Stranded in the Austrian Snow

What it’s like to spend three days at a timeless ski hotel in Zürs, Austria during an epic 60-hour snowstorm
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“Are you coming for schnitzel?” the woman standing next to her ski guide asks me with only the faintest of German accents. Her voice is warm, open, and she poses the question more like an invitation, as if we are old friends. She looks to be in her mid-50s, wears the ski attire of the well-heeled. I don’t know the brand. Bogner, maybe Fusalp. What I do know is that I’ve just watched her pin it down a 35-degree pitch through chest-deep snow high above the village of Zürs in Austria's famed Arlberg.

“Where?” I shout over the wind, a bit bemused as we’ve never met. It’s hour 12 of what will swell into a 60-hour snowstorm. Flakes fall relentlessly, a blinding flicker driving down all around us.

“At the Lorünser." She smiles, tinted goggles covering half her face. "Every Sunday they do a schnitzel lunch for guests. I'm staying there, too. I saw you check-in last night.”

Before I can press her for more details, she’s off, following her guide as they plunge over the lip of the trail and back into the side-country, down through the deep snowfields, swirling plumes of powder obscuring both their figures like cotton balls.

I watch them disappear into the storm, a disorienting wall of white, thinking: people who dress in posh ski outfits don't usually shred like that.

"Come on, Snow White." Pino—a local guide in the Zürs Ski School—clicks my pole, using the nickname he'd given me thanks to my most recent spill.

I'd arrived in Zürs at 8 P.M. the night before hoping to get snowed in. It was something I’d wanted to experience since I’d been a child, back when my Austrian father used to tell me about the epic snowstorms of his youth. He described them with a hushed reverence, painting a picture of himself as a boy, crouched by the window, watching the fields surrounding their Tyrolean farm house fill up with a snow so deep he swore you could almost smell it—the frigid, silent, socked-in dampness of it all.

I was in luck: Six feet had been forecasted for the Arlberg on the back of an already big season, and I knew that if meteorologists were correct there'd be a good chance local authorities would close the Flexenpass. It’s the only road linking Zürs—a tiny ski village notched at tree line — with the outside world. 

Since December 30, it had snowed nearly nonstop in Austria, with storm after storm pummeling much of the small country. To the east, in SalzburgerLand, low-lying resorts were seeing snowfall they hadn't experienced in decades: roads were closed, villages cut off, the avalanche danger rose to a spooky Level 5. And on the slopes of the Nordkette, high above the city of Innsbruck, 23 feet had fallen in seven days.

The mountains, as they always do in a storm cycle, were calling. Only now they were tantalizingly close. After 15 years of living in Manhattan, my wife and I had uprooted—along with our one-year-old son—to Switzerland for her job, putting us within a 90-minute radius of Austria’s Arlberg.

And so, on a snowy Sunday in early January, I find myself in Zürs trying to keep pace with Pino, laying tracks down side-country runs I’d promised my wife I’d refrain from skiing. The danger is real. A week earlier, a 16-year old Australian boy died in an avalanche just over the mountains in St. Anton, and only a day prior a slide killed four German ski instructors when they poached a steep chute in neighboring Lech, another resort comprising the interconnected Arlberg.

Still, skiing behind Pino, I feel secure. Like many of the instructors in the Zürs Ski School, he’s a Skiführer—the required ranking for all Austrian off-piste guides—as well as an expert witness in avalanche court cases. On rides up the Seekopf quad, he pulls the bubble down and draws avalanche diagrams in the fogged plexiglass like John Nash, if John Nash were a genius in the physics of snowpack.

I follow Pino’s squat, powerfully-built figure as we sneak between avalanche barriers heaped with snow thick as giant slices of cake. Tear down debris fields still sweet with the smell of dynamite from the morning’s controlled blasts. Drop into pristine bowls that yield face shots so fierce it feels as if you’ve stuck your head in the discharge chute of a snow blower.

By one o’clock, my legs are spent, and that schnitzel is starting to sound good. Pino and I ski past mountain huts buried to their rooflines and down into Zürs, a cluster of hotels clinging to the roadside. The village reveals itself through the confetti of snowflakes like a harbor of ocean liners all marooned in the snow. We skate through alleys of snowbanks to the front door of the Lorünser.

Sporthotel Lorünser in Zurs

The Sporthotel Lorünser, getting deep.

The Sporthotel Lorünser is not a typical five-star property. And while it attracts an old money clientele, you won’t find guests waltzing in wearing furry “Dumb and Dumber” boots. They’re here to relax and ski rather than be seen, and their gear—touring boots, rockered skis—reflects that attitude. 

From the outside, the hotel feels similarly unfussy and authentic. Unlike the rococo palaces of Gstaad and St. Moritz, the Lorünser’s exterior is deceptively simple: a traditional ski-in, ski-out Austrian hotel at the side of the road. It has a peaked roof, half-timbered stucco facade, adorned here and there with frescoes, and wooden balconies, all of which Pete Seibert must have had in mind when he dreamed up Vail Village.

This, however, is the original, an unspoiled gem cradled in the treeless saddle of a mountain pass at nearly 6,000 feet above sea level. The hotel’s interior is pure throwback skier fantasy: Fireplaces and kachelofens, hand-carved cabinets, wood beams, and taxidermy. There are cubbies where you can leave your room key for the day, alcoves with red upholstered benches to have a drink, and a yellow lab named Felix who jumps up on the front desk to greet guests. Sure, there’s a sleek indoor pool, spa, and fitness center in the basement, but it’s the sensory details that define the place. Like the wood-paneled guest rooms whose smell of pine will give you Proustian pangs of nostalgia every time you recall it.

“I grew up here,” co-owner Elisabeth Jochum tells me over a round of Ramazzottis the first night I arrive. There’s something perennially youthful about Elisabeth. The quick smile and laugh, her long brown hair pulled back in a tight ponytail, the silver bracelets spangling her wrists. We met via Instagram. I’d posted a clip of John Barrymore’s “The Last of the Ski Bums” that featured her father and we began DMing. When I told her of my plan to get snowed in and write about it for this magazine, she invited me to stay at her hotel.

“Our guests are like our family,” she continues. “Some of them have been coming here for three generations.” We’re sitting in a booth tucked in the corner of the hotel’s L-shaped bar, Elisabeth’s usual perch. You’ll find her nursing a coffee here on most days, phone in hand, fielding requests, greeting guests. 

Related: The American King of Austria's Alberg

In 1936, Elisabeth’s grandfather pooled his money with a group of local ski instructors to buy the Lorünser. Back then, the hotel was nothing more than a simple lodge with a shared bathroom on each floor. Over the years there were improvements, and in 1955—following a ski career highlighted by coaching the U.S. Women’s Olympic Alpine team—her father Herbert purchased the Lorünser outright. Today, it’s run by Elisabeth, and her brother Gebhard and his wife Monika.

“Families have been coming here for three generations,” Elisabeth says over our second round. Guests congregate around small tables, a fire crackles underneath the mounted head of a horned steinbok. “Some of the guests have children who met here and got married.” She points out a young woman from South Africa who fell in love with her husband at the hotel. Elisabeth smiles, takes a sip of her drink. “Some of them even tell us they’ve conceived their children here.”

Clearing over the Hotel in Zurs

The skies clear over Zürs.

The next afternoon, after I thank Pino for a memorable morning and put away my skis, I sit down for that aforementioned schnitzel. The dining room is full, and we all lunch at our assigned tables, most of which face the big windows. The snow accumulates outside. It’s already halfway up the glass. Though I grew up in a ski town in New Hampshire, I’ve never seen flakes fall with such unwavering consistency.

“You know last year a lovely girl from the U.S. Ski Team sat just where you’re sitting now,” says a blonde-haired American woman dining with two men at the table to my left. She’s referring to Jackson Hole’s Resi Stiegler, who only a day prior messaged me saying that the Lorünser is her favorite hotel.

The woman introduces herself as Gail LeBauer, and she tells me that she and her husband Gene—a doctor whom she met over a cadaver while they were both students at Duke—have been staying at the Lorünser for 30 years. They were introduced to the place by the man dining with them, Benjamin “Benjie” Cone, Gene’s childhood friend from Greensboro, North Carolina. None of them ski anymore, but they still make the pilgrimage here every winter just to be up in this hidden corner of the Austrian Alps.

“My mother brought me here for the first time in 1952,” Benjie tells me in his thick Southern drawl. “I was 10 years old. I think it was my mother’s second time here.”

Benjie is a fixture at the Lorünser, but it’s his late mother Anne who remains the legend. Every January, she’d decamp from Greensboro to spend six weeks in Zürs. Benjie was put in ski school during the day and tutored in his homework during cocktail hour while his mother killed time at the bar. The head of a family-owned textile company, Anne arrived one winter with uniforms made for the entire Zürs Ski School.

Like many guests, Benjie considers the Lorünser his second home, and he’s no stranger to a snow storm of this magnitude. Back in the day, he treated a blizzard as the perfect excuse for a forced break from the slopes.

“On a white out like today when I was about 40, I decided that instead of skiing I would try to have one schnapps in every bar in Zürs,” he says with a wry smile. “I started up here and worked my way down to the [Hotel] Hirlanda, and I passed out on my way home somewhere between there and the Seekopfbahn.”

Not everyone shares Benjie’s laidback attitude over missing a ski day. Seated two tables to our right, clad in a blue blazer, is a tall, barrel-chested man with a horseshoe of white hair rimming his head. He grumbles about the inclement conditions keeping him cooped up inside as he eats with his ski instructor. When he gets up to leave, shuffling past us in a pair of clogs, Benjie suggests he sit down with me for an interview. The man’s name, I learn later, is Joe Bryan, and he’s a fellow Greensboro native who, thanks to a friendship with Benjie’s mother, has been coming to the Lorünser for 56 years.

Joe slowly turns his head toward me, as if he’d been previously unaware of my presence. “I don’t think so,” he says, and walks out of the dining room.

“Joe’s the absolute king of this hotel,” Benjie says, raising his brambly eyebrows over the rims of his glasses. “He’s single, doesn’t have any kids. Comes about two weeks before Christmas every year and stays till the end of January. The Lorünser is his family.”

After lunch, I walk around town to take photos of the intensifying snow. Joe’s reticence to speak with me has been an attitude I’ve faced since arriving, especially among locals. It’s not due to unfriendliness, rather the fact that people are wary of a journalist covering the storm. 

Over the past few weeks, the Austrian news greatly exaggerated the weather conditions into something constituting a national emergency, and it negatively affected hotel business in the Arlberg. Just up the road, the Alpenrose suffered some 300 guest cancellations after a corporate group got cold feet. It goes without saying that skier visits are always critical to a ski resort’s bottom line, but it’s even more true in Zürs, where the desolate springs and summers (it can snow here even in July) mean that hotels are shut down and boarded up until the next winter season.

The truth is, despite the alarming news and weather reports, despite even the recent death toll that’s made headlines, the Arlberg does safety well. I make it to the south end of Zürs just as the police close the Flexenpass. It’s a few minutes after 4 p.m., and they lower the metal gate across the road with a clang. To the right, a red sign reads geschlossen. The last blue bus rumbles out of town in the opposite direction down into Lech, the chains covering its wheels jingling across the snow with a morbid lilt, and then that part of the road, just past the gas station that marks the end of the avalanche safety zone, is closed as well. 

All is silent. The darkness gathers. I walk home. The street smells of cow manure that wafts from a brown barn sitting amid the luxury hotels. The farmer, whom I met in the Lorünser’s lobby the night before, is also a member of Zürs’ avalanche commission, and this dichotomy reminds me that in Austria skiing isn’t just sport, it’s culture, almost engrained in the people’s DNA.

Skiing in Zurs

Elisabeth Jochum getting some powder turns in.

At 7 A.M. the following morning, I wake to the sound of avalanche blasts and the trill of chirping birds. It’s an incongruity that simultaneously makes everything feel more eerie and more intimate. Outside my window, the snow still falls heavily, and after walking down to the concierge, I’m told that the entire Arlberg—all 88 lifts—is closed. Due to excessive snow overnight, 60 mile an hour winds, and 13-foot cornices, the avalanche danger has risen to Level 5 across the resort. It’s the first time this has happened in five years. 

No one seems to mind the furlough from the slopes however. Guests curl up on couches, read the paper, all of them content as cats. I feel lazy, too. Maybe it’s the disorienting swirl of snow, but time seems to slow down, and I have to remind myself what day it is—Monday, the day I was hoping to return home to my wife and son.

I find Benjie and Joe in the lounge hunched over a backgammon board. It’s a game they’ve been playing for three decades.

“You find any more fuckers to interview for your story?” Benjie asks me.

“That depends,” I say, and give Joe the eye. A faint smile quivers across his mouth.

“No, thank you,” he says with an air of southern gentility and turns his attention back to the board.

Jackson Lebsack gets a face shot in St. Anton

Just over the mountains, the Ski.com Epic Dream Job crew got to experience the same storm.

“These are graupel.” Pino points to the spherical snow crystals he holds cupped in the palm of his ski glove. It’s late morning, and I’ve joined him and the rest of the Zürs Ski School in a flat snowfield at the center of town for avalanche rescue training. Pino runs his finger through the granular snow, sifting it like a gold prospector. “Skiing on this would be like trying to walk on a floor of golf balls—everything slides.”

With their beacons switched to search mode, the instructors fan out across the snowfield to simulate a rescue operation. As Pino and I walk together, he explains that a brief rise in overnight temperature caused a layer of rime ice to fall that didn’t bond with the existing snowpack. In other words, the perfect conditions for avalanches. He believes that many slides must’ve self-released before dawn, but with the cloud cover still too thick to fly a helicopter there’s no way for the avalanche commission to know for sure. Thus, we’re all grounded down here in town rather than bagging freshies up on the hill.

When we’ve reached the far end of the field, Pino’s beacon goes berserk and he breaks out his probe and shovel and begins chipping away at a monstrous snowbank. In less than two minutes he’s unearthed the buried transponder, and, breathless, he hoists his shovel over his head in celebration.

Video Evidence of the Storm: Ski.com Epic Dream Job goes to St. Anton

On our way back to the Lorünser he explains the difference between wet and dry avalanches. Whereas the former will bury you like cement, the latter comes down with enough force to explode your lungs.

“When they find the body, they pull ice from the esophagus.” Pino points to a long icicle hanging from the roof of the Lorünser. “Like that.”

Blue ski over deep snow in Zurs

The skies cleared over the deep snow.

By nightfall, I’m back with Benjie and the LeBauers eating lamb chops for dinner. Waiters float between tables, the sommelier makes the rounds, an enormous display of cheese exerts its gravitational pull. Like Benjie, the LeBauers are Jewish, but the distinction between religions is something Gene LeBauer dismisses.

“It’s like food,” he says from the corner booth of our table. Lanky and handsome, Gene’s a lifelong athlete, but 20 years ago a stroke ended his ski career. “All cuisine is the same, you’ve got protein, carbohydrate, and fat. The only difference is the sauce.”

After dinner, we’re back in the bar for a nightcap. So too, it seems, is the rest of the hotel. Guests huddle around tables, disparate groups mingle with the type of chumminess only close quarters and bad weather can foster. The snow dumps outside, flickering in the soft, conical glow of streetlights.

Gene discusses the frivolous things he’s given up over the years, among them expensive wine, fancy watches. He does not, of course, include the Lorünser among these things. And while it might not be as essential as his holy trinity of protein, carbohydrate, and fat, one could speculate that the hotel does provide this man of science with some kind of nourishment, be it spiritual or otherwise.

As if reading my mind, he recalls a story of the last time Benjie’s mother Anne Cone came here. She was dying in a hospital in Greensboro, and Gene, being her physician, suggested they return to the Lorünser for one last visit.

“We had her over here, back in Zürs. She walked around everywhere with an oxygen tank,” Gene says. He wears a wistful smile. “She died two weeks after we got home.”

Three years ago, a new gondola connected Zürs with nearby St. Anton. Though it made the Arlberg one of the biggest ski resorts in the world, some of the Zürs regulars view the lift as an unwelcome intrusion, a gate ushering in an excess of skiers that’ve spoiled this little slice of Eden.

Stay in the Arlberg: A Different Kind of Ski Tour

There’s no such worry on my last day. Though the snow has finally stopped and the weather cleared, the roads and the lift connections to both Lech and St. Anton remain closed. In other words, only the people actually staying in Zürs have access to the surrounding slopes, all of them buried in fresh snow.

I head out with Elisabeth Jochum. We decide to not wear our helmets — the day is too nice, and with less than 100 people on the hill the danger is limited. It feels as if the three-day snowstorm has swept us back in time. Aside from the high-speed chairlifts, it might as well be the 1960s, with only a skier here or there dotting the hill, and so many lines left untracked. We do powder laps off the Hexenboden lift, ascending and descending 1,700 feet of virtually immaculate vertical. 

We spot her brother Gebhard fluidly leading a group down an off-piste face. Elisabeth skis with similar ease, linking turns with the agility of someone who’s been ripping down these slopes since childhood. She takes me to her favorite hidden sections of the mountain, off jumps, over pillows, and we only pause—both of us beaming—to say things like “amazing” and “wonderful.”

We speak in these clichés because trying to find the appropriate words to capture such a day, right here on the spot, would only reduce it, or worse yet break the spell. But I’ll try my best now: It was one of those ski days you could feel in your throat. And I don’t mean the queasy sensation of your stomach floating upward each time you plunged over a steep roll. No, when I say that you could feel it in your throat, what I really mean—if you’ll permit me the sentimentality—is that you could feel it in your heart. The blue sky, the white snow, all of it so light and life-affirming.

I see Joe just before I check out. The road down the mountain has reopened, and I need to catch a bus to a train that’ll take me back to my family. Joe’s drinking a glass of Grüner Veltliner. He’s posted up at his usual seat at the bar, marked by a red and white pennant flag embroidered with his name. He’s just learned that the legendary Broadway actress Carol Channing has died, and when I admit to not knowing who that is Joe rolls his eyes in astonishment. I am the grim reminder that his cultural references are dated, and that the world he knows—the world outside this hotel—slips away.

“So you got snowed in,” he says. “You got your story.”

I say I got everything I needed except for an interview with him.

“All right, all right.”

We take a seat in a booth by the window. Joe tells me about his maiden winter here in 1963. He’d only ever skied Stowe, Vermont, and on his first day in Zürs there was an avalanche on the Madloch that killed several skiers.

“I was horrified,” he says. “Coming from Stowe it was like going from Central Park to the Rocky Mountains.”

Warren Miller's Austrian Experience: The Siren of the Arlberg

Over the years there were more avalanches, one of which he watched spill right across the road. There were plenty of light-hearted times too, like the New Year’s Day soccer games when hungover hotel guests and ski instructors played against each other, and one year a few of the men even “pee pee’d” the lines in the snow to demarcate the pitch. Joe’s taught guests how to speak English, he’s traveled all over the world to attend their children’s weddings, and even parents’ funerals.

But things have changed, he’ll admit. The lifts are faster now, you’re expected to take more runs, which at 82 is getting increasingly hard for him. And the trip over from America feels longer. He admits that perhaps going to Colorado would be more convenient.

“Why keep coming?” I want to know. “What is it about the Lorünser?”

“There’s a German word,” he says. “Gemütlich. It means…”

“Cozy,” I offer.

“No,” Joe says. “No, that’s not quite it…” His voice trails off again. I can see the gears working in his head, his mind grasping for the adequate English translation.

I’ll have to leave soon if I want to catch my bus. But right now time still seems to move slowly; time enough for me to linger here as the late afternoon sun slants through the window and stretches across the rug, its rays as golden as the Grüner in Joe’s glass. 

And so I sit a little longer next to Joe, waiting for him to somehow summon the right word in English, as if we have a word that can capture the magic of this little hotel hidden high up in the Austrian Alps and the people who come here. 

This is James Jung's second article for SKImag.com. Don't miss his incredible vintage Instagram profile, @TheApresSki, for vintage photos and modern stories.

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