Some of my family live in London and regularly ski in Europe so this was the year for a group of us – my daughter, her four-year-old and her toddler to join up with me and my very grown up son and have a week together in the Alps. It felt like a very exciting idea. My daughter grew up skiing with us in Canada, sports a fancy pair of very wide powder skis and regales all with tales of skiing the legendary Vallée Blanch in Chamonix. What could go wrong?
She chose the Austrian resort of Brixen Im Thale, which connects to Kitzbuhel where you can hurtle down the Hahnenkamm, the World Cup downhill run that ended Canadian Todd Brooker’s career. Brixen has an excellent nursery program (for the toddler) and a ski school program for the 4-year-old which was a little more like babysitting than we would have liked.
Brixen is charming with chalet-type Austrian homes in winding streets, two gondolas heading up each side of the valley and ski connections to endless villages, innumerable, varied slopes and perfect on-mountain cafés, restaurants and bars all with patios open to continuous sun and therein lies a problem.
But when we got to the top of the gondola at Westendorf on the first day it was 13 degrees Celsius on February 16th! There we were dressed for a February day at Mont Temblant, draping jackets and fleeces around our hips and looking for quenching liquids. That was the warmest it got but, the other side of the valley with the gondola to Hochbrixen was green on the lower slopes with narrow tracks of brown snow to ski down if you didn’t want to download. To be fair, once you got up to the 1700 or 1800 metre elevation of many of the runs, the snow was in quite good condition if a little reminiscent of eastern Canadian skiing when it hasn’t snowed for a while: icy or slick, fast and not very forgiving.
By the end of my first day, I had swapped the Rossignol Soul 7s I had brought to dive down through the trees in powder for some rented, well sharpened, 84 cm waisted all-mountain skis and I felt much better. Don’t make that mistake.
I grew up skiing in Europe but what I had forgotten is that I wasn’t good enough then to get off the groomers. I did, of course, but I wouldn’t call it skiing. There’s a reason that British and other European skiers come to Whistler and the Big3 Alberta resorts that’s where you get wide open bowls, tree skiing and dive-in gullies: the European skiing experience is not the same. My son and I had gone looking for power, for glades, gullies and huge areas. We got the huge areas. You never need to ski the same run twice and if you do, it’s usually so you can get back to a lift you need to get home. You drop into village after village, restaurant after restaurant covering more acreage than you can dream of. The scenery is spectacular. There are steep pitches and endless groomed slopes but, powder, gullies and trees, not so much.
Is it fun? Yes, but it’s not like diving through soft snow through trees in Revelstoke carrying your whistle to call you buddy if you get caught in a tree hole. It’s more civilized, less craggy and far more bound by rules. The ski areas don’t like you to move off the groomed path despite the acres of snow that stretch out in all directions.
One day we took the free electric train for 15 minutes from Brixen to Kitzbuhel which is higher with great, groomed snow, steep pitches and wonderful views. The Hahnenkamm was closed though and the lower slopes were affected by the warm weather. Like most of this area, the problem is that the tops are just no longer high enough or cold enough to retain great snow which is not true of a resort like Zermatt but when I skied Zermatt a few years ago in March it was like a bad, icy day at Whistler – unskiable concrete everywhere.
Climate change has definitely come to the Alps and it’s hard to see some of these resorts surviving for too long.
The day after we took the train to Kitzbuhel we skied there instead and learned why the resorts don’t like you to leave the beaten path. As with other European resorts, if you had off the groomers, you are expected to get a guide.
The runs you are skiing become pasture in summer. You are crossing farmers’ fields which can have the occasional fence or other buried hazard waiting to catch you – there are no danger signs. Still, it was impossible to ignore the soft snow beckoning between runs and, with a degree of caution, we got one day taking the somewhat heavy power and carefully looking out for fences. My daughter thought we were crazy.
There’s one open, ungroomed run from the top of the Westendorf gondola which would be fun when it is in good condition, but that’s it and there are no glades to speak of. Throughout this area of the Tyrol: the SkiWelt and KitzSki areas, you go for the groomers
So, is it worth the trip? The jetlag and the expense? Yes. Absolutely and I would say that even if this had not been a family trip. There are steep, challenging runs, the scenery is breathtaking, the distance you travel on skis every day is simply amazing and it becomes a challenge to see how many villages you can visit. It’s just a different experience from North American skiing and for intermediates and advanced skiers not entirely comfortable on the steep and deep, it’s a paradise.
We stayed in a spacious three-bedroomed apartment in a chalet-like building for 4000 Euros (CA$6,200) for the week with ample accommodation for four adults, a four-year-old and a toddler – found through Booking.com. Lift tickets – a Superpass covers a huge area and includes Kitzbuhel – are comparable to Canadian prices. You fly to Munich and then take a bus. We used Four Seasons travel at 217 Euros (CA 338.66) both ways for three people. Restaurant and bar prices are similar to North American resorts. Beware: most food stores are closed on Sundays and English is not as prevalent as you might expect.
The train to Kitzbuhel is a treat. It was five-minute’s walk from our apartment. There is next to no slopeside accommodation. The two gondolas up each side of the valley were a 15-minute walk or five minutes on the regular buses.
Rental equipment is plentiful in great condition and reasonably priced.