When my wife first took me to the Arlberg in Austria in 2002, she warned me that my entire perception of skiing might change. “After you ski here, no other resort will ever compare.” A Scandinavian put it to me in another way several years ago, “If God wanted to create a ski resort, this would be it.”
The Arlberg has it all: a vast, interconnected network of modern lifts; villages exuding charm; impressive natural snow; and mountains of the highest alpine character. When you ski here, you are in the ski capital of a ski obsessed nation. I made my third trip to the Arlberg January 29 - February 5, 2015, having traveled there twice before in the early 2000s. A lot has changed since my first visit in 2002, but the essence of the place remains the same.
I had postponed a return to the Arlberg for many years because of cost. I simply couldn’t justify spending the money when the Euro was trading above $1.50. The precipitous decline of the European currency this year (it now trades at $1.14) combined with better than average snowfalls finally broke all barriers of resistance.
The prospect of traveling to Europe is never fun. It entails 7-9 hours in a plane followed by 1-2 days of nasty jetlag. The Arlberg, however, is easier to get to than most resorts. At less than 3 hours by high-speed train from Zurich Airport, it can be reached on arrival day for North American travelers, thus obviating a rest day in Zurich.
As we made our way from the city, mixed precipitation over Lake Zurich gave way to snow as the train hit the Alps. By the time we were in the Arlberg, there was three feet of snow by the tracks. Our bus from the Langen to Lech required chains to make it over the mountain passes, and both of us fell several times trying to pull our bags up the steep, snow-covered driveway of our hotel. We just laughed, knowing that this light, dry snow would be our playground for the next 7 days.
We arrived in Lech with time enough to pick up ski passes and collect our reserved rental skis: Kastle MX 78s for me, and for my wife, Atomic Clouds. For this trip, we chose Lech as our base because of its excellent intermediate slopes (often groomed twice daily), and easy access to more difficult terrain at Warth and Zürs. We also appreciate its ample tree-lined slopes.
During our stay, the Arlberg received huge snowfalls, giving us several days of intense storm riding. Above the tree line in the Alps, skiing on snowy days requires radar. Visibility is often so limited that one cannot even see the contours of the snow at the tips of one’s skis. Without a visual reference point, vertigo is a distinct possibility.
In these circumstances, trees literally illuminate the trails with contrast. Lech has huge tree-lined slopes above the town, serviced by the high-speed Schlegelkopf quad and a slower double. There are also tree-lined slopes leading down from the Petersboden 6-pack and a tree- and chalet-lined trail serviced by the Schlosskopf double on the northern side of the resort. On snowy days, we found we could log over 15,000 feet of vertical while still adhering to “visual flight rules.” The lower mountain also has many mountain restaurants and hüttes where one can duck in for a Viennese coffee, a freshly-baked Sacher Torte, or a full meal if the weather becomes too frightful.
It may be challenging to get cold at Lech, however, since most of its lifts have pull-down plexiglass bubbles and padded, heated seats. I did not miss Timberline’s Thunderdraft triple one iota as these fast lifts whisked me up thousands of feet of vertical while at the same time warming my glutes. My only regret was reaching the top station and having to leave my perfectly heated sofa in the sky.
Out of seven ski days, we had two snowy days, three bluebirds, and two cloudy days. Our ski choices were always dictated by weather. On good visibility days, we opted to ski further afield, traveling to Warth-Schröcken on two days and Zürs on another. The link to Warth did not exist on my previous trips and I must say I was pleasantly surprised by the efficiency of the Auenfeldjet/Weibermahd gondola.
We never experienced a line for this lift and found that the views, heated seats, and floor-to-ceiling windows made for an enjoyable transit. The gondola is unique in that it becomes a combination 8-person detachable chair and gondola (a telemix) when it hits the mid-station at the base of the 35 trail in Lech.
The chairs are accessed at the mid-station, and provide uphill transit for skiers riding one of Lech’s widest high elevation blue trails — a popular run for ski school classes. Gondolas service Warth. Two chairs enter the cable followed by one gondola at the mid-station. The whole process only takes a few minutes — barely inconveniencing the long-haul Warth travelers.
Wart-Shröcken is huge — almost twice the size of Snowbasin with trails covering nearly 200 degrees of the mountain range. On our first visit, an overnight snowstorm made for powdery, ungroomed conditions on most pistes. Consequently, we stuck mainly to red and blue trails. From the gondola at Warth, we would take a few laps on the red trail down from the Sonnen-jet 6-pack, a reasonably steep trail covering 1,473 feet of vertical. From there, we would rotate around the resort in a clockwise manner, ending up where we started by early afternoon.
On our second visit later in the week, all marked trails had been groomed, allowing us to sample some of the steeper fall-line black trails. Our favorite was the trail leading down from Wartherhorn to Warth — a 2,500-foot drop! We also enjoyed the Number 27 run off the Jägeralp Express chair.
As much as we loved Warth, we probably will not want to make it our base for future trips. The road between Lech and Warth is closed during the winter, making train and bus connections from Zurich and Munich tricky. We also felt that the steeper, mostly above tree line terrain at Warth would make it too difficult for us on low visibility days.
On snowy days, we rarely ventured far from our hotel. We would often ski laps under the older Schloskopf double, and if the sun poked its nose through the clouds, we might head to higher trails serviced by the Rotschrofen double and the Hasensprung 6-pack or venture over to the Steinmähder area for steeper skiing. Except for the ski routes leading down from Kriegerhorn and Rüfikopf and off-piste terrain, there is no expert skiing at Lech. Those in search of black trails need to visit St. Anton or Warth.
As the main meal of the day, lunch is sacred in Europe and tends to be a long affair complete with multiple courses. At Lech, most of the lunch restaurants are found in hotels clustered in Oberlech. Many of these places feature a skier’s lunch menu that is simpler and cheaper than the dinner menu.
In the movie Chalet Girl (2011), which is set in the Arlberg, a guest asks what’s for lunch. To which, the Austrian chalet manager replies, “Strudel, Noodle, and Knödel.” True to these words, knödels do figure prominently on most lunch menus. These are dumplings made of dough and stuffed (or mixed) with a variety of concoctions ranging from cheese to liver. A knödel dish favored by locals is Germknödel, a plate-sized dumpling filled with plum jam and smothered in vanilla sauce and poppy seeds. This is not meant to be dessert but rather a main course “sweet lunch.” Another popular sweet lunch is the Kaiserschmarrn — a huge plate of slightly undercooked pancakes made from sweet batter, cut up and smothered with powdered sugar. A side of fruit compote or jelly completes the meal.
Less sweet options ranged from sausages to Wiener Schnitzel to goulash soup. One of our favorites is something called Tyrolean Gröstle — fried potatoes, vegetables, and Speck (Austrian bacon) topped with a fried egg and served directly on a hot frying pan.
At this point, vegetarians and other health conscious types may be writing off Austria as a destination. Fear not, Lech trucks in fresh fruit and vegetables daily from top European distributers. Salads are always available and by EU law, all menus must feature vegetarian entrees.
The hotel we stayed at was perfect. It was fully ski-in/ski-out and yet charged us the same rate as a low end chain hotel in Park City. As a Garni, it did not posses a restaurant, but did serve basic Austrian breakfast of meats, cheeses, bread, cereal, yogurt, and fruit. What we liked best about it was its position on a sidebounds slope, allowing for ski-in/ski-out access. I was waist deep in powder on some of my runs home. In the morning, we would grab our already heated boots from the boot rack, boot up in a changing room, walk three steps, click-in and begin our ski adventure. The hotel owner’s dog, “Teddy Bear,” often waited for me outside the ski room, demanding some attention before I set out for the day.
Lech, unlike many Alps resorts, offers many ski-in/ski-out properties, mainly in Oberlech above the town, but also in other areas upslope from Lech.
On our past trips, Zürs had always been our favorite area to ski. It was the promise of skiing there that originally prompted me to book a hotel in nearby Lech. On this trip, we only skied Zürs on one day. Snowy weather kept us on the tree-lined lower slopes at Lech on some days and on others, a desire to explore the vast pistes of Warth-Schröken. When we finally made it to Zürs, we enjoyed the long, red cruisers but had two epiphanies: the Zürs slopes were less steep and easier than we remembered and filled with St. Anton skiers seeking to get away from the crowds of the eastern Arlberg. Admittedly, the long red down from the Rüfikopf tram top station was just as heavenly as I had always remembered it and the Zürser Tali trail, as awe-inspiring as ever, not to mention much easier to get to thanks to a new high-speed detachable at Muggengrat.
What disappointed me a bit were the crowds of powder hungry St. Antonites, a situation that will only get worse when the two areas become lift-linked in the next several years. The motto of Lech-Zürs is “more time, more space,” but this slogan could become a joke as easier access to St. Anton becomes a reality. Currently, the two resorts operate on the same lift pass but only connect by bus and a single off piste trail from Valluga, the highest lift accessible peak in the Arlberg.
Vail, one of North America’s largest resorts, boasts 31 lifts. The Arlberg, by comparison, has 97! One could spend a month here and not ski every trail, a season and not experience all of its ski routes and sidebound zones, and a lifetime, and never ski every off-piste line. It’s that big. In the next few years one will be able to ski from Warth to St. Anton on intermediate trails, a distance of 60 miles by car. The current five year plan for the Arlberg calls for nearly all remaining fixed gripped lifts to be replaced by gondolas or detachable chairs. Lech also intends to invest 20 million Euros over the next few years in snowmaking to ensure snow-sure trails even in lackluster winters. It will be interesting indeed to see how these changes affect the character of what is now my favorite resort.
John Sherwood is a columnist for DCSki. When he's not hiking, biking, or skiing, he works as an author of books on military history.
Great trip report, sounds like a great place