A ride on the world's fastest funicular

Snow's up
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The Independent Travel
It's test time again, so pay attention. Where is the world's fastest funicular railway? Zermatt? Val d'Isere? No; I'll give you a clue: it's in the same ski area as Austria's highest cable car. I can see the puzzled look on your face. Has St Anton suddenly speeded up its dear old Kandaharbahn? Has Solden acquired a state-of-the-art funicular? Could it be Kaprun's Kitzsteinhorn? No, no and no. The answer, as many racers who train there could tell you, is the Pitztal glacier.

You may have heard of the Tuxer and Stubai glaciers, as well as the Kitzsteinhorn. But most British skiers have not heard of the Pitztal.

This may be partly because of the area's confused identity. There is no large, easily identified resort in the valley of the Pitz; instead, there is accommodation in a series of small villages, many of which fall within the administrative area of St Leonhard (itself an insignificant village) which is in the high part of the valley called Innerpitztal. The nearest village to the skiing - too new to appear on even quite detailed maps - is Mandarfen. The place at the head of the valley that does appear on maps (Mittelberg) consists of two hotels and the lift station. But I have reached an agreement with Gabriele in the Mandarfen tourist office: "Pitztal" it is.

I've had it in mind to visit the Pitztal for some years. What triggered my visit this week was that the area claimed the most impressive figures on last week's snow report: snow depths at both the top and bottom of the area of 190cm. Well, maybe the glacial ice did have something approaching two metres of snow on top in some special spots; in others, I have to report, it had precisely zero metres.

But never mind. Hitting a patch of ice at speed is a lot less damaging than hitting the tip of a submerged boulder, and at present there is still a real danger of that in even the best-covered non-glacier resorts. In due course fresh snowfalls will cover those blue patches for the winter. And the snow should then last; the low point of the skiing is at 2750m - slightly higher, for example, than La Saulire, between Meribel and Courchevel.

Even with a top height of 3440m, this means that Pitztal has a vertical dimension of "only" 700m or so, a figure comfortably beaten by the Hintertux glacier area and less comfortably by the Stubai one. But it offers a good range of runs, including testing reds and a couple of short stretches that deserve their black grading. If you're looking for somewhere to polish your technique with the aid of good snow, include it on your shortlist.

Unless, that is, you're fussed about queues or evening action. The aforementioned funicular (which, incidentally, I don't believe to be as fast as the more modern French lifts) is the only way up, and for most people the only way down to the valley (descents on skis require good snow and guidance). Taking 200 people a time and running at the most every 10 minutes, it generates queues; on a fine spring afternoon, they must be serious.

The high-point of the area, reached by a multi-cabin cable-car, gives long and spectacular 360 degree views, and on the occasion of my visit (on Monday) gave a view of what seemed to be some approaching weather. But that's another story.

Snow conditions

It has been a mainly snowless week in the Alps, which is the last thing the skiing business wanted: snow is needed practically everywhere. On Thursday afternoon in the Chamonix Valley the only skiing was a single piste in Les Houches; at least one major British tour operator is switching this weekend's arriving skiers to Courmayeur, where there is excellent artificial snow on mostpistes.

At the opposite end of the Alps, in the Dolomites, Selva's snow-making installation is paying similar dividends. On Tuesday I had excellent skiing on two long red runs to the village, and the course for today's World Cup downhill looks in fine fettle.

There has been a little snow in some Swiss and Austrian resorts this week, but when I arrive in Val d'Isere/Tignes tonight I expect to find the skiing there still confined to the glacier and artificial snow.