Vorarlberg

A powder-rich adventure through the idyllic Vorarlberg Austria skiing region. By Andrew Findlay

I wake groggy from jet lag and peer out a window of my suite in Mittelberg, an idyllic mountain village in Kleinwalsertal, a Vorarlberg Austria Skiing region snugged up against the German border. Fat snowflakes drift lazily and the industrious Austrians are already busy blowing snow and plowing streets blanketed with what appears deliciously to be a foot and a half of powder. Being Sunday morning, the bells of the Catholic Church are tolling to summon the faithful. But for me, it’s like the sound of a one-in-athousand strike at a Las Vegas slot machine — in skiing terms, I have stumbled upon a jackpot.

Austria is synonymous with skiing and I came to explore Vorarlberg, the country’s westernmost state that’s home to renowned resorts like Lech Zürs am Arlberg, and obscure gems like Sonnenkopf and Gargellan. Although it’s just two-thirds the size of Rhode Island, Vorarlberg contains a world of skiing adventures and a winter sports history as rich as a bowlful of Kaiserschmarrn, that favorite Austrian dessert of the late emperor Franz Josef I.

“You’re timing izz perfect,” says Elmar Mueller, a Kleinwalsertal ski bum to the core whom I meet for breakfast along with mountain guide Lukas Kühlechner, who hails from the Montafon, a region I’ll explore on this trip.

[the_ad id="16588"]

A morning feast of muesli, charcuterie, cheeses so sharp they challenge my ski boot liners for pungency, eggs, fresh fruit, and espresso snaps me out of jet lag. Over breakfast I’m told the avalanche hazard is high, so plans are to stay inbounds after riding the gondola to the top of Kanzelwand. Thigh-deep feathery powder sits atop a thin base. Low clouds clear to reveal breathtaking views of the jagged Bregenzerwald Mountains. After a few low-angled powder runs, we get busy in untracked forest glades, and use the stone walls of subalpine pastures for pillow drops. On the day’s final run we thread the avalanche fences to the valley bottom where our shuttle awaits to spirit us back to the steam rooms and saunas of the Haller’s Genuss & Spa Hotel.

That night we’re spoiled by the hotel’s award-winning chef de cuisine, Gerd Hammerer, with a menu of delicious teasmoked duck breast with artichoke and fig, sweet potato soup, venison ragout, and vanilla-raspberry sorbet. Later, we migrate to the lounge for a digestif of local pear schnapps. Already I was beginning to wonder if the key to Austria’s global skiing dominance may lie in its hearty mountain cuisine — and its schnapps.

It’s more of the same the next day at the adjacent resort of Höfen; a feast of powder worthy of last night’s extravagant repast. The karst geology of Kleinwalsertal features depressions, caverns, and skierswallowing sinkholes. Therefore we ski with care while following Mueller — his beard perpetually powdered from the still falling snow — around one of his home mountains. Plans to ski tour to the tabletop massif known as Ifen are thwarted by ping-pong ball visibility. So at day’s end we pile into the van and shuttle to a fairytale mountain valley and our home for the night, the family-run Jagdgasthaus Egender. The clouds have cleared and the steeple of a lonely country chapel pierces the steely blue evening sky. Austrians are avid hunters, and many guesthouses, like this one, double as hunting lodges where the unabashedly dominant decorative theme is often taxidermy. I cozy up beneath a deer rack and next to the kachelöfen, one of those beautiful Austrian woodstoves adorned with fine tile work. Our host, Hubert Egender, tells me that four years ago they rebuilt the original lodge, which had been in the family for three generations, into this three-story guesthouse. Nothing in Austria is done without careful consideration of function and form. Salvaged wood was repurposed for wall paneling and custom furnishings, while heated concrete floors in the bathrooms give the lodge a modern, warm touch. Stars blaze in the cold night sky as we linger over a tumbler of schnapps, home distilled from gentian root.

“Medicine,” Egender says with a wink.

© SKI ARLBERG. PHOTO: JOSEF MALLAUN
PHOTO: MICHAEL GUNZ - VORARLBERG TOURISMUS

Arlberg is to skiing what
Vatican City is to Catholics.

Bludenz
PHOTO: Carola Eugster ©Bludenz Stadt marketing
Lech-austria-at-night
PHOTO : CHRISTOPH SCHÖCH . LECH ZÜRS TOURISM
KLEINWALSERTAL
PHOTO: HANS WIESENHOFER. KLEINWALSERTAL TOURISM

The following day we head to Warth, one of more than a half dozen resorts that comprise the vast ski area of Arlberg, where a guide is almost essential for navigating the 87 ski lifts and 314 miles of on- and off-piste terrain accessible with a single ticket. Arlberg is to skiing what Vatican City is to Catholics. Not far from here in Stuben, the legendary Hannes Schneider developed the Arlberg technique in the early 1900s, a learning progression that laid the foundation of modern skiing and instruction. Arlberg is also home to the world’s first ski school in the region and to the Ski Club Arlberg, inaugurated in 1901.

From Warth we travel by skis across the mountains toward Oberlech. The slopes are vastly busier than Kleinwalsertal, and the area wears its fashion-conscious cosmopolitan flare like a fur collar on a one piece ski suit. After spending the morning playing in chopped up, sun-warmed, twoday-old storm snow, we slide to a lunch stop at Der Wolf, a rectangular postmodern style restaurant that stands in sharp contrast to the ubiquitous peak-roofed Tirolean chalets. People watchers are assembled on deck chairs, sipping radlers and sunning themselves. However, in the valley below, afternoon shade creeps across the rooftops of Lech. Despite its reputation for fashion and affluence, Lech Zürs is renowned for steep and off-piste skiing. It’s the kind of terrain that produces strong skiers and has helped the Ski Club Arlberg claim bragging rights as having produced more Olympians than any other ski club in the world, among them Patrick Ortlieb and Hubert Strolz.

That night we join Daniela Pfefferkorn, an elegant hotelier and member of one of the better-known skiing and hospitality families in Lech, for a fondue feast at the Alter Goldener Berg. The Pfefferkorns incorporated this 500-year-old farmhouse into their hotel, transforming it into a dining room that showcases the fine finishing woodwork and detailing that is the hallmark of Austrian craftsmanship. Pfefferkorn grew up ski racing in Lech and has vacationed around the world with her skis, but her heart lies in Arlberg.

“I ski every day. It’s who we are,” she tells as me as I dip another strip of beef tenderloin into the fondue pot.

The following morning is once again frigid and clear. We schuss through Oberlech down to Lech, stomp across the village’s busy thoroughfare, then load into the Rüfikopf cable car. An hour of skiing easy groomers and riding multiple lifts delivers us to Zürs, consisting of a cluster of hotels in a barren mountain valley. We’re soon riding a modern wonder, the Trittkopfbahn I cable car, which with its sister cable cars Trittkopfbahn II and the Flexenbahn, was completed in time for the 2016/2017 season.

“It cost around €45 million, but the circle is now closed,” Kühlechner tells me, explaining how this ultra-modern lift system now fully integrates the Arlberg ski area, making it Austria’s largest, and the world’s fifth largest, ski area.

The Flexenbahn cablecar is soon whisking us down a steep mountain face. I spot a group of four Alpine ibex, wild goats endemic to the Alps, gracefully scaling a knife edge ridge below us. After offloading, we rip GS turns down a narrow piste in a shady, angular valley to the tranquil village of Stuben, clustered at the head of a box canyon. There we pay homage to Hannes Schneider, cast suavely in bronze next to the church, with cigarette dangling from mouth, skis on shoulder, and eyes gazing at the peaks.

That afternoon we use climbing skins to tour from Sonnenkopf to the metal cross tottering atop 6000-foot Muttjöchle, where we stamp our notebooks for posterity. From there we gaze down toward tiny Silverthal, huddled in shadow beneath peaks glowing pink orange in the alpenglow of another spectacular sunset.

“That’s my home valley,” Kühlechner says, wistfully pointing toward the Montafon.

A pair of fighter jets suddenly cuts across the cobalt sky — security detail for the World Economic Forum underway in Davos. But it’s all peaceful here in Vorarlberg, and at this moment the serious global matters being discussed by the suits and ties just over the Swiss border take a sorry second place to the simplicity and beauty of skiing.


snow-magazine-2017

“Vorarlberg”

Article by Andrew Findlay from our 2017/2018 Winter Issue of SNOW Magazine.

View Issue