Boozy crowds, lap-dancing and rock music – or an empty valley with superior snow? It’s not a difficult choice for ADAM RUCK
Adam Ruck doesn't get piste in Austria
SOON THE migration tide will turn and we will be the ones pouring in to Austria for our annual fix of glühwein, skiing and song. Another good reason for choosing the land of lederhosen and Mozart balls is the chance to stay in a spotless B&B for about £250 a week. Fluffy duvets of dazzling whiteness, satellite TV, cellarto-attic connectivity, milk and honey on the breakfast table. Austerity, be gone. In Austria you get more for your money.
The Pension Allgäu at Nederle, between the flashy Tyrolean resort of Ischgl and its humble neighbour Kappl, is typical. There is nothing unusual about the Allgäu. That’s the point. With a few exceptions – Lech and Zürs spring to mind – every Austrian ski resort has such places. Or if the resort itself does not have them, they will be easy to find a mile or two down the road. It is one of the defining charms of Austria that skiing takes place in regions inhabited by everyday country folk, not in a high Alpine wilderness.
‘The ski room is downstairs,’ said the lady of the house, Frau Ostheimer, when a group of us rolled up on a cold January evening. ‘Put your boots on the heater.’
One of my friends is a bit funny about her boots, and explained why. ‘If they’re on the heater I’ll be so worried about them melting, I won’t sleep,’ she said. ‘But if I leave them off the heater, putting them on in the morning will be agony.’
‘Would you like mein Mann to get up at six and put them on the heater?’ asked Frau Ostheimer. ‘Oh, yes, please!’ said my friend. ‘Are you sure he won’t mind?’
Enjoying Kappl’s old-fashioned charm
‘Not at all. Mein Mann has to see to the cows anyway, so it would really be no trouble.’
Ischgl is a big noise in Austrian skiing, and après. By night, a lap-dancing hub and rock concert venue by appointment to the likes of Katy Perry and James Blunt. By day, a high, wide and handsome international ski area – the biggest in the eastern Alps, or so they claim – with 45 high-velocity lifts delivering 93,000 skiers per hour to 238km of piste straddling the mountain that separates Austria and a remote duty-free corner of Switzerland, Samnaun. Border formalities are cursory as a rule, but customs officers have been known to emerge from the warmth of their huts to intercept skiers returning from Samnaun with bulging backpacks.
Eager to explore, we drove our lightly toasted boots to Ischgl after breakfast and joined a queue for the overflow car park, followed by a queue for the cable car which we eventually shared with an excited crowd of sleep-deprived derivatives traders who stank of alcohol. It had been a long night in the Coyote Club, apparently. The slopes, when we finally reached them, were hard-packed and full of the same people, still shouting as they hurtled down the mountain at showoff speed with complete disregard for anyone else. I’m sure they drive like this, hogging the fast lane with the lights undipped and a hand over the horn. ‘Here I come! Get out of the way!’
There was more room for manoeuvre on Swiss snow, but the lie of the land dictates that the Silvretta Arena’s international ski safari is a one-way system, and the more Ischgl upgrades its lifts to accommodate resort expansion and ease the morning crush, the more crowded the piste becomes.
After skiing down to check the price of liquor in Samnaun’s supermarkets and ride in its queue-busting doubledecker cable car, we made our way back to Ischgl on the same circuit as everyone else. All runs converge above the village in a conga-like chain of people sliding down a treacherous slope polished to a shine by skiers’ bottoms. We escaped the human slalom unharmed and fled before the table dancing and figs-in-vodka competitions began in earnest.
In the calm of our friendly billet, Frau Ostheimer recommended the Hotel Post in Kappl for our supper and called to make the reservation. A junior member of this village institution’s owning clan showed us to a table that miraculously had no pot of boiling oil on it, nor an electric cheese grill, hot stone or any of the other DIY gastro-gimmicks favoured by restaurants in fashionable ski resorts as alternatives to employing a cook. The venison medallions were perfect.
Next morning we headed back to Kappl, parked next to its lift station (no charge), hooked up with local instructor Tomas and strolled on to the lift, a cabin with comfortable seats. Kappl’s lift system is not complicated, rising in several stages to the considerable height of 2,700m via a sunny plateau at midmountain, Alp Dias. ‘This is where my cows spend the summer,’ said Tomas. ‘They love it up here.’ I’m not surprised. Alp Dias is St Tropez for cows.
We had come to Kappl on a mission to ski the valley that leads from its top lift station to Pettneu, an outpost of St Anton. This empty valley, the Malfontal, may soon become a busy thoroughfare when St Anton and Ischgl reach out to each other with lift cables and trans- form Kappl from quiet family resort to the fulcrum of an Arlberg/silvretta ski supernova.
Tomas said we could do the run, but not before he showed us what Kappl had to offer. Namely: long, fast, empty pistes in the sun, and wide, open snowfields, untracked and inviting.
The morning could have been made for skiers to carve up the piste and plough the powder in clouds of snow flashing in the sunlight. After two hours of schusses and cartwheels we kicked the snow off our boots for a quick lunch at Alp Dias. Tell us, Tomas, how come south-facing Kappl’s snow is so much better than north-facing Ischgl’s? ‘They have thousands of skiers,’ he said. ‘We have a few hundred, so our snow stays fresh.’ Wear and tear: a factor too often ignored when resorts are compared for snow reliability.
The entrance to the St Anton run, a windy col immediately behind Kappl’s top lift station, is so obvious that you might easily commit to it by mistake on a foggy day. Wind-blown crusty snow at the top brought us down to earth, but it was a fine wilderness adventure with plenty of room for kick turns and traversing until we reached more user-friendly snow at lower altitude. An empty, steepsided bowl led to a hanging valley with chamois browsing the slopes above us. After clambering over a stile or two, we skied down a snow-covered road to the Rosanna valley at Pettneu, a village wellknown to skiers who want an inexpensive base for St Anton and the Arlberg, staying in B&BS similar to the Allgäu.
Tomas had called for a taxi, and it rattled us back to Kappl in time for one last ride up the mountain and a topto-bottom blast to round off the day, finishing at our guide’s ski shop. Set on a steep hillside, the cellar is a gallery open to the afternoon sun and a fine view of the valley. Tomas’s cows spend their winter here, providing the shop’s underfloor heating and dreaming of their holidays on Alp Dias. ‘They have two summers up there,’ said Tomas, ‘then,
A bottle of schnapps appeared, and we toasted the short but happy lives of Tomas’s beasts, one by one: Trudi, Gabi, Helga, Liesl – Gesundheit! Here’s hoping Kappl also has a few years left, before its quiet life must end.