I thought today was going to be all about the Harikiri.
It’s the black run, below: and until recently, it was the steepest piste in Austria.
At its steepest, its pitch is 78 degrees – steeper, in fact, than the ramp they use to get airborne in World Cup ski jumping – and it drops straight down the northern face of the 2000m Penken, above the resort town of Mayrhofen. It’s so steep, in fact, that you can’t really see its middle section when you stand on the roller at the top, and peer over the edge.
As an example of the piste-builder’s craft, it’s a work of genius: because although it’s steep, it’s also very short. Yes, it’ll provide a stern test of most people’s skiing, but the crux of it is only three turns long. In soft, freshly-groomed snow, anyone who’s comfortable and controlled on regular blacks should be able to handle it – and will probably wonder what all the fuss is about when they scoot away towards the bottom of the Penken’s principal mountain bowl. When it’s icy (which it must be a lot of the time), a few more minds, and legs, are going to turn freeze. But if you make sure your edges are fairly sharp, and take it slowly, you should be fine. And if you’re not – well, at least the run-out is shallow. You won’t slide far.
In other words, it’s a great marketing tool and a very achievable goal for keen skiers. No wonder Mayrhofen makes a big deal of it in the German-speaking ski world. (And if you’re wondering which piste is steeper – it’s the Manfred Pranger in Wipptal.)
Thing is, when you get to this part of the Zillertal – known as the Action Mountain Penken – the Harikiri is not really what catches your eye.
This is the Vans Penken Park, which sits on the opposite side of the Penken bowl from the Harikiri. The lift company spends a six-figure sum on it each winter (hiring in the specialist company QParks to run it), and in recent years it’s grown into one of the most important parks in the Alps.
Most days, you’ll see some eye-popping tricks here – but today, the stuff going on in there was out of this world. Friday and Saturday sees the Rip Curl Sista Sessions here, a women-only Slopestyle competition, and clearly a lot of riders were already on the slopes to practice. There were plenty of men too, and the presence of both sexes, in quantity, seemed to firing everyone up.
Great fashions, too…
You couldn’t help but be inspired, watching them at it. Not to try your own tricks – which on ramps this big would probably kill you – but to go much harder at your own brand of skiing, whatever that may be. In the past, I’ve often wondered what relevance freestyle has to the average skier. It’s so far above and beyond what most of us can achieve, it seems as though the industry has left its main customer base behind for good. But today I had my answer. Forget the detail of what they’re doing – and embrace the spirit.
This wasn’t my first time on the Penken. Three years ago I came here to do an avalanche awareness course run by the SAAC. We had two powder days in a row – and on the first day in particular, on the short, tree-studded off-piste runs on either side of the Harikiri, the skiing and riding was superb. But it was today, when most of the snow was icy, sugary or slushy, that I saw its real strengths.
This is a medium-sized ski area. It’ll never match the natural assets of the likes of the Espace Killy or Three Valleys in France. But to compensate, it offers an awful lot of man-made attractions – and ones which don’t require heavy falls of natural snow. There’s the Harikiri. There’s a “kids” terrain park near the Vans Penken Park where young and old can try out their first diddy jumps (perhaps after picking up some tips in our freestyle beginners feature). And there are two slalom courses. Mix some or all of these up with the fast, quiet pistes on the backside of the Horberg, or the steep ones at the front of the same peak, and you’ll have a day which pulls your skiing in all sorts of new and inspiring directions.