First Stop: St Anton, Austria
As one of the largest and most dynamic mega-resorts in the world, St. Anton presented us with the fantastic terrain, world-class infrastructure, and of course, some of the best Après Ski in the world!
When we began planning our ski tour of the European resorts with free passes through Vail Epic Pass, St. Anton, Austria was the obvious first choice. Europe had been experiencing a banner year with multiple record storms in January, and the Eastern Alps had already received significant snowfall in early December. Since we were flying into Munich - where Max is from - Austria was also the closest resort offered on the pass. And while I have skied in Switzerland and France, I have never been to Austria, let alone skied there. While famous for mountaineering and ski racing, and being notorious for a huge party scene, I did not know what to expect. What we got blew us away! After spending a few days with Max and his family in the beautiful city of Munich, Germany, we jumped in our Ford Kuga SUV and sped off to Buchs, Switzerland on the border of Liechtenstein. There we picked up our friend Jan, who Max had met on our previous trip to Japan 2 years prior. Since St Anton was the home resort of Jan’s, we were fortunate to have a local skier who also doubled as our tour guide over the next several days.
We started our first day in a complete white-out in a seemingly remote village with no other skiers around. We took a Europe-long run down the mountain (for about 30 minutes) through the pea soup until we eventually ended up in the next town over. From there we took a shuttle to yet another village. This is when we began to understand the incredible scale of Arlberg, the umbrella resort that St. Anton was a part of. Here we boarded a cable car that whisked us up through the dense fog into an alpine paradise with bluebird skies. From here, we could see a complex network of cable cars, gondolas and 6-person lifts servicing terrain on white peaks as far as the eye could see.
The remainder of our first day was spent exploring the vast amounts of chutes, couloirs, and open faces with Jan as our guide. We finished the day with a boot pack to the top of Valluga. From the viewing platform, we had a good vantage point where we could pick out the lines that we would hopefully complete in the coming days. We charged down the back of the mountain face into a field of fresh powder to end the day. As we approached the bottom of the mountain near the town center of St. Anton, we began to hear the welcoming sounds of the much anticipated après ski of Austria.
Coming from Whistler, BC, we are used to an après scene that, while arguably the best in North American, is still pretty tame. The only bars on the mountain are in the Whistler-run lodges and each patron is allowed only 1 drink. In the Whistler village, seating is in short supply due to the over-supply of often-boring tourists, and standing with a drink is forbidden. In Austria, everyone has multiple drinks in hand while dancing on tables singing along to the loud, obnoxious German techno/disco/Oktoberfest music. Having had a great first day on the mountain, we happily dove in. Starting with Tap’s, then moving to the famous Krazy Kangaruh, and finishing at the infamous Mooservirt, we got the full taste of Austria Apres. This was après ski that goes to 11. It was hard to pull ourselves away from the fun but we knew that if we stayed out too late, we would regret it the next day. (For more detail, check out my blog entry coming out in a few weeks specifically about European Après Ski.)
View a short compilation of clips from Mooservirt:
Accommodation in St. Anton
While the lift tickets at St. Anton was free through the Vail Epic Pass, there was a stipulation and we needed to stay at one of the designated hotels near the mountain. Europe is generally considered a very expensive place to stay while skiing. But Anton was the next level. The cheapest accommodations we could find on the list cost over €200 per person per night. Considering that we were skiing for four days, the overall cost would have far outweighed the saving from the free epic pass. As a result, we decided to buy the tickets outright and find cheaper accommodations a few towns away. Fortunately, we found a hostel in the next town that was only 100 euros per night for the 3 of us.
After we had finished our Apres ski, we jumped in the car and drove to the hostel. It was late and the hostel door was locked and it looked like no one was home. Fortunately, some Aussies who spent living in the hostel for the season opened the door for us. We found our way to what we thought would be our room and settled in for the evening. This was far better than spending the exorbitant rate that was required if we wanted to use one of the Vale properties. The hostel had charm as well.
We woke up in the morning to an angry Austrian knocking on the door telling us that this was not our room and that we needed to leave the hostel immediately. We were taken back by this because we had booked through a website and had already paid the deposit. After much angry German yelling, we decided to cut our losses, leave the room and forgo paying for the room on our way out. Fortunately, we were able to find a hotel the next town over. This is where we would stay for the next few nights.
Day 2 and 3
On the second and third day, we went after some of the lines that we had scoped out the day before. Often to get to these lines we had to ride a series of cable cars, gondolas, 6-person chairs and T bars before we even began our hike up the mountain. Fortunately after a short skin or boot pack and we were already in awesome terrain that was mostly untracked. St. Anton has a plethora of tight, steep couloirs where the only other person near us was an Austrian instructor who seemed to be ticked off that we had found his hidden stash.
We then went after the biggest peak that we saw from the top of the mountain the previous day. This required a longer boot pack. When we finally got to the top, the clouds were below us and the blue skies all around us. We savored this perfect Alps moment. Looking down at the bowl below us we noticed that there were no tracks. We proceeded to charge down the face of the big mountain while yelling hoots and hollers. At the bottom, we were all smiles when we high-fived each other. At this point, we knew that we were definitely in Europe and that this trip was definitely going to be epic.
The following day Max’s friend Sebastian came out to meet us. We decided that we would go up to the same peak that we went to on the first day. From there we would do a ski tour off the back of the mountain into one of the many valleys that stretched out in every direction. The sky was blue and the snow was fresh and beautiful. We enjoyed some great lines down before we put on our skins and started hiking back up another ridge. It was a tough climb up and the weather started to get overcast. Rather than continue into a potentially dangerous situation, we decided to ski down a safer route. Despite this, I still managed to ski headfirst into a gully that was impossible to see through the whiteout. I slowly got up concerned that this might be concussion number 17 but fortunately, I was able to shake it off and catch up with the group.
After checking out of our hotel on our last day, Max and I wanted to go after a particular line that we had been eyeing since our first day. We made our way up the chairlift and proceeded to our planned destination. Like the day before, the clouds started to settle as we began our climb. While we knew the hike to be difficult and potentially treacherous, we were committed to achieving our goal. The climb became more difficult and precarious. We began to regret not bringing ice axes. Every boot step and handhold we made had to be one at a time.
We slowly pulled ourselves up the last bit of the peak until we finally got to a clearing where the clouds dissipated. It was quite steep and there were numerous cliffs. That’s when we noticed a mountain goat perched nearby undoubtedly critiquing our clumsy climb up. If only we had a fraction of his ability to climb, we would have done our hike in a much shorter time.
With the hike behind us, we made our way to the top of the couloir. While not as steep as some of the lines that we had skied or would ski in this trip since the light was quite flat and the exposure was pretty icy, we had to go slow and carefully. We were still concerned about the possibility of a slide as well. Fortunately, we were able to ski down with no issue and relish in the accomplishment at the bottom.
After returning to our parked vehicle and having a beer and sandwich on the side of the road, we piled back into the car and made our way to Sebastian’s house on the border of Lichtenstein. We stayed there for two nights to recuperate from our days at St. Anton. We cooked a large (vegetarian) German meal at Sebastian’s house and stayed up till 4 a.m. sampling some of his many bottles of snaps and other booze. As the night progressed, were spitting alcohol into candle making a flame. We then starting playing a game that required lighting a piece of chocolate on fire with alcohol. I then proceeded to do this lighting my finger on fire first and then lighting the chocolate and trying to eat them both at the same time. Too slow, I ended up burning my finger, the chocolate and my mouth. While I made it through St. Anton with no injuries, at Sebastian’s house, I was not so lucky. I would carry those burns for the rest of the trip.