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Skiing in St. Anton

The Vail Daily’s Tricia Swenson goes off-piste in Austria

Even though I feel extremely lucky to live near two world-class ski resorts, I love the experience you get while skiing in Europe. This past January, I had the opportunity to go to St. Anton and the surrounding villages in the Arlberg region in Austria. Vail and Beaver Creek are great, but there is just something about skiing in a place where it’s not just a sport, it’s a part of Austria’s history and culture.

The Arlberg region consists of St. Anton, St. Christof, Stuben, Zurs, Lech and Warth-Schrocken. There are more surrounding ski towns you can explore: Stubenbach, Oberlech, Zug, and Klosterle. Much of the terrain is situated in wide-open bowls. I have skied in Chamonix, France, so I was familiar with piste markers indicating the trails, but even if you’ve seen ski runs in Europe before, it still takes your breath away.

The villages are accessed by 88 lifts and there are over 300 kilometers (about 186 miles) of marked ski runs and over 200 kilometers (about 124 miles) of off-piste terrain to ski between the towns in the Arlberg region. The classification of trails is 17% expert, 40% advanced and 43% beginner. Lift tickets are 65 euros, but some hotels work with the Epic Pass if you stay there, so inquire about that if you are planning a trip to the Arlberg.

The altitude is lower as well. The valley floor is at 1,304 meters, which is about 4,200 feet above sea level and the peak altitude at Valluga is 2,811 meters, or approximately 9,200 feet above sea level. Just for comparison, Vail’s village base elevation is 8,150 and the peak at Blue Sky Basin is over 11,500 feet at the top of Pete’s Express lift.

The first day we followed the map and went from St. Anton to Lech, which is Beaver Creek’s sister city. It took pretty much all day with a brief stop for lunch on an outdoor deck at the Seekpof restaurant at the top of Zurs that had beanbag chairs where you could soak in the sun and views. Between the goulash, the hefeweizen, jet lag and the comfort of the beanbag chair, I didn’t think I would make it back out, but we still needed to get to Lech.

To illustrate how vast this place is, when we were in Warth, which is a few towns away, we started thinking that we’d better head back to make sure we caught each lift before it closed. The lifts close between 4 and 4:30 p.m. We were on the Jageralp Express at 1:50 p.m. and didn’t get to the base of St. Anton until 5 p.m. So, if you do go, keep an eye on the time.

When we were there, we had three days of warmer-than-normal temperatures and blue skies each day. The level of snowfall averages out to around nine meters (about 350 inches) during a classic Arlberg winter.

The skiing is amazing, but learning more about the culture and the sport’s history in Austria was also part of the trip. This area is known as the “cradle of skiing” with its Ski Club Arlberg formed in 1901 (There is an exchange that goes on between the athletes at Ski and Snowboard Club Vail and the athletes at Ski Club Arlberg each year). The first ski race in the Alps was hosted in the Arlberg in 1904. The founding of the first ski school was in 1921.

Speaking of history, the hotel we stayed at was a pretty historical spot. In St. Anton, we stayed at the Schneider Hof Hotel-Garni, which was the home to Austrian ski pioneer and the founder of the Austrian Method style of skiing, Hannes Schneider. Schneider was world-renown for his contribution to the sport. He built the Sporthaus Hannes Schneider in 1922. Here, he and his wife, Ludwina Seeberger entertained everyone from royalty to celebrities who would come to St. Anton to ski.

They lived at that house until 1938. Hitler wanted Schneider to teach his troops to ski and he refused. He was an opponent of the Nazi regime and immigrated to North Conway, New Hampshire in 1939. It’s a fascinating story of how Schneider was able to come to the United States and was also able to keep the property throughout World War II.

Today, Hannes Schneider’s grandson Christoph and wife Hannah run the hotel. Hannah explained the history of the hotel and how they ended up in Austria. She grew up with Christoph in New Hampshire and they run the hotel during the winter months and in the summer they go back to North Conway with their Jack Russell terrier.

It wouldn’t be a European ski trip without après ski and everything you’ve heard about après-ski over there is true. The French may have coined the term, but Austria does it best.

Although there are plenty of bars in the villages, it’s tradition to stop at an après ski hotspot up on the hill. From vast decks with great views to two-story dance floors with everyone dancing in their ski boots, it’s a sight to behold. The music plays into the early part of the evening and the skiers still have to find their way back to the base with just the lights of the town to guide them.

Après ski is as much a part of the day as skiing itself. We met people from Sweden, France, Austria, Germany, Russia and the Netherlands. There is nothing quite like having the entire bar, still in their ski boots, singing along, on pitch or off-key, to “Sweet Caroline” halfway around the world.

I think world peace could be solved in an Austrian après ski bar.


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