The much vaunted mountain marriage this season between Saalbach in the province Salzburgerland and Fieberbrunn in rival Tirol has created not only – at 270km – what is officially the largest single ski area in Austria, but also elevated it to one of the three best in the country.
But we also discovered that Saalbach now has a secret link to another important neighbour that adds a mighty 77km of delightfully varied and scenic skiing to the circuit. Strangely, both resorts expressed ignorance of its existence. But we know it’s there…because we skied it on a piste.
Saalbach and its neighbouring villages have long been an ideal place for adventurous intermediates who want to feel they are travelling somewhere each day rather than skiing the same stretch of mountainside over and over again. But despite what is arguably the most sophisticated lift system in Europe, there’s always been limited challenge for those wanting more hardcore experiences.
However, that’s now dramatically changed because Fieberbrunn is famed for its freeride terrain. Each year some 4,000 people visit the Swatch Freeride World Tour here, which must say something pretty positive about the shape of the mountains and the normal snow quality. This season it is being held on March 4-6.
The new Tirol-S 10-seater gondola that opened in December generates a giant leap in the quality of the terrain. This now makes Saalbach a prime destination for every standard of skier. It elevates it onto the national podium for winning resorts alongside St Anton and Kitzbuhel.
But, at the opposite end of the circuit, what almost nobody knows, is that Saalbach is also secretly linked to Zell-am-See’s main Schmittenhohe mountain – a huge unsung bonus for visitors to either resort. For reasons that one can only assume are buried deep within centuries-old valley rivalry, neither resort seems at present prepared to admit to this link – let alone promote it.
We’d heard about it last summer whilst mountain biking in the region and so, with a bit of help from Zell am See Ski & Snowboard School, we went exploring this winter. Firstly, we took a taxi from our chalet-hotel base in Saalbach for the 18km journey to Zell.
“There’s no link. Maybe we’ll have a link in another five years or so,” Saalbach Tourist Office had insisted.
“No, there are no current plans to link the resorts,” echoed Zell-am-See.
“Oh yeah?” This baffled Lauri, our Finnish ski instructor/guide, when we met him at the bottom of the Schmittenhohebahn. “But it’s there, an itinerary run cut through the trees – it’s even on the lift map! I skied it in powder a couple of days ago. Come on, I’ll show you.”
And there it was, clearly marked just off Piste 10, the Viehhofen Abfahrt (downhill) that proved to be a glorious thigh-burning 4km slope with a 1000m vertical drop.
We arrived at the entrance to the slope to discover that it had even been pisted overnight. The route was marked on a sign as ‘difficult’. We found it easy, but obviously in difficult deep snow it would be more challenging, and there is a trickier alternative way down. The slope is north-facing and holds its cover well.
On the descent – no one else was skiing down it although we passed a couple of guys skinning up – we found that the concrete bases for the planned return lift were already in place. “The mid-station section will be completed for 2016-17,” said Lauri, “And hopefully the valley section from the hamlet of Viehhofen for the following winter”.
Viehhofen, population 623, is a sleepy little place on the main road between Zell and Saalbach that is about to be thrust into the big time as it achieves ski resort status.
At the moment it has one hotel, a handful of B&Bs and six bars/restaurants. While Lauri was met by his wife for a return lift to Zell, we waited just five minutes before boarding a busy ski bus that was primarily shuttling Saalbach-based skiers back into the system.
Our fellow passengers had skied the long blue run from the top of the eight-person Polten chair-lift on the edge of Saalbach’s ski area on the other side of the valley.
The 5-minute 4km ride brought us all to Vorderglemm where we could catch the Schonleitenbahn gondola and continue into the circuit towards Saalbach, Hinterglemm, Leogang, and Fieberbrunn.
Ok, so at present you can only ski this end of the circuit in one direction, and to get back to Zell you need a postbus or a taxi. The most economical way to enjoy this day out is to splash out an extra 11€ at the start of your holiday to buy a six-day Salzburg Super Ski Card instead of the Saalbach or Zell-am-See resort lift pass.
At 270km (347km with Zell) the area is at present much the largest in Austria. However, such fame is short-lived. For 2016-17 the baton passes to St Anton (350km) as it finally links with Lech and Zurs. Saalbach is relegated to second largest…by a measly 3km.
So what makes Saalbach & Co such an attractive destination? For a start, it’s the variety. Each village has its own contrastingly different character.
Saalbach is the largest and much the most sophisticated, with lots of shops, hotels, bars, and lively clubs. Hinterglemm is more family oriented with a good choice of hotels but no real village centre. Leogang and Fieberbrunn are smaller and more remote, places for a much quieter stay well away from the hubbub.
We stayed at Chalethotel Christina in Saalbach, which is a four-minute walk to the nearest lift. It costs from £613pp for a week half board, including flights, transfers, en suite room, and five days’ ski guiding. Bookings: Ski Miquel.