Travel Skiing In Austria: Ski ev'ry mountain

Time to confess: sometimes skiing up and down a single mountain can be a bit of a bore. That's why large-linked areas are so appealing.
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There are times when skiing can seem a curiously pointless activity. Sisyphus wouldn't have understood it; the mythical king of Corinth, condemned for his misdeeds endlessly to push a stone up a hill (as you'll remember, it always slipped from his grasp at the top and rolled back down again), would probably be intrigued by what skiers had done to deserve their similar fate. On a morning with bright sunshine, beautiful soft snow and fine views, the question doesn't arise; but on other occasions you sometimes wonder, after a few runs, just what's so great about going up and down a mountain.

At those times, the answer is to ski to a different mountain - to get off the treadmill and really go somewhere. Hence my pleasure at being in the Portes du Soleil area soon after Christmas; disaffected with Avoriaz, I could just ski down the hill, cross the road in Morzine to get on to its slopes, and then drop into the next resort, Les Gets. In the other direction, across the Chavanette ridge, I could have skied into Switzerland.

I am not alone, of course, in being attracted to large, linked ski areas encompassing several mountains; size isn't everything but, for most skiers, the bigger the ski area, the better. Proof comes this season from Schladming in Austria.

In last season's edition of the Good Skiing Guide, its report on Schladming warned that the resort's surrounding ski slopes "sound pretty impressive until you appreciate that the skiing takes place in 18 areas on half-a- dozen mountains... only two linked by lift". But this season, new lift connections on either side of the resort mean that the Planai and Hochwurzen peaks are now linked with two others in the Dachstein-Tauern area, the Reiteralm and Hauser Kibling, giving access to a total of 115km of skiing on 51 pistes, and 50 lifts. The effect of opening these new links was immediate; in the first few weeks of the season, the area's lift-pass revenue increased by more than a third, and sales of accommodation were up by 10 per cent.

Local knowledge is one reason why skiers were so quick to respond to the greater convenience of the four linked mountains on the south side of the Enns valley. Almost half of Schladming's visitors are Austrian, making it one of the country's most popular resorts among its nationals. Britons lag far behind, providing just 5 per cent of the resort's business: among the big operators, only Crystal and Neilson go there. That will surely change; create a big ski area and the British will come, particularly to a resort that is only an hour's drive from Salzburg airport.

Although there are blue runs on the Planai, and a handful of blacks - including the steep run down to the cable-car base used for Schladming's annual World Cup downhill race - the skiing in the Dachstein-Tauern is predominantly suited to intermediates. There are 17 red runs in the Planai/Hochwurzen area alone, most of them fast, sweeping pistes that drop through the trees; only on the upper slopes, at about 1,850m, are the ski areas wide open. The linked mountains stretch for about 15km along the valley, and for intermediates there is an enjoyable day's worth of good red runs just to get from one end to the other - a day's skiing, that is, because even on a busy weekend in January the lift queues were short.

Despite the relatively low altitude of the resort - and the fact that I was there in early January, before this season's major snowfalls - the conditions were remarkable, too. Partly this is because the Dachstein- Tauern is well-armed with snow cannons, partly because the slopes' north- facing aspect keeps the surface consistent. But the area also has a well- earned reputation for piste-grooming.

The resort's rarer pleasures include the old chairlift which, down at valley level, connects the Planai and Hochwurzen mountains. I can't remember ever going through a tunnel on a chairlift before, and certainly not one with a Flintstones theme. At the tunnel's entrance Fred Flintstone offers a cheery "Yabba dabba doo" (rough translation: herzlich willkommen); inside, amusing tableaux from Flintstone family life are hung from the cave-like walls.

In the village, the illustrations hanging from the walls of the back room in Charly Kahr's bar also have a single theme: Arnold Schwarzenegger, photographed on a film set, with his Humvee off-road vehicle, on skis, etc.

Herr Kahr runs a ski school in Schladming; and among his past trainees are the British women's skiing team - and Schwarzenegger, born locally, who is a regular visitor to the resort and a good friend of Kahr's. I asked whether the actor was a good skier: "Yes," said Kahr, but without a great deal of conviction. Oddly encouraging that, isn't it?

A ski-pass for the Dachstein-Tauern area costs ASch 375 (pounds 20) per day, ASch 1,795 (pounds 94) for six days. Austrian National Tourist Office: 0171- 629 0461