by Loulou Baylis
The Snow Gods have smiled upon Austria. This winter season has proved slow-starting. With sparse snowfall in France and other parts of the Alps, Austria is one of the only snow-sure destinations. Thanks to many of the resorts being at a particularly high altitude, there’s no snow “panic” over whether there’ll be enough white stuff to cover all the mountain. While this means that the pistes may be busy with snow-hunting holiday-makers, there’s always off-piste for those of a gem-hunting disposition. Why stick to the piste when the whole mountain is your playground?
With many of the locals displaying ABS bags and freeride bindings, you’d be in safe hands hiring a guide to find the mountain’s hidden treasures. We also recommend checking out a skiing or snowboarding buying guide to make sure that you have the right skis or board for hitting the backcountry, as well as the correct safety equipment. Here, we expose our favourite off-piste spots for powder-hounds and adventurous riders alike.
Tirol’s Best Kept Secret: Fieberbrunn
If backcountry freeriding is what you’re after, there’s no better place to head to than the only place in Austria to hold the prestigious and extreme Freeride World Tour 2014: Fieberbrunn. The legendary Wildseeloder mountain is the venue for the world’s top off-piste riders, and is tribute to the high level of off-piste terrain that Fieberbrunn has to offer. However, if you’re testing off-piste riding for the first time, this resort holds the gentle terrain as well as the challenging, and all easily accessible from the lifts.
Although it’s often overlooked amongst its better known neighbours of Kitzbühel, Saalbach and Scheffau, Fieberbrunn is nestled between them with fresh powder waiting to be tracked. The locals have named Fieberbrunn a “Schneeloch” (snow hole), capturing all of the fresh snow when the heavens open. This “snow pocket” means that Fieberbrunn collects nearly 50% more snow than Kitzbühel over a season. It’s no surprise then that Fieberbrunn has been termed Tirol’s best kept secret.
Our top tip: ride the “Wildsee Runde” for an off-piste route you won’t forget!
Mind the Gaps: Sölden
How many other resorts do you know with three mountain peaks over 3,000m, two glaciers and off-piste aplenty? If you prefer to ski the off-piste next to the piste, then Sölden offers a terrific powder trail that runs to the right of t-bar-34. Another parallel run is to the side of run-36 from the top of the Rettenbach gondola. However, as with any off-piste adventures, it’s highly recommended getting a guide to avoid those crevasses and cliffs, particularly in the steeper off-piste areas such as Wasserkar. The Sölden Freeride Centre offer guided tours to find the spots that Sölden likes to hide.
Our top tip: Sölden is peppered with difficult terrain so check your line / route carefully. Helicopters regularly have to rescue people who are unprepared, and a single fair is a cool 500 euros!
Powder over Party: Ischgl
With most of the resort above 2000m, Ischgl is not the resort for those looking for powder through the tree lines. Yet, there is fun, steep powder-filled terrain to be had. Forget Ischgl’s reputation as being most prominent for partying, even though this does ensure that most people are too hungover to attempt first tracks on a bluebird morning. The off-piste potential is huge thanks to the likes of the Palinkopf and Pardatschgrat areas.
Even just heading up on one of Ischgl’s lifts, there is an endless sight of powder bowls and untracked terrain. Some of Ischgl’s “off-piste” are in fact recognised ski routes, but are unpatrolled and best attempted with a guide, such as beneath the Hollenspitz area. We recommend Skischule for your guiding needs.
Our top tip: Head to the Piz Val Gronda cable car that opened last year. With runs of 700 vertical metres, this dedicated freeride area always offers fresh tracks.
Good Things Come in Small Packages: Galtür
With only 40km of pisted terrain, it’s no surprise that skiers and snowboarders head here for an off-piste challenge. With the small village’s population of below 1000, Galtür is also the place to head to for escaping the crowds. There are only 3 chairlifts and a gondola, encouraging you to find the powder without relying on the pisted terrain. Located at high altitude, this is a resort that will offer some of the best powder, untouched and ready for those first tracks.
Our top tip: For those fresh powder days, the Ballunspitze run is a must!
Freeriding before Après: St. Anton
St. Anton am Arlberg may be known for its legendary après, but before the crowds hit the Jäger, there’s plenty of powder to be found: all 200km of off-piste trails! Yet, St.Anton’s status as a freeriding Mecca is not such a well-kept secret, so it’s worth being up early in order to ensure that it’s you making the first tracks. Kapall is where the guys in the know start their day, but there’s always the mid station of Valluga Grat, via the Galzing cable car, for long unpisted runs. If you can afford it, St. Anton is also the only place in Austria where you can heli-board.
Wherever you start, your off-piste riding will most certainly involve deep virgin snow, powder bowls and fun tree lines that are hard to beat. This is a resort that encourages you to venture beyond the piste markers, and for good reason.
Our top tip: Invest in an off-piste technique refresher lesson with the experts at Piste to Powder.
Loulou Baylis is an avid skier, having spent three seasons in Tignes in the French Alps. She’s now based in London, where she combines her love of skiing with that of writing on the new ski and snowboard magazine Style Altitude.
, Ski & Snowbard