The grand tour
It’s all about skinning in Austria’s Arlberg region
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.