Off the Beaten Piste: Austria's Zillertal, Part 1

all Zillertal photos
© Linde Waidhofer


Time Machine Zillertal

from the January 1999 issue


WAKING UP IN INNSBRUCK is like waking up inside one of those old coffee-table books about the Alps and the history of skiing that used to lie about, beloved and dogeared, beside the massive stone fireplaces of American ski lodges in the days when American skiers actually stayed in lodges, not in condos; in the days when at least one instructor in every American ski school was named Sepp or Sigi; in the days when Americans always tried to make their weekend ski cabins look like Tyrolian chalets because...well, because that's what one did.

I woke up in downtown Innsbruck, under a paneled ceiling of 300-year-old planks of pale spruce, under a pale puffy down quilt in a four-poster bed, drew the curtains back on a snowy sawtooth sweep of peaks, and heard a voice from somewhere deep in my skiing memories whisper: Home. You're going home. Which was completely absurd because I'd only skied in Austria once before, and never in the Zillertal, or Ziller valley, today's destination. But perfectly accurate nonetheless, because most of the unconscious Images that American skiers carry around with them about the origin, the heart and soul of skiing originally came from this small corner of Europe, from the Tirol of western Austria. For many American skiers, any ski trip to Austria is automatically a trip back through time.

The Zillertal (tal means valley) is a traditional Tyrolian farming landscape where nearly every house is topped by a Glockenstuhl-a carved hatlike wooden spire holding a bell. It's a big valley, winding slowly up into the bold granite peaks of the Zillertaler Alps, splitting eventually into several branches, of which the most important is the Tux valley or Tuxertal which narrows and steepens and winds on up to the Tuxer glacier. Tux is really a part of the Zillertal even though Tuxer locals consider it a world apart. For skiers the Zillertal is eighteen villages, over 150 lifts spread out in ten separate ski areas, all linked together by more than a dozen free bus lines plus the narrow gauge train, all sharing a common "super ski pass." And it adds up to one hell of a ski region.

In the Zillertal the high country is anything over 2,000 meters. And the name on the lift house is Hochfügen 2000, just to make the point. We step forward out of racehorse style gates onto a moving-carpet conveyor belt which speeds us up to catch the new quad chair racing around the bullwheel toward our backsides. A cunning idea: not a detachable high-speed lift, but a fixed quad that-thanks to its moving loading ramp-can run faster than normal fixed grip lifts. A good thing too, since this part of Austria, we discover, is a land of long lifts that go on, and on, and on. Here touring skiers have laced the sunny backside of the mountain with lovely lonesome tracks, disappearing into a deep green side valley. But one look tells us this backside snow is solid breakable crust, so today we follow the yellow-brick pistes of packed powder back down toward Hochfügen. After we'd finished floating down the autobahn-sized pistes; after we'd played typical Euromogul tag in the big, well formed bumps that (in small quantities) were the only kind of bumps we ever saw in Austria.

The lower Zillertal could keep a skier busy for a week. Fügen with its old castle and Hochfügen with its new lifts. Kaltenbach and the ski fields of Hochzillertal where you hear more Dutch than German. Zell am Ziller with its thin green church spire stretching up and up, its thin line of bright green gondolas stretching up and up to the Wiesenalm, its Brauhaus where strong Zillertaler beer is brewed in giant copper cauldrons. The lower Zillertal is wide and well kept, dotted with timeless towns and almost invisible ski areas. These ski areas are all hidden discretely above the first several thousand feet of forests and alms (steep mountain pastureland). Until you actually start skiing you're not sure you're going to have something to ski on. And then. . . .

Then, eventually, you come to the end of the line, the train line that is, where the lower valley ends at Mayrhofen. Mayrhofen is the international capital of the Zillertal, a mecca for Brits and Dutch skiers, as well as the ubiquitous Germans, with the flavor of a small mountain city rather a village. Its winding main street is a cheerful mix of chic boutiques (Geiger sweaters with frightening price tags) ski shops, discos and two-hundred year-old hotels decorated with stunning painted murals.

There's a lot of skiing at Mayrhofen, but nature has tucked it out of sight, on the high alpine balconies of the Penken and the Ahorn thousands of feet above town. The only clues are the crowds in ski togs piling onto yellow shuttle buses that circulate through town to the valley terminals of the two big cable cars. And what ski togs! Europeans have always been more fashion conscious than American skiers. They still are. No blue jeans, and no basic blue at all here. Only this year's version of the one-piece suit: puffy, oversized, with this year's rich purples, violets and wine colors-the deep city-fashion tones that ski photographers hate and ski fashion editors love. The Germans are the most fashionable, if a little conformist. Among younger skiers, all-over prints are happening. And so are ski clothes embroidered or printed with enigmatic English phrases. The back of the dusty-rose ski suit ahead of me reads "Icefield Nomads–CANYON" but the blonde wearing it is heading for the Scotland Yard pub, not the icefields above town.

Icefields may be stretching it. The Zillertal glacier with its blue ice walls and green crevasses is still another 20 kilometers up the valley. But here above Mayrhofen is the largest single collection of ski runs in the whole valley.

The Penken is the biggest ski area here, folded over several hilly alms, accessed by valley lifts from three direction, three towns, Mayrhofen, Finkenberg and Hippach. And it's a fun area. Not grandiose, not epic in scale like the vast treeless cirques of the western Alps, but peppered with friendly evergreens, dotted with irresistible mountain restaurants, Jausenstationen. Here and there the giant yellow-and-white striped canopy of an "umbrella bar," the latest rage in outdoor drinking at Austrian ski resorts, beckons skiers to a schnapps, a golden glass of Zillertal Bier, or the guaranteed hangover remedy of a Red Bull with enough caffeine to send you into orbit. The terraces are packed, the sun is out, the Penken is packed with happy skiers. And why not? Northern Europeans, Germans, Dutch and British, come to the Alps at least as much for sunshine as for snow. Maybe more. Neo-pagan sun worshipers high in these Catholic Alps: sunglasses off, chins in the air, tan smiles. On the camel's hump top of a wide alm near the Penkenjoch, a crowd of para-gliders waits for take-off space. One by one, pink and green sails billowing, backlit against the afternoon sun, they take off for the half-hour flight down to Mayrhofen. Tiny dots of color disappearing out over a big dark forested valley. So forested that we take the cable car down in the evening, hungry.

The Wirtsthaus zum Griena, the oldest restaurant in Mayrhofen, is only around 400 years old. Old enough. Old enough for the timbers to have turned black, for the wooden table in front of us to exhale as much warmth as the ceramic tile Kachelofen behind us. Graukas (gray cheese) simmers and bubbles inside savory Holzknechtkropfn wood-cutter's pancakes. Fiery fruit brandy, Obstler, slices through the rich mix of cream and cheese, potatoes, noodles and Spaetzle. The food hasn't changed in 400 years either - it's that good.

Across the valley from the Penken, the Ahorn is a broad shouldered A-shaped mountain towering over Mayrhofen. And it's also another ski area, a tiny jewel of a beginner's area, perched on a flat sunny shelf halfway up the Ahorn itself. A snowy garden, suspended in Alpine space. The peaks above Stilluppgrund, the Floitenturm, the Blaserspitze and the Rofelspitze, are so close, so big that we suck in our breath walking out of the top tram station. A snowmobile is pulling a sled disguised as a fire truck, a sled full of laughing, giggling, crying ,shouting kids, back up to the top of an astonishing snowy playground. This is the world of Riki Spiess, mother of world-cup downhill champ Uli Spiess. A ski-teaching pioneer, she's widely credited with the creation of the first kids' terrain garden or Ski Kindergarten in the Alps in the 50s. And she is still skiing, still teaching, still directing her innovative kids' program. A bundle of energy, white hair, dazzling smile, with the enthusiasm of a youngster and the graciousness of a grand dame, Riki charms us as easily as she charms her young students. A skiing "carousel" that she invented is pulling tiny skiers around in a circle so they can practice their wedges on flat terrain. A group of British kids fly by with their polyglot instructor, accordion flexing over big mogul-like waves, popping off a brightly decorated jump.
A class of youngsters decked out in polychrome ski sails follow their instructor like so many colored beach balls rolling down the slope. Later in the cable car, two remarkably unstressed British mothers confirm that their children are having the time of their lives up there on the Ahorn. And my wife Linde Waidhofer says out loud exactly what I've been thinking: this must be the most beautiful beginner/novice ski area in the world. . . . . . .
>  CONTINUE WITH PART 2 OF ZILLERTAL STORY    Off the Beaten Piste: Austria's Zillertal, Part 1
All contents of this web site
© Lito Tejada-Flore unless otherwise credited.