Skiing in the Alps lives up to it’s hype…and then some. It was easily the best skiing I have enjoyed in my life, and I don’t think there exists a better place for it…there’s a reason why all the winter olympic alpine competitions are dominated by the Austrians and Swiss.
I spent five full days and six nights in Bad Gastein, Austria. The train ride down was around 10 hours, but passed fairly quickly as I had reservations on each train and slept for at least half the ride. Very nice, since I was battling a pretty fierce cold at the time. I changed trains at Hannnover and München, and rode all the way into Bad Gastein, directly south of Salzburg and in the heart of the Alps.
In total there are three villages and five very skiable mountains in the spectacular Gastein valley. Some of the mountains are connected by trails, but most you have to take a bus to. Check out this link for a map of the area (Just download the .gif provided at the bottom if the navigation doesn’t work). Each mountain has it’s own character, and fantastically varied trails are abound (supposedly 860 km of them total in the valley).
So at 4:30 PM or so I arrived in Bad Gastein. By then it was dark out and snowing very heavily. Hardly anything was plowed so I had to haul my enormous suitcase through 3-4 inches of snow until I finally reached the hostel. After checking in and taking a shower I headed upstairs to have some dinner and a few beers with a few English dudes, who I ended up hanging out with for the first few days. The hostel was really great, the dorms were downstairs and had a nice, big, clean shower/bathroom/washroom area. Upstairs there was the reception area connected to a large, cozy TV room area with a few computers for internet access. I must say I have missed TV in my few months here in Germany, so I spent a lot of time soaking up its glow. Also there was a dining room (serving delicious Austrian food) and two bars, the downstairs one looking more like a sauna than a bar. It was completely decked out in wood from ceiling to floor and was pretty cozy. In another room was the (free) breakfast-eating area, with a view of the slope across the street.
Sometime that night I had a weird feeling of fluid build-up in my ears…turns out they had gotten inflamed during the day. Thus, the next morning I woke up early and sought out a doctor (never had an ear infection that I can remember), who gave me some antibiotics. After picking up skis and a lift ticket, I headed to the mountain.
The view from the hostel, looking at the bottom of
Stubnerkogel (click to enlarge)
The lift you see there is the one I headed up after a short wait. It is a nice, fast gondola going all the way to the summit. I never timed how long it took, but I want to say around 10-15 minutes or so (Definitely longer than it would take to get down 🙂 So I skiied all day, all on Stubnerkogel’s front slopes. It was a pretty messy day and I spent a good part of it tumbling down the slopes after mishandling a ski/myself/my speed. Soon this would change, and by the end of the day I had almost gotten my legs back.
The next day I got up early (it had snowed all evening) and was determined to hit some of the fresh show. And did I ever, oh my. It was a bit clearer that day (first day at the summit the visibility was about 20 meters) so I realized there was a trail I hadn’t realized existed going to the back of the mountain. I took it and was rewarded with the finest skiing of my life. The slopes were nice and steep, but more importantly with a fresh 3-4 inch layer of white, crisp, virgin snow. I was in ecstacy the first few runs; it’s indescribable how enjoyable carving nice long turns is in such snow. Furthermore, it was still snowing, and the kind where you can see the unique character of every single flake as it lands on your glove. Fantastic. After a view luscious runs I made my way down to Skizentrum Angertal, then up the facing mountain, Schlossalm, for the first time. It was still early enough that the wait was short, and I headed up. For the first run I took one of the intermediate side trails all the way to the bottom, and it was great. Like skiing through butter. It wound back and forth, both down gradual and very steep pitches under arched bridges and sharp, narrow paths to the bottom. That ended up being the most enjoyable run of my life, and I never did run it again because I knew it wouldn’t compare to the first. At the bottom I waited forever to get onto the lift up (by this time I was in Bad Hofgastein). The lift here was actually a kind of railway shuttle that took 85 people at a time. Once you got off that there was another wait for the next type of shuttle to carry you to the top (Think of a gondola, but 15x bigger and carrying 85 people at a time). At the top I did a few runs and spent most of the day on Schlossalm, eventually skiing my way back to Bad Gastein by 4 PM.
The next day was clear and beautiful. The downside was a lack of fresh snow to ski on. Ah well, I can’t have everything. My goal for the day was checking out the rather intimidating expert trail on Stubnerkogel as well as the 14km (8.7 mile)-long H1 trail on Schlossalm. The expert trail was kinda dumb, just a steeper version of the trails above and nice and icy where everyone had scraped the snow off. My solution was finding pockets of collected snow to turn on, otherwise I would just slide down the ice and wipe out. The H1 trail was legendary (it runs behind a large shoulder of Schossalm, separated from all the other trails) and I took a lot of pictures. Eventually I made it back up and wanted to take advantage of its layout without stopping to take a picture every 100m. So I bombed down it like it was meant to be skiied.
By the fourth day I had tired of Stubnerkogel/Schlossalm and wanted to check out something else. At this point I was a better skiier than I had ever been and was feeling pretty confident, so I was looking for some more challenging runs. Apparently Sportgastein had some unmaintained "natural" runs so I wanted to take a bus over there. Unfortunately (at the time), the first bus I hopped on went to Graukogel instead. So I thought I’d check out the runs and head over to Sportgastein for the afternoon since this would be my last day of skiing. Well, after a few runs I realized that Graukogel was pretty kickass in its own right (even though the lifts were slow 2-seaters). It had 3 real nice expert-level trails, 2 of them covered in moguls. I was totally into moguls by this time as they were the only real challenge left, and ran them for most of the day. The blue side trail was very nice too, winding with lots of room for creativity (read: taking "shortcuts" through the woods). I never made it to Sportgastein for I was having far too much fun.
Most of that evening was spent at the bar, and eventually at a club down the street with a few Aussies and other Americans. The next day was pretty slow, so I sat around watching movies and eventually checked out the spa cuz it was supposedly world-renowned. Well, it was pretty damn nice and put the spa here in Osnabrück to shame. The best part was the outdoor heated spa area. You sit in a pool of bubbly, 32°C water while breathing in the fresh, crisp mountain air. Then you go and run around in the snow for awhile, pegging one another with snowballs until you realize you’re freezing, at which time you jump back in the water. Fun stuff.
That night I was to catch a 9 PM night train to Essen in northern Germany. Well, I showed up at 9 and looked at the board (each train station has a board listing the daily train schedule for the stop) and realized my train wasn’t there. This put me off a bit but I waited for a half-hour or so anyway, then walked back to the hostel thinking the train didn’t exist. The really nice kid at the desk heard my story and called Die Bahn, who said the train was late, really late. So I headed back to the train station and waited for an hour or so before running into the conductor, who graciously told me my train had come and gone. Thanks for the announcement at 9, asshole. So I booked another night at the hostel and took a 9 am sunday train back to Salzburg, München, Hannover, and eventually Osnabrück. Sans reservations, which sucked.
Looking back on it, I should have bought a five-day pass and explored Sportgastein that fifth day. No matter though, for I will be back. Someday, I promise. It’s just that good.