They call Hochfugen a schneeloch – a snowhole. Yesterday was the proof of it.
After four days of freakish thaw, with temperatures rising to double figures on the slopes, winter returned to the Alps yesterday. In the Zillertal in Austria, where I’m currently based, we got fresh snow, too. Across most of the valley, above 1200m, there was 5-10cm of light, fluffy powder. But when we transferred by chair-lift from the slopes of the ski area Hochzillertal to its near-neighbour Hochfugen, we found more than double that.
Ski guide Kevin Benk and I couldn’t believe it. Up until that point we’d been fogbound, scooting about in pretty humdrum conditions. Suddenly, amongst the widely-spaced trees of Hochfugen, we stumbled on a powder day.
Actually, it was really a powder afternoon. And as you’ll hear from the video I shot, underneath the fresh snow there was plenty of crusty stuff left over from the thaw. But at least the firm underlayer added extra ‘rebound’ – so our powder turns were nice and easy. Given that I was on a skinny pair of Head TT80ti carvers, I was glad to have the help.
The area we skied – nice rolling terrain, with short steep pitches amongst scattered trees – was perfect for a day of low cloud and heavy snow. But there’s a lot more to Hochfügen than this when the skies clear. The area encompasses two mountain bowls and several areas of trees, as well as steep couloirs. The more westerly of the two bowls is home to the Ostwand (the East Wall) – a big, open slope which is the scene of a qualifying event for the Freeride world tour. Here’s a promotional video – a tad OTT in style, but at least it gives you an idea of the terrain on offer here when the sun comes out. Needless to say, it was invisible to me!
Until yesterday, I have to admit I’d never heard of the place. But I’d looooove to go back. Overall, the fantastic variety of terrain – trees, bowls, chutes, pistes – reminded me of Snowbird in Utah. There’s a strong freeride culture here too: it’s no accident that committed off-piste skiers like Kevin have congregated here, and they’ve been working hard in recent years to develop the level of information and support available to their kindred spirits. At the top of the main gondola there’s a transceiver check point where you can check your avalanche beeper is both receiving and transmitting a signal. Meanwhile, dotted around the slopes there are info boards showing freeriders what kind of terrain lies ahead.
I wish they’d now complete the picture and do what American resorts do – securing all terrain, not just the pistes – against avalanches. But even so, it’s a compelling place for anyone with the right equipment and the appetite and energy for off-piste skiing or boarding.
Hochfugen: if off-piste skiing is your thing, put it on your hitlist. It’s a 40-minute drive from Mayrhofen, the main resort in the Zillertal. But you could also stay here – in a little outcrop of hotels at the bottom of the lifts. Bizarrely, for a freeriders’ ski area, it’s home to one of the best restaurants in the Alps – the “Alexander” in the Sporthotel Lamark. The Gault Millau guide gives it a stratospheric 18/20 points for its food, and in 2005 made its young chef, Alexander Fankauser, its chef of the year. In fact, even if you don’t stay in the hotel, it is probably worth eating dinner there. A good day at Hochfügen deserves nothing less…
Click on this link to visit Ski guide Kevin Benk’s website.