In Austria, Saunas, Schnitzel and World Cup Skiing

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ELECTRIC-GREEN Fischer race skis balanced on my shoulder, I passed through the lift entryway at the base of the Rettenbach glacier, waved my arm at the turnstile (the hyper-efficient European smart ski pass was zipped inside my ski jacket), and entered a scrum of Europeans scrambling to grab a seat as the gondolas drifted by, their steel doors yawing open and closed like giant whales feeding on krill.

A few people were balancing skis and lighted cigarettes: we were definitely not at an American ski resort.

I jammed myself between two Swedish teenagers who were training, hoping, to become World Cup or Olympian skiers. After we greeted one another, I turned to settle quietly in for the ride midway up the glacier where every year the ski season's first World Cup race is held.

The cruelly vertiginous slope below our feet was dimpled with course flags. Yet, while this was technically the sport of skiing we were about to watch, the course was not made of snow in the strict soft and fluffy sense of the word. Instead we were gliding over a semi-vertical hockey rink, frozen by a specially equipped Sno-Cat that injects cold water three feet below the surface every night after the mountain closes. As if hurtling your body down a tight giant slalom track at 70 miles an hour wearing nothing but some spandex and a little padding weren't challenging enough.

This  is Sölden, Austria, in October, where spectators and skiers come from all over the world to watch the first World Cup race of the season, and the only one in which both sexes compete. When I was there in 2011 Lindsey Vonn, Bode Miller, Maria Riesch, Ted Ligety and dozens of other world-famous skiers were waiting their turn to race on the course below us.

Part of the fun of coming to see a World Cup race is that there is only one way up the mountain for both racers and spectators. Turning to face my gondola passengers, I saw that Ivica Kostelic, an internationally ranked World Cup skier from Croatia known as Ivo, was seated directly across from me. He closed his eyes and moved his hands back and forth in the air, mapping out the run. This would be the skiing equivalent of sitting in the locker room with Roger Federer as he meditates on how to play his next opponent. Everyone in the gondola was respectfully silent (not usually the case).

And the skiing in October is insanely good. For visitors who simply want to ski, the glaciers of Sölden, which generally open for skiing in October, offer impeccable slopes from easy blues to extremely difficult double black diamonds, and the chance to get a jump on the American ski season -- so you can arrive in Park City or Sun Valley with a week or two of ski legs under you and several meals of schnitzel and Sacher torte in your belly. Most charmingly, the town of Sölden itself is a rarity. It's not a fake village created to sustain a moneymaking mini-mall of ski lifts and ski shops. Sölden is a true Austrian hamlet, a postcard of a place nestled inside winding roads lined with tamarack trees turning brilliant oranges and yellows in the cool autumn air. It's a remarkably mellow ski town: none of the prefab, faux-village feel of resorts like Whistler; none of the long lift lines to be found in Utah; none of the clubby attitudes of Gstaad or Aspen. The skiers are good, and the crowd -- especially around World Cup season -- is young, fun and tends toward flip-flops rather than Jimmy Choo booties.

In the bosom of the Tyrolean Alps, Sölden's slopes are perpetually chilled by glacial ice, copiously fed with dumps of natural snow as early as September and supplemented if necessary with a snow-making system that has undergone $70 million of additions in the last five years. (Skeptics of global warming should have a long chat with resort operators about the growing need for snow-making machinery in the last 25 years.)

Speaking as a casual visitor to Germany and Austria, I'd like to report that Austrians are the more Latin of the Teutonic cultures: they tend to be a little more convivial, occasionally hotheaded, and more mystical and spiritual than their neighbor to the north. At our absolutely exquisite, over-the-top hotel, the Hotel Bergland, for instance, the entire top floor is given over to an 18,400-square-foot spa that includes all the perks one might expect -- pool, sauna, hot tub, massage rooms -- but also two giant meditation areas where silence is strictly enforced. One room features beds packed in lavender-scented straw; the other, warm, gurgling water beds. Tim Dattels, a skier with our group and a connoisseur of ski resorts all over the planet, described our hotel as being one of the best -- if not the best -- ski hotel he has ever stayed in: "Tyrolean chic without being too Heidi chocolate-boxy."

THE skiing off the glaciers is sublime. The long, winding road up to the glaciers? Not so much. Our taxi driver, Tomas -- who told us he is gay and that his biggest ambition in the coming year is to go to San Francisco -- said that in the last 30 years there have been only five fatal accidents on this twisting hairpin road up the mountain. "And one of them was a suicide, we're pretty sure," he said.

While Sölden is attractive and easy to access if you're traveling solo, I went with Christian Pravda, Rainer Schoner and Nick Maricich, friends and ski coaches from Sun Valley, Idaho, who had arranged a trip through their new travel company, SV Adventures. The trip included ski-race training, free-skiing, yoga, fitness and lots of food and drink, along with V.I.P. passes to the World Cup events. Their planning made the nitty-gritty details exceptionally smooth: our ski passes for the week were waiting at the ski shop at the base of the mountain.

Among our ranks were Stacy Childs, a urologist from Steamboat Springs, Colo., who has only in recent years taken up ski racing and is now often ranked near the higher reaches of his age category; Marnie Roozen, a newspaper executive from Seattle, also new to ski racing; a dermatologist from San Francisco; an engineer from Montana; and Kipp Nelson, a movie producer, former champion skier at the University of Colorado and a member of the board of the United States Ski Team. Along to coach as well was Warner Nickerson, formerly of the American ski team, and a contender for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, now training on his own. 

The first two days were pure sunshine and bluebird skies, with everyone in a kind of skier's ecstasy. The snow was firm, and we could either ski at our leisure or train with the coaches, who set up racecourses for us. Our hotel's half-board option allowed us to have a buffet breakfast and a five- or six- course dinner every night, but we occasionally forayed out for dinner at the Hotel Central, a luxuriously old-school hotel in Sölden that serves fantastically rich and buttery Austrian Wiener schnitzel. It is a credit to the chefs at the Central and the Bergland and even at the pizza place in town, Gusto Pizzeria, that on a trip during which I skied every day for several hours and worked out in the afternoons, I still gained weight.

This was unfortunate, because the sauna is a traditional part of the ski day in Austria. And by our third day, I found myself with my already expanding waistline completely naked in the coed sauna at the Hotel Bergland. And I was not naked alone.

I was, in fact, naked with my friend Marnie, who is a woman, but also Christian, Tim and Nick, who are not. (Unlike many German saunas, which usually have a day for women only, Austrians are less tolerant of shyness. See? Totally more Latin.)

Yes, we have been buddies with these men for years, but we are not so close that we have seen them in their altogether, ever. Nor have we ever imagined them in their altogether. The only thing I have ever fantasized about these guys is: shouldn't he be wearing some more sunblock? How about some Chapstick for those cracked lips?

But here they were, and there were all sorts of tattoos and scars we never imagined, despite some discreetly tucked towels.

The saunameister (that is actually the official German name for his duty), a giant Austrian man with a suspect all-over tan, dipped a towel into a steaming bath of orange and juniper-infused water and then waved it over our faces and bodies. Then the saunameister -- his name is Wolfgang -- passed out ice cubes. The process is called Aufguss, and once an Aufguss session has started, with its heat and aromatic vapors swirling about the rooms, it is considered impolite to enter or leave the sauna.

But what good manners. Wolfgang noticed that I liked the scent of Siberian white birch, and the next day he returned with a fresh supply: he had driven to Innsbruck and back the night before to get it.

And as a perk, one of the skiers on our trip, the dermatologist, gave us all free skin checks.

"See?" said Tim, one of our group. "Isn't the naked sauna the best idea in the world?" He was the only person in our largely American group who walked around the sauna and locker room (also coed, and nude) without a towel, and I imagine he did so while saying a secret thank-you prayer to his genetic forebears the whole time.

While anyone with a lift pass and a pair of skis can get access to the race, Rainer, Nick and Christian had arranged for us all to have passes to the V.I.P. tent at the race's finish -- a place where molten chocolate spilled out of six-foot-tall fountains and there was so much divine Austrian cuisine it might have passed as a food festival: kaiserschmarrn (shredded pancakes and stewed fruit), apfelstrudel, Sacher torte, spaetzle made with pumpkin seeds, apricot linzer torte, beef goulash in giant silver serving bowls, roast rack of lamb, potato dumplings and apricot dumplings. There were also bars flowing with wine, and beer spigots ready to fill up your stein.

Outside the V.I.P. tent, things were a bit more raucous. About 10,000 people had gathered to watch the races from stands, many carrying giant cowbells emblazed with phrases like "Fanclub Carlo Janka," their faces painted with French, Italian or Swiss flags. At one point someone dropped a beer from about 30 feet up in the stands onto Tim's head as he walked below. Fortunately, the bottle was empty, and Tim has a particularly thick skull. But it might be wise to wear a helmet even off the slopes if you're walking in between spectator stands.

Rainer and I watched the race from the side of the course. Ted Ligety was at the start wand; he was the last skier and had to beat startlingly good times by Alexis Pinturault of France and Philipp Schõrghofer from Austria to win the title. As he entered the longest, steepest, most sustained pitch in any World Cup event, it seemed impossible. But as Green Day's "Know Your Enemy" blasted over stadium-size speakers, he began to shave away the milliseconds. The announcer -- speaking in a twangy mix of German and English accents -- was screaming a running monologue of chest-thumping if not very technical bravado: "Ted Ligety sends a very strong message! He skis his butt off! Ligety WEEEEEENS! Ligety! You DA MAN!"

The wild crowd remained wild.

(This past October, Ligety won the Sölden race again, and Slovenia's Tina Maze, who is also a classical pianist and pop singer, won the women's title. In her video for "My Way Is My Decision," she plays a Stockli ski as if it were a guitar.)

That night, Sölden was a giant street party. I was lucky my room didn't face the street.

The next day our ski training continued. And we got to see one of the Alps' more curious meteorological phenomena: der Föhn. It sounds like a Peter Sellers joke, but it's not. Similar to a Chinook in the Rockies or a Hayate in Japan, der Föhn is a thick wall of clouds that can roll in over the mountain, literally eating up visibility in its path, and creating what some skiers call the Ping-Pong ball effect. The visibility is literally blinding white: as if you are standing inside a Ping-Pong ball.

I had the misfortune of getting vertigo and falling off my T-bar lift in the middle of such a moment, at just the point when the lift was passing over an isthmus: on the left, a wall descending well over 1,000 feet into a deep gully where equipment secured the bed of the lift operations for that hill; on the right a cliff that dropped about 5,000 feet into the gaping nothingness of an Alpine cliffside.

Afraid of looking like a bad skier, I thought, best to move and keep moving until I could hang onto a T-bar or get back to the lift start, which was only about 30 feet away, but I could not see anything, including my hand stretched out in front of my face.

I touched the ground with my poles, prodding gingerly. And then I stopped. And waited. Ski poles are not eyeballs. Föhn clouds can pass quickly, and a shockingly abrupt window of sunlight can open for 20 seconds, then close for two hours. I was fortunate that I did not have to wait long. When the sun appeared, I saw that the tips of my skis were about two feet from the edge of the steeper crevasse.

As a general rule, ski with acuity and awareness in Europe: European liability laws don't favor the skier who decides to ski off a cliff into a diaphanous cloud.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE

For New Yorkers, this is an easy trip: fly directly to Munich, and then a two-hour car or shuttle bus ride gets you to Sölden. Sölden is also an hour's drive from Innsbruck. I stayed in the Hotel Kempinski at the Munich Airport before my morning flight, and despite its proximity to the terminals, it was not worth the expense. There are plenty of much more reasonably priced hotels near the airport.

SV Adventures organizes a trip that attracts a great group of skiers (info@svadventurestravel.com).

BEING THERE

In Sölden there are dozens of hotels, pensions and apartments for short-term rent, from 415 euros a night (about $550 at $1.32 to the euro) for a junior suite at the Hotel Das Central (Auweg 3; 43 5254 2260-0) down to about 40 euros a night for some apartment rentals.

The Bergland Hotel, where we stayed, is glamorous, high-tech and convenient, with a ski-rental shop on the ground floor, a kids' rumpus room and parking garage. If you ski during the full snow season, the Zentrum shuttle cable car departs from right next door to the Bergland and takes you directly to the ski area (43-5254-2240-0).

Ten miles away in Längenfeld, Aqua Dome, a giant spa complex and 140-room hotel, offers a sybarite's menu: cold pools, brine pools, warm pools, swimming pools, massage pools, loft saunas, earth saunas, hay barn saunas, herb baths, Balinese massage, hot stone massage, shiatsu and tanning rooms (Oberlängenfeld 140, Längenfeld; 43-5253 6400).

DINING

Thirty or so restaurants serve everything from haute Austrian cuisine to take-out Chinese. For authentic Austrian schnitzel, eat at the Feinspitz restaurant in the elegant Hotel Das Central. On the mountain, about 20 cafeterias serve good ski-lodge food.

GETTING AROUND

In terms of getting to the glaciers, shuttle buses leave every morning from the main street in Sölden; the only problem is that until the full season gets going, they don't start coming back into town until 3:30 p.m. If you want to return earlier, book one of the many dependable taxi services in advance.

If your plan is to ski and eat and cruise the town at night, you don't need a car. But if you're staying for more than a few days, you'll want one so that you can explore some of the neighboring towns.

GEARING UP

Unless you are Bode Miller, don't bring skis. The terrific rental shops will rent you skis, tune them nightly and store them for you for reasonable prices. If you like Fischer gear, buy it here, in its country of origin, and you also get an additional 30 percent off if you fill out all the V.A.T. forms properly, which requires the patience of a sainted accountant, but it's worth the few hundred dollars.

ALEX KUCZYNSKI, a frequent contributor to The New York Times and an avid skier, recently returned from a ski trip to Chile.

travel

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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