First turns of the winter
10th December 2011
Normally at this time of year PlanetSKI would be reporting from Verbier, Zermatt, Tignes or Chamonix. High-altitude snow sure resorts. Instead our content editor is in Silvretta-Montafon in Austria this weekend. Why?
The Montafon Valley in western Austria is not exactly a household name amoung UK skiers and snowboarders.
It is not even near anywhere well-known, though it is now comparing itself with the Lech/ Zurs as a new €30m linking lift makes it a bigger ski area than its fellow resort in the Vorarlberg province.
I must admit last week when I decided to come over it seemed a ridiculous idea.
Heavy snow was at last coming down in France and Switzerland and there was the opportunity to ski there instead.
One metre of fresh snow was dumping down in Tignes as I set off for the village of Gaschurn in the Montafon. It is at around 1,000m and the skiing goes up to 2,400m.
In Tignes it starts at just below that at 2,100 and goes up to 3,500m.Where would you rather be after a massive snowfall?
As we drove into town though the snow was abundant. The snowstorm had not forgotten the Montafon Valley.
And once we headed up the lift all thoughts of being somewhere else evaporated. There was snow dripping off the trees and fresh powder on the slopes.
It was the opening day and the locals who had turned out were excited; chatting, smiling and looking forward to their first turns off the winter proper.
So was I.
The local school children had a day off lessons as it was a religious festival.
There is always something special about a resort on its opening day and the feeling of winter starting all over again.
Apprehension and fear that the body might have forgotten how to ski. Excitement and anticipation at what lies in store.
The snow was good, though there was not enough to ski down to the valley and not all the resorts and runs were open.
We could see pretty much the whole and I was pleasantly surprised by its size and variety.
In the distance across the valley, but not linked to Silvretta-Montafon, was the tiny village of Gargellen.
The resort where I started skiing in 1966 as an 8-year old boy.
Vague memories of leather lace up boots, eating a huge piece of chocolate cake with my sister while my mother and father danced in a tea -room drifted through my memory. I remembered getting a nosebleed that wouldn’t stop.
It was funny to think that was the place where my lifetime love affair with the mountains started.
The ski area still retained something of that old-fashioned alpine charm.
Over a beer after skiing a newly-appointed senior resort official told me that someone had tried to pay for a service the resort management company offered not with money but with a cow.
“It was how he had paid for years and other people paid for other services in cubic meters of hay or wood,” she said. “It is hard work introducing modern methods of resort management!”
I wasn’t entirely sure of the cow anecdote, but it could have happened. Old ways of doing things die hard in this part of The Alps.
Ernest Hemingway had been a fan of Montafon. “It snowed for two days. Approximately two and a half feet of snow. Cold, the air is nice and thick. It is really nice to see the mountains again,” he said back in 1925.
Out on the slopes there were no fast ego-maniacs screaming around, no loud English voices and the prices were more modest than the likes of Val d’Isere, Meribel and Zermatt. €14.50 for three large beers. (That’s £4 each).
I was pleasantly surprised by the lifts too.
The latest edition to the system is the €30m Grasjoch 8-person gondola. It takes 2,800 passengers per hour and connects the two main ski areas of Hochjoch and Nova.
It is state of the art with heated seats and makes use of solar energy.
It did though seem an awful lot of money for a connecting lift and I wondered if it would ever take that number of people per hour.
It takes you up to the Hochjoch area but it is pretty small with just at 44 km of runs.
At the opening ceremony for the lift a local priest gave it his blessing.
The larger area is Nova where there is a wide variety of terrain and 114 km of pistes.
Again good lifts were in abunance and we spent the morning whooping it up in the powder before it all got tracked out.
Kids were building kickers and at the other end of the spectrum more than a few of the skiers were gracing the slopes with the old fashioned Arlberg style with their legs seemingly glued together.
The on-slope bars were packed, the music loud and no-one here seemed to be too worried about the current state of the euro and the economic situation.
Winter has arrived at long, long last and there was fun to be had.
As I headed down from the ski area at the end of the day a friend texted me from Verbier saying only a handful of runs had been opened. I glanced out of the gondola window and felt I could almost be in Zermatt as one of the mountains towering over the valley had a familiar shape.
Did I regret going to a low-altitude Austrian ski area to start my winter?
Not a bit.
There is far more to skiing than the famous mega resorts that the British seem to flock to.
I made a mental note that I must try to get to more resorts that I am not familiar with and that perhaps I should try to arrange a return visit to Silvretta-Montafon when the season proper is underway.
Big and famous does not necessarily mean best.
A week’s b&b at the three-star Hotel Explorer in Gaschurn with flights from Gatwick to Innsbruck and airport transfers costs from £615 per person. A modern hotel with wellness facilities including a sauna, steam bath, infrared cabin as well as a contemporary style bar and launge area. For further details see here or call Crystal Ski on 08712312256.
For the spirit of the mountains