February 3rd, 2011
I just returned from my seventh trip to Europe. Main purpose: you guessed it, skiing. Is there anything else I do in winter? I should not be so single purposed.
To be honest, we really go to Europe [this trip included a group of ten journalists and their wives] for much more than skiing, but skiing is the common thread that ties all that we do there together, physically and spiritually. There is splendor in the mountains that never never disappoints, especially in the endless Alps. The Alps in winter are exhilarating, challenging, clean and pure. They are nature expressed in a thousand hues of white. Many humans never have a chance to see these great mountains. I have made up for them many times over.
This was my forth trip to Austria. This year it happened to be the Ziller Valley, Mayrhofen to be specific, a 2-1/2 hour bus ride south of Munich.
There are several ski areas accessed through this narrow, mountain valley. We skied only a few: Penken, Rastkogel, the Hintertux Glacier, Gerlos (the largest), and Ahorn. Never heard of them? Nor had I a year ago when this trip was planned.
Mayrhofen rests a comfortable 2,000 feet above sea level and the highest ski lift rises to the rarified air of 10,662 feet.
I'm always impressed by the sheer number of ski areas all over Europe, many unknown to most Americans. It proves a point that Europeans take their skiing seriously. If there is snow, Austrians ski on it. In the Ziller Valley alone there are 170 modern lifts, many providing interconnects to numerous adjacent areas. The lift system is one of the most advanced systems to be found anywhere including shiny 150 passenger trams, gondolas, 6-8 passenger covered (sometimes heated) chairs to a few remaining surface t-bars.
We spent a day on the Hintertux Glacier. It was spectacular. A perfect cloudless calm day, it was a rare combination of packed powder snow and great visibility. My camera was ready. The Hintertux offers the only glacier skiing and riding in Austria that is open year round. Broad, open groomed slopes offer little to measure scale, albeit ant-like skiers and riders in motion.
Our glacier day included a trip through "Nature's Ice Palace", discovered by chance only four years ago during a mild summer season only 650 feet from the highest point of the glacier's observation platform. A combination of natural crevasses and man-made caves, located well below the surface of the glacier in a stable ice zone, the palace included staircases, frozen waterfalls, a man-made chapel, specially lighted areas and ice stalactites.
Each of our ski days offered unique experiences. Each area was accessed by a short bus or train ride from the center of Mayrhofen. The Glacier, the ice cave, gourmet lunches on the mountain, and the experience of having full time guides throughout our stay, all added up to one amazing week.
The skiing is best done before lunch in Europe, since lunch is such a leisurely and pleasurable experience, best appreciated on the mountain. We appreciated the family owned establishments where pride in service, presentation and product were especially unique. Each meal was initiated with a local brew or wine and always finished with apple strudel, pear Schnapps, and perhaps a cappuccino. Skiing after food and beverage was entirely at one's own risk.
A lunch at the Wedelhutte at 7,700 feet above sea level was unique. The Wedelhutte's success is proven by holiday reservations full through 2015. This exquisite venue complete with its own lounge, wine cellar and lodging constructed in 2009, offered striking views, a gourmet menu and superb service. Again, a two-hour plus lunch with a long ski ride after.
Our accommodation for our six-day stay was at the 4 star Hotel Alpendomizal Neuhaus operated by the Josef Moigg Family and founded in 1649. Personal, one of a kind hotels and restaurants, family run are typical in Austria and throughout Europe.
Side trips offered a relief for sometimes tired ski legs.
A tour and lunch at the 65,000 square foot Zillertal Dairy was one high point. It included a wine and cheese lunch and 11 viewing stations wherefrom the complete processing and packaging of milk products could be observed. Located in a contemporary structure composed of concrete, heavy timber and stainless steel, this dairy made an art form of the dairy process.
Another high point was a visit to the Local Folklore Museum in Fugen. Located in a "store-house" wood framed building referenced in documents as far back as 1050 AD, exhibits included mining, musical history, weaving, wood work and farm equipment. Silent Night is known to have been first sung by five carolers in Fugen during mid-night mass on Christmas Eve 1819.
This year's trip adds many memories to my growing library and photo collection. And, as usual, many of the stories have little to do with skiing. Will I go back? Of course.