Skiing the Wild Kaiser

With so many splendid runs, it’s almost impossible to plan a sensible day on the slopes above the Brixen valley

On the way to the pension after an exhausting but satisfying day on the slopes | Photo: Christian Cummins

The skiing in the Wilder Kaiser and Brixen valley area is so brilliant that it is utterly exhausting. With 279 kilometers of smoothly groomed runs and over 90 lifts stretched out between nine atmospheric Alpine villages, it’s almost impossible to restrain yourself and plan a sensible day’s skiing: you just can’t persuade yourself to stop.

We were living in the rustic but bustling village of Söll at the western edge of the area, a traditional haunt for British skiers, and, like greedy children in a cake shop, we found ourselves glutinously carving down the wide slopes hour after hour to the far eastern end of the resort, with the modern lifts giving us but a brief respite.

It was not just sport; it was a sightseeing tour through some of Austria’s most quaint villages. We’d been through Hopfgarten, with its twin-towered church, through Brixen-im-Thale, a favorite with Dutch holiday makers, through bizarrely named Itter and snowy-roofed Scheffau, through elegant Ellmau with its long funicular train and finally through quiet Going with its ancient slow chairlifts.

It was then that we realized how late the time was and panicked, knowing we faced a mad dash back across the waves of rounded peaks to get back to our home mountain, the Hohe Salve – over 1800 meters high, evocatively shaped like a giant Germknödel dumpling. Impatient on the lifts, we carved long quick turns on the slopes and prayed we didn’t take a tumble. It was the sort of kamikaze endeavor that puts the adventure back in on-piste skiing. With our legs on fire, we made it to the bottom of the lift up to our home mountain with just five minutes to spare.

After such exertions, the giant dollop of whipped cream served with our apple strudel felt less like a crime and more like a life-sustaining necessity. The restaurant is next to Austria’s highest pilgrimage church – so the strudel is probably blessed anyway. As we devoured the strudel, washed down with cloudy Weizenbier, we gazed over panoramic views over the gentle Kitzbühel Alps, the mighty peaks of  Hohen Tauern and, to the west, the jagged rocks of the Zillertal valley.

A layer of powdery snow covering the slopes of the Kitzbühel Alps | Photo: Christian Cummins

As we came out the sun was going down over the western peaks and the clouds from the valley were creeping around the near ones like a pink tide coming into an archipelago of islands. By now the top layer of powdery snow that had softened under the glare of the midday sun has frozen again in the rapidly dropping temperature; and so, when we launched off the edge of the empty mountain into our first homeward turns, our skis make a loud crunchy scratching noise instead of the smooth hiss of an hour before. But still, the edges gripped in easily and smoothly, swinging us around like trains on rails in swift, steep turns in an exhilarating run, until we reached a logging route through the trees for a relaxing cruise back to the village.

Skiing in early winter has its special delights, as on this last easy run down it was so dark that you could see the sparks on your edges as they caught the inevitable pebble under the still thin layer of snow, like fireflies in winter.

Back to Söll, we were greeted with the view of a village of picture-book rusticality. Just a few slope-roofed Tyrolean chalet hotels cluster around a yellow baroque church, its onion-dome dominating the skyline. But the village is not nearly as sleepy as it looks, as you’ll find out if you venture down the village’s main street, now closed to traffic. Söll attracts a young crowd, many of them baggily-dressed boarders from the British Isles who show off intricate handshakes in the incongruous barrel-shaped Whiskeymühle pub and complain about how this heralded “Age of Austerity” is affecting their budget. Söll is still relatively inexpensive, where you are unlikely to see the fur coats so common in other parts of the Kitzbühel Alps. Here cosy pizzerias rather than gourmet restaurants do a brisk business. The crowd in the village at night is young, thirsty, extremely casual and, it has to be said, at times raucously loud.

Our pension, the family-run Landhaus Strasser, was up a hill away from the madding crowd and wonderfully informal. In these straightened times, we were the only guests for several days of the early season and felt almost adopted by the family.

The teenage daughter was serving breakfast before rushing off to school and her mother sat with us describing her favorite runs and the best place to get a mountaintop cake.

The pension looks out over a large, flat snow field and in the evening, after emerging from a restorative sauna, we’d go outside the pension in our dressing gowns, with steam rising from our reinvigorated bodies as if we were horses in the victory paddock.

Each night we’d stare across the field, incredibly bright under the moon-light, towards the craggy Wilder Kaiser –a millionaire’s treat on a budget. Do your worst Age of Austerity, we thought, just leave us enough to share this perfect moment next year, too.

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