Natural Born Ziller
There’s 12km to cover between the town of Fügen and the resort of Hochfügen. In those 12km the temperature needs to drop considerably. We’re still a few degrees Celsius shy of the point at which this miserable driving rain will be transformed into fat white snowflakes. Luckily, in the space of those 12km, we’ll climb several hundred metres in elevation, and as expected, the electronic mercury begins to drop perceptibly at each hairpin bend. Sure enough, in the space of a couple of corners the raindrops stop bouncing off the tarmac and suddenly thick flakes are descending on the road ahead.
Hochfügen is close to the entrance of the Ziller Valley, though most British skiers will pass straight by on the way to Mayrhofen, barely aware of the quality skiing that lies closest to the Autobahn. However, with the base of the resort at 1500m and the lifts reaching up to 2500m, Hochfügen has one thing that many nearby neighbours do not. Altitude.
Down the road at SkiWelt (Söll, Scheffau, Ellmau et al.) there are an enviable 279km of pistes, and while the snow-making facilities are excellent, the highest elevation of the resort is still under 2000m. It’s a similar story at world-famous Kitzbühel, and also in the next valley over at Alpbach-Wildschönau (the new Ski-Juwel area). To be fair, this is not usually a major concern – the powder in this part of the Alps can be as deep as anywhere in Europe – but this year was not exactly the whitest Christmas on record, with uncommonly warm weather in some parts.
It’s a huge relief then to roll into the carpark of Hochfügen where fresh snow is rapidly accumulating. Even on Boxing Day at 9.30am it’s possible to park within a few steps of the ticket office.
Lifts climb both sides of the valley, rising out of a resort base that consists of little more than a cluster of hotels and basic amenities, as well as a smattering of alpine huts. On one side the 8er Jet gondola accesses both easy cruising runs and designated Freeride areas, while on the other side the Zillertal Shuttle gondola connects the resort with Hochzillertal-Kaltenbach.
From the connection between the two resorts at a lofty 2501m you can access plenty of off-piste terrain, but with low-visibility we’re sticking between the piste markers. Which is no bad thing, with several inches of completely untracked snow sitting on top of groomed slopes. Down, then up, then down into the heart of the Hochzillertal area.
Hochzillertal-Kaltenbach feels like a real family resort, with extensive beginners lifts and easy terrain at mid-mountain, so it’s it a snow-sure choice. The area is certainly popular amongst European skiers arriving by car – there’s a considerable amount of Dutch discernable amongst the Deutsch here.
On this occasion the best snow today is found on the upper slopes, however one year ago exactly the opposite was true. On Boxing Day 2011 very heavy snowfall meant that there was deep powder amongst the trees and lower slopes, and on the ski route down to Aschau. A bus connection back to the lifts deters enough skiers that the snow on this route stays untracked for longer. The descent also passes the quintessentially Tirolean Abfahrtshütte (not a bad spot for a Jaegertee).
The pistes accessed from the fast lifts in Hochzillertal-Kaltenbach are predominantly wide cruising runs, and while we wait for the weather to clear a bit we head back towards Hochfügen. It’s still early season and the winds have left the ridges a little bit too bony for major off-piste adventures, but the terrain under the Zillertal Shuttle, in the right conditions, could be magnificent. And you’d almost certainly be sharing it with only a handful of skiers and snowboarders.
That said, Hochfügen is certainly making the most of its natural terrain, hosting the Big Mountain Hochfügen competition (a 4-star Freeride World Qualifier event) in January, and promoting itself as a freeride ‘hotspot’. Directly under the lifts and through the trees there’s certainly plenty of varied off-piste terrain. Beyond the top station of the resort there’s no shortage of exciting terrain if you’re willing to tour, traverse, hike and sweat for your turns.
The extent of this natural playground is really at the centre of the appeal of a resort like Hochfügen – there are no boutique designer shops and it’s hard to imagine the après-ski getting truly raucous – but having experienced the small resort atmosphere, and having glimpsed the abundance of natural terrain, I’ll no doubt be back soon to explore this lesser-known end of the Zillertal.
For more information about skiing in the Austrian Tirol: visittirol.co.uk
Hochfügen is included in the Tirol Snow Card, which provides access to 4000km of pistes, more than 1000 lifts and 86 ski areas throughout Tirol.