ROGER COX Gallery images

The Hills are Alive

Published: The Scotsman (Section: TSMAG) 18 Mar 2006

St Anton, Ischgl, Mayrhofen, Kitzbühel … most of Austria’s best ski resorts are concentrated in the western half of the country, where they are squeezed into a thin corridor between Germany and Italy. There are, however, one or two exceptions. About 90km east of Salzburg lies the often overlooked ski town of Schladming and the stunning Dachstein mountains, which cater for every conceivable skiing and snowboarding taste.

Apart from the fact that it’s a bit off the beaten track, it’s a mystery why Schladming should receive so little attention. The town itself positively oozes old-world charm, and although the four main resorts in the area, Hauser Kaibling (2,015m), Planai (1,894m), Hochwurzen (1,850m) and Reiteralm (1,860m) are all relatively low-lying, they receive more than their fair share of snow – some 500 centimetres (16ft) a year.

The world’s ski press descends on Schladming once every 12 months when the floodlit racetrack at Planai hosts a leg of the World Cup Ski Tour, but apart from that the place is practically off the radar. All of which is just fine by the locals, who always seem to make up the majority of the crowds in the lift queues. That said, with a super-modern network of lifts and gondolas linking the four main resorts and giving new meaning to the term “Teutonic efficiency”, you’ll rarely find yourself waiting in line for more than a couple of minutes.

Between them, the four main ski zones offer something for everyone. Planai is situated directly above Schladming and has a good mixture of tree-lined runs for beginners and intermediates. It only has one black run, however – the racecourse that leads down to the main car park. To the east, Hauser Kaibling feels more exposed than Planai, and has more in the way of steeps for experts to get their teeth into, while to the west, Hochwurzen and Reiteralm offer a more mellow experience.

There’s no need to confine yourself to these four hills – there are three other, smaller ski areas within easy striking distance of the town. On the opposite (southerly) side of the valley, the Dachstein Glacier offers year-round skiing at an altitude of around 2,700m. There’s a hotel there that hosts the country’s national cross-country team during training, and a ledger contains the names of the 80 climbers who have died trying to scale Dachstein’s south face – said to be the second most dangerous climb in Europe after the Eiger. Just to the east of the glacier, close to the town of Gröbming, is the compact, out-of-the-way resort of Stoderzinken (2,045m).

The area’s real hidden gem, though, is Galsterberg, situated to the east of Hauser Kaibling above the pretty village of Pruggern. It may not have as many runs as the other mountains, but on a powder day this is easily the best place to be. For a start, just getting there can be a bit of a mission, so it’s rarely crowded. If you’re driving and it has snowed heavily, you may need to use snow chains to tackle the 15 minutes of switchbacks that lead from the valley floor to the bottom of the gondola; alternatively, you can take the ski bus and let the driver worry about the driving conditions.

Either way, if you arrive first thing in the morning you may be lucky enough to find yourself one of only very few people around. By 9am on a mid-January morning this year, with the whole area covered by a thick blanket of fresh snow, there were only a handful of cars in the car park.

The most frequent criticism levelled at the resorts around Schladming is that they don’t offer much in the way of off-piste adventure, but this is where Galsterberg comes into its own. For easily accessible powder, take the chairlift to the top of Kalteck (1976m), hang a left and traverse a little way along the ridge before swooping down through empty, untracked soft stuff and into a glade of evenly spaced trees. If you’re really in the mood for a challenge, the neighbouring mountain of Pleschnitzzinken (3,111m) is tantalisingly close, completely undeveloped and looks as if it offers some incredible terrain. You’d need to set aside an hour or two to get up there, but the pay-off would be well worth it.

If you’re casting around for something different for the kids to do, or if you’re looking to give your knees a rest from all that off-piste skiing or boarding, there’s a well-maintained toboggan track at Galsterberg that will easily keep them – or you – entertained for an afternoon. It’s steep enough to keep you moving, but not so steep that you’ll lose control and end up flying off a cliff. Toboggans are available to hire on site, so you don’t have to bring your own.

Another bonus about Galsterberg is the food at Berggasthof Bottinghaus, situated about half-way up the mountain. This old-style wooden chalet boasts an impressive range of filling local dishes and a huge heated drying area where you can thaw out your frozen gear. A word of warning though: eat too much stollen, torte or kuchen for afters and you may need to be carried back down the mountain.

The one thing Galsterberg isn’t all that great for is après ski. For that you’re better off heading to Schladming, where a certain Charly Kahr has the post-piste eating and drinking scene pretty much sewn up.

No matter how you choose to come down off Planai, you’ll almost certainly end up passing Charly’s “Open-Air Schirmbar” – a circular watering hole by the car park at the bottom of the hill that specialises in glühwein and “hei§en rhythmen” (hot rhythms). After a couple of drinks the chilly Alpine air might start to nip a little, but fear not – part two of Kahr’s operation, Charly’s Treff, is right across the road, offering more hot wine and more cheesy music but in a snug indoor setting.

A professional skier in the 1940s and 1950s, Kahr briefly coached the British Women’s ski team in the early 1970s before going on to train the Austrian national team from 1976 until 1984, and the walls of his bar are plastered with memorabilia from a life lived on the snow. Kahr is also great pals with another of the region’s favourite sons, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the eagle-eyed will spot photos of the two men enjoying hearty, outdoor pursuits together.

A few weissbiers further into your evening you’ll probably be feeling peckish, but happily it’s just a short stumble from the bar to the adjoining Planaistub’n restaurant (also run by Charly) where you can take your pick from an array of local delicacies, typically involving meat. As with much of Austria’s mountain country, teetotal vegetarians might struggle to survive, but for beer-loving carnivores, it’s nirvana.

FACT FILE SCHLADMING

How to get there

There are currently no direct flights from Scotland to Salzburg. The cheapest flights from London are usually with Ryanair, www.ryanair.com

WHERE TO STAY

The traditional four-star Alte Post hotel is situated in the town’s main square, and is only a five-minute walk from the Planai gondola. Rooms start at E104 (GBP 71) per night. Visit www.alte-post.at for more information.

AND THERE’S MORE

Hire skis from Charly Kahr, tel: 43 3687 24883, www.charlykahr.com and snowboards from Blue Tomato, tel: 43 3687 24223, www.blue-tomato.at

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