My Endless Winter Goes to Europe: Year-Round Skiing in Austria

Last May, Miss Snow It All featured a post about how I had just logged my 150th consecutive month of skiing. The monthly streak started with working back-to-back winter seasons in Vermont and Australia. When that ended and I faced my first summer, I got the streak to 100 months through a creative use of frequent flier miles to ski in Oregon, Colorado, British Columbia, and Chile during the warmer months. 150 months seemed like it would be a decent place to stop, but that all changed with a move to Europe in the summer of 2016. With the famous glaciers of the Alps now just a short trip away, I have more to explore and the streak will live on.

Glacier skiing is a unique experience: the slopes are located high up in the mountains, way above tree line, with wide open spaces perfect for cruising. While most glaciers are not particularly steep, there are still enough rolls and variations in most of the terrain to keep it from being boring. Then there are the views —with Austria’s glacier ski areas reaching as high as 3,440 meters (11,352’) above sea level, the mountain panoramas are just incredible. Aside from recreational skiers, the glaciers also host ski teams from throughout Europe all year long and most of them are open for sightseers too, offering lift rides, scenic viewing platforms, mountaintop restaurants, and even some ice caves inside the glaciers that can be explored with a guide.

My new job takes me to Munich, Germany, regularly, so the Austrian Alps are an easy side trip. Here’s a look at a few of the glaciers I’ve already skied and a few more I still plan to check out…

Hintertux

Hintertuxer Gletscher is Austria’s only ski area that is open 365 days a year, so it’s become a staple for my mid-summer quest for snow. The ski area is impressive and its glacier skiing is among the most extensive in the world. Throughout the summer of 2016, they offered skiers at least 18 km (11 miles) of open ski trails over a 650 m (2,100′) vertical drop. In reality, though, the trail length figure includes many parallel “lanes” used for training, so the length of unique runs is about half that. Still, it’s plenty of terrain to have fun on, especially in the middle of the summer. The longest run in the summertime is nearly three kilometers long, certainly impressive for that time of the year. By mid-October of 2016, Hintertux had 100% of its glacier ski area available with 37 km (22 miles) of trails and up to 11 skiing lifts, all between the summit at 3,250 meters (10,660’) and the 2,600 meter (8,530′) high Tuxer Fernerhaus.

hintertux-trail-map
Map of Hintertux showing open lifts and trails, July-September 2016

Most of the summer skiing at Hintertux is on easier intermediate terrain, especially the long piste #3 from the top of the ski area to Tuxer Fernerhaus. The Olperer twin T-bars typically serve the best snow conditions, and some longer runs, but the pitch is gentler here. It’s also the home to the terrain park in the summer, though that seems to be gone by autumn. Steeper but shorter runs are found nearthe Gefrorene Wand t-bars, especially right next to the lift.

They run an impressive operation at Hintertux with a network of efficient, modern lifts and a comprehensive snow management plan. To ensure they can operate every single day of the year, there are at least two lifts serving every major part of the mountain so that skiing can continue uninterrupted even when a lift is undergoing regular maintenance. From the base area at an elevation 1500 meters, a series of two high-capacity “Gletscherbus” funitels (or the gondolas that parallel them) take skiers up to the action. Once up those two lifts to Tuxer Fernerhaus, the glacier ski area is self-contained with a number of lifts, restaurants, and ski shops all above that point, so there’s no need to go back down until you’re done skiing. At the end of the day, the Gletscherjet 1 & 2 lifts take you back down to the valley. During the winter season, typically starting in November, you can ski all the way down to the base area.

Where to Stay Near Hintertux

There are lots of scenic villages in the Tux valley with all sorts of accommodations. This lodging guide is a great resource. Guesthouses start as low as 30 euros for a single room with breakfast in Madseit or Tux, so there are some great bargains to be found. Guesthouse breakfasts in Austria are usually a simple affair—bread and butter, cold cuts and cheese, coffee or tea, a single hard-boiled egg, yogurt, and maybe some fruit—but enough to fuel you for a morning of skiing. My favorite guesthouse is run by a family of dairy farmers, so the milk and butter come from their own cows.

Where to Eat Near Hintertux

In Madseit, the next village down from Hintertux itself, tiny Restaurant Zum Sepp serves great local dishes with a nice salad bar; the small size, however, means they’re often full. Nearby Alpinhotel Berghaus also has a great restaurant, though it is much bigger and doesn’t have the same coziness as my first choice. Down the road a bit further in Vorderlanersbach, HexenKessl is the locals’ choice—it’s a typical ski town hangout: noisy, cozy, hearty food, and lots of beer.

Mölltaler

In the beautiful Kärnten, or Carinthia, region, Mölltaler Gletscher is the only other Austrian resort besides Hintertux with mid-summer skiing operations. Being both smaller and lower in altitude than Hintertux, however, the summer ski terrain here is more limited. I visited in mid-August and was treated to a spectacular sunny day. Like Hintertux, access to the glacier requires a couple of lift rides. Here, the first is an underground funicular or railway, followed by a gondola. At the top of the gondola, a restaurant and lodge serve as the base for skiing and a high-speed quad chairlift brings skiers, snowboarders, and sightseers to the top.

Summer map of the Mölltaler Gletscher showing the summer ski area and several summer hiking trails.

The summer skiing is limited to a wide, intermediate-pitched snowfield with three different groomed routes from top to bottom paralleling each other. While the terrain might be somewhat boring, I was lucky that 20-30 cm of new snow had fallen just a couple days before my visit. I had a great time skiing the untracked, but slightly heavier and wetter, powder in between the groomed areas. There was also just enough snow to be able to enjoy the steeper area beneath the lift, a black run that was technically closed.

mallnitz-3
Spectacular Alpine scenery hiking above the village of Mallnitz

The area around Mölltaler is truly spectacular and is worth visiting regardless of the quality of the skiing. The day after my August skiing, I drove up to Mallnitz (a sister ski area to Mölltaler in the wintertime) and took a beautiful, long, mostly uphill hike just above the top of the Ankogel aerial trams, then took the lifts back down to the bottom. The hike up took me past high-alpine meadows of grazing cattle and I was rewarded for my efforts with spectacular views from the top.

Where to Stay Near Mölltaler

moltaller-tower
Falkenstein Castle near Obervellach

There’s no shortage of accommodation in the towns around Mölltaler, either up in the mountains or down in the valley. I chose the latter since it gave me more flexibility to visit different destinations each day. I spent a couple nights in Obervellach, a small, historic town at the foot of the mountains. My stay at Hotel Pacher was good. The rooms and their furnishings were fairly dated (think 1970s bathroom), but it was comfortable, friendly, the food was good, and the price was right.

Stubai

Once autumn arrives, Austria has several more choices for glacier skiing. Located just 45 minutes south of the famous Olympic host city of Innsbruck, the Stubaier Gletscher boasts a long ski season from October through June, making it a popular destination for early season skiing. In fact, it’s almost too popular: visiting on a Saturday in late October, I was surprised just how busy the ski area was. The last three kilometers of the road to the gondola base was stop-and-go traffic and there were lift lines several minutes long all day. Austrians are passionate skiers and autumn is peak season for these glaciers. It sounds as if things actually quiet down at some of these destinations once December comes along and more ski resorts open throughout the Alps.

stubai-trail-map
Trail map showing open trails and lifts at Stubai in late October 2016

Stubai features an extensive ski area covering three separate glaciers, all conveniently linked by lifts and ski trails. With 24 kilometers of groomed runs open by the last weekend of October, plus some accessible off-piste, there was plenty to explore. Early season, access to the glaciers is via two brand-new funitels (or a couple of nearby gondolas) that climb to 2,900 meters above sea level, nearly 1,200 meters above the valley floor. Thanks to snowmaking, piste #4 was open down to Middle Station Fernau (2,300m, 7,546’), offering some variety from the glacier skiing and letting advanced skiers and riders reach the bottom at the end of the day by downloading just one lift instead of two. Later in the season, two “ski routes” (ungroomed trails) let advanced skiers and snowboarders go all the way to the base without downloading; lifts still run for those who prefer an easier ride to the base area.

On the glacier, piste #1 is the “main drag,” a wide, fairly gentle, and evenly pitched slope served by a trio of different lifts. Much of its width was taken up by race training and the skiing wasn’t terribly exciting here, but the lower portion (piste 1b) was a bit steeper and had some fun moguls on the side. Off the back side of this face, the Gaisskarferner and Windachferner t-bars serve some shorter runs, including the terrain park. The most interesting skiing at Stubai here was found on the Daunferner Glacier. The Daunscharte area had some nice, steeper pitches, and the area above the tops of the twin Daunferner t-bars offered a few fresh powder turns, always a treat in October.

Where to Stay near Stubai

The Stubai valley has a number of lodging options, but for this trip I opted to stay close to Innsbruck so I could easily ski both Stubai and Pitztal from the same base. I was happy with my choice of Hotel Tyrolis in Zirl. While it’s a larger hotel, it had the charm of a family-run establishment. The price was reasonable and it included a good-sized breakfast buffet (the same food choices as a typical guesthouse, but in bigger quantities). Since it was a little ways outside of Innsbruck itself, I ate dinner in the hotel restaurant both nights. The food was excellent with a focus on local Tyrolean dishes and prices were reasonable, though not exactly a bargain.

Pitztal

Also south of Innsbruck and not far from Stubai and Sölden as the crow flies, the Pitztaler Gletscher is another early season favorite of Austrian skiers. I also visited Pitztal in late October and, like at Stubai, I was surprised at how popular the autumn skiing was there.

Access to and from the glacier is by an underground funicular, a cog railway that climbs steeply to the snow. This can create a real bottleneck: I waited an hour to go up and about 40 minutes for the trip down. Once on the glacier, however, wait times for the lifts were more manageable with most queues being 5 minutes or less.

pitztal-trail-map
Trail map showing open lifts and trails at Pitztal in late October 2016

Compared to Hintertux and Stubai, the ski area here is a bit more compact. There are two separate glacier areas each served by a gondola, a chairlift to connect the two, and a poma serving a couple of easier slopes. I found the Mittelberg side to be a little more interesting. Above the gondola’s mid-station, the slope was fairly gentle. Below, it was steeper and more challenging, especially with icy early-season conditions on the groomed pistes. The real fun was in the easily accessible ungroomed terrain right next to the groomed trails, and accessed by a traverse and very short hike. Here I found a few inches of cold, dry powder for lots of fresh, if not deep, turns most of the way down. I lucked out with sensational weather—cool, but not cold, and spectacular sunshine.

Over on the Wildspitzbahn Gondola side, the skiing was more typical glacier skiing. Compared to the other section, it was steeper at the top, with some slick icy spots on the traverse reaching the main slope, and wider open. With the right conditions, the steepness and openness could make for some fun, fast skiing, but there was less opportunity to get into softer, ungroomed snow. The gondola reaches Austria’s highest lift-served point at 3,440 meters above sea level. There is a restaurant in the gondola terminal and just outside a walkway takes you to an impressive 360-degree observation deck. The most impressive site is Wildspitze, Austria’s second-highest peak at 3,774 meters above sea level (12,382 feet).

Other Year-Round Ski Areas for Future Exploration:

Sölden, Austria

Located in the valley between Stubai and Pitztal, also south of Innsbruck, Sölden is famous for hosting the first World Cup of the season each October. Unlike its neighbors, a high-altitude road brings skiers and riders from town right to the base of the glaciers.

Zermatt, Switzerland (and Cervinia, Italy)

Along with Hintertux, the glacier above Zermatt may be the only other ski area in the world that offers skiing 365 days a year. After riding a series of trams or gondolas from the town of Zermatt at 1,620 meters above sea level to Trockener Steg at 2,939 meters, there’s one last tram to the very top. The tram’s top station is actually built right into the rocky face of the Little Matterhorn and skiers & riders walk through a tunnel to come out on the snow on the other side. Partway through the tunnel, you can take an elevator up to Europe’s highest observation deck. The views of the Matterhorn and surrounding Alps in Switzerland and Italy are impressive from this spot at 3,883 meters. From this spot, five different t-bars offer skiing on the fairly mellow Theodulgletscher during the warmer months. While I’ve only skied it in November, my impression is that the skiing is gentler and more basic compared to the Austrian glacier ski areas. Visting Zermatt, as is the case with much of Switzerland, can be quite expensive. From late June to early September, the skiing can also be reached from the Italian side by riding lifts up from Cervinia. While the town doesn’t have quite the charm of Zermatt, it is both cheaper and easier to access.

Passo dello Stelvio, Italy

High atop a mountain pass loved by cyclists, Passo dello Stelvio is unusual in that they are open for skiing and snowboarding during the summer, but the operation completely shuts down (with the road) in the wintertime. Just south of the Swiss border, lifts operate between 2,700 meters (8,860’) and 2,450 meters (11,319’) above sea level, assuring great mid-summer coverage. Several hotels are located near the lowest lift. (Update: I made it to Passo dello Stelvio in July 2017. Read more here!)

Other Choices

Are there other summer ski destinations I’ve forgotten? I’m always looking for new adventures, so please share your advice in the comments below!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s