Early Season Skiing in Austria

A number of friends have already hit the pistes and have generally given good feedback on snow conditions. There were some good early dumps and cold conditions, although by Christmas a warm front lifted the temperatures alarmingly. However few lift systems were fully open to take advantage of the fresh snow, but with Christmas that has all changed. Many resorts have switched to their peak season schedules since 22nd December and the Oatridge family had their first ski outing.

The venue was Austria, initially Pitztal (with a top run from 3440m) and then Kitzbühel.

Pitztal has its main installations at the head of the valley, with two main areas at Rifflsee and the Glacier which together offer 68km of pistes and 44km of trails. There is also a small beginners area a couple of hundred metres from the Rifflsee base station. Rifflsee is a pleasant area of runs that are largely of similar standard irrespective of colour and connects to the Glacier base station – although to get back to Rifflsee you need to take the bus. The Glacier area is reached by a train service at Mittelberg and, although there is a trail back down, there is currently no pistes back to the base station. However with runs between 2840 and 3440m, this is a great area for early and late season skiing. The valley also has some good cross-country trails.

We stayed in the Seppl Sport & Vital Hotel in Weisswald, just a short bus ride from the valley stations. The hotel is a family-run establishment with a spa, pool, sauna, bowling alley etc and would generally get top marks but for the relatively expensive extras which could significantly add to the hotel bill if you are not careful. It lies conveniently at the terminus of the most frequent bus service, and only a short walk from the main post bus stop.

To get there from Switzerland you need to take the outstanding Railjet from Zurich to Landeck, switch to a local train to Imst then get off smartly to take the post bus connection that runs up Pitztal to Mittelberg. The journey is spectacular although the section by bus takes around 50m and is quite windy.

Like Swiss Railways with Snow’n’Rail, their Austrian counterparts (ÖBB) run a Kombitickets Wintersport scheme. It is nowhere near as extensive as the Swiss scheme and has some strange omissions, but it does include Lech, Zurs, St Anton, Kitzbühel, Nassfeld, Schladming, St Johann, Gastein, Zell am See and a dozen or so other resorts. The Austrians are almost as efficient as the Swiss, so taking the train and bus makes a lot of sense.

Kitzbühel has a rail station with a direct service to Innsbruck, although switching to a local train at Wörgl enables you to get off at the Kitzbühel Hanhenkamm stop, right next to the main gondola lift. There is also a good bus service from the main rail station, which is inclusive of a lift pass.

Kitzbühel actually comprises four sections. The small unconnected Gaisberg area in Kirchberg, the larger unconnected Kitzbüheler Horn area, a large area above Jochberg and the main area between Kitzbühel and Kirchberg which takes in the Hahnenkamm and Pengelstein peaks. From Pengelstein a gondola runs to and from the Jochberg section, although it is not possible to ski or snowboard between them. Although the highest peak across the area covered by the lift pass is only 2004m, the slopes are largely North-facing and have a good snow record. I love the runs of and around Pengelstein, lots of nice cruisy runs with enough variety and challenge and off-piste variations to keep anyone happy.

And then, of course, there is the Hahnenkamm run itself. In practice it is not one run but a series of variations, enabling you to pick and choose whether to take steep or flatter sections. it has stunning views over Kitzbühel and the surrounding areas where the valleys of the Kitzbühler Ache and Inn converge. However, what makes this run so special is that you know that are taking the route of one of the greatest ski races in the world. Truly a unique experience, and definitely a candidate in the “ten runs you should do before you die”.

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Swiss Winter Sports on the Radio

Swiss Winter Sports features now on the radio, albeit only if you live in the Basel and Baselland areas. The excellent Basel-based Radio-X runs an English language show every Tuesday evening from 6.30pm until 8pm, and they now feature a short section on winter sports in which Kiwi John interviews Nic Oatridge to get the low down on a different resort every week. Radio-X is on 94.5 FM and the English Show has a web site at http://www.theenglishshow.com where you can catch up on older broadcasts. If you do live in the Basel area and are an English-speaker I really do recommend you tune into this informative programme quite apart from listening to hear ski and snowboard tips.

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