Is it possible to ski and ride across centuries of history? Oh, yes. Especially In the Austrian Tyrol region, a revered destination for winter sports enthusiasts, with its incredible density of downhill territory in 80 areas.
Take just one example among many: The Arlberg Ski Club was formed in 1901 in St. Anton am Arlberg and is now the largest in Europe with 9,000-plus members. That’s also where Ski School Director Hannes Schneider perfected the Arlberg Technique (progressive learning) and later on brought alpine skiing popularity to the U.S. via Mt. Cranmore in New Hampshire.
“Here I have finally found a place of quiet, a place of peace, the like of which I could have only wished for,” wrote Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the profound literary lion of Germany, upon a visit to Austria’s Tyrol in 1829. What’s changed? The Tyrol remains a place those of us who treasure skiing and snowboarding not only can wish for, but we can experience.
Let’s take a ski or ride around three major ski regions and look at Winter in Tyrol. Each region offers world-class big-time resorts, mid-sized choices and small perfect-for-learning and getting-away-from-crowds choices. Perhaps even Herr von Goethe spent quality time there.
Video: “Grias di” from Innsbruck
Innsbruck: A city and ski paradise
What is it that makes Innsbruck so special? It is the unique, magical combination of city and mountain. A perfect mixture of history, sight-seeing and sport. The name translates to “bridge over the Inn” — no not that kind of Inn — it’s located on the Inn River. While Innsbruck can be dated back to the Stone Age, today it is a bustling capital city welcoming visitors from all over the world. It feels like the intersection of history and post-modern architectural variety. There’s a major added advantage that your wallet will love: The Ski + City Pass. One ticket provides access to 13 ski areas surrounding Innsbruck and 22 city attractions including the Hofburg Imperial Palace, Bergisel Olympic Ski jump, Svarovski Crystal Worlds, Ambras Castle and many more. All are easily visited via the Sightseer hop-on, hop-off bus. Skiers and snowboards can ride the free ski bus to the slopes and then back to town apres-ski. A sample of the cost: 7 days for $281. That’s $56 a day. Pop that against a lift ticket price alone here at home.
The skiing choices are loaded with variety. Pick one or all.
Axamer Lizum: Locals often refer to Axamer Lizum as the “White Roof” of Innsbruck, a play on the iconic Golden Roof in the heart of the city. The resort is only 11 miles from town. Think back to the 1964 and 1976 Olympics, as most of the alpine skiing events were held here, including the women’s downhill. You’ll find whatever ski or ride terrain you want with lots of runs for beginners, intermediates, and experts. Axamer rises from 5,190 to 7,677 feet and its north-facing slopes mean you’ll find a generally good condition for the full winter season. There’s freeriding terrain and you can master those tricks in Golden Roof Park. A treat awaits in the Birgitzköpfle backcountry after a particularly good snow dump.
Patscherkofel: The mind of any ski racing fan of a certain age will replay the breathtaking over-the-edge downhill hurtle at the 1976 Olympics by then 22-year-old Austrian Franz Klammer. No ski highlight reel misses it. The terrain is a bit limited with only a little more than 12 miles of trails. Still, those top-to-bottom runs are long and satisfying. The resort underwent a modernizing “facelift” a few years ago with a new two-stage cable car replacing the old cable car and two lifts. It’s your chance to bring out the “inner-Klammer” in your soul.
Looking for family fun? Muttereralm — just over five miles from the city — is the end of your search. It’s small with four lifts (one is a gondola) and the terrain is mostly beginner and intermediate in difficulty. Or, another family-friendly choice — a bit further away at about 37 miles — is the Kühtai-Hochoetz twin-pack where the sun generally shines and the vertical rises up to some 8,267 feet. You can figure on good conditions into spring. There’s an all-day kindergarten and four ski schools at Hochoetz. If you don’t even want to board the bus, take the lift from town to Nordkette where you’ll find as many skiers taking in the sunshine in lounge chairs at 6,500 feet as those skiing or riding. Freeriders will get their rush, however, on the Karrinne. Just look over the Golden Roof in town and you can see it. Did we mention the cityscape view from here? Schlick 2000 also works fine for families and is just 10 minutes via the ski bus into the Stubai Valley.
The Stubai Glacier, the largest of Austria’s glacial ski areas, is 45 minutes away and provides skiing for all abilities. The altitude is 10,531 feet and the lifts run from October to as late as June. The Elferbahnen offers primarily wide but challenging slopes 30 minutes away. Glungezer is Patscherkofel’s neighbor and does have a very long run on natural snow. Rangger Köpfl is a closeby hangout (7 miles away) for skiing as well as tobogganing (there’s a 10-mile run) and winter walking, ski touring, and backcountry skiing. There are beginner slopes but the bulk of the terrain is intermediate and advanced.
Video: “Grias di” from Arlberg
Arlberg: The cradle of alpine skiing
The Arlberg ski region is a mountain range that stretches over five Alpine villages (Lech, Zürs, Stuben, St. Christoph and St. Anton), making up the largest connected “ski area” in Austria. Count ’em: 162 miles of groomed trails and 112 miles where the snow runs deep. Get uphill via more than 88 cable cars and lifts.
The terrain has spectacular (not an overstatement) off-piste (trails) for skiing and riding with plenty of powder days and marked routes, plus tough action for experts. There’s plenty of in-bounds skiing, too. Strong intermediate skiers will want to tackle the Run of Fame and start exploring the Arlberg — with 40 miles of skiing and 11,000 miles of vertical. Get going very early. You might sleep through apres-ski time.
The ski schools are renowned in the Arlberg offering a full range of expert instruction in both skiing and snowboarding. After all, they started it all. Each ski school includes childcare and, no worries, English is spoken. Be sure to check out the Arlberg Ski Pass as it’s your one lift ticket for all this incredible region has to offer.
Let’s start with Lech. This is the place where the rich and famous come to ski and be seen. The skiing is superb here, no other way to say it, and it’s often a powder paradise in one of the snowiest parts of the country. The town is cosmopolitan in feel but is still charming. Be careful where you ski while people-watching. Then, there’s the German fairy tale where Mother Hulda makes her bed and shakes out the snow. It must all drop on Warth-Schröcken in the Arlberg as it’s probably the most snow-plentiful resort you’ll find. There are two small Walser (that’s a German dialect) villages in the upper Bregenzerwald. The lift plan is excellent and it has the best connection to Lech. It’s probably the least known — read: hidden gem — of the Arlberg ski areas.
Zürs is a tiny cozy village way up on a mountain pass. It appeals to those seeking a total alternative to Lech. Head up the mountain from the center of the village and those lifts are linked to all its neighboring resorts. Ski early and enjoy peace and quiet, at least until the influx from those neighbors.
Stuben will satisfy intermediates for sure. It is compact and fun to ski and you have access to St. Anton and more on the Arlberg Pass.
The idyllic village of St. Christoph is immensely popular for skiers all over the world, not only for its sense of history but the ambiance when you stop for a warm drink or a relaxed, no hurry lunch on one of the hotel or hut sun terraces. Ski or ride on 304 acres with 48 lifts and terrain for all. St. Christoph is a mere 2.5 miles from St. Anton via bus or taxi.
And let’s finish at the place skiing started: St. Anton am Arlberg, along with St. Christoph, Stuben, Lech Zürs, Warth and Schröcken is the largest connected “ski area” in Austria and offers 88 lifts and gondolas. The village exudes Austrian charm. It’s cozy and walkable. Your evenings will be filled with fine dining and nightlife.
Video: “Grias di” from Ötztal
Ötztal: Variety in the long, long valley
Ötztal’s six ski resorts (including two glacier mountains) produce plenty of variety and terrain along Tyrol’s longest side valleys, 55 miles southwest of Innsbruck. You’ll find more than 270 miles of ski slopes and some of the best lift transportation systems. There is an absolute snow guarantee and plenty of other outdoor fun to experience on snowshoes, in hiking boots, on toboggans, touring, or cross-country skis. The Ötztal Super Ski Pass provides you access to all of the ski areas, plus entertainment, and is available for three or more days.
Perhaps the most famous of the Ötztal resorts is Sölden, a favorite for Europeans and becoming more popular as many Americans have discovered it. The village is just about a third of a mile, but the municipality is one of the largest in Austria covering more than 268,000 acres. Sölden is not the most picturesque or charming of the Austrian resorts, but it is clearly one of the liveliest. In fact, it’s known as “the apres-ski capital of Europe.”
You’ll find that vibe wherever you look — mountain huts, nightclubs, sores-ski bars and at special events. A big chunk of apres-ski action will be found next to the ultra-modern Gigijoch lift station. The best single word to describe Sölden is “big.” Tons of terrain is higher than 2000 meters. There are 146 km of trails, two glaciers where you can ski from October to May and three high peaks, vast off-piste terrain and a gigantic ski school.
Next up is what’s known as the Gurgl, Obergurgl and Hochgurgl, that is, at the far end of the valley. In this snow-sure playground, you’ll discover there are 69 miles of ski slopes accessible by 25 lifts. The real focus here is on quality ski time without the long waiting lines. The Kirchenkar gondola lift allowed for building the Top Mountain Crosspoint called Hochgurgl. Hoch, if you haven’t guessed, translates to “high.” This multi-purposed complex on top of the Obergurgl-Hochgurgl ski resort, combines the base station of the new lift, the highest motorcycle museum in Europe, a modern restaurant and the toll station for the Timmelsjoch Hochalpenstraße, a high mountain pass. You’ll not regret a holiday here for sure.
Hochoetz-Oetz is known for being authentic and more personal than the others and that means it’s a good choice for families. All the slopes have 100 percent snowmaking coverage and you will not likely ever face a liftline here of any substance. Vent is a hidden bargain. It’s affordable and peaceful with four lifts and a bit over nine miles of terrain. Its location can’t be beat — there’s no through traffic. The runs are easy and intermediate with awe-inspiring panoramic views in the high-alpine bowl. Put it this way: Vent is a very special place in this ski world of ours. Niederthal is tiny with just 2.5 miles of slopes and four lifts. Gries is even tinier with about one-third of a mile to play on with two lifts. Come for the scenery, but you can ski or ride a bit, too.
And, ‘gemütlichkeit’ to you
If you don’t learn or remember another word on your ski vacation in Tyrol, you can be guaranteed you won’t forget “gemütlichkeit.” Try not to compare an Austrian ski trip to one in the Green Mountains of Vermont or the Wasatch in Utah or the Rockies or anywhere else you have skied here at home. One is not necessarily better than the other, but you can count on a ski holiday in Austria being different, so totally memorable and fun, that it is an experience you’ll treasure forever. Why? It’s the “gemütlichkeit.”
(Featured Photo: Lechtaler Alpen, St. Anton am Arlberg. Mallaun Josef ©)