The grand tour

It’s all about skin­ning in Aus­tria’s Arl­berg re­gion

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page - MICHAEL BEN­NET

I STOP to rest my legs and catch my breath. About 100m be­low, two fel­low skiers are work­ing their way up the track we’ve made snaking our way from the val­ley to­wards the moun­tain­top.

Up ahead, an­other is near­ing the point where she’ll have to do a ‘‘kick turn’’, a tech­nique even the most sea­soned skiers find tough the first few times. De­spite her un­ease, she makes the turn and heads for the sum­mit where our guide, Marcus, is wait­ing.

Weare ski tour­ing, or ‘‘skin­ning’’, in the Arl­berg re­gion of Aus­tria, near the bor­der with Switzer­land, dur­ing one of Europe’s best sea­sons in years. Ski tour­ing is done off piste, in the back coun­try of ski re­sorts, and al­lows us to go where the lifts don’t.

Thank­fully, we’re as­cend­ing in the shade of the moun­tain, so it’s not too hot and I have time to take in the beauty of the Aus­trian Alps. Other than our group of five, there’s not a soul in sight and it’s eerily quiet. The scenery makes it easy to for­get we’re in un­pa­trolled ter­rain where avalanches reg­u­larly claim lives. Time to press on.

Our stan­dard skis are fit­ted with spe­cial bind­ings that switch be­tween nor­mal ski­ing and walk­ing modes. With a car­pet-like ‘‘skin’’ at­tached to the base of the skis, the walk­ing mode lets us as­cend in cross-coun­try style, which can be a gru­elling task at 2000m above sea level.

The su­per-fit can cross count­less bowls and climb moun­tains for hours, but even ski tours as short as 45 min­utes of­fer se­ri­ously good op­tions. When you reach the top, pull off the skins and head down­hill, the hard work be­comes a dis­tant mem­ory.

Af­ter skin­ning up the Maroikopf in Stuben — the small­est of the Arl­berg’s six vil­lages; its name means ‘‘warm shel­ter­ing room’’ and re­flects its early his­tory as a place of refuge for pil­grims — we put the skins back on and climb the Sat­tein­ser­tali.

From the top, the view across the Alps is breath­tak­ing. We can see slopes we’ve con­quered ear­lier in the week. And our re­ward is in­stantly clear — ahead lies a bowl with hun­dreds of me­tres of fresh pow­der all to our­selves.

Af­ter the first 30 or so turns, I lose count as we make our way down the run and through the for­est to­wards Lan­gen, the clos­est train sta­tion for ac­cess to the re­sorts of Stuben, Zurs and Lech. From Zurich or Mu­nich, Lan­gen is a scenic jour­ney of two to three hours. The pow­der in renowned off-piste re­gions such as the Arl­berg — which links Ober­lech, St An­ton and St Christoph via 260km of groomed pistes on the one lift pass — is usu­ally tracked out within a day or so of a big fall. Robert, one of our guides in Zurs, says the num­ber of peo­ple ski­ing off piste has in­creased dra­mat­i­cally in the past 10 years.

At least 30cm of snow has fallen overnight, so Robert sug­gests we ski some of the fa­mous lo­cal runs, eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble by lift or a short walk with the skis over the shoul­der. Af­ter the Wiesele, Gug­gis-Sat­tel and the Och­sen­bo­den, we head for the Erzberg, a long, cruisy pow­der run down end­less rolls that is a must for any visi­tor.

We wake the next day in Lech, which is big­ger than Zurs and known for its apres-ski drink­ing in the af­ter­noon sun. A look out the win­dow con­firms our ex­pec­ta­tions — yes­ter­day’s mem­o­rable pow­der has been skied out by the crowds. So we put the skins and drink­ing wa­ter in our back­packs and head for the Eisen­scharte, a rel­a­tively easy ski tour from Lech to Zurs. The view from the sad­dle stretches up the Paziel val­ley to the sum­mit of the Val­luga in St An­ton — the re­gion’s high­est peak (2811m) and a heart-stop­ping moun­tain to ski in the right con­di­tions and with cer­ti­fied guides. The snow on the way down is more vari­able, but light enough to leave a smile on our faces as we en­joy the re­turn to Zurs.

Our fi­nal tour takes us over to St An­ton, the largest and most lively of the re­sorts and host of the 2001 Alpine World Ski Cham­pi­onships. We pass the Mooser­Wirt hut, renowned for apres-ski ses­sions that run long into the night. Our goal is the cel­e­brated Ross­fallscharte, an hour-long tour on the Rendl side of the moun­tain that opens up the Mal­fontal val­ley, a long pow­der run down to Pet­tneu, just out­side St An­ton.

On the track out, we pass an­other ski guide from Zurs en­joy­ing a pic­nic with his guests. They’re also smil­ing — it’s a com­mon ex­pres­sion when pow­der ski­ing in the Arl­berg.



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