A week off piste skiing in St Anton
I have always considered myself pretty good on skis, but Jurgen disagrees. You move your body and your hips too much, and you stand much too far back on your heels, he says. Jurgen is my ski instructor and for the next six days, he will be teaching our group of four how to free ride in the mountains around St. Anton. Freeriding sounds like something new and trendy, but in fact it has been around for centuries from the time when mountain herders used planks of wood to glide down the alpine slopes. The great thing about skiing in the back country is that you get to ski on deep snow and down pristine slopes. Often there is no one else around, and you can absorb the beauty and the solitude of the mountain landscape. I have been skiing since I was a kid and while I am pretty comfortable on groomed pistes but learned to control my movement in deep powder is something new for me.
Technique is important, so Jurgen gives us some practice exercises immediately. The group is quite mixed with John from Ireland, Tanya and Nikolai from Moscow and myself from London. We start on the Pfannenbach run just as the snow starts to fall from the heavens. Jurgen suggest a variety of learning techniques; skiing without poles, skiing with your hands on your knees, placing the poles behind our knees and even doing little jumps as we are skiing downhill. He tells us that all these steps are designed to improve our skiing technique and rid us of any bad habits. Over lunch at Griabli restaurant he explains that self-taught bad habits are one of the biggest problems he sees in intermediate level skiers. While tucking into a delicious Tyrolean grostl and some fresh dumplings he goes on to tell us that it is often more difficult to teach adults than children as you first have to break down the bad habits and get back to a classic style. With children the process is easier has they have less a less in grained style and are naturally more adventurous and open to change than there grown up parents.
After lunch we hit the slopes again. With over 300 km for groomed pistes and 540km of descents St Anton is a mecca for off piste skiing. Always carry a shovel, probe and an avalanche transceiver and new free riders should always take an off piste course before venturing back country. There is nothing quite like the experience of skiing on fresh powder and the silence of the mountain as you glide through deep snow, but it pays to be prepared as this can be a dangerous landscape if you are not careful. Jurgen’s advice is that beginners should always go off piste with a guide who has proper training. Each year across the Alps up to 100 people die in mountain accidents, varying from avalanche deaths to hypothermia when people get lost off piste. For beginners there are lots of off pistes areas just off the edges of the marked pistes and this is some of the safest places to start. Other runs require you to hike for several minutes or even hours to get to remote gullies and valleys. For this type of free riding you should be experienced and have full avalanche protection gear.
As the snow eases off and the sun starts to peep out from behind the snow clouds Jurgen guides us out into the mountain terrain, across soft deep powder. He goes first and moves with short controlled swings. I’m next up so I point my skies downhill and start to move through the deep snow. As I move my speeds picks up, I hear Jurgen shouting something but I am concentrating too hard on staying upright. Controlled is not a word that could be used to describe my descent. I make it down in one piece and at the bottom get a cheer from Jurgen who then proceeds to ask why I didn’t follow what he was saying. Looking back up the hill side I can see that my tracks look more like some crazed animal than the smooth brush strokes made by Jurgen. But who cares – it was fun.
Tanya and Nikolai come next and manage to get tangled in each other half way down. We laugh at the bottom while they spend 10 minutes trying to dig themselves out of the snow. There is one thing I have learned about off piste free riding. If you fall in deep snow it is very difficult to get back on your skies. Jurgens advice was not to fall but that is much easier said than done. After a quick hot chocolate in a little café at the side of a piste we head off again. We cut across a wooded area where I have to do my very best to avoid colliding with the sturdy pine trees and then emerge into a large open powder bowl. Jurgen stops to let us catch our breath and points out the various surrounding mountains; Rendl, Gampen, Kapall, Valuga. It is like we are lost in a winter wonderland.
It is approaching 4pm and my body is starting to feel the effects of the days exertions. It is getting harder to find my rhythm and the techniques I learnt in the morning seem more difficult now. My muscles say it is time to hit the hot tub. Down below us I can see the lights of St. Antons pedestrian zone starting to twinkle as the skiers leave the slopes and fill the après ski spots. The Mooserwirt and Krazy Kanguruh are rocking by the time we reach town as St Anton begins to morph into it nighttime persona with lively après ski and nightclubs.
Our group stops at the Mooserwirt for a beer and to recap the days activites. Jurgen joins us and has a warm schnapps. He kindly says that we have all made progress today (I’m not sure that is true) but follows up that we have much more to learn. After a couple of beers the tiredness really starts to hit me so I make my excuses and head back to my chalet for a relaxing soak in the hot tub.
Next day I am up at 8am and down a hearty Tyrolean breakfast in my chalet before joining the group at the bottom of the Galzig cable car. Jurgen is there and we start our adventure’s all over again. And so it continued for my week skiing in St Anton. Long hard days on the slopes and in the powder, and evenings in the bars and restaurants or back in the comfort of my ski chalet. It snowed mid week making the off piste conditions even better and giving lots of opportunities for fresh tracks.
At the end I was tired but sad to leave. I am pretty sure I will be back to savour the hospitality and excellent skiing in St Anton am Arlberg.
Thanks to Eric for his excellent report on a week off piste skiing in St Anton. If you fancy following in his footsteps and need to book some accommodation in St Anton then take a look at these links: St Anton chalets, St Anton apartments, Catered chalets in St Anton