Can a single skier master a staggering 18 000-meter difference in altitude and 85 kilometers of downhill skiing in a day? We head to Arlberg in Austria’s largest ski area to find out.
The night brings winter to Arlberg in the shape of ten centimeters of crisp, new snow. The slopes at the western tip of Austria now lie beneath a white blanket that glistens in the sun. Skiers and snowboarders crowd toward the Galzigbahn entrance in gleeful anticipation, and there’s a tangible sense of “powder stress” in the air. As the lift shovels those at the front of the queue up the slope, a collective jolt of adrenaline courses through our veins: The slopes are open! An early start is essential because today, every minute counts: We’re doing the Run of Fame, a spectacular, 85-kilometer tour of the entire Arlberg ski area. The circuit covers a combined 18 000-meter difference in altitude and passes through the villages of Zürs, Zug, Warth and Lech. Both the start and finish are in St. Anton, a small Tyrolean town well known to skiers and freeriders all over the world as the gateway to one of the best Alpine ski areas. Even Joe Skier can make the round trip in a day, the woman at the tourism office assured us. “But don’t dawdle.” The last lift closes just after 4 p.m., so I need to be back in St. Anton by then.
I step out of the lift at 9:20 a.m. and am greeted by a cloudless blue sky. The first few swoops are a dream. The snow has the right grip, and the area is so big that the day’s first skiers are soon dispersed. In wide arcs, we fly down the slopes. “Your greatest opponent today is fresh snow,” says Maris Vagners, my ski guide, as we sail up the next slope in a heated chair lift. “If there’s too much of it, they can’t keep up with grooming the slopes,” he explains, “and some lifts don’t open until later.” Vagners, 45 – athletic and with a charming smile – hails from the United States and stranded on the Arlberg 27 years ago. He knows the area like the pockets of his grass-green ski pants, and is here to guide me through the maze of pistes and lifts, and keep me from getting hopelessly lost. The Arlberg area does have 305 kilometers of ski runs, after all – and the Run of Fame’s signposting is, let’s say, not as good as it could be.
The new ski circuit is a monument to the Arlberg stars: Marianne Jahn, Egon Zimmermann, Mario Matt – they all grew up here and went on to win international ski races. I’m not making much progress with my own race. Vagners was right: The next lift, the Flexenbahn, is still closed. “Let’s take an extra turn then,” he says, pushing off. I follow him. The descents are glorious. But time is short, and I am relieved when the lift finally gets going. The Flexenbahn lift opened last season, completing the Arlberg circuit and making the region the largest continuous ski area in Austria. Before, you had to take the ski bus for this part of the route – people jostled and pushed, the air reeked of sweat and sunscreen, and sometimes even liquor. Now uncluttered ten-seater lifts glide almost silently out of a glass base station and up the mountain. We spot chamois and ibexes sunning themselves on the rocks below. The project cost 45 million euros; another three lifts in the area were also modernized.
There was surprisingly little protest from nature conservationists, partly because the Flexenbahn would result in 120 fewer buses using the pass road every day, and also because no new ski runs were created. Even without a single new piste, the lift has catapulted the ski area into new spheres. “Superlatives are hugely important these days,” says Philipp Zangerl, 41, the level-headed boss of the Zürs lifts, who can see the slopes right from his office. Zangerl spent five years working on the new lift. He talks about “main sticking points” and “environmental impact assessment laws,” and you sense the project gave him gray hair. But, he says, “if you get the chance to build something like the Flexenbahn, you have to do it.”
Arlberg needed the new lift to keep up with the other ski areas
Cable cars have long ceased to be purely a means of transportation, they also convey the message: We can be bigger, go higher and extend further. “The Arlberg needed this lift,” says Zangerl, to keep up with the other ski areas, which are also upgrading, modernizing and linking up. “A little bit of winter just won’t work,” he says, “either you do it properly or you leave well alone.” The problem with winter is that you can’t depend on it anymore. Once upon a time, the first snow came in November, piled up in January and stayed until April. Today, it’s often late January before the first good snow arrives – and then it melts again by early March. Many smaller ski areas in Austria, Germany and Switzerland have already dismantled their lifts, while the large areas attempt to extend the season with artificial snow; but even that requires below-zero temperatures – which are no longer a certainty, either.
Today, though, winter is here in all its glory. We climb into the lift for the Seekopf, the first third of the tour behind us. At the top, a restaurant beckons with a picture-book view and Käsespätzle. I’m ravenous, but there’s no time. It’s well past 11, and Warth, our turning point, is still a long way off. Instead of a break, we devour ham sandwiches and chocolate in the lift up to the trickiest part of the circuit: a piste that’s patrolled but not groomed. The first steep slope is cushioned in deep snow, and although I’ve been skiing since I could walk, the uneven humps are a challenge for my legs and concentration. In contrast, Vagners glides downhill with enviable elegance. After that, the route is a delight. Far from the lifts, all is still but for the crunch of my skis in the snow. I clamor to repeat the descent, but time is short. We zigzag across the broad slopes of Lech; the ride over to Warth gives me time for a breather.
The next part of our route has too many easy, blue slopes, but I have a mission, and wistfully turn my back on the tempting steep faces. At least we make good time. At 12:50 p.m., I reach the Steffisalp, the halfway point. We still have just over three hours until the lift closes. The post bus picks up all the stragglers – the ignominy! Taxis are an option, albeit one that’s as expensive as a visit to the Bergkristall sun terrace in Oberlech, where a plate of pasta with truffles or lobster will set you back 40 euros. Arlberg is no stranger to luxury. At least regular earners have a tale or two to tell back home – and celebrities don’t stand out in the crowd.
The latter tend to stay in tiny St. Christoph, which practically consists of a single hotel, the Arlberg Hospiz. Six friends started one of the world’s first ski clubs here in 1901. Today, the hotel suites cost upwards of 6000 euros a night. For that, you get to sit by the fireside at a table made of larch-wood hundreds of years old, admire paintings five meters tall and listen to the Steinway grand piano before dinner.
On the return leg of my trip, I hop in the cable car to Lech, then climb to the top of the Rüfikopf. The ski runs up there are wide, white ribbons, and as we glide down them, the afternoon sun bathing the mountaintops in a milky light. I almost forget that this is a race. One more big descent, then I sink contentedly onto a wooden bench in the sunshine outside the Mooserwirt. Made it! The Run of Fame – been there, done that! Inside, “Final Countdown” blasts from the speakers; outside, the beer flows freely. The Mooserwirt in St. Anton is a notorious après-ski bar. It takes four staff to change the barrels and keep the beer flowing. The Arlberg’s next project is already in the pipeline: The plan is to link up to the Kappl ski area south of St. Anton. From there, it is only a stone’s throw to Ischgl, yet another Alpine superlative. The idea smacks a little of megalomania – or of foresight, depending on your perspective. Whatever the outcome, completing a full circuit in one day will be history.
A brief history of skiing
~ 2500 B.C.: Early Gliders
The oldest confirmed find is the 110 cm “Ski of Hoting,” which was discovered in central Sweden in 1921.
1796: dARING troops
The first ski jumpers were Norwegian ski troops flying off the snow-covered roofs of houses and barns.
1888: skiing feat
Fridtjof Nansen skied right across Greenland from east to west to become a Norwegian national hero.
1908: way up
The first motorized lift, forerunner of today’s cable car, opened on Bödele Mountain in Vorarlberg, Austria.
1936: alpine gold
In Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Franz Pfnür and Christl Cranz won gold in the new Olympic discipline, alpine skiing.
since 1950: mass sport
Capri, Rimini – or St. Moritz? Lifts are increasingly built and ski areas developed as the masses discover skiing.