1969 is most famous for the first moon landings but my personal first that year was, aged 15, a school ski trip to Würgl in the Austrian Tirol. Since then skis and I have been strangers to one another. But, 45 years on I was invited to resume the experience at Obergurgl – again in the Austrian Tirol. A lot had changed both for me and skiing.
'The Aqua Dome looks set to get busier in the New Year when actors and crew move in to nearby Sölden to film scenes for Spectre, the latest Bond movie'
In ’69, before hitting the slopes, our school group sampled the piste experience for five minutes on a 10ft stretch of sloped matting in a Leeds sports shop. It wasn’t big, it wasn’t fast, but it delivered mean rope burns.
This time we had a full day at a local indoor winter sports centre. For me this was Chillfactore near Manchester, where an intensive six hour session with Geoff (noted for his inexhaustible supply of well-worn jokes) and trainee Ben took us from the basics of donning boots and skis to negotiating a slope using snow-plough and turns.
Forty five years of cultivating my inner chicken led me to be a little over-cautious as the pace picked up and the slopes got steeper. When Geoff said “If in doubt, fall” I took him at his word and perfected the horizontal position. Others, including 11-year old-Scarlett, were looking decidedly professional by the end of the session.
Our first day in Austria, hosted by Inghams and Tirol, was a gentle introduction. Visit the Christmas markets in Innsbruck (Gluhwein and Kaiserschmarren – shredded pancake with sugar and jam) and check in at our luxury apartments Gletscherblick, a brand new state of the art structure in wood and glass with mountain view balconies. Privately owned, they are managed by the nearby hotel Edelweiss and Gurgl and provide superb accommodation.
Next it was a visit to ski hire in the hotel to source our equipment. It’s an advantage of choosing Obergurgl that all skiing is done directly from hotels with plentiful transport ski lifts and minimal walking. Anyone who has ever walked in ski boots will appreciate this.
Early evening called for a visit to the excellent spa facilities at the Edelweiss and Gurgl – jacuzzi, sauna, infinity pool with outdoor section and luxurious rest area – followed by drinks and dinner in the impressive dining room with its huge Last Supper style mural along one wall.
Skiing and mountain air are great appetite rousers and the hotel food was hearty but with delicate touches like the excellently seared scallops and the venison galantine. The salad choice was wide with artichoke hearts and a range of smoked fish and breakfast featured, alongside the expected fruit, nuts and muesli, cooked to order omelettes and organic bresaola. There was a wide range of alpine ewe’s milk cheeses.
I had eyed up the ski school behind the hotel where, I later learned, beginners usually spend the first day or two. This was a wide, unthreatening bowl-shaped area. But snow conditions (you learn as a skier the importance of snow conditions!) meant it was too icy so, instead, we were lifted 2,800 feet up Festkogel, one of the local mountains. Terrifyingly steep from the bubble lift but with a large, flatter section where we were dropped off. The first thing I noticed was that real snow is more slippery than the indoor stuff and I made a bet with myself that this time I would stay upright.
Instructors Seppl and Richard (both Obergurgl-born and bred and farmers when not teaching) quickly sussed that some of us had picked up the basics faster than others. They divided us into two groups and I was relieved to be in the more leisurely one, run with exemplary patience by Seppl, a veteran of 49 years on the slopes. The quality of instruction was excellent over both days and allowed everyone to progress at their own pace – and yes, I did manage the first day, with its turns and snow-ploughs, in a vertical position.
Lunch was at the popular Hohe Mut Alm – the High Courage Alpine Inn. A jolly, wood-fired pine structure with panoramic glacier views, a huge conservatory and long refectory tables, it provided beer, gluhwein and a range of local specialities. My beefsteak with potatoes was excellent, but I had dumpling-envy of another group member’s sizzling goat cheese and spinach knödeln. Puddings were generous; the apple strudel was especially good.
Our evening entertainment was at the famous Aqua Dome in Längenfeld, about 30 minutes’ drive away. A spectacular creation, this combines extensive indoor spa facilities with 12 indoor and outdoor pools and conduits all filled with water at 30 degrees from an underground thermal source. To swim in this salt rich warmth when the outside temperature is -3 is a great way to dissolve the day’s aches and pains. The excellent range of saunas – one with a hay bale in the centre – were just as impressive (it’s useful to note that the Austrian sauna etiquette is no swimwear, but you can keep your towel).
A magnet for people from local resorts, the Aqua Dome was busy on the night we went. Indeed it looks set to get busier in the New Year when actors and crew move in to nearby Sölden to film scenes for Spectre, the latest Bond movie.
A second day’s skiing took us to nearby Hochgurgl, and back to Festgurgl. Experienced skiers were ecstatic about the snow (I told you it was important.) and it was difficult not to connect with my inner snowball throwing self when I saw the depth of the overnight fall. This may have been helped by a new arrival on the mountain, The Cloud – a way of producing and distributing artificial snow developed by scientists at Vienna University and ecologically much better than existing methods. Active when the temperature drops below five degrees, it is being tried for the first time at Obergurgl.
Personal success – I managed a sedate, some might say timid, blue run (for non-skiers, this is a modest incline) on my second afternoon, successfully employing my newly acquired traverse and turning techniques. Feeling exhilarated by mountain air and relieved at not having to use my top-up medical insurance, I joined the group for the part I expected to be good at.
A bubble car lift and a short walk in deep snow brought us to the Nederhutte. Owned by the family Gamper (from Obergurgl) and tucked half-way up a mountain, the Nederhutte embodies the Austrian après-ski experience. As waiters balance beers on trays above their heads, Rudi leads the live band in classics such as Show me the Way to Amarillo, YMCA and, a favourite with the locals, The Snow Song, which involves much repetition of Schnee, schnee, schnee, schnee, accompanied by a bewildering range of swaying upper body actions. Indeed all the music involved communal upper body movement – not surprising really, as ski boots do not make for fancy footwork.
Much beer, gluhwein and standing on furniture later, we are ready to leave. The advanced class ski down the mountain while the rest of us climb aboard a skidoo. And this is the perfect. Speeding through the snow beside the floodlit piste, our shadows etched eerily on the mountainside and the lights of Obergurgl glittering below, I understand what my skiing friends mean. There’s something about the mountains, the camaraderie and the adrenaline rush – though I’m content to enjoy the thrill of this ride without having to snow-plough to a halt at the end.
Inghams (www.inghams.co.uk; 01483 791 114) offer a choice of 15 properties in the resort of Obergurgl, including the 4* Hotel Edeweiss & Gurgl. A week’s half board starts from £849 per person, including flights from Gatwick to Innsbruck and transfers. A 'first-time' ski or board package includes six day lift pass and equipment hire as well as five days tuition (four hours daily) and costs from £390.
For more information about Tirol: www.visittirol.co.uk or about Obergurgl www.obergurgl.com.
Obergurgl and Hochgurgl offer night skiing from December 17 2014 with, at 9pm, the popular live ski show, Return of the Pioneer,s featuring spectacular feats and a demonstration of how it used to be on vintage ski equipment.
The GO SKI GO BOARD programme includes six hours of instruction or slope time ideally over six weeks, with courses available from beginners to improvers and to recreational skiers and snowboarders. The programme is on offer at over 30 indoor centres or outdoor slopes across the country. Run by Snowsport England and supported by the Tirol Tourist Board, as destination partner, prices are all inclusive and cover everything you need to take part.
Prices at the Aqua-Dome range from 22 euros for three hours in the thermal pools to 44 euros for a day’s unlimited use of gym, sauna and thermal spa. There are reduced prices for families and children. For more information visit www.aqua-dome.at.
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