A Ski Safari in the Arlberg
Skiing in a blizzard somewhere above the village of St Christoph in January, I felt like I was inside a freshly shaken Tyrolean snowglobe. The only colors I could detect were the blurred jackets of my friend Tom and Christoph Berger, a third generation Arlberg ski guide.
Much is made of hiring a guide in the treeless Alps and a whiteout qualifies as reason number one. Forget mere vertigo. Four people had perished in an avalanche the day before, a snowball's toss from where we were skiing. Even when you could see the terrain, the line between piste and off-piste in the Arlberg is largely an academic distinction. Which is why Tom almost skied straight off a cornice and a 20-foot drop to a catwalk below. Like virtually every other hazard we saw, it wasn't marked. When the storm passed, it was all deep blue sky and jagged peaks that looked as if a giant bowl of thick Viennese schlag had been dumped onto them.
An Arlberg ski safari must rank as one of the most rarefied pleasures in the winter world. Modern day skiing was born here in western Austria, the haunt of the legendary instructor Hannes Schneider. There are 167 miles of groomed pistes in the area and some 105 miles of off piste pleasures. For six days, we skied between the villages of St. Christoph, St. Anton (above), Stuben, Lech and Zurs, using a guide for two days, winging it the other four.
Each day was a different route, mixing challenges like the long, steep off-piste route off the back of the Rendl in St. Anton with sightseeing cruisers. We began by tackling the mountains surrounding St. Christoph and headed into Stuben and St. Anton on day-long jaunts.
Regardless of mileage, we made time for the obligatory lengthy European lunch at mountain restaurants like Senn Hutte, feasting on roast pork and the delicious cheese dumplings known as kasespaetzel, accompanied by a glass of two of Gruner Veltliner.
And if too many pints of Fohrenburg beer at the earsplitting Mooserwirt in St. Anton delayed our return? Each town is linked by buses that burrow through ingeniously built tunnels. A half hour free bus ride led us back to our digs at the Arlberg Hospiz (above), located in the hamlet of St. Christoph. This legendary white-walled hostelry has a medieval chapel at its heart, one of Europe's most important Bordeaux cellars below and a brand-new, 21,000 square-foot spa.
We had intended to complete the Arlberg circuit and ski to Zurs and Lech but the famously challenging connecting run to Zurs was closed due to avalanche danger. So impatient Yanks that we are, we changed hotels after a few days, moving to the Hospiz's sister hotel, the Goldener Berg, a cosy four star in the hamlet of Oberlech, a car free village above Lech. From here, we struck out on the day-long clockwise circuit known as The White Ring, which leads in a squiggly circle from Lech to Zurs and back.
At week's end, we'd survived the terrain, the raucous Mooserwirt and a cholesterol-taxing amount of wurst. And still there was enough of the Arlberg left over to plan a return trip or two.
Arlberg Hospiz and Goldener Berg (www.hospiz.com)
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