Austria: The Hills Are Alive


In the Arlberg, the classic European ski experience comes with a few surprises.

Skiers hurtled themselves en masse down the slope, clumsily banking on the edges of the trail, nearly sideswiping one another with every turn. This wasn't an end-of-season Chinese downhill; it was the tail end of après-ski in St. Anton, and, boots half-buckled, still singing ("Hey baby -- ooh, ah! -- won't you be my girl?"), the drunken crowd, with me in it, was trying to get off the hill before dark.

The Mooserwirt was the last stop on our tour of St. Anton's on-hill après scene. We'd already been to the Krazy Kangaroo and Taps, where we'd shared platters of schnapps and sung along with an Aussie minstrel to such gems as "Syphilis" to the tune of "Yesterday." Before I knew it, I was dancing in my ski boots to "It's Raining Men," being body-slammed by sweaty Austrians, and not giving it a second thought. Now, hours later, I was having my most extreme ski experience in Europe so far.

As a ski journalist, lifelong skier, and bordering-on-pretentious Europhile, the fact that I'd never skied in Europe had always been an issue with me. So last spring, I joined a group for a tour of Austria's Arlberg region. I figured it would give me a taste of the quintessential European ski experience -- quaint and charming, accented by the refined sensibilities that brought the world Mozart, Freud, and Viennese waltzes. I hadn't figured on three things: rain, Hubi, and schnapps.

We'd arrived at St. Anton the day before, and as I rested up in my tidy hotel room, I watched the clouds swirl around the Alps, occasionally opening enough to let me see unruly peaks rising abruptly from town. It was mid afternoon, but I didn't see any skiers. I realized later they were probably all in the bar.

The next morning, our ski day began as it should -- with a civilized breakfast of eggs, yogurt, fruit, and strong coffee with hot milk. Then we met our guide, Hubi, a ski instructor with chubby cheeks, a wide grin, and a decent grasp of the English language. He was obviously hungover, but still managed to cheerily usher us onto the lift, despite the fact that the mountain was fogged in and it was starting to drizzle.

When I'd imagined European skiing, I'd pictured myself getting off a tram on the jagged tip of some gnarly Alp -- the beginning of an incredible adventure. I did not expect the pistes.We spent the morning schussing amid swarms of brightly dressed skiers on the groomed boulevards that make up most of the prepared terrain in European ski resorts. Like extra-wide cat tracks, the pistes snaked down the hill at odd angles, weaving across the fall line. Most of the resort was above tree line, so the visibility was flat and the only way to follow the piste was to follow the trail signs that lined it -- or the ribbon of skiers. Since the slopes battled the fall line, I didn't know how to ski them. My turns were ugly. By lunchtime I was annoyed.

Ah, but lunch in Austria was an event to remember. We skied to St. Christoph, a tiny postcard of a town. The walls of the Hospizalm restaurant were covered with antique hunting tools and ski memorabilia; it's the kind of place Vail tries to emulate. During lunch -- a bathtub-sized bowl of spare ribs -- the hotel's merry, loden-wearing owner insisted we join him in a schnapps.

"One schnapps can never be bad," he said. As the fiery liquid spread to my chilled toes, I had to agree.

A tangle of pistes and lifts -- less frustrating after the schnapps -- took us back to St. Anton. It started raining at 2:30 p.m., so we followed the music to the first après-ski stop. There, Hubi was transformed from well-mannered instructor into maniacal bar bully, ordering round after round of beers and schnapps.

My enthusiasm for skiing was decidedly weaker the next morning. But after a couple of runs, I pointed to a steep snowfield that spanned the area between two manicured pistes and askeed Hubi, "Why don't we ski there?" I'd assumed it was out-of-bounds. Hubi looked at me, his grin widening. "You want to go down 'dere? O-kay!"

And with that, we dropped off the piste into untracked. I bounced my way down, not caring if the snow was heavy and chunky, finally feeling like a real skier again. We scooted across the flat piste to the next ungroomed pitch below, reconnecting with the group as they wound around on the boulevard.

After a few descents, Hubi announced it was time to go up the Valluga. He pointed to a speck in the sky: It was that tram I'd imagined. But when I saw it dangling so high and swinging in the gusts of sleet, all I could think was Where Eagles Dare.Maybe the skiing down here was good enough.

There were no pistes at the top, no blaring après-ski tunes. I was glad to have survived the tram ride, but now, standing atop a narrow, steep gully between two rock walls that faded in and out in a near-whiteout, it occurred to me that the ride up wasn't the hard part. The terrain was a surreal moonscape of rock outcroppings and snow-covered ledges. My skiing was a combination of route-finding and side-slipping in between softer swaths of perfect pitch.

By the end, I thought I was too exhausted for après craziness. But the music drifting out of the bars ("I am Anton from Tirol!") was somehow reassuring, and so alluring....

Just when I'd gotten into the swing of things in St. Anton -- eat too much, drink too much, ski badly -- we headed to Lech, a place brimming with gemutlichkeit,which translates into something like "charm and coziness." Where St. Anton is an international, modern ski town, Lech feels Old World, with an onion-domed stone church, elaborately painted buildings, and carved wooden balconies.

That morning the sun came out, opening up a layered panorama of serrated peaks rising straight up from the milky valley floor, ski lifts angling and crisscrossing up every valley and ridgeline. The rest of the group had gone home, so I set out on my own. I chose a marked route called the White Rim, which meandered up and around Lech's steep slopes and down into neighboring Zurs. Again I found practically empty fields of untouched springy snow between the pistes. I gaped at the views. I fended for myself in lift lines. I ate potato and sausage soup on the deck at the Tritt-Alp. I felt positively European. I realized that the reason we should fly to Europe is not to hop off a tram on top of a dizzyingly steep Alpine peak. For American skiers, Europe offers a new and different look at the ski life -- one that is about enjoying that bit of precious solitary slope, really looking at the views, sitting down to a hearty midday meal among relics instead of vending machines, and knowing that, no matter how much schnapps you drink, the pistes will be there when you finally wake up the next day.

As I skied back into Lech, my cozy room with embroidered curtains and a down featherbed beckoned. But the now-familiar après-ski soundtrack ("Everybody Was Dancing in the Moonlight!") pulsed out of every doorway. Lines were forming for foamy beer, hot spiced glühwein,and, of course, schnapps. Just as I was about to carry my skis into the hotel, a friend I'd made on the slopes called out to me.

Here we go again.

Austria's Arlberg -- the interconnected towns of St. Anton, St. Christoph, Stuben, Lech, and Zurs -- has 84 lifts and over 260 km of trails. In St. Anton, the Hotel Karl Schranz offers relatively spacious rooms (011-43-5446-25550). Hotel Tannbergerhof is on Lech's main drag (011-43-5583-22020). Ski Europe offers packages (713-960-0900). For info, contact the tourist office in St. Anton (43-5446-22690, or Lech (43-5583-21610,