Sölden: The Las Vegas of Ski Resorts
What happens in Sölden stays in Sölden: Slopeside tradition meets gay pride, an electro festival and neon-lit lift stations
However often you go skiing in Austria, there is always a yet-to-be-had thrill. For me, in Sölden, a giant ski area in the Ötztal of western Tyrol, it was my first taste of night skiing. At 17:30 on Wednesdays, the state-of-the-art Gaislachkogl lift reopens after an army of snowcats groom the long run down to the valley. As Jägermeister flowed in the raucous après-ski bars in the village, I found myself riding one of the night’s first lift cabins back up the mountain, fiddling with my goggles and pressing my face close against the window of the cabin with the eager anticipation of a hungry child outside a sweet shop.
Skiing at night, everything seems twice as fast and twice as intense. Without the wide panorama of the daylight hours, you feel hemmed in by the tunnel of light that leads down the mountain, utterly focused on the thin-lit section of snow along the dark outline of the woods. In places, the lights are placed a good 100 metres apart and so the run dims and then brightens, making your shadow shrink and stretch like a disoriented Alice at the bottom of her Wonderland rabbit hole. The air that night was nostril-freezing cold. It cut against my cheeks as I carved around the sweeping corners of the giddying descent back down to the village, arriving back at neon-lit lift station – literally steaming.
Meet the mountain
Ski villages can be restful, but with suitable after-hours temptations, Sölden is a place to expend rather than tank energy. The village – bisected by the Ötz river and a busy main road – is not, by Austrian standards, particularly picturesque and its clientele is largely drawn by the expansive high altitude skiing and, at times, uproarious nightlife. This means that an unusual concentration of all male ski groups maraud the slopes during the day and haunt the après ski huts at night, lending the distinct whiff of testosterone to places like the Panorama Bar. Arriving in bustling Sölden a month after the idyllic village of Lech am Arlberg, it felt like the Wild West.
Up the mountain, Sölden showed its more conventionally charming face. I stopped for lunch in the cosy wooden interior of the gorgeous Gampe Alm mountain hut, a rabbit warren of tiny rooms decorated with hunting trophies and cow-bells and heated by vast square porcelain-topped stoves. Here, to keep the heat in, the ceilings are so low that the waiters have to stoop as they bring your orders and different parties squeeze up along the benches and share the heavy wooden tables. I found myself cosying up to Gerti from North Westphalia in Germany, who was holidaying in Sölden for the 40th year in a row. What brings her back?
"The area is so big and varied and they groom the pistes so well," she told me as we both slurped down bacon dumpling soup. "There are always new lifts," she enthused, "and the locals make you feel so welcome. I feel like part of the family now." With 35 mostly modern lifts and more mountain huts than anywhere else in the Alps, Sölden clearly has an adhesive appeal.
Particularly popular with German, Dutch and, increasingly, Russian holiday makers, Sölden is largely unknown to the English-speaking ski public. I find this strange since the skiing certainly rivals, if not surpasses, more celebrated resorts of St. Anton and Kitzbühel. The Big Three lifts take you above 3,000 metres from where a powdery world of jagged, bulging peaks stretches below you. All in all, there are 150km of runs including one that is 15km long.
I begin with the two lifts to the highest station of the space-age Gaislachkoglbahn, a cocoon shaped structure with views into Italy, and descend the full 1,700 metres of vertical drop back down into the village in a single intoxicating rush that makes your ears pop. The run, surely one of the most spectacular in Europe, takes you around tight claustrophobic traverses near towering rock faces, before arching big lazy turns through wide open snow-fields often bathed in the morning sun. Then you speed back into the shadows, making use of your edges in the winding section through the forest, out past the snowy-roofed hotels that cling to the beginner’s slopes before two final curves bring you back to the lift station with your legs on fire.
Sölden also has two glaciers, which offer skiing from autumn to late spring. First there’s the Rettenbachferner, with its stomach-lurchingly steep slope under the Schwarze Schneide lift. This run is almost constantly in shadow, offering dreamy snow conditions for the season’s opening race of the Alpine World Cup circuit, bringing stars like Lindsay Vonn, Bode Miller and Ted Ligerty from the U.S. team, which uses Sölden as its winter base. From here you issue into the dazzling brightness of the Tiefenbachferner glacier, a flatter area, which on good days is bathed in sunshine, and far less suicidal.
Nowadays Sölden has more annual visitors than the city of Salzburg, but when the first pioneers suggested exploiting the village for skiing the locals apparently poo-pooed the idea as an impossible dream. "They said it was unsuitable for skiing!" laughs Sarah Ennemoser from the Ötztal tourism office, shaking her dark hair in disbelief. Sarah, who grew up in the valley, believes the locals now there is a deep-ingrained openness to new ideas. One of the world’s first chairlifts was built here (so low to the ground that the local children hopped on and off to save themselves the walk home from school). Now, says Sarah, Sölden’s appeal lies in its ability to combine modernity with tradition – looking to the future without denying the past.
Of gay pride and local drama
One example is the Gay Happening, in the third week of March. Following the example of U.S. resorts like Aspen and Vail, Sölden will welcome homosexual winter sports fans from all over Europe bolstered by top DJ’s from London, Hamburg and Berlin and by a pair of drag queens – certainly a rare sight in the largely conservative Alpine regions. Thomas Bömkes of Tom Consulting, which co-organises the event with the local tourist board, says: "The gay community feels at home in Sölden because there is absolutely no ill feeling towards them. It’s a tolerant and open-minded ski resort." Traditional huts like the Hühnersteign host shrill evenings, which see the guests feed each other while blindfolded. Ennemoser says her heterosexual friends take part "because it is so hilarious." Late March and April host the Electric Mountain Festival, with the cult German alternative band Deichkind (See VR Events, Pop Rock, page 24) and a high-altitude DJ set from French Electro star David Guetta.
The name Sölden might also ring a bell with fans of more classical music. Alfredo Catalani used the village as the setting of his 1892 opera La Wally, an alpine version of Romeo and Juliet with a memorable operatic death scene in which the beautiful young heroine romantically flings herself in the path of an avalanche. Despite the odd lover’s tiff that you’ll witness late at night outside the lively SnowRock bar, nothing quite so melodramatic happens in Sölden in these enlightened days, although, in sound Tyrolean tradition, hoteliers will mutter darkly about rival families with trusted guests.
A week ski pass allows you a day’s skiing at Obergurgl, 12km up the road and you’d be wise to take up the offer. The village is much smaller than bustling Sölden and the genteel hotels give an impression of up-market sleepiness, but there are a further 110km of runs to explore and here, at the end of the Ötztal where the road runs into an insurmountable barrier of sheer rock, the mountains look even more wild and spectacular.
The old shares with the new
The best places to enjoy these magnificent views is either from the Hohe Mut mountain hut, which peers over a snow covered glacier surrounded by towering peaks, or by taking the chairlift up to the peak of the Wurmkogl at 3,080 metres. Here the massive windows of a brand new circular restaurant called Top Mountain Star offer a 360-degree panorama of the entire Ötztal and the Italian Dolomites. The innovative architectural style of the restaurant itself, resembling a spinning top with a bright blue belt, is the pride of the resort.
But many skiers remember fondly the tiny wooden hut that used to perch on the wind-swept ledge, secured by cables, served only by wooden toilets, which once opened directly over the border-defining cliff edge – meaning, if you braved the cold gusting upwards, you could literally defecate into Italy. The old hut’s moustachioed barman would provide square-edged Landjäger sausages as well as schnapps, bottled beer, or Glühwein for adventurous skiers, giving them courage to launch off the edge of the steep black run back down. The hut is gone and the run has been made easier. That’s probably progress.
I finished my stay in the Ötztal, however, with a gluttonous overdose of old-fashioned Tyrolean charm. From the Wurmkogl, it’s a swooping seven kilometre run dropping down to the sumptuous comfort of the five-star Hotel Hochgurgl. Knocking the snow of my skis I walked heavy-legged into a wooden panelled dining room where waist-coated waiters buzzed around. I sat drowning in post-ski endorphins in this room, sipping a wheat beer while wolfing down miniature cheese dumplings called Spätzle that were truly five-star and yet priced at less than €10. This place, I decided, is a hit. The dance between modernity and tradition, familiarity and elegance, has some difficult steps, but the Ötztal navigates them with confidence and charm.
Gemeindestraße 4, 6450, Sölden
(0) 57 200, www.oetztal.com