It's shortly after 9am on the kind of morning skiers dream about – cold, cloudless, still and with fresh snow – yet the only sound we can hear is the hypnotic swish-clack-swish of our own touring skis cutting tracks, gripping the mountainside with skins. Up ahead, the sky is blocked only by our target – the pyramid-like Winterhorn.
Thousands have trodden the route up the rock-strewn peak, which rises above the village of Hospental in Switzerland's Gotthard region – a two-hour train ride from Zurich – but in the middle of January, in just about the quietest week of the ski season, our tracks are the only ones on the mountain. This kind of solitude is a rare treat in the Alps. For most of us seeking challenging terrain and good snow, a ski trip means travelling to resorts that resemble cities more than the villages they started life as. Booming ski metropolises such as Val d'Isère or Verbier offer some of the best skiing on the planet, but also frequently have queues longer than most ski runs.
There is another way. In valleys far from the hordes, smaller resorts offer first-rate, demanding skiing without the queues or Irish pubs. Chief among these jewels is Andermatt, a village whose cobbled main street, Gotthardstrasse, is lined with stone churches and wooden guesthouses. For years it has had a reputation among serious and keen intermediate skiers for plentiful snow and challenging terrain yet it is little known to most visitors to the Swiss Alps.
Things were different in the 1930s, when the resort became the place to be seen for the British upper classes. But post-war belt-tightening put paid to Andermatt's heyday. As the British left, so the Swiss army moved in, setting up a sprawling base on the edge of the town. The mountains echoed with the sound of rifle practice, and in Andermatt's only late-night drinking hole – the Gotthard Bar – recruits in fatigues clutched jars of Klosterbräu (and looked on, bemused, at the Brits dancing badly to Euro-pop).
But the army is moving out to make way for Samih Sawiris, a billionaire Egyptian hotel magnate. By 2014, Sawiris plans to open five luxury hotels, a golf course and an indoor swimming pool complete with a sandy beach. Many fear the development will destroy Andermatt's romantic charm, but cash-strapped locals, deprived of the tourist dollar for so long by Andermatt's relative isolation, have approved the plans, which will create hundreds of new jobs.
One man who hopes to benefit is our mountain guide, Christian Cavaletti. With his wife Ursula, Cavaletti also runs the exceptionally well-stocked Alpina Sport, where, the day before, we stock up on skis as fat as ironing boards. We knew it had snowed overnight, but taking the two cable cars to the top of Gemsstock, the near-3,000m peak that provides much of Andermatt's lift-served off-piste skiing, we knew little about what awaited.
And then the whoops – not from the taciturn Christian but from the punters. Going down one of Andermatt's off-piste classics, the Felsental, we leapt off buried rocks and agreed between gasps that it was some of the best snow any of us had skied.
Giving the Gotthard Bar a miss, I got an early night back at the Hotel Sonne, a tall, wooden hotel so cosy it appears almost to have been carved from a giant, living tree. The next day I rose early to meet Christian. Now an hour into our climb, we arrived at a wide couloir prone to avalanche. "You wait, we go one by one," ordered Christian. This way, if one of us were to break loose tons of snow and become buried, the other two could attempt a rescue. We regrouped without a problem and kept our rhythm as we kept skinning behind Christian. After half an hour we reached the foot of the peak itself. There was no need to climb but Christian suggested we dump our skis and go up for a look. Cutting waist-deep steps up the steep final slope we reached the top to marvel at our reward for a morning's exertion – 360 degrees of Alpine glory.
Reunited with our skis, we peeled off our skins and began our descent, leaving a weave of tracks behind us and becoming progressively more breathless as pitch after pitch of knee-deep powder came into view. By the time we reached the valley and rested our burning thighs to eat a packed lunch, even Christian was smiling.
Andermatt's nightlife is, frankly, pathetic. And this isn't the place for luxury spas or high-end shopping. But that's the town's charm; it's a place for keen skiers. It's not clear what Sawiris will do to Andermatt but with those diggers revving their engines, it's worth a visit before things change for good.
How to get there
Simon Usborne was the guest of Ski Freshtracks (0845 458 0784; www.skifreshtracks.co.uk ), which offers off-piste weeks and weekends to Andermatt. The advanced off-piste week (7-14 March 2009) costs £950 per person, based on two sharing, including seven nights at the Hotel Sonne, ski hire, guides and rail transfer from Zurich. Flights extra.