When it comes to active holidays, my brother is a master and photos and videos from his adventures choke my texts and email. Precarious mountain ledge poses before he drops into off-piste powder bowls, dusty desert shots from a boys’ motorcycle weekend, early morning mountain panoramas on which he carves first-tracks and jittery speedboat footage of a small parasailing spot in the sky make my occasional cycling pic seem a feeble come back. I need a quick win to remain in the game. Skiing in Europe has somehow alluded him, yet I know it’s on his list. I’ve beaten him to it, so perhaps I can build on it to gain further ground.
A ski week in Austria using the picturesque town of Zell am See as a base was just what I needed.
My brother had been to Zell am See, albeit very briefly. He raced through it on a recent let’s go and drive fast Porsches around the Alps holiday. I remember the photo – top down, hair blowing in the September breeze and a note lamenting that it wasn’t ski season.
Situated on lovely Lake Zell, Zell am See is a hub for winter and summer fun. This winter, skaters and walkers alike were out enjoying the frozen lake. The town’s pedestrian core makes restaurant and bar-hopping easy and provides ample choice. Villa Crazy Daisy has live music and dancing three nights a week and during aprés ski hours, if you can still dance after a day on the slopes. For something more sedate yet still very much alive, try Ginhouse and sample one of their many gins. Salzburg Super Ski pass gives access to 25 ski regions and 2,790 km of slopes. With variable weather depending on location and altitude, daily summit webcam coverage on local TV helps skiers decide where to ski each day.
This year, the Kitzsteinhorn glacier seemed a good place to start.
While many of the 25 resorts can be easily reached by car from Zell am See, including well-known Kitzbuhl and the large Saalbach-Hinterglemm Ski Circus, Kitzsteinhorn’s elevation gives it an advantage. At 2000 – 3000 metres, the resort offers the biggest and best glacier skiing south of Salzburg.
The week was sunny and the temperature was about -3 to -4° C, comfortable for skiing yet keeping the snow light and the ice at bay.
Skiing above the treeline is magical. The exhilarating 360° views and wide open, ski-anywhere expanses give a feeling of complete freedom. In my head I heard my brother muttering “but it’s wasted on you isn’t it, since you’re not really much good at off-piste skiing”. I pushed his words aside. Knowing I have the option to ski anywhere was uplifting enough.
Once he receives a photo of me dropping into a narrow, rock-sided chute from the arête I’ll score some points. I couldn’t find one though (for which I secretly let out a sigh of relief, as it meant I would live to see another day). Unfortunately, looking at my photos now gives away the fact that I wasn’t really paying attention as I searched because there slap dab in the middle of the photo was a good one.
Lunch was preferable to dying in a chute anyway and the Kitzsteinhorn Glacier has a cool little restaurant at 3029 metres a.s.l. It is accessible by tunnel and a short cable car ride from the top of the Gletscherjet 4 gondola. Offering the best food on the mountain, a viewing deck and a cinema showing “Kitzsteinhorn – The Nature” on an 8 metre screen, it is worth the short trip.
Its elevation means that Kitzsteinhorn remains above the clouds when, on many days, Zell am See and other resorts are under cloud or in fog. I did have one nice day skiing Schmittenhöhe in Zell am See but at 1900 m the snow felt distinctly heavier.
Still hunting for a good photo-op, I suggested to my friends that, once at the summit, we take off our skis and hike uphill to a lookout ledge but my suggestion was met with a distinct lack of interest. I think they were unable to reconcile an uphill slog on foot as part of a downhill skiing holiday.
In the end, I decided that successfully completing a difficult run would be enough to trigger my brother’s envy. The Black Mamba, described as venomous on Kitzsteinhorn’s website, sounded just perfect. It is black piste #14, 1000 m long and with up to a 63% grade.
And so with a photo taken at its entrance, all that remained was to ski the hill, or rather the cliff. To prepare, I skied it in my mind (many times) as I rode the lifts.
I skied it again as I drank heiße schokolade mit rum.
Okay I admit, I didn’t actually ski it in real life. You see I was worried I’d lose my friends, who had no interest in slopes named after poisonous snakes, and I knew we would wind up waiting at different lifts. (They would be standing at the base of the Kristallbahn and I would be horizontal somewhere under the Langweidbahn waiting for the lift to the hospital).
Saalbach-Hinterglemm was my last (ski) resort and there I found a black run I thought I could manage. One of my friends chose the blue by-pass, the other sat happily drinking beer in the lodge. I was on my own. The hill was empty. I set off with one other person – a child of about 10. He skied faster than I did. How embarrassing. Swallowing my pride, I decided I’d tap him on the shoulder and ask him to take my picture. Even more embarrassing was the fact that I couldn’t catch him. My thighs burned and my knees were sore but I made it down unscathed, sans le photo.
The Black Mamba entrance pic would have to suffice. Off it went. My brother’s response? “Jealous”. It was the best I could have hoped for under the circumstances. I think my trip is possibly worth a field goal, ie. partial points. I know I still trail in the standings. I’ll have to plan another adventure because I don’t give up easily but, more importantly, because I want to be able to look back on my life one day and say “Damn I’ve done a lot of shit”.