Weekend at the top of the Ötztal: Obergurgl
When you turn off the A12 Autobahn that runs like a concrete artery through the heart of the Austrian Tirol, and enter the Ötztal, you notice this in not your average alpine valley. Less valley, more gorge, enormous rock walls tower on either side of the road. Small settlements cling to steep and inaccessible hillsides. The hulking massifs (too steep for snow to cling to) stand sentry over the Ötztal, but what are they guarding?
The answer lies about half an hour up the road. The valley widens and the hillsides suddenly look downright inviting, blanketed in white snow that reflects the brightly shining sun. A gondola rises straight out of the parking lot on the side of road, whisking skiers and snowboarders skywards. This is Sölden; well-known for opening the FIS Alpine World Cup season as well as Jägerbomb-fuelled apres.
But Sölden is not the only world-class resort at the top of the valley… today we’re heading onwards to Obergurgl. The resort of Obergurgl-Hochgurgl lies at the furthest reaches of the Ötztal, ringed by alpine peaks well over 3000m.
With the village of Obergurgl sitting at a heady 1930m, elevation-wise, this resort only starts where others end. What does this all mean for skiers though? Clicking in at the top of Festkoglbahn, the first thing I’m struck by is the snow quality. Not entirely surprising given the elevation, but the snow on-piste was smooth and grippy corduroy – total hero snow. Even though I’d come equipped with skis over 100mm underfoot, carving down the blues and reds was for once equally as appealing as the off-piste!
While Obergurgl might not have a reputation as a freeride mecca, we didn’t have to go far find the 15cm of fresh snow that had fallen the day before. Most of the off-piste here is gentle, the snow light and dry, though even with a snow-depth of nearly two metres some of the ridgelines and exposed areas were a little bony.
Hochgurgl, linked to Obergurgl via the high-speed Top-Express gondola, has its own distinct character. Gentle, inviting and quiet, it has an air of refinement. Thrills are best found elsewhere, but this part of the resort does boast traditional huts (such as the Kirchenkarhütte) as well as breath-taking (and not just because of the elevation) 360 degree panoramas from the Top Mountain Star. There’s no skiable link between Hochgurgl and Obergurgl, but underneath the gondola lies some attractive high-alpine ski touring terrain.
Back on the Obergurgl side, weaving through trees and down roller-coaster red runs near the Steinmannbahn, I get the impression that this is a resort that caters best to intermediate cruisers and families. But it held a few surprises yet. Late in the day, as the sun dipped behind the high and glaciated peaks to the west, we found hidden – in plain sight of the village – some genuinely spicy off-piste. Steep, deep and largely untainted by tracks. Why so little traffic? Oh, apparently Obergurgl isn’t a ‘freeride destination’… so, maybe keep that one to yourselves, OK?
There’s a Ski Club Leader based in Obergurgl, and on a day like this they’ve certainly got no shortage of options. Late in the afternoon, as the skies begin to darken, the legendary Nederhütte starts to get lively. Next-door neighbour Sölden might be known as the Ötztal’s party capital, but Obergurgl is no slouch, it’s just a slightly older crowd.
The village of Obergurgl itself consists mostly of hotels, with the standard sport shops and skier essentials, with dining options that range from five-course menus to rustic pizzerias (Italy is just a snowball’s throw away after all). Many of the hotels, such as the recently renovated and undeniably slick Josl Mountain Lodge (used by Crystal Ski), also boast ‘Wellness’ facilities – as if spending the day on perfect snow high in the Austrian Alps wasn’t relaxing enough!
It’s tempting to do it all again tomorrow, but as mentioned the resort down the road has a bit of a reputation… Sölden awaits!
For more information:
Obergurgl is included in the Tirol Snow Card, which provides access to 4000km of pistes, more than 1000 lifts and 86 ski areas throughout Tirol.
Read the next blog in this series about Sölden.