Austria: Ski Capital of the Alps

Serious skiers typically head to France at the first sign of snowfall, but in doing so they might well be missing out on one of the best ski areas in the Alps: the Tyrol.

Nordkett credit: Sophie Ibbotson

Flying into the Alpine ski capital of Innsbruck, snow-blanketed peaks spread out in every direction. There are nine different ski resorts — all accessible via a free ski bus — within an hour of the city, and together they boast 300 kilometres of pisted runs. If you are brave enough to go off-piste as well, the possibilities are endless.

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Forest & slopes at Mutteralm credit: Sophie Ibbotson

Best for beginners

If you are tentatively starting out on the slopes — either on skis or a snowboard —we loved family-friendly Mutteralm. Billed as the ‘adventure mountain’, Mutteralm is relatively close into Innsbruck, and though it’s not particularly high, snow cannons ensure that all the pistes have powder even if there’s been little natural snow fall. First-time skiers can take classes at the ski school and gain their confidence and balance on the gentle slopes around the Ski Station, but as you gain control you can also explore the downhill slopes to Mutters and Götzens and the slalom course at Pfriemesköpfel. And if you’re not sure you want to ski all day, Mutteralm has other activities, too. You can ride a controllable Pistenbock sled down the ski runs, and there are nearly 5 kilometres of toboggan slopes as well. There’s a permanent snow bike trail with hourly hosted rides, and a Fairy Tale Forest designed for children but equally entertaining for adults.

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Kühtai credit: Africanway

Highest resorts 

The Pitzcal Glacier is the highest ski resort in Austria, and as such you can ski here well into May. It’s a relatively small resort, however, so consider also skiing at Kühtai, the highest world cup village in Austria. The resort’s altitude is in excess of 2,000m and there’s around 40 kilometres of slopes for skiers of all abilities. Gondolas, chair lifts, and tows will get you to the top of the pistes, and you can then work your way down 44 different groomed pistes. Unusually, Kühtai also permits night skiing. The slopes are open every Wednesday and Saturday from 7.30pm to 10.00pm, a ski bus willget you there and back, and the Kaiser Maximilian Hut is open to serve you drinks and food. There’s quite a party atmosphere, and the snow gleams in the moonlight.

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On the powder at  Stubaier Glacier credit: Sophie Ibbotson

Largest ski area 

Stubaier Glacier is the largest ski resort in Austria, with 35 different runs criss-crossing the mountains up to an altitude of 3,170m. There are 26 lifts and cable cars, and each run is up to 10 kilometres in length. When we visited in February, Stubaier Glacier had the best snowfall of all the Austrian resorts, in large part due to its average altitude. One of the greatest attractions of skiing is the views, and at Stubaier Glacier there are plenty of points when you’ll want to stop, stand, and stare. Of course you have panoramic views from the chair lifts, and time to look around as you ride, but still the beauty of the mountains catches you as you turn a corner. Stop and inhale the clean mountain air and the beauty of the natural world. Apart from at weekends when the Austrians come here to ski from Innsbruck, the resort isn’t overly crowded, and you can break your skiing with beers and food in the mountainside restaurants. Eigrat’s claim to fame is that it’s the world’s highest pasta factory, and you can watch the chefs at work!

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View from the cable car at Nordkette credit: Sophie Ibbotson

Serious downhill runs

Several of the Tirol’s ski resorts have good black runs, but if you’re seriously into your skiing, confident in your abilities, and have no fear of dying, take the funicular and cable car from Innsbruck up to Nordkette Mountain. The gondola is in several sections, and as you leave the building there’s a sign: “A fall means Danger to life!” And it’s true. The ski route here is unmarked and with a 70% slope. If you slip, or lose your balance on a turn, you will tumble and fall, down and down, until a rock or tree breaks your fall. This isn’t somewhere where you can afford to make a mistake. That said, our guide, 77-year-old Elisabeth Grassmayr, escorted us to the top of the mountain and pointed out the route that she and her equally senior husband ski down five times a week. We wouldn’t have dreamed of following in her tracks, but if you have the confidence in your abilities, and nerves and thighs of steel, by all means give it a try!

Words by Sophie Ibbotson

Practical Information 

British Airways flies direct from London Gatwick to Innsbruck with from £110 return. For those who want to combine skiing and sightseeing, the best place to stay is Hotel Grauer Bär (from €144 including breakfast). It’s a two-minute walk into the Old Town, has a rooftop spa and pool, and the free ski bus picks up around the corner and drops you off at the door. Tourist information, including details on all the local ski resorts, is available from Innsbruck Tourism. You can get a single lift pass for OlympiaWorld, which covers all nine ski resorts, orbuy passes for individual resorts as and when you want them.