An East Alps sojourn: part 1 

click to enlarge PHOTO BY VINCE SHULEY - VIEW FROM THE TOP The views from Hochgurgl's Top Mountain Star bar (3,034m) while raucous partying takes place inside.
  • Photo by Vince Shuley
  • VIEW FROM THE TOP The views from Hochgurgl's Top Mountain Star bar (3,034m) while raucous partying takes place inside.

Having now spent the majority of my life skiing in Whistler, I've become accustomed to how we tend to do things here.

Early ups on powder days, a jostling race (and sometimes a gamble) for the fresh lines, minimal time spent in the lodge (save for pee breaks and inter-lap warmups when it's cold) and après being mostly a ski day debrief of story one-upmanship over beers.

It varies a bit from resort to resort, but all the North American freeride destinations tend to have more than a few common themes. People take their skiing seriously. They want the biggest bang for their buck, not only on the financial investment they've made (season passes, shiny new ski boots, etc.) but also the investment they've made in their time (getting up early, driving to the hill, waiting for the lifts to open).

Europe, where ski culture began, tends to relax a bit more. Unless you're competing, skiing is not a sport as much as a leisure activity. The fulfilment of a day of skiing isn't measured in vertical metres or how big you went off those cliffs. It's more about being up in the mountains, making some turns and enjoying some good food and drink.

My girlfriend and I recently travelled to the Eastern Alps of Austria to see the Euro ski culture with our own eyes. We were lucky enough to be treated with a series of spring storms during our sojourn, which while satisfying our collective powder appetite, also came with a caveat of poor visibility and tricky mountain navigation some days. But on the whole it was a very much a fulfilling experience, one that I recommend everyone sample before their knees give out.

Here are a few of the highlights.

Off-piste skiing isn't a thing, yet. I'd heard and read the stories about how Europeans don't ski off-piste and prefer to keep things simple on the groomers. But I'd also read in Les Anthony's ski culture novel White Planet that some time in the mid-2000s, a migration of freeriding Swedes had come to pillage all the off-piste powder.

I'll have to return to ski in Switzerland to see if that's true in the Western Alps, but it certainly wasn't the case in Austria's Tyrol region. Some chairlift rides we spent in complete disbelief as perfectly capable skiers and snowboarders would turn between the signed edges of the groomed runs—edges loudly scraping against the hard surface—with fields of untouched powder to either side.

There were exceptions of course. We crossed paths with a pair of young freeriders kitted up with avalanche airbags who were also turning up at the chairlift covered in powder. But everyone else seemed to give us quizzical looks. One can assume this is partly due to the off-piste areas not having any avalanche control (we wore transceivers and self-rescue equipment all the time in the resorts for this reason), but even the safety of treed terrain was similarly scarce with tracks. All the more for us.

Après is definitely a thing. In this corner of the Alps, it's not the best skiers that get all praise at après. It's the folks who know how to party. Knock back a few Weissbiers with a few sidecars of schnapps and all of a sudden people are dancing on the bars and rocking out like they're at an AC/DC concert. To go the distance, get your stomach set up for success with some traditional Bavarian food such as bratwurst, schnitzel, goulash or Tiroler Gröstl (an Austrian fry up), or if you're into the sweets, traditional apple strudel or kaiserschmarrn (shredded pancakes served with fruit compote).

On-hill après starts getting going around 2 or 3 p.m. and will run sometimes as late as 8 p.m., at which point you can ski down and continue to party at the base of the mountain. Austrian après really has to be seen to be believed.

The lift systems are next level. Our own Peak 2 Peak Gondola is pretty impressive and stands out on the world stage, but pretty much every large resort in Austria feels like its lift system is off the set of a science fiction movie. While the modern technology helps with general people-moving and keeping lift lines down, it also lets some lifts keep running in high-wind conditions that would send a regular detachable quad crashing into the pylons.

Our group tested this theory on a brutally windy storm day at Stubai Gletscher resort. The eight-person Rotadl chairlift had such heavy, over-engineered chairs that not even the craziest wind gusts could make it teeter laterally. With the storm bubble down to shield us from said wind and electric seat heaters keeping our bums content, we skied powder around that zone all morning without having to retreat once into the lodge. And all for a walk up ticket window price of about 55 Euros ($85 CAD).

Then there are all the little things you don't expect. Like the smell of manure in a luxury resort at 1,900m elevation from all the barned cows. Or skiing over the roofs of rustic on-mountain chalets. Mainstream skiing in Austria may not be all that hardcore, but the experience was no less fulfilling.

Stay tuned for An East Alps sojourn: part 2 when the author heads into Austria's Stubaital backcountry. For questions, comments or suggestions for The Outsider email vince@vinceshuley.com or Instagram @whis_vince.

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