Past perfect

Most skiers seem more interested in the latest innovations than a ski resort's history. But, says Stephen Wood, at the twin Austrian resort of Obergurgl-Hochgurgl, the past confronts you
Click to follow
The Independent Travel

Anyone flicking through a US ski magazine would conclude that skiers are fascinated by the history of their sport. Almost without exception the top resorts market themselves by conjuring up images of skiing as it used to be, with sepia photographs and wood-cut typefaces set on what look like yellowed-newsprint backgrounds. Most Alpine ski-resort restaurants and bars tell a similar story: their decorative device of choice is a wall-display of historical equipment, wooden skis and leather boots taking pride of place.

Anyone flicking through a US ski magazine would conclude that skiers are fascinated by the history of their sport. Almost without exception the top resorts market themselves by conjuring up images of skiing as it used to be, with sepia photographs and wood-cut typefaces set on what look like yellowed-newsprint backgrounds. Most Alpine ski-resort restaurants and bars tell a similar story: their decorative device of choice is a wall-display of historical equipment, wooden skis and leather boots taking pride of place.

It's all an illusion, of course. For the majority of skiers the most interesting part of a ski resort's history is what happened during the summer: that is when any new lifts will have been constructed, any hotels opened, any snow-making technology installed.

A bit of nostalgia is OK: most skiers probably enjoy the bogus old-mining-town ambience of the themed bar/restaurants in Colorado, for example. But the emotive appeal of "skiing-as-it-used-to-be" is simple, and one-dimensional: there were no crowds then, and hence no lift queues. Nobody actually wants to ski on wooden planks or wear absorbent leather boots (which is why, second-hand, they make such cheap decorations); nobody wants to return to an era before Polartec and carving skis, high-speed lifts with canopies to keep off the snow, double-glazing, wellness centres and boot-warmers. In skiing, new is good; and old is something to be enjoyed from a distance.

There are, however, some ski resorts whose history is unavoidable. Zermatt is one. Whymper's ascent (in 1865) of its signature mountain, the Matterhorn; the little railway (opened in 1891) which carries guests up to the car-free resort; the grand fin-de-siècle hotels - they all contribute significantly to the aura of the place. At Park City in Utah skiers are confronted by relics of the town's mining history: the ski area is made thrillingly atmospheric by the industrial detritus (a mineshaft lift's winding tower here, a spoil hopper there) left to rust away in situ.

The history of the area around Obergurgl, 90km south-west of Innsbruck in the Ötztal Alps of Austria's Tirol region, is not so visible; but it is a richer and deeper vein than any mined at Park City. Its history goes back almost 5,500 years, although nobody knew that until September 1991. Then, a German couple, Helmut and Erika Simon, came across the body of a man preserved in the ice of the Similaun glacier. The corpse actually lay just across the border in Italy; but it was taken to Innsbruck university for examination. Carbon-dating revealed that "Ötzi" (as the corpse came to be known) had lived and died in the late Stone Age.

One of the most important anthropological discoveries of the 20th century, Ötzi now resides in Italy, returned to his homeland after a long Austro-Italian battle. (Incidentally, Helmut Simon's long fight to win a reward for his Stone-Age treasure was rendered fruitless by his own death, in October this year.) Although Ötzi is now in Bolzano, in a £6m museum, ski guides in the Obergurgl area still enthusiastically point out the ridge beyond which he was found, 15 years ago. While you take a rest on the mountainside, your guide may also draw your attention to the barely visible corner of the glacier on which the first journey into the stratosphere ended, when Auguste Piccard's balloon returned to planet earth with a bump in May 1931. And should you profess an interest in Tirol's national hero Andreas Hofer (1767-1810), a local guide will happily indicate the valley which leads to the rebel leader's birthplace of Sankt Leonhard, now part of Italy.

Do many British skiers ask about him? Apparently not, despite the fact that Hofer has given his name to many streets in Austria, at least one bridge and several hotels (although he is said to have made a poor fist of running his late father's inn before leading the Tiroleans into battle against the occupying Bavarians). Why not? Because skiers come here, to the highest parish in Austria and one of the country's most snow-sure areas, in order to ski. Not to take history lessons.

Obergurgl has become something of a British fiefdom since the early 1950s, when the first chairlifts were built. About 40 per cent of its skiers are Britons, who far outnumber the locals. (Austrians have so many ski areas to choose from that only when snow is in short supply do they take the long drive up the Ötztal valley.) But at the end of last week it was the British who seemed to be outnumbered, by a group of US skiers taking a Thanksgiving-holiday break. And Obergurgl failed to live up to its reputation in another, more crucial respect: the snow cover was poor. It wasn't that snow had not fallen, just that a fierce wind from the north had blown much of it away.

The name "Obergurgl" is convenient shorthand. The resort styles itself "Obergurgl-Hochgurgl"; and below those two villages and the ski area - all on the eastern side of the valley - lies another, called Untergurgl. Why all this gurgling? My theory that the names all refer to the stream which gurgles down the valley was somewhat compromised by the "unter", since Untergurgl does not actually lie under the stream; still, it wasn't far off the mark. In fact, the original farming settlement was called Gurgl, a name derived either from a word in the ancient Romansch language meaning "crown of ice" (a reference to the surrounding peaks and glaciers) or from the noise made by the stream ( gurgl means "gargle" in German).

When the area was being developed for skiing, hotels were built around the church, which was "over Gurgl"; then, more accommodation was provided "under Gurgl"; finally, in the 1970s, a new village was created at "high Gurgl". Hochgurgl's skiing was originally separate from that above Obergurgl. But five years ago the two areas were linked by a gondola. The Obergurgl-Hochgurgl area thus formed climbs from 1,930m to 3,082m and has a total of 100km of pistes.

At least it does on a good day. Unfortunately last Friday was not such a day. Only about half the ski area was open, and the skiing surface was thin and icy. After a bit of a hike to the Festkoglbahn lift (Obergurgl is a long, thin place which often demands a hike), I spent the morning on the largely intermediate skiing above the village. This being early season, and with poor snow, even squeezing all the skiers on to only half the pistes produced no queues; and the undemanding slopes were perfectly skiable in the conditions. But the thrill of the area was provided - on a dazzlingly bright day - by the views. The valley is narrow at the top, and there is no chance of seeing across its rugged, western wall and the super-smooth glaciers to Ötzi's birthplace. But the eastern face continually opens up, revealing a series of smaller valleys running between the 3,000m-plus peaks which in summer bloom with an unparalleled range of alpine-flower species.

It is from the Hochgurgl area, however, that the really awesome mountain aspect opens up. Here, some slightly more challenging skiing descends from the 3,082m Wurmkogl ridge to the charmless village. Right at the top of the area one of Obergurgl-Hochgurgl's black runs was open, and it was exhilaratingly steep (if comfortably wide).

The pleasure of that run, however, was nothing compared to what preceded it. The Wurmkogl ridge is where the Ötztal Alps end and Italy begins; and its vantage point offers a view stretching 75km across the Eizack valley and the A22 autostrada to the Dolomites.

Of course the wrinkled faces of the Dolomites always makes them look old. But seen from such a distance, set between smooth, harder-rock Alps, they seem prehistoric... which is not surprising when they've been out in all weathers for millions of years. I store in my head memorable mountain images, such as the sight of Mont Blanc and the Aiguille Rouge from the top of the Flaine cable-car and the panorama of the Isère valley seen from La Grande Motte at Tignes. The epic view from the Wurmkogl has gone straight into my picture library.

Of the 4,000-odd beds in Obergurgl-Hochgurgl (and Untergurgl, from which a cable-car runs up to the skiing), mine was in the Hotel Hochfirst, on Obergurgl's main drag. Strong on service and comfort, it was typical of Austrian family run hotels except - dramatically - in one room. Below the ground-floor casino is a gentlemen's lavatory. In place of the normal porcelain "wall", its urinal has a sheet of glass. Behind the glass is a winter tableau featuring the figure of a snowman whose heads twists back and forth, a polar bear, and some white-flecked foliage. Weird? I was glad to be sober when I first faced it.

Leading UK ski operators including Airtours (0800 916 0623; www.airtours.co.uk), Crystal (0870 160 6040; www.crystalski.co.uk), First Choice (0870 754 3477; www.firstchoice.co.uk), Neilson (0870 333 3347; www.neilson.com) and Thomson (0870 606 1470; www.thomson-ski.co.uk) offer trips to Obergurgl-Hochgurgl. Further information: 00 43 5256 6466; www.obergurgl.com

Comments