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Off-Piste in the Arlberg

Exploring the legendary side and backcountry high above Zürs, Austria with the region’s best boutique ski school.

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Erich Mairs, High Zurs Ski Guide
Erich Mair of High Zürs Ski Guides.Photo credit: James Jung

Stuck in a lift line isn’t the way you want to begin a powder day. Especially the first big dump of the season. Add a guide who’s awaiting your arrival—a very late arrival at that—on the top of the mountain, along with his paying client, and the stress-induced perspiration of a free-loading journalist intensifies from drip to pour.

It’s 9:40 in the morning, a Thursday in late January, and I’m standing at the bottom of the Seekopfbahn quad in the tiny village of Zürs—one of five main access points to Austria’s legendary Arlberg. Above me, two feet of fresh snow blankets the treeless peaks, their sun-dappled slopes shimmering under a cloudless sky. In front of me, a two-hundred strong horde of powder-hungry locals jockey for position in one of Europe’s quintessentially chaotic lift lines. It’s been a dry season thus far, especially by Arlberg standards, and these people are ravenous for a bite of the deep stuff that’s made this northwestern pocket of Austria so famous among free-riders ever since the sport’s inception (which, according to local lore, started in this region back in the 1920s).

A skier high in the Arlberg region of Austria
The Arlberg is known for making people feel small.Photo credit: James Jung

“Don’t do it the American way,” Erich Mair shouts in a raspy voice over my cell phone after I tell him how many people still lie between me and a seat on the lift. Erich is the co-founder of High Zürs Ski Guides—a cooperative of 53 independent ski instructors and mountain climbers specializing in side- and backcountry expeditions—as well my off-piste sensei for the day. “Do it the Austrian way, with the elbows.”

I cringe and push my way through the line, knowing that Austrians are serious about two things in life—skiing and punctuality (I grew up with one as a father, after all). On the lift ride, I try to ignore all the tracks ribboning the slopes, all the lines that have already been poached, the helicopters racing up the valley and soaring to the tops of peaks, ferrying well-heeled guests to chutes and bowls only otherwise accessible by skins. It’s a veritable buffet of some of the world’s best skiing, and yet most of it seems to have already been gobbled up.

“You know how to use your airbag?” Erich asks me with a smile when I finally reach him and his client, a Dutch businessman named Dirk Jan Bakker who rents a chalet just down the valley in neighboring Lech every winter. The two of them are standing at the side of the trail, with the craggy shape of the Omeshorn—perhaps the region’s most famous peak—glowing a brilliant white behind them. Erich’s face is equally chiseled, all sharp angles and ruddy skin baked brown by decades of guiding under the sun on three different continents. He wears a red Arc’teryx jacket emblazoned with sponsor logos and a white helmet bisected down the middle by the bands of the Austrian flag. In the glacial blue reflection of his goggle’s iridium lenses, I spot myself—a sweaty, frazzled schlub by comparison. 

“Grip, here, ja?” Erich says, pointing out my bag’s trigger before checking the tightness of its hip strap. 

The Austrian Alps
As long as you have a good guide, powder is easy to find in Austria.Photo credit: James Jung

Our mission seems a dubious one given the hour—now well after 10 a.m.—and the amount of people heading beyond the marked slopes. While places like Chamonix, Verbier, and La Grave all serve up bigger vert, it’s the accessibility of the Arlberg’s off-piste that makes it so sought after. Simply hop a lift, traverse right or left, and drop in to taste the type of terrain one typically has to book a heli-ski trip to experience. Of course, this easy access can also be a curse, especially on the mornings after storms, when snow that used to remain unspoiled for days, even a full week, gets chewed up in a few hours.

Then again, sniffing out untracked runs is a specialty of High Zürs Ski Guides. All of their instructors are either “Skiführer” or “Bergführer” certified (the highest ranking in Austria) and have a minimum of five years’ experience guiding in the Arlberg. In the offseason, some lead skiing or climbing trips in Alaska and the Himalayas. Their Instagram videos showcase guides finding hidden pockets of powder, even when stubborn high-pressure systems blockade storms from hitting the Arlberg for weeks.

Skiing single file, we head down a groomed slope on the northern end of Zürs’ western flank (the resort borders both sides of a narrow pass that serves as the only road in and out during winter), before Erich hooks a sharp left-hander and heads off-piste. We traverse across a ridge over icy, windblown crust. Patches of brown grass speckle the thin snow. In the distance, across the narrow valley, cliff bands zebra-stripe the crooked mountains. After snaking through some bushes and side-stepping up a low-slung hump, we come to a standstill. I’ll be damned. Sure enough, Erich’s nose was right. Below us, a wide bowl dimples the side of the mountain, the snow untouched so that all we see is unblemished white, only dotted here and there by happy little clusters of pine trees so perfect they’d make Bob Ross blush.

“Give each other a little room, just to be safe,” Erich tells me and Dirk. Then he shrugs, his thin, sun-peeled lips a straight line of no-nonsense confidence. “But we’re not getting in any avalanches today, don’t worry.”

Despite the grim statistics—there can sometimes be multiple avalanche deaths in the Arlberg in a single season, six of which occurred over my previous two reporting trips for this magazine—I already trust Erich implicitly. It’s something about his quiet confidence that puts you at ease, plus the fluid way he casually links turns through the pow, as if he were just out for a morning stroll. At 66, he still skis with the loose pep of a twenty-something, and with over forty years’ experience guiding in the area he knows all the safe spots, as well as all the troublesome ones. It’s the reason he’s skied with some of the best clients in the area for so long, from ex-World Cup downhillers like Lichtenstein’s Marco Büchel to Princess Caroline of Monaco. Wherever the Princess skis in the world, be it St. Moritz or the Bugaboos, she brings Erich along as her personal guide.

At the run’s final pitch, Erich has Dirk and me wait while he skis ahead to film. Dirk goes first, knees knocked together in classic style, and I follow, plowing through the powder down the fall line. It’s not terrible skiing, but I know I’m sitting too far back and not finishing my turns. I can almost hear my late father admonishing me. Having grown up racing in New Hampshire, where Dad ran the local ski school, I’m still more at ease on boilerplate ice than I am in fresh snow.

Erich tracks me with his camera and shouts as I whiz past. “The American powder hound!” he laughs. Later, he’ll give me a wink and call me Bode Miller for the wild, unhinged style I exhibited in the deep snow—hands thrown this way and that, tails juiced and tips shooting upwards.

Avalanche barriers in the Alps
There are a lot more turns to be had between this spot and those cars.Photo credit: James Jung

With Erich in front, we ski down into a tight, wooded valley and along an undulating outrun that follows an auto tunnel carved into the mountain. The tunnel is open and colonnaded on one side. Each pillar is concrete, and against the organic backdrop of the mountains the entire structure looks vaguely science-fiction, like a set from a Kubrick movie. At the north end of the tunnel, Skiers gather by the roadside, awaiting cabs that will take them back up into Zürs for more runs, or down into Lech for an early lunch. They stand there with their jackets unzipped as the sun ticks higher in the sky and the temperature rises. Our black minivan already idles at the shoulder thanks to Erich, who always phones ahead. Following his lead, Dirk and I waltz past the other skiers, all of whom seem miffed by our seamless transition from the off-piste to the backseat of a luxury car.

The plan is to change skis so that Dirk can do some giant slalom training with Erich (the Ski Club Arlberg is hosting their annual race the next day), but the snow’s simply too good for that. Instead, Erich tells our driver to drop us off at the Trittkopfbahn. It’s one of the Arlberg’s state-of-the-art gondolas, and it whisks us to a top station cradled in the rocks. The monolithic structure is so imposing that it’s impossible to not liken it to a James Bond villain’s mountaintop lair.

Seated in the gondola, Erich pulls off his helmet and massages his temples. His receding brown hair is cropped short and streaked silver in the sun. We discuss other ski resorts in Austria and Switzerland, the places he’s guided, the impressive international roster of clients he now calls friends. He grew up in a farming hamlet in the nearby Lechtal, a valley so steep and secluded that it’s completely cut off by snow and avalanches from this end of the Arlberg in winter. Still, as a boy, he dreamed of one day being an instructor in Zürs.

“But I had not that much confidence to ask,” Erich says with a laugh that’s somehow still a little shy. It’s hard to imagine a man who skis so effortlessly to be anything but completely cocksure of his ability. Instead, he took a job in the town’s sole gas station, where he washed cars and put chains on tires—a precaution that was absolutely necessary during those snowy Albergian winters of yesteryear. After a while, he spoke to the Zürs ski school director and got a job teaching. “It was a new world,” he says, puffing up his cheeks and exhaling loudly. “A different world.”

It’s an origin story I know well. My father grew up in a simple Tirollean farming village on the Swiss border, and his obsession with skiing landed him in St. Moritz during the winters. There he met people from all over the world, including my American mother, who eventually convinced him to move back to the States with her. For the rest of his life, Dad ran ski schools in New Hampshire and Vermont.

Skiing has landed Erich jobs guiding in Argentina and teaching in Australia. But it’s also exposed him to a world far beyond the slopes. He’s worked in Formula 1, handling VIP guest experiences for McLaren, and was the bodyguard to Stefano Casiraghi, the late husband of Princess Caroline. Six years ago, when the local government eased up on a law concerning ski schools, he helped form High Zürs Ski Guides, and the outfit quickly attracted many of the best guides in the Arlberg. Today, 80-percent of their business is in off-piste skiing.

At the top of the Trittkopfbahn, Erich leads Dirk and me over a lip on the trail and back off-piste. The slope is gentle and undulating, the snow white and immaculate. In front of us, jagged peaks cut cardiograph lines across the sky, their steep southern flanks plunging into the Klostertal valley far below to our left. We stop at the top of a narrow couloir. Rocks spine both sides like dinosaur spikes, slabs glisten. We ease in, before pushing off one at a time—Erich, Dirk, then I. The untouched snow is even deeper here, light and wind-deposited, so that one is overwhelmed by that whooshing, weightless feeling of falling from each turn to the next down a 50-percent pitch. We all hoot and holler; it’s impossible not to.

Marcel Hirscher with High Zurs Ski Guide and client
You never know who you’ll run into in the Arlberg.Photo credit: James Jung

Towards the bottom, the slope broadens out. Erich runs into Reinhard “Ragno” Ranner, the co-founder and president of High Zürs Ski Guides. Long blond hair swoops out of the back of his helmet. Ragno is a renowned free-climber in the area, as well as a seriously good skier. Last week, eight-time overall World Cup champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist Marcel Hirscher booked him for a private off-piste session. Like Erich, Ragno is unassuming, and the two of them break trail while Dirk and I follow them back to the road, where sure enough our cab awaits.

I link back up with Erich toward the end of the day for a drink. He’s just finished a long lunch with Dirk and Dirk’s friend, 1996 Wimbledon winner Richard Krajicek. Now Erich wears civilian clothes—jeans, a pair of trail running shoes. We grab a corner booth in the Hotel Hirlander, whose dimly-lit restaurant is a popular watering hole among ski instructors. A few of them swing by our table to say hi to Erich. It’s a behind-the-scenes setting I’m comfortable with. Growing up as a ski brat, I was always hanging around the ski school desk waiting for my father in winter, or the instructor’s lounge, where the Austrians and Swiss and Americans he employed would file and wax their skis, pump beers from a keg. The whole room smelled of ski wax and sweaty wool socks, and I’d sneak glances of the bikini-clad women adorning the cheesy posters tacked to the walls.

I have unfinished business with skiing. I never became the racer I wanted to be, and growing up as a townie in a ski resort with an Austrian father whose turns all the tourists fawned over, that felt like an unforgivable failure. It’s an insecurity that even at 39 years old I still can’t shake, and now I’ve spent the afternoon working on my powder turns and my quads are shot. Seated across from Erich in the Hirlander, I ask him how I can improve my skiing in the deep snow.

“You ski well,” Erich assures me, waving off my concerns with his broad hand. “Wild!” he adds. He tells me that his job is to keep the clients he guides safe, to give them some tips to improve their skiing, but to also make sure they have fun. My enthusiasm, he assures me, was evident today.

I laugh along with Erich, in part out of feeling embarrassed to imagine that my powder skiing resembles the spastic leaps of a kid goat. Still, it’s an apt metaphor coming from an Austrian, where the mountain people — the people of my father — farm in summer and ski in winter.

“You’re a real ‘wilder hund,'” Erich adds, and gives me his signature wink, so quick and subtle you might miss it. The expression means wild dog, and in Austrian dialect it’s a term of endearment. My father always said it in a deep voice, laughing or furrowing his brow when he did so, and he’d bang the table with his hand to punctuate the declaration. He reserved it for the best skiers—Franz Klammer, Toni Sailer, as well as a few of the local boys he’d grown up with.

I turn the phrase over and over in my mind, savoring what Erich has just said. It’s as if, for only a moment, my father is right there seated across the booth from me, saying the two words I always wanted to hear.

The Arlberg Experience

High Zurs Ski Guide getting ready to ski last pitch
High Zürs Ski Guide Erich Mair, before finding more powder.Photo credit: James Jung
  • Getting there: Direct flights to Munich and Zurich are best. Trains can be taken to Langen am Arlberg, followed by a quick bus or cab transfer to Zürs. Terminal to hotel drop off is also available for those flying in and out of Zurich via Arlberg Express.
  • Rentals: Strolz has you covered, from powder skis and air bags, to avalanche trancievers, probes, and shovels, all for a reasonable price. The family-owned shop has also been outfitting clients with custom-made ski boots since 1921.
  • Guides: With over 1,000 years of experience between 53 local guides, High Zürs Ski Guides know where to find all the off-piste goods the Arlberg has to offer.

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This article was originally published as a part of Inside Edge, SKI’s premium membership site.