Two of Austria’s prettiest ski resorts – Alpbach and Wildschönau – joined together during the 2013-14 season to create the ‘Ski Juwel’ area. With the lift-serviced connection and combined pass, the area becomes one of the 10 largest in Tirol. Chris Taine visits to see how this ‘resort fusion’ has broadened the appeal of this beautiful corner of Austria. At first, I’m a little irritated that two more skiers have decided to fold themselves into the tiny egg-shaped gondola. I mean, no complaints if there was a queue (there isn’t), and to be fair it is technically a 4 person gondola, but given that the old-fashioned rack on the outside doesn’t accommodate skis of the wide or twin-tipped ilk, 4 people plus two sets of large skis really is a squeeze. But by the time we get to midstation, all is forgiven. The two friendly Germans have let us in on Wildschönau’s ‘wilder’ side…
Neither Alpbach or Wildschönau, collectively known since 2013 as ‘Ski Juwel’, are places typically rated for their expansive off piste. They’d seldom be mentioned by powderhounds in the sames breath as St Anton, Stubai Glacier, or even neighbouring Hochfügen. The two resorts, which have favourites for generations British skiers, are better known for their family-friendly atmosphere, and incomprable pretty rustic wooden farmhouses. In fact, Alpbach has even been voted ‘Austria’s prettiest village’.
But these days, resorts need more than just rustic charm to lure skiers. This is the reason the adjacent valleys of Alpbach or Wildschönau were connected by gondola in December 2013, at a cost of €13.5m. The result is a combined area that boasts 145km (109km fall line) of pistes, which hugely broadens the appeal of the area for intermediate and advanced skiers, who in the course of a one-week holiday especially want to stretch their legs, explore, and access a variety of terrain. The connection doesn’t change the fact the ‘Ski Juwel’ is not packed with couloirs and challenging off piste, but it’s precisely the lack of reputation that draws us there on a sunny Saturday in January, with 30-40cm of fresh snow on the ground. And it’s a good call. While the Autobahn is snarled up with changeover day traffic and daytrippers from Munich, there is barely anyone here who looks half interested in venturing from the immaculately groomed red pistes.
The bulk of Wildschönau’s pistes are under the 1903m Schatzberg, served by 3 high-speed chairlifts that allow for quick laps. Immediately beside the red pistes is mellow off piste, which while easily accessible serves up pockets of seriously deep powder. The red run that descends all the way to Auffach (875m) is a treat too, especially as it’s a fantastic fall line piste, like most in the ‘Ski Juwel’ area. But it’s the two friendly Germans in the gondola, who are staying in the remote satellite village of Thierbach, who let us know about the wilder side of Wildschönau. A ten minute boot pack from the Gipfelbahn, up onto the ridge, accesses a remote valley that leads all the way down to Auffach. Powder the entire way, or so they say. Only one way to find out. After hiking to the mellow ridge line, it’s turn after turn of velvety deep powder, sections of it without a single set of tracks, past old farmhouses and across meadows. Soft pillows of powder and bumps make it a playful (and due to the gradient safe) run down into the valley. From the snow-covered access trail, which is being used by a few ski tourers, it’s an easy coast back along the road to the base of the gondola in Auffach. In some resorts, people will jealously guard their secret’ spots, so it’s a clear sign of what sort of resort this is, that strangers in the gondola will happily share where to find ‘the goods!’. Proof also, that if you stay open-minded about what a resort has to offer – including one characterised by many as ‘intermediate’ and ‘family friendly’, you might just be pleasantly surprised! For more information: skijuwel.com visittirol.co.uk Ski Juwel Alpbachtal Wildschönau is covered by the Tirol Snow Card – 87 ski areas, 1100 lifts and 4000km of pistes.