Not a lot of snow fell around Tirol this winter. But when it did, we scored it!
This is the edit of the powder days I had with my friends from Innsbruck – can’t thank them enough.
Not a lot of snow fell around Tirol this winter. But when it did, we scored it!
This is the edit of the powder days I had with my friends from Innsbruck – can’t thank them enough.
The Alpine landscape has a strong effect on the beholder, especially if one comes from a relatively flat country such as Portugal. The magnitude of the features in front of you, the harshness of the weather and the speed at which it changes is nothing short of wonderful.
So excuse me if I tend to get a bit philosophical here. But after two months traveling around in the Alps alone (OK, not all the time, but still) it’s easy to start wondering through the mountains within, just as much as I do in the peaks and valleys out there.
As I was writing about here, the purpose of this trip was not only to discover the mountains of Tyrol, but also (and mainly) to feel the mountains. Because, let’s face it, most of us are tourist when it comes to high altitude. The usual week crammed in a room in some resort with a group of friends eager to ride hard and party even harder doesn’t allow much space for deep understandings of anything. I mean, it’s always a blast and if that’s the only way to go above freezing level, super. But I wanted more. And so it just happened that I got more than I bargained for: going out (and staying out) in the wide open valleys, forests, glaciers and snowy peaks made me go deeper inside my own mountains. As if instead me looking at the Alps, it was as if the Alps were looking at me – and I got as overwhelmed as it sounds. As so many songs, books and even more unwritten journals of travelers described better than I could possibly do, this overwhelming happens often when you step into the unknown. And, according to oriental philosophies, it serves a quite curious purpose of cleaning your mind of conscious thought. Just like those ancient chinese riddles ‘what is the sound of one clapping?’ or ‘if a tree falls in the woods and no one’s around, does it make a sound?’, only nicer and much more expensive.
So, as I crossed the Gerlospass and witnessed the beautiful valley of the Salzach river as it showed the north facing slopes covered with snow and the south faces completely barren, as if winter and spring met exactly there, I had one of those moments.
It gave me a sudden realization of some deep universal meanings – which I am not going to tell you, obviously, they’re mine.
So, what’s the point of all this? The point is I am so glad I came and did this, despite the money and other associated costs, despite the ‘saudade’ of so many people and things, and also despite the uncertainty of what will happen next. This is quite a claim, but this journey made me a better person.
At the risk of sounding even more cliché (is that possible?), but not giving a damn about it, I’m going to leave here a song that has one of the best descriptions of what traveling is all about. It is in Portuguese but there’s bound to be a translated version of the lyrics somewhere.
There’s been a lot going on lately. But before I get onto writing about about the latest exploratory missions, let me just link you to my latest chronicle that came out in the Sul Informação magazine: the interview with one of the most influential riders in Austrian snowboarding and member of the infamous Ästhetiker crew, Friedl Kolar.
Again, it is in Portuguese, but fortunately we have Google translate to serve us a funny yet intelligible translation. Just copy the link and shove into translate.google.com
Looked out the window. It’s a complete whiteout, flat light, and the recent rain took all the new snow. It looks like this:
That’s it for me, I’m staying home. Am I a tourist no more?
After more than a month straight in the Alps, my perspective has evolved (much more than my performance, unfortunately, but who cares anyway?). I no longer feel the urge to go out to the slopes everyday, nor do I particularly enjoy riding pistes anymore. After being introduced to some of Tirol’s secret spots and riding for 5 days straight in what could be considered a private, untracked, unspoiled, private mountain, maybe it turned me into a bit of a snob. Obviously I have to get down to earth and think about how lucky I am to be doing this and especially how grateful I am to the local crew who is showing me around. Does riding with the locals make me a local? No it does not. But it does shift my way of riding and reading the mountain into something more than being a tourist.
I have nothing against being a tourist – after all, it is virtually impossible to avoid it. If you only can take a week a year to go some place far away and do something you really enjoy, there’s no problem whatsoever. I did exactly that until this trip, and will probably continue to do so. But my point here is that that there is so much more to a place, any place, than what can be seen and experienced in one or two weeks per year. You have to take the time, to put in the hours to know the people, know the spot,study the conditions and learn when it’s good and when it’s not. How are you going to do this if you have to plan your trip months in advance, and stay only for a fidgety 6-day opportunity to release all the eagerness to shred that you accumulated over the year? Of course you’re going to go out every day, from opening to closing, no matter if it’s windy, cold, foggy, wind blown, snowing, freezing or simply dry of snow. You’re gonna be out, and you’ll make it worth.
The obvious comparison is with the beach. After being in the Algarve for 15 years, I hardly go to the beach in the summer (except for surfing, if it’s pumping). The ridiculous crowd filling the sand and the roads is just a nightmare. And they all seem to come for the same places, at the same time, with all the things the Algarve has to see. And yet, I cannot blame these people who can only come for this small period and enjoy their time, making the most of what they know. That’s me in the mountains up until now.
I fear this season will damage my future snow vacations. After spending a whole winter in the Alps, and experiencing the best the mountain has to offer while knowing that you cannot plan these things so far ahead, it will be hard to be a tourist again. Or maybe not, maybe that will make me even more stoked to return to this magical place.
But what am I talking about? I haven’t even left! You know what? I’m gearing up and going shredding!
I have been sharing some of my thoughts on this Perfect Winter thing on a portuguese newspaper. They are in Portuguese (duh) but it’s nothing that Google Translate won’t solve. This is my last one:
Firstly, I must apologize in advance to a fair bit of you, my readers, who are more into traveling and exploring and less into the technical and philosophical aspects of riding boards sideways. The following text will dig into the what I think is the whole concept behind ‘boardriding’ (as referred to surfing, skateboarding and, alas, snowboarding). Also, as a disclaimer, it is raining outside and I just drove my friend to the train station. So, after 2 weeks with my girlfriend and another week with my friend, I am, for the first time in The Perfect Winter project, all by myself. You’d expect that the philosophy would kick in, wouldn’t you?
Why do we stand on a board and decide to ride it down waves, ramps, streets or mountains? Why are so many of us willing to change our lives or even direct our own existence into spending as much time as possible standing sideways, speeding down natural or man made features that can hurt us or even kill us if things go wrong? It’s the rush of flowing. Effortlessly, weightlessly, simply flowing. That feeling you get when you are a moving part of something larger, perfect and timeless. The flow.
There are infinite variations of what you can do while riding a board. If you are skateboarding, the creative aspects are indeed endless: spin, flip, rotate, shove, jump, slide, climb, in every sense of motion, in every obstacle imaginable, in the streets of any city or in a purpose-built park. And if skateparks are getting more and more innovative and allow for a safer, legal and easier progression, it never ceases to amaze me how creative skateboarders can get when looking at any street feature. Curbs, banks, stairs, handrails and yes, the everlasting hydrant, are the tools of creation for skaters, allowing for boundless interpretations of the world around them.
Riding on snow is traditionally limited by the fact that your feet are strapped to your board (although not necessarily). But what it lacks in versatility it compensates on size. The sheer magnitude of the medium you are riding on – the mountains – is totally out of a human scale. The forces responsible for pushing the earth’s crust upward, the time it took to happen and the temperatures and winds that allow for snow and ice to form, are somewhat out of our scope of comprehension. Maybe that’s why snowboarders are so keen on going big. The jumps are getting bigger by the day, the spins are going crazy in degrees (they’re throwing 1800’s in contests now..) and the mountains snowboarders are riding are higher and steeper than ever.
However, the fountain of flow is in surfing. No other sport/culture/lifestyle embodies the idea of flowing so seamlessly as surfing. When you surf, the medium is moving with, around, under and over you. Adjusting to the rhythm of the waves, sets, tides, swells and seasons is tuning in the vibration of our planet – indeed to our universe. The flow of surfing epitomizes the flow in the ride of all other vehicles, either rolling on concrete or sliding on frozen water. And it is impossible to explain – you just have to feel it.
So think about this: you can stomp gaps, kick flips, throw spins and perform any sort of trick, newschool or oldschool, and still be completely out of tune if you are missing the essence. The flow.
If you had to choose a destination to spend 3 months of your life, paying hard-earned money to stay at a carefully picked location, with enough solitude to feel like a soul-searching trip yet close enough to civilization to be able to leave your house on foot and access stores, local ‘wildlife’, transportations and whatever it was that drove you there… would you choose a country that speaks one of the most unintelligible languages of Europe (at least for us Latin speakers, but I suspect we’re not alone on that one), and a region that boasts the most unfriendly, inaccessible and harsh geography on the Old continent?
Well I did. Austria was always the choice to spend The Perfect Winter. And despite the obvious disadvantages (language being number one), here’s why.
– It is beautiful. The Alpine landscape here is just breathtaking. And yes, I am aware that the Alps start in France and cross Switzerland, Liechtenstein, good ol’ Oesterreich, Germany, Italy and all the way into Slovenia. In all these countries the mountains look good. But there is a special care with the landscape in Austria that is truly heart-warming. Especially compared to the landscape raping you see in that country that starts with an F and has baguettes.
– It is cheap. Ok, it’s not cheap. But it is definitely cheaper than any other Alpine country. Yes, I know, choosing wisely you may find here and there cheaper places in other countries. Or not. After having been in every one of the latter (except Germany) for snow holidays, I can tell you, for example, that the cheapest beer in any French resort costs more than the most expensive beer in Austria. And it always tastes better here, hands down. Food is cheaper too – try eating out in Switzlerland. Or even in Alpine Italy, and you’ll see those €€ flying away so fast you won’t have the chance to say goodbye. Even the lodging is cheaper, but that’s not the main plus about it…
– Everything always looks brand new. Everything. The houses. The roads. The cities. The streets. The gardens. The buildings. The infrastructure at any ski resort, it is mind-boggling, it’s always spanking new. How on earth do they do it? At every apartment I was in during holidays in Austria, everything was just clean and perfectly set. No paint coming off on a hidden corner. No patch of rotten wood on the back of the house. Brand new furniture. How do they do it? Go to a restaurant. Nothing looks remotely used. Go outside. The buildings look perfect. What materials are those? How often are they maintained? As I said, mind-boggling.
– Things work. Maybe it’s because of the proximity with their German cousins – or maybe due to their common origin, better yet – stuff works. Rules and regulations apply, oh yes. But it simply works.
– The people are a strange and balanced mix of German stiffness and southern warmth. Strange but it works fine for me.
– Did I mention the mountains look amazing? It is just breathtaking.
There are of course other negative aspects (other than the language, and even that, I must say, I am growing fond of). But everything is bearable. Except for one detail.
The hedious music exhaling from the aprés-ski bars. Oh dear. We are in the country of Mozart, for goodness sake. Or Parov Stelar. Or Kruder & Dorfmeister. How can they assassinate so much good music with the euro-dance garbage puking out of so many overly loud speakers everywhere around 4PM?
But hey. It ends soon, and then you have those mountains around you. And it makes everything fine again.
They told me and I knew it too: it’s not the size that matters. In this case, small Alpine resorts are much more likely to have the x-factor than big, famous ones.
That said, Hochzillertal Kaltenbach is a medium sized resort in the northern tip of the Ziller valley. It boasts 88km of prepared slopes, 2 snowparks (that are still closed at the time this review was written) and an impressive infrastructure in parking lots, ticket offices and ultra modern gondolas and chairlifts.
The area by the main gateway through Kaltenbach – Stumm is interesting, with nice pistes (including the Stephan Eberharter Goldpiste black run all the way to the gondola – that’s almost 1200m of vertical drop), and great views over the valley. A word of advice: they get busy and ultra bumpy quite fast.
However, it is when you transit into the area of Fügen that things get really juicy. This area can be accessed through the Neuhuttenbahn state-of-the-art chairlift (those plexiglass covers came in handy today, with -14ºC at the top). This is a true freerider paradise, with many slopes available and untouched for the off-piste enthusiast, right from the top of the lifts. In these cases, there are even avalanche beacon testers for safety. While this is still not full-on backcountry, it is still quite impressive to see these beautiful open faces just waiting to be tracked.
However, I must say that I resisted the temptation as I watched an avalanche being triggered by a snowboarder that wasn’t carrying safety gear (at least neither the probe or the shovel, and probably not the transceiver). Fortunately no one was hurt but the warning was there. Mental note – buy avalanche safety gear and take a backcountry awareness course.
But there are many more freeride lines in this area. With a little bit of research and with the right knowledge, a pot of white gold will open before you. Search and you shall find.
The cherry on the cake came by accident. To find some shelter from the cold and get some hydration (i.e. beer), I bumped into on the most spectacular alpine huts ever: the Wedelhüte, just by the top of the Wedelexpress lift. Oh man. DJ on the stunning terrace (spinning good music, for a change in the Zillertal…), live performance by a sax player, chilled environment, and the view. The view. While not being cheap, it still costs less than anywhere in France. And even for Austrian standards (where everything seems to be brand new – how do they do that?), this was something else. Definitely worth those extra €€.
If you are in the Zillertal, Hochzillertal is a great place to ride your vehicle of choice down the slopes!
Stoked is the word! We drove 2600km during 4 days, crossing 5 countries and we made it! How freakin’ cool is that!!?
Spain and France were easy, as we found hardly any traffic and good weather. But as soon as we entered Switzerland… full on traffic jam from the border onwards. We were heading for Lausanne to stay at a good friend’s house and came across friday rush hour traffic, combined with the first real winter weekend this season, where every Geneva inhabitant seems to drive their oversized over-luxury car to their chalets in the mountains. Seriously, the density of Jaguars, high end Mercedes, BMWs and many other seriously expensive cars (that unfortunately I do not know the name) per square meter on those roads was just mind-boggling. But eventually we got to Lausanne, where our friends Sergio and Marylin had prepared us an amazing raclette. Tank you for that great dinner and company, for the nice beers, bottles of wine and for a great night sleep.
(no pictures though…)
And it was good that we woke up nice and relaxed because after a fantastic breakfast with snowboard master André Pisco in Montreux (next to the Freddie Mercury statue – we will rock you, baby!) we were in for a treat.
The. Worst. Traffic. Jam. Ever. Which lasted for the whole of Switzerland. On its longer side. With rain. And no views, for what would eventually be one of the best scenic routes of the world. Thank you, relentless capitalism.
Eventually we got to Bodensee, which in any other day would be a mandatory stop. But we were so fed up with the road that we just passed by and aimed straight into Austria. And what did we find as soon as we passed the border? This.
Heavy rain, fog, and by 4pm it was already so dark we could swear it was midnight. And yet we had still more than 3 hours of driving ahead. And lets not forget we are crossing the Alps here, and we’d been driving already for 4 hours. Did I mention we got heavy Lexus, Cayenne and Jaguar traffic jams throughout?
Anyway, we made it. The FreshPipe Snowmobile got us through Central Europe and we were ready to roll into The Perfect Winter, my first day of the season, and my 39th birthday.
And this was the view as I woke up in Gerlosberg:
And my birthday present to myself was this: a season pass for the Tirol region!
And with this card and a stupid smile on my face we went up the chairlift to find a fabulous day on the slopes of the Zillertal Arena. While the valley was covered with clouds, there was sunshine above 1000m. The slopes were fantastic, not many people and we just went cruisin’. Hey, just see for yourselves.
But this was just the beginning. The Perfect Winter is not about being a tourist in a famous resort, is about going deeper into the heart of the Alps. But give me some space to enjoy a bit of time out before I go on that deeper side. And speaking of which, the forecast for the next days is up to 50 cm of fresh powder. I’ll let you know all about it in the next posts, stay tuned!
Nope. Still on the road. Today we covered 825km and eventually landed somewhere with hot water. I know, call me bourgeois.
Tomorrow we’ll aim towards Lausanne, with a forecast of good weather for the French part and the skies getting more and more overcast as we approach Switzlerland. Another day covering asphalt. Really looking forward to it. Or not.