LET’S GO TO THE CIRCUS
18th March 2019 | Jane Peel, Saalbach, Austria
Last modified on November 13th, 2019
Our chief reporter has just spent a few days in the Skicircus ski area of Austria. Here’s her story, as it happened.
I’ve only got a couple of days so it’s going to be a task and a half to see all of what this vast ski area has got to offer.
It used to be plain old Saalbach-Hinterglemm.
The two villages in the Glemm valley have shared a ski area since the Second World War.
Then came Leogang, which is in the next valley heading towards Salzburg.
Finally, in the 2015-16 season, Fieberbrunn joined the party.
So the ski area now straddles two Austrian provinces – Salzburgerland and the Tirol.
The Skicircus – with around 270km of pistes – is the second largest lift-linked ski area in Austria after Ski Arlberg, which includes St Anton and Lech among other resorts.
But as I arrive at my base in Saalbach on Sunday evening and head out for a stroll at 6pm it’s still 9 degrees Celsius.
At least it’s not 20 degrees which I’m told it was earlier in the day.
I am also told the temperatures are due to drop and snow is coming overnight.
While this part of Austria had some massive dumps back in January and February, there’s not been huge amount to get excited about since.
On Monday morning I wake up to this:
I’m still not that excited.
But Saalbach village is at an altitude of 1,000 metres and the skiing goes up to 2,000 metres.
So you never know.
It turns out that my guide for the day is keen to go on the hunt for some powder turns too.
If anyone knows where to go surely ski instructor Erik van den Berg will.
“I’ve only caused one avalanche,” is one of the first things he says to me.
Well, that’s OK then.
It’s soon clear he does know where to go.
We find powder and we don’t have to go anywhere it’s possible for him to cause an avalanche.
Really good snow for mid-March.
It turns out Erik doesn’t know this place as well as I thought.
In the video I talk about being on the Spielberg mountain because that’s what Erik tells me.
“Yes, like Steven Spielberg,” he assures me.
If you know the place, you’ll wonder where on earth I’m talking about.
Turns out it’s actually the Spieleckkogel.
“I’m not very good with names,” says Erik when I point to it on a piste map during our lunch stop.
“That’s OK Ernie. Me neither”.
Did I mention lunch?
Well, I know the Austrians love their après ski entertainment but this is lunchtime at the Walleggalm mountain hut….
It’s part of the entertainment laid on for White Pearl Mountain Days – a spring festival of “cool sounds, international cuisine, a health and fitness programme, as well as your own sun lounger”.
It’s running for the rest of March at mountain huts and village bars across the Skicircus.
The music is relentless and so are the two ‘white pearls’, who stop for a nanosecond to pose for a photo.
After lunch I continue to struggle off-piste on my Rossignol Hero piste skis.
But, never fear, Erik/Ernie is on hand with a camera as I – erm – lie down for a rest.
He laughs a lot but, to be fair, I’m giving him a lot to laugh about today.
When he yells up the slope telling me to go between two small but intimately close trees, I think he wants to take a photo of me.
So I go and pose.
But he means I should ski through them.
I am now sideways-on and stuck.
“It’s your fault,” I say, trying not to laugh myself.
“Yes, I’m obviously in control of your skis,” he says.
“Well you must be because I most certainly am not!”
He’s enjoying this.
I sense that I’m the clown in this Skicircus.
But then the clouds begin to part, the sun comes out and I’m having a lot of fun.
“The only thing is you’ll up to walk up a bit to get there,” he says.
“It’ll take about 20 minutes.”
I fear an hour-long hike and more embarassing photos.
I’ll just ski down that nice gentle blue run which will take me almost to my doorstep.
A bit later my phone pings with a message.
“Don’t want to make you jealous… but that was the best run this season “
By this stage I’ve changed my skis for some nice powder ones, so I’m pretty sure Erik/Ernie will take me on the hardest, fastest, steepest pistes he can find tomorrow.
And I’ll be saying “It’s your fault” quite a lot.
We’ll see what the ringmaster has in store for the clown on day two.
There’s been only a dusting of snow overnight and it’s turned a little warmer.
FINAL DAY ON THE MOUNTAIN
It really is a thing.
I should know by now that Erik doesn’t do anything by halves.
We are not going on a nice groomed track.
We are not going on a gently undulating off-piste hike.
We are going extreme snowshoeing.
It involves taking the Kolmaiskopf gondola from Saalbach up to 1,794 metres altitude then climbing through the deeply forested peaks and along a ridge in virgin powder snow.
There are lots of ups and downs.
The ups are not the problem.
It’s the downs I can’t get the knack of.
“Always keep your nose in front of your toes,” Erik tells me.
“I am,” I moan.
No. I’m not.
Alternatively, I could simply sit down and do my impression of a human avalanche.
We could be miles from civilisation.
It’s clear no-one except for the odd animal has been here before us since the last snowfall.
It’s worth the effort.
At one stage we are forced to retrace our steps.
There’s a two metre drop on both sides of the ridge.
On the way down we take another diversion to avoid the steepest downhill.
Erik sensibly decides it’s the best course of action.
Then – about 3 hours in – we’re on an easy path, hiking past the signs for the summer walking and mountain bike trails that are still almost completely buried.
Lunch is at a remote mountain hut.
We are going to toboggan it.
An exhilarating way to end my trip to the Skicircus.
It’s just as well it’s done.
Frankly, I’m not sure my body could cope with another day in the company of Erik.
And here for more about skiing in Austria.