Learning the slopes: Kitzbühel is the perfect place for a novice to get to grips with the Alps
Don't be put off by the child prodigy skiers or the heavyweight schnitzel-based dinners.
Saturday 19 December 2009
Learning to ski is not a graceful process. "Snowplough, Ben! Snowplough!" was easy enough for my highly skilled and endlessly patient ski instructor to say, but it was a position my over-stressed knees were struggling to maintain. Indeed, after six hours on the nursery slopes of the otherwise charming ski resort of Kitzbühel in Austria, I was doubtful about my ability ever to achieve more than a series of inelegant stop-motion collapses down limited gradients. Meanwhile – and it's a cliché, but true nevertheless – five or six Austrian infants were zipping effortlessly down an adjacent slalom course on cool mini-skis, without poles, to the polite applause of their well-groomed parents.
So, more properly, learning to ski as a 36-year-old British male is not a graceful process, and one best undertaken away from the scrutiny of one's peers. Which is why I visited Kitzbühel at the tail-end of last season for a discreet two-day initiation.
It's probably difficult for all you proper skiers out there to remember the wonder of seeing a snow-drenched Alpine resort for the first time. I'd encountered mountains before, of course, and snow, and sometimes even combinations of both. From the air I'd occasionally peered down upon the Alps, painted white, as I'd sped on towards warmer weather. But to see all that frosted magnificence as your aircraft comes in to land over Innsbruck, and to know that shortly you'll be attempting to remain upright on some of it, is an exhilarating feeling.
Kitzbühel itself, after a two-hour transfer by coach, was exactly as I'd imagined: grand snow-clad chalets clustered around a tiny, highly polished medieval core, which in turn was stuffed with top-end boutiques selling designer skiwear. "Ritzy Kitz", indeed.
My arrival, in late March, coincided with the first week of the low season. In most years, I was told, Kitzbühel would be turning green about now for the Alpine spring. But this time round, the snow was still falling. (Indeed, it scarcely paused this year, with Kitzbühel reopening on 24 October, the earliest start to a season for 80 years.) Heavy flakes drifted downwards each night of my visit, renewing the landscape with fresh powder and delighting Kitzbühel's few remaining winter-sports enthusiasts, who found themselves in a perfect resort, free of crowds, with the mountains to themselves.
And what mountains: Kitzbühel lies between Hahnenkamm (1,712m) and Kitzbüheler Horn (1,996m), with 170 kilometres of pisted slopes for grown-up (and, of course, wunderkind) skiers to choose from. I was capable merely of gasping at their beauty – and wondering how I'd ever get up there.
I pulled on my non-designer skiwear (sourced from one of Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley's cheaper leisurewear establishments) and made my way nervously towards the ski-hire shop. Again, you proper skiers, try to think back to the first time you had to hire skis. The first time you tried and failed to do up those cumbersome boots; the first time you tried to walk in them; the first time you saw an eyebrow arch with surprise: "You've never skied before?" But the process wasn't quite as humiliating as it could have been. The staff were friendly and efficient, if aghast at my ski-novice status, and it was only a short, heels-down-first trudge to the Rote Teufel ("Red Devil") ski school, where I met Robert Micheler, my charming, goateed ski instructor.
For most of my adult life, people have told me that I'd love skiing, if only I'd just go and do it. But before you can ski, you have to master the basics: sliding forward on one ski, sliding forward on the other, holding your poles, taking baby steps sideways up hills, and learning the snowplough, always the snowplough.
"The snowplough is the beginning of all skiing," said Robert. "Even the best skiers use it sometimes." That may well be true, but try spending a whole day crouched slightly forward with your feet turning inwards, while simultaneously dropping one shoulder or the other as you fall down a hill. It's a tiring, frustrating experience.
On the other hand, Robert was always encouraging and helpful, and full of Kitzbühel knowledge. It's a great place for learners, he explained, because it's lower, at 800m, than other well-known Austrian ski resorts such as Serfaus, St Anton and Lech, which sit around the 1,400m mark. The weather conditions on the nursery slopes are therefore better during the depths of winter.
Nevertheless, by the end of day one, I didn't love the snowplough, I didn't love skiing, and – for the first time in my life – I saw the merit in a serious massage.
Hotel Schloss Lebenberg, just outside the centre, was certainly up to this final challenge. Newly renovated, with a gleaming swimming pool on the glass-walled top floor, the hotel also offered briskly efficient massages in white-walled rooms. No tinkling music, no choice of aromatic oils, no finding my innermost tantric pressure point. Just a faintly brutal pummelling that at least offered the hope that I'd be able to survive the following day. Next: a Lebenberg dinner, which was a heavy affair, big on schnitzel and strudel, all washed down with tall glasses of Gösser beer. And from there, a much-needed early night.
Aside from offering a stunning view of the mountains and containing a bed I never wanted to get out of again, my room was an exercise in low-key chic, with crisp linens, a free-standing bath and a power shower with more than the usual number of nozzles. I slept like a child.
Day two, and Robert was stepping things up a notch. Every year, Kitzbühel hosts a downhill race on the Streif slope of the Hahnenkamm (see panel on page 6), regarded as the most demanding course on the World Cup circuit.
He showed me the start from the top of the Hahnenkammbahn gondola. It seemed to go down an awfully long way; apparently the racers get up to 130kph on some stretches. I would be taking things more sedately, of course, but according to Robert I would shortly be skiing on the mountain itself, which cheered me greatly.
Once more, you aficionados of the Alps, try to recall your first visit to this rooftop world: the sheer heart-busting beauty of the mountains, milk white, with their forests of dusted pines; the great fat flakes of fresh snow, viewed through your new persimmon-tinted goggles; even the sight of your first piste-basher, packing the surface into compact, orderly stripes. It was only up there, beyond all the mechanics of learning to ski, beyond the monotony of the nursery slopes – with their agonising, child-sized rope tows – that I really grasped what it was all about. Skiing isn't just exhilarating exercise, it's a means of exploring a landscape that's full of surprises, full of wonder.
After a few practice turns, Robert and I snowploughed down a blue run: No 37. It was narrower than I'd expected it to be, a proper path through the trees, looping left and right. We took it gently, of course, with me aping Robert's every turn, pressing hard with my downhill leg, struggling at times to keep a grip.
I slowly established an imperfect sort of rhythm on each traverse, shifting my weight as required, a wobbling adjustment inserted here and there. I even, at Robert's instigation, had a couple of attempts at tucking in and roaring off downhill.
My first proper ski run safely accomplished, I now wanted more. Robert soon had me on a blue-run loop – the equivalent, I suppose, of the non-height-restricted rides for children at a theme park. To me, each represented a fresh challenge: I lost my timing on long traverses, I lost my bearings on the faster stretches, I lost my dignity on a regular basis. But with so few people on the slopes, I never felt as though I was getting in anyone's way; I was a learner driver pottering round an empty car park, well away from the main roads.
From a distance, we glimpsed the delicate S3 "aerial tramway", which links the Resterhöhe and Kirch skiing areas over a stupendous 400-metre drop, but which sadly was well beyond my skiing capabilities to visit. Instead, Robert led me to the Alpeniglu, a village of igloos including an ice bar, a gallery of ice sculptures and even an ice chapel for weddings (the honeymoon igloo gets down to -C at V C night; luckily the sleeping bags can be zipped together for warmth). Our arrival marked yet another stage in my winter-sports education: the first time I'd used skis to make my way from A to B. I sipped a thimbleful of glühwein in celebration.
By late afternoon, back down the mountain, I was still toasting my success, this time with schnapps and Stiegl beer. My first stop was The Londoner, a dingy yet oddly popular Kitzbühel drinking hole, where a duo called Short and Curlies were massacring REM and Dire Straits songs, to the delight of a sozzled crowd.
Then, having effortlessly mastered the art of après-ski, I headed out of town to Rosi's Sonnbergstuben, a traditional guest house and restaurant up in the hills. Here the food – goulash, schnitzel, vast plates of roast duck, cabbage and dumplings – was entirely in keeping with the rustic, wood-lined dining room.
Later, the Alpine picture was completed when Rosi, a middle-aged blonde frau decked out in a Dirndl, whipped out her guitar and yodelled a verse or two of "Edelweiss", aided by an emotional chorus of besotted beer-drinking males. It's a well-loved place: the walls are lined with photos of Rosi posing with Germanic celebrity guests, Schwarzenegger and Becker among them.
The weather closed in overnight, hiding the mountains behind a coating of thick, grey cloud, and pelting Kitzbühel with snow. I had only a couple of hours at my disposal in the morning before I had to leave, and no Robert to help me this time, so I returned to the nursery slopes to get in a last bit of practice. Perhaps I was feeling a little delicate after my exertions at Rosi's, but without a guide to follow, everything seemed much harder. Yesterday's rhythm had left me. At one point, I briefly lost control of my skis and attempted my own mini version of the Hahnenkamm downhill race, a process which ended in spectacular – and painful – failure.
What's more, the lower slopes had suddenly filled up with people unable to take to the mountain because of the adverse weather. While a group of young British snowboarders tried to outdo each other in clumsiness at the foot of the mountain, a party of Austrian teenagers demonstrated their best swooping turns around me, like a shoal of mackerel teasing a dopey whale. I hobbled back to the ski-hire shop to turn myself in as a fraud.
But I'd learnt much from my brief time in Kitzbühel. I'd learnt to love the crunching sound of skis over fresh snow. I'd learnt to relish the quaint Austrian habit of describing things as "super" or "super-cool". I'd learnt that rope tows are painful on the upper arms, and that chairlifts are surprisingly complicated to get out of. I'd learnt to go easy on schnapps and schnitzel. I'd learnt, apparently, to be slightly snobbish about novice snowboarders. And I'd learnt that two days isn't long enough to learn to ski, but that it is certainly long enough to learn to love skiing.
Travel essentials: Kitzbühel
* Ben Ross travelled to Kitzbühel with Inghams (020 8780 4447; inghams.co.uk), which offers seven nights' half board at the five-star Hotel Schloss Lebenberg from £1,079 per person including return flights from Gatwick to Innsbruck and resort transfers. (Flights from other UK airports are available for a supplement.) Inghams' Ski Saver Pack, including a six-day whole area lift pass, six days of ski hire and three days of tuition (four hours per day) costs £377 per person.
* BA (0844 4930787; ba.com) flies from Gatwick to Innsbruck daily except Tuesday and Thursday; easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com) flies daily from Gatwick, weekly from Bristol (Sundays) and twice weekly from Liverpool (Thursdays and Sundays).
* Rosi's Sonnbergstuben, Oberaigenweg 103 (00 43 5356 64652; sonnbergstuben.at).
Downhill all the way Kitzbühel's Hahnenkamm race
Do you know what travelling at 90mph feels like? Perhaps you've experienced it (illegally) as you've travelled down a motorway in the UK, or (with less likelihood of being stopped by the police) down German autobahns. But you've almost certainly never approached such velocity – nor wanted to – strapped onto skis belting down a mountain.
That's what happens each January to the participants in Kitzbühel's Hahnenkamm, the most celebrated event in the ski-racing calendar. It's watched by 500 million TV viewers worldwide, while a further 80,000 pour into the Tyrolean village to see, hear and even touch their heroes.
It's six days of competition and training, with the Super- G on Friday and Slalom on Sunday. But for everyone the real deal comes Saturday on the 3km-long Streif course. No other downhill race is bathed in such glamour. To win here is to achieve legendary status, joining the ranks of Killy, Sailer, Klammer, and Hermann "The Hermanator" Maier. Even Robert Redford had his moment in Downhill Racer, the gritty 1969 cult film that celebrated the Hahnenkamm's unique crucible of emotional pressure, physical danger and raw sex appeal. From royals to racer chasers to Opas in Lederhosen, this is where mortals come to see the scariest, steepest, and fastest moments on skis.
Just 100 metres from the start, the Mausfalle's 85 degree drop-off turns men and women into rockets. By the time they reach the Zielschuss, they are sailing beyond the 85mph mark – just in time for a jump, a compression of teeth-shattering G-force, and a hard left turn. And as thousands of fans wave banners and scream at the finish line, they are still accelerating – accelerating – towards 90mph, and heading straight for the final jump.
Then, as the podium finishers are bypassing crowds through a secret tunnel, the truly insane part begins: part of the course is open to anyone crazy enough to try to ski it. I say "try" and "ski" since that's what I did. A respectable skier by most standards, I managed half of one turn out of the start before the bullet-proof 45 degree ice rose up to bite me. When I finally walloped to a bone-shattering stop it was too steep to stand up, let alone ski. These humbling assaults appear on Austria's version of TV Bloopers. Blood features heavily.
This being Austria, après-ski makes everything feel better – and on Hahnenkamm weekend it's turbo-charged. Revelry is in the streets, the bars, even in the Hahnenkamm gondolas, each of which bears the name of a different champion. These days, many people think the parties have spun out of control. That may be, but without doubt the greatest après-race event is to be found at The Londoner Pub. By tradition, the coolest racers turn up around midnight – and if you think these boys can ski you should see them drink.
Organisers recommend booking accommodation a year in advance. To join the fun this year, be prepared to travel into Kitzbühel by train (the station is just steps from the finish line) and sleep anywhere from 20 to 50 miles away. Last time, I stayed in Saalbach; the first time, I slept in a van outside The Londoner. As I say, the Hahnenkamm attracts all sorts.
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