ROGER COX Gallery images

FOUR SEASONS: FOLLOW DAS BUNNY

Published: The Scotsman (TSMag) 22 January 2011

THE hills around Salzburg may be alive with the sound of music, but a couple of hours to the east, in the beautiful Enns Valley, the hills are alive with mountain hares. You rarely see these pretty little critters in winter, thanks to their cunning use of camouflage – as the mountains turn white in the autumn, so do they. You know they’re around, though, because their distinctive, triangular tracks are everywhere in the snow: rear paw-prints side by side, forepaw prints one in front of the other, suggesting a lolloping, slightly tentative gait.

Going for walk in the woods here can be an eerie experience, particularly in the middle of winter. This being the landlocked bellybutton of Europe, there’s rarely any wind, which means there’s rarely any sound. In Scotland, the forests are almost always on the move, the trees rustling and sighing even on seemingly calm days, creaking and groaning when there’s a storm on the way. But here? Nothing. Just the sound of your own footsteps, occasional snatches of birdsong, and sometimes, if you listen very carefully, the echo of a chainsaw being wielded a couple of miles away.

In the foothills of Grimming, an intimidating 2,351m high limestone monolith that seems to stand aloof from the rest of the mountains in the area, steep switchback trails snake their way upwards through dense pine forests. To the southwest of the main peak is the so-called Grimmingtor, a gigantic rock door approximately 50m high and 15m wide with a 10m thick overhang. Legend has it that there’s an ancient stash of gold and jewels hidden behind this naturally occurring gateway, but when skiers and snowboarders occasionally venture up here to escape the teeming resorts on the other side of the valley, they’re searching for a very different kind of treasure.

Once or twice, as you follow one of the many paths steadily upwards, you might catch a flash of white, a break in the spooky darkness of the trees. Then, a few moments later, if you’re lucky, you might find yourself looking up at a thin ribbon of virgin snow where the local forestry service have been doing a spot of clear-cutting, inadvertently creating a miniature ski piste in the middle of the wilderness. I stumbled upon one of these little pots of gold a few days ago, and I’ve been buzzing about it ever since.

At the ski resorts up the road, the runs were scraped bare of snow and even the off-piste areas offered only slim pickings. Here though, out of reach of the pisting machines, and where the temperature had remained below minus 10C since the last big storm, the snow was as light and fluffy as if it had only just landed.

Once I’d left the path, the climb to the top of the run was more of a slog than it needed to be. To preserve as much precious, unbroken snow as I could, I chose to kick steps straight up the hill, rather than zig-zagging. Energy-sapping, yes, but I reckoned it would be worth the extra effort.

After a while I thought I’d climbed as high as I could go, only to find that I was less than halfway up – my little piste twisted through 45 degrees, became even steeper and eventually disappeared into the trees far above me. I was in two minds about whether to carry on or not – the extra angle of the upper half of the slope made my avalanche antennae prick up for the first time that day. But then I spied some hare tracks heading off up the hill and thought, “if the hares think it’s OK, it must be OK”. And so it proved. Not only did my long-eared friend lead me safely to the top of the slope, he even guided me to a handy snow-covered tree stump where I was able to build a platform just big enough to sit on while I strapped on my board.

My first run was cautious – a process of trial-and-error, a way of working out where the snow was deep and where it was thin, where you could throw all your weight into a turn and where it was best to hold back. Then, with the groundwork out of the way, the second attempt was pure, undiluted fun – a string of big, heavy-footed heel-side turns, each one about as satisfying as kicking down a door.

I like to think the hares were watching, even if I couldn’t see them.

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