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Ski holidays

Is this Europe’s snowiest resort? Why you should head to Obertauern for late-season skiing

Obertauern has been found to be the snowiest resort in Austria – and possibly Europe – with a ski season that runs from November to May. But who precisely is counting, asks Colin Nicholson

Friday 16 February 2024 15:05 GMT
Powder off-piste in Austrian mountains
Powder off-piste in Austrian mountains (Obertauern tourism)

During winter 2022/23, the news was full of horror stories about a lack of snow in winter sports destinations. In fact, it was mostly lower resorts in the north-west Alps affected, with most ski areas in the rest of the Alps (including the Dolomites and Pyrenees) open as normal, despite the mild weather.

One resort had a particular reason to be cheerful. Obertauern, situated in the Radstädter Tauern mountain range in Salzburgerland, was one of the few ski areas in Austria that last Christmas had a plentiful helping of snow, not just on the pistes, but off them too. It’s not surprising, as it has also been named the snowiest non-glacier resort in Austria, with such an abundance that it opened on 24 November and will close on 1 May.

If I’d been anxious about snow, my arrival at the ski-in, ski-out village in mid-December immediately reassured me. Looking out the hotel’s lower windows, all I could see was layer upon layer of snow piled up like neatly folded blankets against the glass.

On the first lift up, the windblown layers of snow beneath me looked like a profusion of contour lines on a map. And on the subject of contour lines, it is because this 1,700m-high village, with its pistes discreetly landscaped into the pine-flecked mountainside, is the first obstacle for storms arriving from both north and south that it scarcely ever misses a snowfall.

The destination is situated in the Radstädter Tauern mountain range in Salzburgerland (Obertauern tourism)

That’s tough news for the drivers of piste grooming machines. Clicking on my skis, I concluded they had gone on strike, as the snow was piled high in soft moguls.

Not a bit of it, I was told. Fresh snow is less dense than the artificial stuff, so a large fall gets cut up quickly by skiers and snowboarders, and takes longer to be compacted into the corduroy carpets that we often see.

So, given all that snow, is Obertauern also Europe's snowiest resort? We don't know – the Austrians are the only country who have kept more than a century of snow depth data. Over a coffee, I asked Mario Siedler, head of the local tourist board, why.

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For more than a hundred years, villagers kept records to work out when it would be safe avalanche-wise to venture back into the valley and to work out how to make their food last until then, he told me.

Soldiers in Vienna realised this was crucial strategic information and started collating the data. During the First World War, for example, avalanches were a key tactical weapon, with Austro-Hungarian troops setting them off over the lines of the invading Italian forces.

Snow is plentiful in Obertauern (Obertauern tourism)

One researcher, Dr Günther Aigner, has analysed this wealth of information to calculate that Obertauern’s 256cm average maximum snow depth since 1908 (typically produced from about five metres of annual snowfall) makes it the snowiest non-glacier resort in Austria.

Interestingly, in the past 30 years the figure has risen slightly to 264cm, which one can speculate is because global warming has led to more humid air and greater snowfall at higher altitudes.

Mario’s talk of yesteryear’s villagers holed up without food – and the storm that was looming – was making me decidedly hungry. Fortunately, the hotel I was staying in had an abundance of excellent dishes. It was bought by the Croatian Valamar hotel chain in 2023 and refurbished in the nick of time for this season so that the group could hang on to the best chefs from its summer resorts on the Adriatic coast year-round. Not only was there cuttlefish risotto and duck for dinner, but oysters and bubbly were on offer at breakfast every morning.

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Unlike most Austrian establishments, where staff in traditional dress take orders in the hushed ambience of wood-lined parlours, this is very much a party hotel, with a young, casual feel and funky music. Perhaps this is appropriate, given it is where the Beatles performed their only concert in Austria when they were filming Help! in 1965.

Following Paul McCartney’s lead, I wanted to try another Austrian speciality – snowbiking – especially as Hermann Koch, who runs a ski school here, is a seven-times Guinness World Record holder in the sport.

Strapping two mini skis to my feet, I was taught how to steer and stop this “Easy Rider” in just half an hour – one reason why snowbiking is so popular among non-skiers. We whizzed over the bumps and lumps of piste 15b and even swung down “Love Valley”, a beautiful adjacent gorge that I would otherwise have missed.

Snowbikes are great alternatives for those who aren’t too experienced on skis or snowboards (Obertauern tourism)

The suspension on the bikes is so good that many skiers who suffer from bad backs, knees or ankles opt for snowbiking as an alternative to skiing.

However, when Koch took me down the precipitous red piste from the top of the Zehnerkarbahn, I had to tell one skier who asked me if snowbiking wasn’t “just sitting” that yes, it was – in the same way that skiing is “just standing”.

Obertauern’s ski area has a typically Austrian quotient of challenging, upper intermediate red runs. Those wanting an easier ride can opt for a delightful anticlockwise round tour on mostly blue pistes. This is a clever way of ensuring you explore the full extent of the Obertauern’s 100km of pistes served by 26 lifts. And – joy! – the piste map actually includes arrows to show the direction of pistes. A rarity.

Children are also well catered for, with two shorter tours that include slalom runs, igloos, a ghost piste, warm-up routines and various other fun stuff.

For more accomplished skiers, a clockwise tour takes you on mostly red pistes between the resort’s sunlit peaks, none more striking than the Seekarspitz, a dead-ringer for the Matterhorn.

One of Obertauern’s main pulls is in its devilish seven peaks (Obertauern tourism)

The next day, emboldened by the breakfast bubbly, I tried another of Obertauern’s challenges: ticking off the resort’s seven peaks, including navigating the tricky black ridge run from the Gamsleiten peak at over 2,300m, with its 45-degree sections. It was after this that I really needed the relaxation of the hotel’s spa, hurrying to its outside saunas hidden behind huge cornices of fresh snow to steady my nerves.

Of course, word has got out about Obertauern, and the resort is pretty full in peak season. But to me Obertauern’s real attraction – unless you suffer from acute anxiety about snow shortages – is during the so-called “shoulder seasons” from late November to the pre-Christmas weeks and from Easter Monday to 1 May. At other times there are many other snow-sure resorts thanks to snowmaking, even if they don’t have Obertauern’s enviable snow record. And a benefit of the new hotel is that it offers flexible booking and short stays if you fancy a sneaky pre or post-season trip.

I ended my pre-Christmas trip with 1.2m of snowfall forecast for the next two days. While this undoubtedly inspired more horrified news headlines about skiers stranded in the resort, I didn’t get stranded myself – although I do rather wish I had been.

Getting there

British Airways, easyJet, Ryanair, Jet2, Tui and Wizz Air fly direct to Salzburg, which is less than 90 minutes’ drive from Obertauern, from 11 UK airports.

Reaching Obertauern by train takes just over 17 hours from London, taking the Eurostar to Brussels, boarding the Nightjet to Salzburg, then a local train to Radstadt, which is 20 minutes by bus from Obertauern. In addition to sleeper compartments, the Nightjet is currently trialling single person sleeping pods.

Colin travelled as a guest of Obertauern, Salzburgerland, Austria and Valamar’s Places hotel, which offers rooms half board from €250 (£213) a night. The resort is open from late November until early May, and an adult day pass costs €59 (£50), with week-long passes costing €286 (£244). Passes for more than one day are also valid on the 50km of pistes in the Grosseck-Speiereck region located 15 minutes away.

Snowbiking lessons cost €99 (£85) per person for two hours. Moonlight tours cost €39 (£33) per person including a drink, with snowbike hire included in both.

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