2001 Adventure Guide: Europe - Ski Mag

2001 Adventure Guide: Europe

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Look at you. You call yourself a skier? Let's see: Have you ever lifted weights¿not just to look good in the hot tub, but to prepare for the moguls you expect to bulldoze come December? Good, good. Have you ever been on the receiving end of screamed obscenities for blowing off your significant other on a powder day? Excellent. Have you ever skied in Europe? No? Oh, come on! Europe is the most important rite of passage for all of skierkind, and you're just blowing it. We're talking real mountains. Not soft, rolling fields of slashed trails, but actual jagged, fierce formations of rock and ice that scream, "I'm infinitely more powerful than you, sucker!" And by skiing them, you'll finally know what true adventure means: Turn here and fall into a crevasse. Wander down there and bottom out 30 kilometers away. Crash on this face and don't stop flipping until you reach Italy.

In Europe single ski areas can boast over 200 lifts. The slopes are clusters of little skier ants, ominous cliffs, and long, dreamy couloirs. The lift lines are a cacophony of people in bright, cartoony outfits, all too tight around the groin, clucking in five different languages and sucking down cigarettes like they're french fries. The young men either look like flamboyant, scruffy mountaineers or pretty instructor types with flashy smiles. The mature men have 40-year-old sunburns. The women have thick skin and look like they've just climbed the Matterhorn, and probably have.

The lifties couldn't care less if the chair smacks you in the ass. The patrol would just shrug their shoulders if you died. The concierge in the hotel ignores the fact that he's lost one of your bags. The bars crank corny rap songs with French lyrics, and 10 different countries align as one for a drunken sing-along that's always louder than the sound of the avalanche rumbling in the distance.

Skiing in Europe is nothing like skiing in North America. It borders on cosmic, with good beer, cheap wine, runny cheese casseroles, and extraordinary sausages. Oh, and it's not a problem if you want to walk down the pavement with your skis still on, searching for a pack of smokes. Yep, Euro skiing makes for the on- and off-snow experience of a lifetime. Here are three different takes on what it's like.

GASTEIN VALLEY, Austria
This lesser-known cluster of ski areas is unique even for Austria.It's not every day that you eat a bacon-wrapped, cheese-injected sausage for lunch. But then again, it's probably not every day that you ski in Austria, where cheese-injected sausages are as commonplace as Big Macs in the U.S. The unique flavor of the Austrian ski experience is strong in places like St. Anton and Kitzbühel, but it positively overwhelms the senses in the Gastein Valley. The two main towns, Bad Gastein and Bad Hofgastein, were hot-spring spas long before they were ski towns. Go there and you might be stunned by the verticality of the place, by how everything shoots toward the sky, from the topography of the tiered city of Bad Gastein to, of course, the mountains themselves. You might wander through the glittering town, past its cascading waterfall, and find yourself in the Casino Bad Gastein-not gaudy like Vegas, but intimate and regal. You might win a few schillings.

The next morning you might be in the fifth gondola car of the day heading up Sport Gastein, the highest of the valley's four ski areas, with two guides, one of them the grandson of a past ski-school director. The area might have been closed for the five previous days due to too much snow. You might have the best ski day of your life, because your guides read the mountain and its three feet of downy powder like it's a book they wrote, scoring unforgettable turns run after run. Your final run might take you down the back side of the mountain, through thousands of vertical feet of more untouched snow, to a road where a taxi awaits. Before you know it you might be stripping to your underwear in front of doctor at a "healing tunnel," where you take a mining train deep into the mountain you just skied, lay down, and breathe low levels of radon gas, said to cure all sorts of maladies. As you lay on a towel, surrounded by old, out-of-shape tourists, you might just laugh out loud.

Go to the Gastein Valley and you might have a dreamlike day that makes you tingle every time you remember it. Hey, it happened to me.

Info: 800-333-5533; www.gastein.com
-Michael Miracle


LES ARCS, France
It's a singular ski area-somewhat of a rarity in the Alps-and it still dwarfs most anything in North America.Europe is famous for its ski circuses, those far-flung ski villages interconnected by scores of lifts. Problem is, you spend a lot of time on long connectors between resorts. For consistent downhill skiing, concentrating on a single resort is better. And of these, Les Arcs is unsurpassed in the Alps.

Built in 1968, Les Arcs was one of the "new French resorts" whose simple concept was to plunk clusters of modern buildings right on the slopes. Les Arcs features three such clusters, identified by their elevations in meters. Arc 1600, the simplest and cheapest, is connected to the old town of Bourg St.-Maurice by funicular. Arc 1800, near tree line, features the most off-slope diversions. Arc 2000 is the sportiest. Les Arcs' slogan, "Le Grande Domain," needs no translation. How grand is grande? A greater vertical than Whistler, nearly three times as many lifts as Heavenly, and pistes that, if connected end to end, would reach from Denver to Vail. You can ski from the Aiguille Rouge (elevation: 10,000 feet) to Arc 1600 (under 5,000 feet) virtually all winter, and after a heavy snowfall, you can occasionally continue to the bottom. But that's for bragging rights.

The splendor lies up high, where miles of pistes skirt huge glacier-filled basins. Angle in along the sides for a cruise, or for more thrills, plunge down the headwall or find a chute. When conditions are prime, off-piste options are phenomenal. Go guided for the best skiing and crevasse-avoidance. Hit the Snowpark for all manner of terrain features, including a permanent skiercross course. Point your boards straight downhill on the Kilometre Lancé, Les Arcs' Olympic speed-skiing course where world records have been set. If you're really a lunatic, ask about hang gliding off the summit with skis on your feet.

Les Arcs' buildings-once futuristic-are now passé, their style the French equivalent of orange shag carpeting. This should change when Intrawest builds a village at Arc 2000 for the 2002-2003 season.

Info: 410-286-8310; www.lesarcs.com
-Claire Walter


THE SELLA RONDA, Italy
Skiing this circular route is a merry-go-round ride with lots of vertical.Some of the most fun I've ever had on skis was at the end of a Sella Ronda day. I was following a group of friends tips to tails down a twisting road, heading back to our home valley at what felt like 40 miles per hour. It was like a James Bond chase scene, red rock rushing by a fingertip away, until we finally skidded to a halt right in front of a slopeside cafe. "Birra?" asked the waiter. Now, that was a European moment.

The Gruppo di Sella is a towering cluster of orangish peaks and spires smack in the middle of the Dolomites. It is completely surrounded by lifts, which link together 16 miles of ski runs-the Sella Ronda-that travel through four valleys and three villages. Village-to-village ski circuits exist all over the Alps, but most rely on backtracking or taking a cab or bus home at the end of the day. On the Sella Ronda, you ski past village centers and mountain hostels, over four passes, and through constantly changing scenery, and end up right where you started-without ever clicking out of your bindings. This ease of use is one of the reasons Italians love the circuit. Everyone gets a fashionably late start from the lifts near the main villages, and the crowd moves like a bulge in a python around the circuit.

The route itself is a cool mix of GS slopes, some steeper pitches, smooth switchbacked roads and, of course, a few long runouts. It takes a minimum of 10 lift rides to circle the Sella clockwise, 15 counter-clockwise. And while most of the lifts on the circuit are ultramodern and fast, long lines do develop at a few old pomas. The Sella Ronda is an easy day's ski. The best approach is to ski the whole loop early in a visit. You'll discover interesting terrain to venture back to on subsequent days-10,000-foot glaciers, narrow chutes, and excursions onto the Sella Massif-and guarantee yourself a truly buono viaggio.

Info: 39-0471-79-63-28; www.val-gardena.com/english/ski/sellaronda.htm
-Chaco Mohlershionably late start from the lifts near the main villages, and the crowd moves like a bulge in a python around the circuit.

The route itself is a cool mix of GS slopes, some steeper pitches, smooth switchbacked roads and, of course, a few long runouts. It takes a minimum of 10 lift rides to circle the Sella clockwise, 15 counter-clockwise. And while most of the lifts on the circuit are ultramodern and fast, long lines do develop at a few old pomas. The Sella Ronda is an easy day's ski. The best approach is to ski the whole loop early in a visit. You'll discover interesting terrain to venture back to on subsequent days-10,000-foot glaciers, narrow chutes, and excursions onto the Sella Massif-and guarantee yourself a truly buono viaggio.

Info: 39-0471-79-63-28; www.val-gardena.com/english/ski/sellaronda.htm
-Chaco Mohler

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