees and 3,920 feet vertical — the perfect ski slope. Devoid of a caption, the illustration is listed simply as “Laub, Engelberg.”
I’d studied the photo many times but never imagined the reality until a sunny February day in 1996 when I found myself atop this dream run, 40 cm of the lightest snow in the Alps spread below. My guide, a born-and-bred Engelberger named Geny Hess, graciously offered first tracks, and I wasted no time taking him up on the offer.
Many gratifying turns later, Geny pulled up at a rock where the slope steepened. Digging a pit for emphasis, he confessed to a long-ago ignominious ride down the Laub. Skiing alone (foolishly, he admitted), the slope had broken loose after three turns. In seconds, he travelled 100 km/h in a billowing powder cloud that ran 3,280 feet to the bottom. Geny popped up buried to the chest, minus his rucksack and skis, barely alive but a whole lot wiser. He mused that he’d had a guardian that day, as Engelberg — Angel Mountain — lived up to its name. There was a certain symmetry to this tale, as Geny had selflessly appointed himself my ski guardian, hotelier, chef and wine tutor — the only cost my appreciation.
In the mid-’90s, few knew of Engelberg’s now heralded freeride terrain. But there were rumours, and in those pre-Internet days, they were as good as Instagram. When our rag-tag magazine crew followed a storm to arrive unannounced, the only place willing to handle our mob was the venerable Hotel Hess, dating to 1884 and slowly succumbing to age and entropy. Hearing American voices in his creaking foyer, Geny had emerged from the kitchen in uniform, looking for all the world like The Muppet Show’s Swedish Chef and immediately assuming ambassadorial duties.
A bear of a man with a lumberjack’s beard and a shock of dark hair (he never wore a hat), Geny diligently guided us — in locked-leg wedeln fashion — around Titlis Glacier’s sneering crevasses into the legendary Laub and, as if it were the natural progression, down a complex geological wonder known as the Galtiberg — a backcountry run he’d pioneered 30 years earlier with friends. At every stop in the hour-long descent, he smiled broadly, happy to share a personal watershed not just with guests but also the eldest of his three sons, named for the paterfamilias and even then following his footsteps. At one point, staring across the valley, Geny noted solemnly, “I remember the day — June 5th, 1965. We started in powder at the top and ended in corn right here — then we had to walk.”
It was clear “Sager Geny” — a local nickname vibing wisdom and experience — was Engelberg’s original freerider, an honorific held to this day at age 77.
Later, Geny led us into his renowned 300-vintage wine cellar, hacked into the limestone beneath the hotel. After many bottles and laughter, we staggered up from the cobwebbed catacombs hung with hunting trophies and photos of Swiss ski phenom Erica Hess (no relation), for whom Geny was a personal mentor. A sloppy evening ensued, Geny’s nouvelle cuisine game dishes shattering our fondue illusions about Swiss cooking. It seemed the town’s renaissance man had adopted us. And this was, in fact, the truth of it.
Decades earlier, Geny had left Engelberg to attend hotel business school in Lausanne, followed by a chef apprenticeship in Zermatt and years running the cellars for Bürgenstock Hotels, scouring his homeland for oenological treasures. These varietal, terroir-oriented wines became his passion and trademark. In 1974, he returned to Engelberg to run Hotel Hess with his wife Trudi. He’d declared his intention to marry her at six years old; at 22, he made it a reality. They ran the hotel until 2001 when they decided to sell to developers in the face of a structural re-fit that would have been economically unfeasible.
The closing of the hotel’s doors threw open others. Geny was immediately in demand as a wine consultant and noted columnist and wine became the family business. In 2017, he opened a storefront — Hess Selection — on Engelberg’s Dorfstrasse, selling to the public and supplying hotels with rare wines. Equally knowledgeable, Geny Jr. now runs the operation. Still, whenever I visit Engelberg, Sager Geny insists on meeting at the shop as if his old wine cellar has moved above ground.
The last time I was there, we sipped a favoured vintage, chatting about old times and the inevitable changes wrought since, his beard and shock of hair now as white as the snow crowning Titlis. As its de facto freeride pioneer and unfailing champion, Geny Hess both witnessed and participated in Engelberg’s development into a global freeride mecca but claims his main interest these days is “to feel good” and that the combination of wine, food and skiing remains the best vehicle for doing so. Still, he can reminisce with pride of the halcyon days when he could ski the Laub for a week, cutting new tracks each time and plucking random wide-eyed pilgrims from his hotel for the run of a lifetime.