Rising in the East

kals_5Chris Taine visits little-known East Tyrol and discovers that the ski areas at the base of Austria’s highest mountains may not remain a secret much longer…

While the snow gods have been rather stingy in their snowy offerings on the northern side of the Austrian Alps this season, it’s been a different story on the south side of the Felbertauern Tunnel.

The resorts of Osttirol (East Tyrol), an area that lies immediately to the south of the main alpine divide, have benefited from the storms that have brought prodigious quantities of snow to the Italian Dolomites this winter. For me, that’s all the justification that I need to spend a weekend in Grossglockner Resort Kals-Matrei, Osttirol’s largest ski area.It takes less than an hour to drive from glitzy Kitzbühel, its slopes looking decidedly green from the valley, to Matrei in Osttirol, but the two mountain towns couldn’t be more different. Matrei, ringed by 3000m peaks and sitting on the edge of the Hohe Tauern National Park, is a market town connected to its ski area by just one gondola (Goldreid 1) and one piste (red piste #1). It’s a quiet little town, with a big parking lot at the base of the gondola and a mix of accommodation that includes guesthouses, holiday apartments and a clutch of 4* hotels.

View towards Virgen/Praegraten

View towards Virgen/Praegraten

The ski area itself may be barely visible from the main road, but it’s actually the largest in Osttirol, thanks to a link with Kals which was completed in 2008. The tiny village of Kals am Grossglockner, while only a couple of chairlift rides from Matrei, takes another 30 mins to reach by car, but the extra effort is well rewarded. Kals sits near the end of a long valley, near the foot of the foot of the Grossglockner – Austria’s highest mountain at 3798m. This makes the area a magnet for hikers and mountaineers in the summer months, as well as an increasingly popular destination for local ski tourers. Glaciated high alpine terrain means that there is superb spring ski touring here, even when the snow cover is too thin elsewhere.

Before the Kals and Matrei were linked by lift in 2008 (thanks to a €27m investment), Kals had its own local ski hill, served by a few draglifts and two fixed-grip quads. The red and black pistes here are steep and exhilarating, but it’s easy to how the small area could become overcrowded at peak times. Arriving in mid-March, this was still the best place to head for early morning turns though, as the warm sun softened up the fall-line pistes. The Blauspitz area is also the best place to sample more traditional Osttirol fare, with the standout being the Glocknerblick, where there are unbeatable views of the glaciated snowfields of the Hohe Tauern.

New lift infrastructure has linked Kals with Matrei since 2008

New lift infrastructure has linked Kals with Matrei since 2008

As the sun rises, it’s time to head high – up the Kals gondola which provides the connection with Matrei. The east-facing slopes are in top condition just before lunch – the black 13 piste being a steep fall-line shot that it is hard to beat. The area under the Kals gondola is also prime freeride terrain, though any dreams of off-piste skiing are put to bed by the sight of wet snow avalanches due to the warm spring weather.

Adler Lounge

Adler Lounge

The gondola’s top station is also home to the Adler Lounge. A far cry from the rustic wooden farmhouses and pensions down in the valley, the modern structure boasts views of more than sixty 3000m peaks, plus a terrace built to capture the sun. If you’ve come for the skiing rather than the suntanning, it pays not to stop for too long, as there’s plenty more skiing on the far side. Above the Cimaross chair (also constructed n 2008 to connect the resorts) is some varied ski touring and hike-to terrain, while the wide open bowl under the chair has a few more straight-shot groomers.

Terrain near the Cimaross chairlift

Terrain near the Cimaross chairlift

Further towards the Matrei, the pistes are even better, rollercoaster reds softening perfectly in the afternoon sun. Queues are non-existent, and there’s no shortage of space to let the ski run. For more advanced skiers, there might not be a full week’s worth of skiing here, but there’s more than enough for a long weekend, and further hidden-gems such as St Jakob in Defereggantal and Sillian are easily reached if you have a rental car.

While Austrian resorts such as St Anton, Mayrhofen, Kitzbühel and Zell am See (to name a few) are perennial favourites with British skiers for good reason – what with extensive pistes, developed infrastructure and rowdy nightlife – it’s easy to appreciate the charms of a place like Kals. It’s quiet here. In a good way. Accommodation like the 4* Taurerwirt, which it’s possible to ski to but set away from pistes, offers up saunas and pools with glacier views, top-notch food and Tirolean hospitality. It might be a medium-sized hotel, but it still has a distinctly family feel – not surprising given that it’s been run by the same family for over 60 years.

Typical farmhouse in Kals am Grossglockner

Typical farmhouse in Kals am Grossglockner

Beautiful old wooden farmhouses still dominate the village itself, though 2013 saw another major development, as the Gradonna Mountain Resort opened its doors. The architectural style of the hotel with its adjacent self-catering apartments is a radical departure from the norm here, and might not be to everyone’s taste. However the ski-in ski-out lodging at the base of the Blauspitz area gives the resort another dimension, as well as providing a good option for those who are not travelling by car (elsewhere it’s often necessary to catch the ski bus to get to the lifts).

The Lucknerhaus is a popular base for ski tourers

The Lucknerhaus is a popular base for ski tourers heading into the National Park

Despite the growth, Kals still has a very small town feel. There are only 1500 permanent inhabitants spread along the 12km long valley, with many travelling elsewhere for work. Apres in pretty much non-existent, but if you’re happy to spend your afternoons sunning yourself at the Adler Lounge, hitting the sauna, or cross-country skiing amongst Austria’s highest peaks, perhaps that’s not too high a price to pay? Not in my books, anyway. If the snow lasts until May (which is often does) I’ll be back – next time with touring skis and skins instead!

For more information:
www.kals.at
www.taurerwirt.at
www.osttirol.com
www.visittirol.co.uk

Chris Taine
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3 Comments »

  1. Hi Chris – I’d recommend your readers travel a little further down to Lienz, where you can ski on the Hochstein and Zettersfeld mountains. Hardly anyone from the UK goes there, it’s mainly the local, Italians, Slovenians and Russians who visit. The pistes are great for kids and intermediates and the World Cup Women’s downhill is held at Hochstein, so there are challenging runs too. There is also a relatively new family run 5 star hotel in the town, which is really excellent (see TripAdvisor).

  2. Hi Chris – Cheers! Next trip back there (and there will be one) will definitely venture a little further to Lienz, hopefully also to St Jakob as I hear that there is some fantastic off-piste/backcountry terrain there too.

  3. Also Obertilliach, a great little area with some nice steep fall line shots through the trees; private powder on a deep day too.

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