The proud Arlberg region looks to the future as a new lift system makes it the largest continuous ski resort in Austria.
The Fantastic Gondolas party above Lech am Arlberg felt like a psychedelic high: Dots of green and yellow chased each other over craggy snowfields like an elaborate dance of Alpine fireflies as pictures of flowing lava were projected onto a cliff face. The cable car station at the summit of the Rüfikopfbahn (2,362 meters above sea level) was ablaze in kaleidoscopic colors, as a sea of heads bobbed away in colorful beanies while Ogris Debris, the Austrian electro band of the moment, played in subzero temperatures. Strangest of all, this was not a tourist jamboree but local Austrians venturing beyond the dreary ubiquity of Jägermeister and techno-streaked lederhosen pop, reinterpreting skiing culture for the 21st century. It was a breath of cold fresh air.
Edgy high-altitude parties aren’t the only sign of a new era: a brand-new network of three state-of-the-art lifts now cross Flexen pass. These cliff-clinging engineering marvels have cost €45 million, transforming Arlberg into Austria’s largest interconnected ski region, with 305 km of slopes served by 87 ski lifts. While local lifts have long shared the same ski pass, if you wanted to get from one end to other you were forced to wait for a diesel-belching bus.
“Until now, we were two areas with one ski pass. But now we are one big area,” Managing Director of St. Anton’s tourism board Martin Ebster told me: “That is what our guests wanted and we knew that. But finally, we have done it.”
Skiing at the source
That is the charm of the Arlberg region: However many times you go, you’ll always find something to surprise you. Arlberg has a proud tradition of valuing tomorrow above yesterday; ironically, this very iconoclasm has led to a rich skiing heritage.
St. Anton, the easternmost village in the area, claims to have founded the Alps’ first ever ski club back in 1901; and while skiers elsewhere were happy to adopt the Scandinavian telemark technique, local Johann “Hannes” Schneider decided to try something wholly new and sell it to the world.
Schneider pioneered a forward-leaning stance that enabled greater speed and control, making skiing more fun – and easier to master. In 1921, he opened a school where he and his disciples taught his “Arlberg technique” through simple lessons, allowing anyone to enjoy the mountains. Thus he transformed a niche activity into a thrilling, accessible sport, helping popularize it through the exhilarating movie Der Weiße Rausch, filmed on Arlberg in 1931. Skiing has been a vital pillar of Austrian culture and the national economy ever since, granting Arlberg the proud title of “the cradle of Alpine skiing.”
There’s a fabulous pilgrimage run down to Schneider’s home village of Stuben from the Schindlerspitze – at 2,660 meters, one of the highest spots in the area. The chairlift ride up is spectacular: Ragged boulders like grey spikes , with tracks from chamois and hare in the snowdrifts between them. Emerging at the summit, you take a 1,300 meter vertical plunge, with powdery, steep turns twisting into a snaking red-diamond run and, finally, a wide, helter-skelter cruise that lets you carve right into Schneider’s birthplace.
If you take this gorgeous run in one go, and I recommend you do, your thighs will be on fire and your ears popping by the time you find the little bronze statue of Schneider, portrayed with skis slung over his shoulder, a hand in his pocket and a cigarette jutting from the corner of his mouth. He looks like an Alpine version of Humphrey Bogart, often with a dignified pile of fresh snow atop his side-parted hair.
© Josef Mallaun
I had a lot of ground to cover to test this huge area where Ebster claimed that “no run looks the same.” The day started with the modern Galzig cable car, which swings its cabins up 10 meters from the platform before firing them out over the Moos valley. From there, I swept down on a blue run to St. Christoph, home to the Hospiz, a refuge to travelers journeying up the pass since the 14th century.
Swishing down a serpentine traverse bordered by craggy cliff faces, I glimpsed the huddled hotels of Zürs, the gateway to some panoramic carving. Then it was over the Madlochjoch for a scenic cruise down to the glitzy village of Lech, dominated by the craggy Omesberg, the sort of perfect rocky triangle mountain that you imagined when drawing as a child. There I found cozy timber huts with hunting trophies on the walls and steaming cakes in the ovens. Exhausted but elated after a day’s worth of fresh air, it was the sort of sugar high I needed to steel myself for the après ski.
© Josef Mallaun
Off the beaten piste
Large interconnected tracks are all very well but if you really want to get the best out of Arlberg, you’ll want to try their expansive freeriding. That’s why I found myself the next day on the viewing platform of the Valluga at 2,811 meters, peering down nervously at the famous off-piste descent down the north face.
Freeriding is spectacular but daunting. You welcome the thrills but you fear the spills. Below, a sheer grey cliff face lay ominously in wait of skiers who slip up. When my guide Fussi announced that falling here was “forbidden,” I was only too glad to oblige.
My knees felt weak and my heart was racing but, for me, the rewards outweighed the risks. As soon as I could catch my breath, I looked back to see the Valluga and Rogspitze peaks in dramatic profile against the blue sky. Now there was just wide expanses of gently sloping untouched powder, leading down towards Zürs. There were no lifts in sight, just Fussi the guide and my four friends, the snow glistening under the morning sun. We listened to our edges cutting through the soft snow, knowing that every turn counted and would be remembered for a lifetime.
There’s something for everyone on Arlberg, from the tranquil solitude of freeriding to the tight squeeze of the raucous Mooserwirt après ski bar above St. Anton. Zürs has opulent restaurants and wide pistes; Lech beckons with glitzy hotels, forested slopes and timber huts, while low-key Warth, a powder hound’s dream, is known as the snowiest village in Austria. The new lifts make it easier to taste a bit of it all in a single holiday. It’s some of the best skiing on the planet and all of it just five-and-a-half hours away by train from central Vienna.
© Josef Mallaun
We asked Austrian freeriding trailblazer and Arlberg resident Björn Heregger for his take on the region.
What’s special about Arlberg for you as a freerider – why should anyone come here?
Besides the atmosphere and the pure skiing spirit, I guess it’s the terrain which makes Arlberg an ideal area for freeriders from all over the world. A good friend of mine once quoted: “Moving to Arlberg because you are a skier is pretty much the same as living on Hawaii just because you are a surfer.”
Where is your favorite spot on the mountain to freeride?
Depends which period in the winter season we are talking about. During huge snowfalls, I enjoy playing around my home area, St. Anton. When spring hits the valley, I like the quiet while touring the backcountry of Stuben or the
How have the new connections changed things?
The connection between St. Anton and Zürs makes things easier for sure – during high season the buses were a nightmare and there was quite a lot of traffic on the roads. And it looks like some new terrain was opened up by the new connection too.
Where would you go for a drink after a day on the slopes?
I always stop by for a drink at the Galzig Bistro near the main gondola in St. Anton – furthermore, the food is excellent quality and really tasty.