Nothing Bleak About Midwinter
Night-train to St. Anton: a sojourn in paradise for serious skiers
It was 10:30 and the peak of the Schindlergrat, one of the highest points in the expansive ski resort of St. Anton am Arlberg, presented an awesome natural theatre. To our left and right, jagged boulders towered up like high-altitude termite mounds, and between them the wide run, totally empty and glistening in the early sun, snaked down until it disappeared into the blanket of cloud that was tufting invitingly a few hundred metres below.
It was the feeling of being in an airplane but without the claustrophobia, as the icy morning drove away the last remnants of sleepiness. A mere twelve hours before, my girlfriend and I had hunkered down in a couchette pulling out of the grey disconsolate Westbahnhof in Vienna. Now, if we weren’t quite in heaven itself, it was the nearest spot where you’ll be admitted sporting a pair of stiff boots and colorful goggles.
Feeling smug, we launched ourselves off the edge. The slope was steep but the sun had softened the top layer of snow and, after that brief delicious moment of weightlessness, the edges gripped in easily and smoothly, swinging us around like a trains on rails. Trains and rails again. Sadly I have collected but few pieces of advice to bequeath the world, but I know this to be a good one: Take the Alpine night-train westwards, and you’ll never regret it.
St Anton, at the western edge of Tyrol, is next to Kitzbühl, the most internationally acclaimed ski-resort in Austria. The geographical particularities of the Arlberg seem to attract heavy dumps of snow and the slopes down to the village are so steep that in summer, or so it’s claimed in the bars, even the grazing cattle have to wear crampons.
Those factors, and particularly the wide-open bowls of free skiing, have attracted an international crowd of ski bums. You’ll find them gathered in the first gondola-cabins of the morning, clad in rucksacks and helmets, and hugging specialist powder skis that seem to get wider each year until eventually, I suppose, they’ll be indistinguishable from water skis. Later you might see them in the übercool Krazy Kangaruh bar, perched two-thirds of the way down the run into the village, where they sip beer and do their best to look slightly bored with the whole wondrous experience.
Yes, St. Anton, along with Verbier in Switzerland and Chamonix in France, is one of the "must go" ski areas for people who care about credibility. It’s also a must for thoes who couldn’t care less. I’ve been there both in late March, when the snow can be still excellent, and in February when there are sometimes more skiers than flakes of snow on the easy blue run down the Steissbach valley. But I love St. Anton the most in the early season, when the resort is still relaxed and the village looks like a Christmas card.
When we arrived before 7AM one December morning, the village was still dark. But fresh from the diesel-fouled capital, it felt like a sort of Platonic ideal. The silent streets were hard-packed with new snow that piled up on the steeply pitched roofs, overflowed from hidden gardens, and buried the low walls and fences. The taxi dropped us outside our hotel in a quiet corner of a ski village called St. Jakob and by the time we’d showered and changed, dawn had arrived. Icicles hung from the eaves like the grin of a toothsome-wolf and the rising light gave a pinkish-tinge to the snow. The skiing begins.
If you are serious about skiing, you will love St. Anton. You can start your day with a long black run down from the 2001 World Championship start-hut at Kapall area back to the Nasserein cable car in the village a thousand vertical metres below. That quick burst of adrenaline will warm up your legs and leave you feeling you that the extra egg at breakfast was a good idea, after all.
Then, next time down, cut across to the main village when you can catch the ultra-modern Galzig cable car. This lift has won international architecture awards and will swing you up 10 metres from the platform like a Ferris wheel, before thrusting you out of the front door and quickly up to a height of over 2,000 meters, accommodating some 4.000 skiers per hour, something to keep in mind during high season.
From the top of the lift you’ll like the easy but scenic route down to the high-altitude hamlet of St Christoph, which straddles the mythical Arlberg pass and is home to a hotel, the Hospiz that offered refuge to travelers journeying up from Venice as early as the year 1300. To visit it, and to ogle its impressive wine cellar, is to engage in cultural tourism in goggles. My recommendation is to drink hot chocolate or cinnamon-rich Glühwein: it will still be hopelessly overpriced, of course, but you can get your money’s worth by taking an in-built slide to the down-stairs toilet – a clever and fun system designed to spare you the ordeal of negotiating the steps in your ski-boots.
Restored, you can now cruise down the interminable run down to Alpe Rauz and take the modern Valfagehr chairlift back up. This six-man flying sofa not only offers spectacular views over the historic Arlberg pass but also, thanks to its heated seats, gives you the uneasy impression that you let all the excitement get to you and wet your pants.
And who could blame you? There really is a bit of everything at St. Anton – the resort that claims to have founded the Alps’ first ever ski club back in 1901. It can be quiet and rowdy, frightening and gentle, state of the art and historic all on the same day.
And when the skiing is all over and you are back down in the village with your face flushed and all ligaments still intact, go to the bar and order Weizenbier, delicious and cloudy with yeast, and think that after one or two of these and a leisurely dinner, you can hop back on the night-train, slip under the covers of your bunk-bed and wake up back in Vienna.
This, I promise you, is 100% sound advice.
Christian Cummins stayed at and thoroughly recommends:
The Hotel Gletscherblick
St. Jakober Dorfstraße 35 · A-6580 St. Anton
(0) 54 46 / 32 85 · Fax 32 60-8