Skiing: High season, low tech

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The Independent Online
You don't need such hi-tech facilities as lifts and cable cars to go skiing - with the right equipment you can simply clamber up the mountains. Richard Holledge goes touring at the tiny Austrian resort of Kuhtai.

It was the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, no less, who put the tiny Austrian resort of Kuhtai on the map in the 15th century. He used to bring his entourage up the pass to take pot shots at the chamois which nimbled along the mountain crags.

There are still chamois shyly lurking above the pass, but the pride of place as far as animals are concerned is taken by a cow. It stands peaceably in the main street. Well, the only street, actually. It's stuffed. It's on wheels and it seemed wholly appropriate to a resort which, by the middle of April, radiated a gentle, slightly tired, fin de saison calm. The few package holiday-makers had gone, a gaggle of enthusiasts had driven up from Innsbruck attracted by the sun, the late, lingering snow and the freedom from lift queues.

Why did I end up here and not in one of the bigger, higher, altogether more glamorous resorts? The luxury of Lech, the rackety appeal of Kitzbuhel, the sophistication of St Anton.

Kuhtai has only seven lifts and fewer than 20 places to stay. Straddling a mountain pass, it is only 45 minutes from Innsbruck airport (the return journey took only 35 minutes because the minibus driver was late for another fare) and we had decided to go touring - clambering up mountains on skis. The joy of that is that it doesn't matter how big the resort is, or how many lifts there are. All you need are mountains and proper gear.

The equipment these days makes going uphill a breeze. The skis are shorter than downhill skis and have a binding which adjusts to let your heel rise and fall as you trudge up. The steeper the climb the higher you adjust the heel rest so that the movement between foot and leg is kept to a minimum. Above all, the seal skins which attach to the underneath of the ski grip the mountain side with the tenacity of a limpet. If the skis are kept flat it is virtually impossible to slip back.

A gaggle of chattering housewives swept uphill past me as if they were going to the shops. They even had enough breath left to wish me "Gruss Gott", and waved cheerily as they bounded back down the mountain in time for Sunday lunch.

You get very hot going up, but even in April it is very cold at the top. The wind whips round your woollies and freezes your hands as you fumble in the rucksack for emergency rations of chocolate and slivovitz.

The point of going up is the coming down. We take off the skins, carry our skis around an outcrop and swoop down a virgin slope with a surface as lumpy as an alligator's skin. Round another corner and we are whizzing over corrugated traverses, then into soft snow and finally we are forced to take off our skis for a stumble through the shrubs and little streams.

We pause for breath in the valley. The sound of silence is broken only by the cawing of a crow. One purple crocus is bravely showing through the newly revealed, bedraggled grass.

We were ready for more adventures until a blizzard broke that evening. The little community shuddered in the blast. The stuffed cow was blown over. We huddled in the lee of the buildings as we searched for a little light night life.

We awoke to find fresh snow and brilliant sunshine. Touring? On a day like this? Probably not - missing the point in our eagerness to be on the slopes, that a climb into the empty distance would have been a spectacular experience. Anyway our guide for the day looked as if he too had discovered the village's night life. Indeed it looked as if he had been the night life.

There was no way we could miss out on a sunny day with new snow. Exit touring, enter the untrammeled delights of skiing off piste. It doesn't matter how good you are. The joy is skiing on untouched domain, trekking across to a valley or bowl which you have gazed longingly at from the chair lift and finding yourself floundering happily through unskied snow.

It feels like an adventure, you can't hear the racket of the lifts or the shouts of the skiers. And there is a fantastic sense of achievement when you reach the bottom - one way or another - red-faced with exertion and look back up the hill at the tracks left in the snow. And the great splodge where you fell over.

Sitting in the restaurant wolfing down great mounds of ribs and sauerkraut and gallons of red wine, you can afford yourself the little glow of self- satisfaction which comes with the knowledge that, not only have you been on top, but you've been where no man has been before. That morning, anyway.

There are no longer any scheduled flights to Innsbruck from the UK. Air UK (0345 666777), which used to fly the route from Stansted, now offers connections from a range of British airports via Amsterdam.

Swissair and Tyrolean Airways (0171-434 7300) can get you from Heathrow to Innsbruck via Zurich for pounds 224 return, including tax. Or fly from Gatwick to Salzburg on Lauda Air (0171-630 5924) for pounds 202. From Salzburg rent a car (driving time is two and a half hours) or take a train from Salzburg to Innsbruck (two hours) and then a bus.

Few operators feature packages to Kuhtai; two that do are Inghams (0181- 780 4444) and Alpine Tours (01227 454177)

Austrian Tourist Board: 0171-629 1461.