No Business Like Snow Business
Freeskiers, families and the snow-crazed elite relish the soft powder and hearty cuisine in Lech: Christian Cummins examines what makes this resort so unique
It had been snowing heavily for three days and three nights in Lech am Arlberg, a ski village in the far west of Austria. The main street through the village was frozen white and the parked cars were so laden with snow that they looked like a row of soft white pillows. The steeply pitched roofs of the village were sporting gorgeous white hats and the boulders that lurked mid-stream of the dark fast-flowing Lech river looked like fluffy white mushrooms.
My hotel, the Pension Brühlhof, lay 200 metres up a slope above the village. So every morning, I’d wake up, open the door of the balcony, look over the town and breathe in that intoxicating smell of freshly fallen snow; and then head off for the fresh-powder slopes.
My guide was "wild woman" Lorraine Huber, who was showing me the slopes where she honed the skills that have made her a star of the Freeski World Tour – where the world’s best off-piste skiers compete on the most extreme territory in the mountains. Even when she is not competing, her motto is "Never ski on a marked ski piste if you can avoid it." And as our day approached its end and the snow was falling from pink-tinged clouds of dusk, she’d done a pretty impressive job of sticking to that pledge. We’d spent the afternoon up to our thighs in snow that was so light and easy to ski in, it was like floating.
"Just try to stay as close to me as possible," she’d advised me, as she launched herself into yet another untracked expanse, the fresh snow exploding above her pink ski jacket as she sprang into the first turn. But following Lorraine is easier said than done.
Freeskiers hate being called adrenaline junkies. They choose their lines with exceeding care and study the snow consistency in minute detail. In many ways, they are professors of the mountains. But TV doesn’t show the preparation. There you just see the runs, and since those usually involve the freeskiers hurtling down rock-strewn slopes that seem near vertical, the daredevil image remains. As he poured me a strengthening wheat beer, Guntram, the landlord of the Brühlhof, raised his eyebrows when I told him I’d be skiing with Lorraine. "She’s crazy!" he chuckled.
Lorraine’s appearance fitted the stereotype when she picked me up for our ski session. She was wearing a bandage under her chin to cover the six stitches she’d had put in the night before to repair a fresh skiing wound.
"How did you do it?" I asked.
"Jumping off a cliff," she replied. "I landed on some snow already flattened by one of my mates and the impact made me hit my chin on my knee."
But Lorraine looked after me well that glorious day. She gave me tips in maintaining my balance when it got steeper and the powder got deeper, telling me to actively use my ankles to keep my weight central over the ski by making sure that I could feel the whole sole of my foot in the boot. "If you feel pressure on your heel, you are hanging too far back. If you can only feel the ball of your foot you’re leaning too far forward." It’s hard to get it wrong, though, when the temperature is low and that snow is fresh. It gives way, but checks your speed and you can just jump into it. This is dream skiing.
Indeed, Lech am Arlberg is very much a powder hound’s dream destination. At 1,450 metres above sea level, it is high for an Austrian resort. The lifts will take you another thousand metres further up and making Lech one of the snowiest villages in Europe, receiving an average of 7 metres of snow fall each winter.
Fearless freeskier Lorraine teaches our writer the tricks of the trade | Photo: Christian Cummins
I fell under its spell on the evening after my first day, standing on the balcony of the Brühlhof (under €100/night). With my legs still pulsing, I was watching the falling flakes blur the outline of the village,which is dominated by the austere dark tower on the onion-domed church and is backed by the craggy Omesberg, the sort of perfect rocky triangular of a mountain that you drew when, as a child, you imagined how mountains should look.
Indeed, Lech has a reputation for seducing its visitors. Some 80% of the tourists who visit Lech this winter will be returning guests. But it’s not just the off-piste powder snow that attracts this faithful devotion. Perfectly groomed blue runs, serviced by chairlifts with heated-seats, are suited to families and fans of the more gentle forms of skiing. When the sun’s out – and I have seen evidence that this does happen – you can cruise the pistes at your sedate leisure, with the requisite number of cosy wooden ski-huts with hunting trophies on the walls and cakes in the ovens.
The Arlberg ski pass covers the lifts around the neighbouring high-altitude hamlet of Zürs, which is reachable in just ten minutes by road or via a serpentine run down from the Rütikopfl cable car, which starts its ascent from the centre of Lech, and the pass also covers the extensive ski area around the town of St. Anton, Lech’s larger, brasher cousin on the other side of the Arlberg pass. So, all in all, if your legs are up to it (and this is why it is wise to make full use of the traditional Austrian "could feed an army" breakfast buffet) you can ski 280km of piste. The ski area limits the number of ski passes it sells a day to 14,000, so even in high season you shouldn’t have to queue for the lifts. And then, in the evening, you can restore the burned calories with filling but deliciously prepared mountain food in an acclaimed, centuries-old restored farmhouse with the delightfully minimalistic name Haus nr. 8.
Famously (or notoriously), some Lech aficionados belong to the international jet set, becoming famous worldwide as the winter escape of the late Princess Diana. It is not known whether it was in Lech where Prince Harry had that first fateful exposure to Schnapps, but royalty still flocks to the little Alpine village and the guest-list makes it seem like a high-altitude St. Tropez. Most hotels in Lech seem to belong to a few extended local families – the Schneiders, Walchs and the Strolzs – but Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska caused a storm by buying the Aurelio, now decked-out in modern chic.
Hoping to see how the 1 per cent lived, I wandered into the public bar of the Post, shaking the fallen snow from my coat and ordered a surprisingly reasonably priced Glühwein, the Austrian mulled wine. There was not a royal in sight, nor a celebrity, not even any reality TV stars. But the staff didn’t bat an eyelash at my rather wild, unshaven appearance, something I have always appreciated about mountain hospitality in Austria, and the Glühwein warmed my stomach for the walk back to my hotel through the snow storm which, for a fourth night, showed no sign of letting up, with the flakes soft and giant under the yellowish light of the streetlamps.
Despite its royal connections and the occasional champagne bars, Lech remains a skier’s village on a skier’s mountain. The so-called "Arlberg method" turned what had been a rather specialist arcane mountain discipline into a sport that could attract and inspire the masses. The iconic 1931 film Der Weisse Rausch (Trans: White Ecstasy) was shot in these mountains and featured local pioneers like Hannes Schneider, bursting through the powder and performing death-defying leaps. My guide Lorraine is the latest in a long line of hard skiers who have shaped the culture of this mountain.
I couldn’t keep up with Lorraine, of course. I followed her through some waist high snow between some brown shrubs that gave welcome contrast in the dying light. Then as things got steeper and I had put in some cowardly and rather hesitant turns, she had shot straight down the mountain and was just a pink dot in the distance. She’d already caught her breath by the time I arrived, bursting with joyous endorphins at the bottom of the powder run. We yahoo-ed and high-fived but English boys never pull off that manoeuvre without a certain degree of awkwardness.
"You’re a lucky girl to live here!" I panted.
"I know!" she grinned.
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