Living it up in Austria

What Austrian ski resorts lack in height compared to their loftier French cousins they make up for in scale and therefore reward the skier with an ever changing vantage for breath -taking mountain views. Zell am See, our chosen resort for the 2020 ski trip, was a prime example of this. Over the course of just a handful of lifts you could summit the mountain and be skiing down a shoulder of its other side with a different view opening out.

Admittedly after a couple of days you may feel you’ve done it all. But with the changeable weather and snow conditions, which we had during our week, it could feel like a different resort. Our well appointed hotel, the Gartenhotel Daxer, despite a large number of guests, maintained its family run feel. This is a credit to the Crystal Ski package operator who we travelled with. They seem to take a proportion of rooms for their package trips, leaving space for other guests and nationalities to stay. So rather than just a holiday with Brits, you get more of an authentic travel experience. Paul D’s promotional material, as far back as May last year, promised the chance of sharing a room with a topless Arnold Schwarzenegger. I was sceptical and not surprised to be sharing with my regular roommate William C. I wasn’t too disappointed. We enjoyed welcoming Rachel this year. She evidently enjoyed skiing with us too (says she’s coming next year). In fact she was grateful, in particular, for Tim introducing her to the timed (and filmed) “have a go” slalom. I’d had an unpleasant and embarrassing experience of such things eight years previously on the last trip to Austria. (Deanne can still find the online film evidence which she treasures as one of her all time funniest video clips.) Anyway the next day, a number of us joined Tim and Rachel for the challenge. To my pleasure I made a respectable descent, in control and fast. After a few goes, I reached a time that Tim could not match. But I’m not gloating. Only Paul was faster but he was on a different, “short” kind of skis. (And the next day Tim could still not pull in the time. His excuse was the faulty timer equipment that day.) The hotel had everything we needed and was just a few minutes’ walk from the main lifts at that end of the resort. So it was a no-brainer to return for complimentary tea and cake after a day on the slopes. Consequently Paul and I never got to one of those energetic and lively après-ski bars that Austria is known for. There was an effort of a bar outside the hotel – a steel and glass yurt – but that was not open much and never took off for us. Perhaps this is just as well. Apparently a significant chunk of the European coronavirus outbreak can be linked to a “sweaty” après-ski bar in the Austrian resort of Ishgul (quite a way from Zell). Of course the hotel bar was only too happy to sell you a beer (or the irresistible litre bottle of house red, yum). You get an idea of the class and price of the hotel when I remark that it’s unusual on a COPSE trip to pay for your drinks at the bar by quoting your room number. (Posh guests can trust each other.) Talking of rooms, most of us shared twin rooms with a balcony on the side of the hotel looking across the valley down to the main town and its lake. Luxurious. Austrian twins usually mean the only difference from a double is two individual duvets. Not luxurious. A reorientation of the under sheets to match the length of the two abutted mattresses enabled the duvet to be tucked, with force, between them. Fairly luxurious. The dining room was spacious with plenty of variety and quantity of food. Whichever four got the benched side of the dining table would have to ask to be let out by those at each end. But we were obliging. I noticed Tim arranged it so he never took a turn in the middle of the bench. We could have done with more sunny settled weather. We had some changeable days and strong winds which closed lifts, sometimes seemingly at random which caused inconvenience and aggravation. After one such incident I forlornly returned to the hotel in the late morning and was gratified to soon find that half the group were similarly afflicted and gravitating towards the sun terrace, away from the windy mountain top. And further gratified to find the bar open. Earlier in the week a similar sudden closure threatened to send Paul, Rachel and I to the foot of the resort to find a bus around to our side. But I encouraged them to have faith in removing and carrying our skis on a short hike through the forest on a track to a piste that connected to our side. We enjoyed seeing another aspect of the mountain and also a kids’ zip wire ride in the woods which we naturally tried out. At least the changeable weather brought much fresh snow. So we enjoyed plenty of skiing in the soft fresh powder. A particular run, the less popular but spectacular piste 21, benefited enormously from re-charging with fresh snow. Our lift pass included the nearby Kaprun ski area which itself links to the high Kitzsteinhorn glacier area. A brand new massive gondola opened for this season to bring greater mobility across that area. I was keen to experience this new lift from an engineering interest (the “3K K-onnection” – beautiful in its design, function and setting). Low cloud and high winds threatened our excursion but the Thursday of the week looked attractive and off we went on the first local bus. There followed a supreme example of COPSE default behaviour – descent into an organised rabble. None of us like to be led but even if we did there was no one in the party with sufficient motivation or force of personality to lead. So once off the bus and into the busy embarkation lift for Kaprun, we were soon leaderless and losing sight of each other. The higher up we went and the more lifts to choose from, the more fragmentation into smaller parts. Anyway, one of the reasons to visit the Kitzsteinhorn was to get to the lofty viewpoint which we more or less all did within an hour of each other. It was sunny but very exposed and windy on many of the ski runs. Spectacular scenery again. Some of the slopes were decidedly dodgy as a result of hordes of good weather visitors and wind scoured icy slopes alternating with drifting moguls. I followed Paul into the boarders’ half pipe. Never again – it’s basically walls of ice that speed you up. Would like to see Tim on there. I made an abortive high speed exit judging the moment in a split second to avoid a collision. So an expensive but real treat of a ski week. Thanks Paul for getting it going. The return flight diversion to Manchester (too windy / scary at Gatwick) is all but forgotten, overtaken now by the greater inconvenience of coronavirus.