C Freeriding Klostertal, Arlberg (c) Sepp Mallaun / Vorarlberg Tourismus
A white cloud of snow marks the spot where the downhill track in the powder snow comes to an abrupt end – and leads to a deep hole. A short time later I emerge snorting with laughter, putting both thumbs up. Everything is OK, even though my equipment is scattered to the winds and the snow has even got stuck inside my ski goggles. Heli’s well-intended tip comes a bit late: “We need to protect the blanket of snow, so please try not to fall.”
The pistes are soon light years away.
Freeriderin Gehrengrat Lech-Arlberg
That’s easy for Helmut Düringer – Heli for short – to say. The wiry mountain guide from the Bregenzerwald spends the entire winter on skis. Suitably confident and relaxed, he surfs through the deep snow on his wide skis. “I ski more slowly in a group,” he says. “After all, I have to set an example.” The downhill runs here in Vorarlberg aren’t about speed anyway – instead, they are about the joint experience of an exceptional crossing on skis. Over the course of a week, “Ski Ride Vorarlberg” takes you from the Kleinwalsertal in a north-south direction past the Arlberg through the most westerly federal state in Austria as far as Gargellen in the Montafon. Skiing areas with their lifts, pistes and freeriding opportunities serve as fixed points, with individual legs between them being covered on touring skis. The small groups are accompanied by a mountain guide, their luggage is transported from hotel to hotel. Pure luxury!
Skiing areas with their lifts, pistes and freeriding opportunities serve as fixed points, with individual legs between them being covered on touring skis
As well as the mountain guide, we have a team manager who takes care of everything, including the weather – at least, when the forecast is good. But it isn’t. Is that something we should be happy about? New snow can be pure joy, provided it falls at night time and it is sunny during the day. Thick clouds and poor vision, on the other hand, are not good conditions for skiing off-piste. Mountain guide Heli is confident that all will be fine. Plus, the first day of skiing is all about getting your bearings and practising. We need to familiarise ourselves with short climbs using tour binding and ski skins. We also receive instructions about how to react in the event of an avalanche, as we ski mainly off-piste through the mountains. For this reason, we all carry in our rucksacks avalanche search equipment, a probe and shovel. Moreover, each rucksack is equipped with an avalanche airbag. We now have to learn to handle it. Safety has top priority with Heli – as the mountain guide, he is responsible for our group.
The Walmendingerhorn in the head of the valley of the Kleinwalsertal is our first destination. A small skiing mountain offering a great panorama, sporty downhill runs and a surprising number of options away from the pistes. After a few swings, Heli is already aiming towards the first skiing route – whose unpleasantly icy bumps are anything but fun – and a short time later the first climb awaits us. First of all, we cover a short ridge where tramping along in the bottomless snow is pretty tough going. Then, in ski skins, we climb over short slopes to the Muttelbergkopf. The skiing area is soon light years away.
At least that is how we see it on this very isolated viewing observatory, where Heli explains to us the ways of crossing into the Bregenzerwald tomorrow. Then he heads towards a perfectly snow-covered furrow where there are no old ski tracks to spoil the fun in the deep snow. Enjoyment is perfect, you feel like cheering to yourself and singing.
All that is left behind are isolated ski tracks.
On the second day the forecasted new snow is here – but so is the fog. Or, as Heli puts it so succinctly: “The view today is abysmal.” Yet that doesn’t matter – the mood amongst the group is up-beat. With poor vision and 20 cm of powder snow, we enjoy the freshly rolled pistes devoid of people in the Ifen skiing area. However, Heli has to amend the planned route into the Bregenzerwald – fog makes orientation in the middle of the massive snow dune landscape of the Gottesacker plateau on the Hohe Ifen impossible. Instead, he chooses an off-piste route via the Schwarzwasser hut. Helmut Düringer was involved in the planning of the “Ski Ride Vorarlberg” tour and, hence, is familiar with all off-piste routes. We are getting the benefit of it now.
Next day, everything is well with our world. A bright blue sky awaits us. And that is for the great leg between the Hochtannbergpass as far as Lech, and into the legendary snow paradise of the Arlberg. The freshly rolled pistes look tempting but, even better, the new snow that fell last night tempts us to off-piste terrain. The skiing areas of Lech Zürs and Warth-Schröcken, connected by the Auenfeldjet as of last winter, are famed for their off-piste routes, many of which are even included in the maps of the pistes and quickly bear the traces of skiers. However, we have Heli and touring skis with ski skins for climbs. The reward: untouched deep-snow slopes. Heli has planned our tour such that we reach the Madlochjoch after the lift has already stopped operating. The skiers are nowhere to be seen, we are completely alone. The Klostertal is covered by a blanket of fog, all around us the shadows of the mountains are getting longer and, in the evening glow, we set off on our final descent of the day. This is the ultimate feeling of happiness!
The many deep-snow downhill runs leave behind traces, including in the material. The new snow was brilliant, yet now and again it concealed a seriously dangerous stone. With unpleasant consequences for the running surface. This becomes the responsibility of the team manager in the evening – he takes all the skis for a service whilst we rest our tired legs and drink to the day’s skiing at the bar. Each time, everything has already been seen to upon our arrival: we are already checked in, our shoes already await us in the ski cellar, our luggage is in our rooms. Three things are particularly important at the “Ski Ride Vorarlberg”: the combination of the individual skiing areas in one tour, the group experience with the mountain guide who should also be able to tell the group a lot about Vorarlberg. And, of course: perfect all-round service.
The Maroiköpfe, at an altitude of about 2,522 metres, are the first highlight of the fourth day. It sounds arduous, but it isn’t, since we take lifts and cable cars for this tour. It’s an elevation gain of only 150 metres from the mountain station on the Albonagrat to the summit – even taking it easy it takes less than half an hour. We need considerably longer to go downhill – after all, a downhill classic awaits us, with a difference in altitude of 1,300 metres to Langen. In between: endless slopes, short escarpments, a crossing beneath sky-high snow flanks and a windy forest path which resembles a bob run. At the bottom, a taxi is waiting to pick us up and take us to the Sonnenkopf skiing area – the second highlight of the day.
Beforehand, however, we partake of refreshments in the Muttjöchle mountain restaurant which sits atop the summit of the same name affording a lovely view. It goes without saying that the pasta tastes twice as good with a panoramic view.
The destination of the day, the Montafon, is within our reach – yet so far away. We could ski there directly, but from a skiing point of view it is more interesting to try out the off-piste options on the Sonnenkopf – and then move to the Montafon comfortably by team bus.