'We are worried - the British ski team trains in Kaprun'

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It was just after nine on a beautiful, crisp morning, but the keenest skiers were already on the slopes of Austria's Kitzsteinhorn yesterday as thick, poisonous smoke began to spew out from the tunnel below them.

It was just after nine on a beautiful, crisp morning, but the keenest skiers were already on the slopes of Austria's Kitzsteinhorn yesterday as thick, poisonous smoke began to spew out from the tunnel below them.

High up on the glacier they had been sure of a good run, even this early in the season, when snow was scarce elsewhere. The funicular train was packed with serious sportsmen and women in training, ski instructors looking to limber up, and daytrippers from Salzburg and Germany taking advantage of the fine weather.

Last night Austrian television reported that Britons had been among them, but there was no official confirmation. Keith Betton of the Association of British Travel Agents said the resort was not a common destination for skiers and snowboarders from this country. Most would wait to go to the Alps later in the season, when there was more snow.

But Martin Rowe of the Optimum Ski clinic in Les Arcs, France said: "We are worried because Kaprun is a favourite place for members of the British ski team. A lot of the people there will have been training for the race season."

Those who died in the tunnel yesterday were "primarily young people, who perhaps decided early today on the spur of the moment to do some winter sports", said provincial governor of Salzburg, Franz Schausberger.

The tragedy happened 60 miles from Mozart's city, at the heart of the Hohe Tauern National Park, which has the highest peak and tallest waterfall in Austria, and the longest glacier in the eastern Alps.

It is a protected area rich in wildlife, but long twisting roads take tourists through the stunning mountain scenery to high ski resorts that operate even when others are closed.

Zell am See is one of the largest ski resorts in Austria, but remains a calm lakeside town with a medieval centre free of traffic. The glaciers above it offer skiing all year round. Zell forms the Europa Sports Region with the village of Kaprun a bus ride away, at the foot of the 9,100ft Kitzsteinhorn.

It is at Kaprun that passengers board the funicular railway, which disappears into the side of the mountain and emerges nearly two miles later, near the top, where there is a ski centre and restaurant.

Mountain guides began taking visitors to the summit of Kitzsteinhorn at the end of the 1800s. A cable-car system was built in 1965, when the mountain became the first official glacier run in its area. The line was extended a decade later, taking skiers to the Alpine Centre in 10 minutes.

The funicular railway, which runs on tracks pulled by a cable, was opened in 1974. Six years ago the system was overhauled with new technology and two state-of-the-art trains that could take 1,500 people from the valley station to the summit each hour.

The slopes at the top, spread out in a bowl-like shape, are known for being unusually good at this time of year. As a result they are usually busy, with long queues on ski runs of all grades, including the difficult red route down from the peak of the mountain.

Austria was the most popular destination for British skiers during the Seventies and Eighties. Exchange rates lured most away to the big new French and Italian resorts until last season, and the dawn of the euro, when Austria made a comeback.

The Reuter's Guide to the world's best ski resorts describes Austria as "the land of cute little villages clustered around onion-domed churches" and of "friendly wooded mountains, reassuring to beginners".

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