Mountain Safety in Austria’s Gnarly Terrain
Slicing across a mountain face laden with powder, I glide between pines, moving further from the main trail. A wide, steep slope falls away from beneath my board. From somewhere, behind the trees or up above, the excited shouts of skiers can be heard. Aside from that, there’s the muffled silence synonymous with secret stashes of ski-resort snow we all seek out. I’m not on an average hill. I’m at famous St. Anton am Arlberg, in Austria, staring down an advanced run covered in fresh snow – and I’m the only woman, the odd one out in a cool crew of blokes. This is made all the more obvious by the fact I’m also the only snowboarder. I’m acutely conscious of not holding anyone up but I needn’t worry.
My phone reads 6:20am when I wake at Hotel Schwarzer Adler, built in the 1500s in the pedestrian village of St. Anton, 100 kilometres west of Innsbruck. I pull back the curtains in my traditional wood-panelled room. Staring into the darkness, I grin widely as I make out the fresh flakes falling thickly in the golden glow of street lamps. Ullr, the “god of snow”, hasn’t let up since my arrival from Lech to St. Anton 24 hours ago. By breakfast time, news that 70 centimetres of powder is waiting is music to my beanie-ensconced ears. I’m itching to go, but lifts don’t start turning until 8:45am, so I gorge on hearty porridge and eggs in preparation for the energy-sapping day ahead. Then it’s time to layer up and head into the below zero temps – and that wonderful, relentless snow shower.
We meet instructor Maris beside the main gondola. He looks seasoned, with the kind of tan you only get in the mountains and an all-knowing eagerness for what lies ahead. In anticipation of the conditions, I swap my set-up for a longer, wider powder board. It delays me from getting on the lifts but means I’ll have the best gear to tackle the fresh snow and steep terrain. Next, I get kitted out in an emergency avalanche beacon and a pack with a shovel, in case things go awry. It’s the first time I’ve carried avalanche gear and it’s reassuring knowing that I have it. Austrians are risk averse, which is great for gung-ho Aussies unaccustomed to the steep pitch and snow depth here. The gear gives me and my dude-crew a healthy fear of, and respect for, the Arlberg. We’re not in Kansas anymore, so to speak.
After a couple of blue-bird days in neighbouring Lech/Zurs, where the scenery and terrain are dramatic, wild and sprawling, the conditions have changed drastically. Our powder-skiing ability is about to be tested. And so it is that we find ourselves staring down walls of deep snow, tree-lined trails and bowls of meringue-like goodness. It’s epic and we barely make a dent in the more than 300 kilometres of ski trails on offer.
With thighs and glutes burning, I’m happy to start “après” with an afternoon tea date with one of Austria’s leading female snowboarders. I sit in the lounge room of Barbara Mossmer’s cosy lodge, Alkira, sipping English Breakfast and nibbling biscuits while discussing the very real danger of avalanches and how quickly weather changes in Central Europe. As the first female in Austria to gain full certification in snowboard instructing, in 1996, and having been in countless search and rescue missions, Barbara knows her stuff.
“A lot of people think ‘yeah, I’ve got my safety pack, I’ve got my beeps’, but they don’t even know how to use it,” Barbara says, confounded. (*Beeps refers to an emergency beacon.)
“We’ve had massive avalanches in this area…” she continues. “It’s a lot of common sense but, in the end, even people who know the mountain, who are out there all the time, they’re at risk.”
The reality is there is massive avalanche potential in St. Anton, as there is in many Northern Hemisphere ski resorts. As a result, visitors are prohibited from venturing off-piste (where it’s not groomed) without an avi kit, even if that off-piste terrain is considered “in bounds”. This is because Arlberg resorts don’t have any boundaries telling you to stay in confined areas of a resort, like there are in Australia. It’s a refreshing discovery and one that leaves the responsibility of safety in the hands of the skier.
“You can’t rope off that much area, it’s just impossible,” Barbara says.
It’s one of the first big differences I notice when I arrive; fences don’t exist. If you ski away from the lifts and groomed trails (i.e. off-piste and in the side- and backcountry) you risk more than your lift pass. This is something our posse takes seriously, and we stick closely to Maris. Although a couple of us have skied in Europe previously, there’s no denying that we’ve earned our ski stripes on the smaller, hard-packed slopes of Australia, where we’re used to zipping through gum trees and riding comparatively stable terrain (although avalanches do occur). Here, we have to adjust not only our riding styles to tackle the powder but also our attitudes when it comes to potential hazards. We become more conscious riders and think a little harder about the lines we take.
Barbara, who started St. Anton’s snowboarding school and spent 27 seasons instructing, has “lost quite a few friends due to avalanches”.
“So, I always say, if people had as much respect for the mountains as they do for the oceans…” her voice trails off and we sit for a moment in silent agreeance.
Skiers and boarders who ride off-piste generally understand the risks, and, truth be told, it’s this challenging terrain (and the party lifestyle) that lures so many Australians to this corner of Austria. Over the past few years, the Australian ski scene has been changing its focus, with more Aussies going further afield, with side-country and split-boarding (like ski touring for snowboarders) growing in popularity. With this in mind, Barbara, who spent 12 seasons instructing in Victoria’s Mt. Buller, recommends tourists to the Arlberg check out the safety camps being offered by St. Anton sports shops and sign up for training with the ski school.
“The thing is a lot of people are actually kitted out really well,” she says as we finish our cuppas and snow continues to tap on the lodge windows. “They’ve got the top gear,” she says, “but they don’t know how to use it; they don’t practise.”
And it’s that last word that rings in my ears the next morning as I pull the straps of my avi pack over my shoulders and check my beacon is switched on. Practice is key for staying safe and enjoying the deep powder the Arlberg is famous for. And it’s this powder-skiing “practice” that’s the perfect excuse to keep coming back.
The Arlberg is known as the “cradle of alpine skiing” due to it being the epicentre of the downhill ski technique. The five villages that make up the Arlberg are Lech, Zurs, St. Anton, St. Christoph and Stuben. Skiers will love the wide, groomed trails of Lech and Zurs, snowboarders will have a hoot in the off-piste in St. Anton, and romantics will fall in love with quaint St. Christoph and Stuben.
You don’t have to go off-piste to have an unbelievable ski experience in the Arlberg. The White Ring is a whopping 22-kilometre trail that snakes through the mountains. On a bright blue day, the views from the route are phenomenal and will distract you from your technique.
If you’ve got a posse of women to ride with, check out St. Anton’s “Ladies First!” feel-good weeks in January, during which female skiers receive discounts on lodging, ski passes, meals and shopping.
For more about the Arlberg region, visit en.arlberg.com and austria.info/skiing. Other handy websites include skistanton.com/en, alkira.at/en and schwarzeradler.com/en/.
Disclaimer: The writer travelled as a guest of Austrian National Tourist Office