Piste patrol: Early snow tips for the impatient skier
Austria fires up the season with ‘snow guns’ and excellent artificial slope management
St Johann in Tirol, Austria: Although it sits at only 659m (2,160ft) above sea level, the town’s excellent piste management means there are 60km (37 miles) of ski runs
If you ski regularly, you’ve probably had at least one trip ruined by rubbish snow. Booking the right week at the right altitude becomes a very middle-class game of experience, intuition and weather divination.
So why would anyone run the risk of going early in the season before a proper dump has had time to load up the mountains?
The beauty about the early season is that the slopes are almost empty and, for the sheer extra obnoxious factor, nothing quite beats being the first person on a mountain of fresh snow.
And fresh it almost certainly will be if you head to certain parts of Austria. The slopes there may not be the highest, but they seem to have piste management down to a much finer art than many of their European counterparts.
When we arrive to St Johann, it is early November, the skies are blue and there has hardly been a hint of snow forecast for weeks. And yet a gleaming ribbon of perfect white is snaking its way down the mountainside, surrounded by green fields.
Under ski or board, it also feels crispy and flaky, rather than hard and icy. The snow guns used in this stretch, and indeed in much of Europe, rely purely on air and water and the technology seems to have improved by leaps and bounds in recent years. As global warming continues to play havoc with weather systems, and shrinks what’s left of our glaciers, this sort of piste management is going to be a key part of Europe’s snow offering. Many of the mountains have specially built reservoirs, which store snow or water for these slopes. When the temperature drops below zero, this is fired into the air above the slopes, where it freezes and drops. Even at these first days of the season, many of the slopes were ready for business.
Below is a selection of three villages where you can get some early season satisfaction.
The small, lovely little Tyrolean town is what most people will have in mind when they think of an Austrian mountain village. Tiny winding streets and historic buildings with original fresco paintings are evidence of a town that once bustled with wealth thanks to its copper and silver mines. Now it’s tourism that largely lines the locals’ pockets.
It might sit at just 659m (2,160ft) above sea level but, thanks to the excellent piste management, there are 60km (37 miles) of ski runs, half of them with artificial snow-making facilities. Advanced skiers might want to look elsewhere for trips of longer than a day or two. There’s also a toboggan run, which is terrific fun (until like me you enter the trees at speed and use your ribs to break you fall).
A short jaunt away is Kirchberg, a much bigger town with a much wider variety of slopes. There are 170km of trails, with plenty of blue, red and black runs at the tougher end of the scale to challenge the more ambitious skier. If you want even more choice, you can access the wider SkiWelt area, which offers another 280km of runs. The best option is to get the Kitzbüheler Alpen All-Star Card (€265 for six days), which works for several areas in the region, including the ones featured here.
One thing not to miss is the 3S gondola. It feels a little like your flying from one mountain to the next, largely thanks to the glass floor in the cable car and the 400m drop. Those who don’t like heights might want to consider what the hell they are doing on a mountain in the first place.
Afterwards, there are plenty of bars to choose from, but the Eisbar does a particularly fine line in the full-on Eurotrash ski sesh. You have been warned.
A somewhat smaller resort within the SkiWelt area, Westendorf feels that bit more wild and remote when you are standing at the top of its peaks. It also offers the best views of anywhere we saw in the area, especially when the sun is slipping down for the evening. If the weather is clear, save this one for a last run or three of the day.
Where to stay and eat
Explorer Hotels has a new location in St Johann. These hotels are cool, clean, and look more like a tech start-up than a cosy lodge. It won’t come as a surprise to learn that these are passive energy buildings, aimed at the budget market without compromising much on comfort. Rooms from €80 per night.
The Adler is a charming, old-fashioned hotel with smashing, hearty food, and warm comfortable rooms. The bus stop is just a minute away and will whip you off to the nearby mountains in no time. It also has an indoor pool, fitness centre and spa with saunas, steam baths and relaxation rooms. Rooms are from €75 per night.
Need early snow? Where else to go
This French town always likes to stick it to its rivals by opening a week earlier. It’s also Europe’s highest ski resort. A great spot, at any time of year.
This Italian resort shares a glacier with the Swiss town of Zermatt which means you can ski there right now. Expect the town to have a full snow jacket in December.
If you want reliability, this Austrian resort is the place to head. Also, what a name. It also benefits from the Austrian skill with a snow cannon.
Laurence Mackin travelled as a guest with Aer Lingus to Munich from Dublin.