I love skiing. Those close to me (and people I’ve met just once or twice) know this about me. At times, it’s all I talk about.
And if you’re like me, you’ll know what a bore that can be from May to December. Because, unless you’re willing to brave the summer glaciers of the Alps or buy an expensive plane ticket to the Southern Hemisphere, skiing is a hole that’s hard to fill for most of the year.
Which is why websites like Welove2ski exist, isn’t it?
Those of us with ‘the bug’ need a way to cope. And endless consumption of articles to help us plan our next ski holiday, and crazy videos of Frenchmen skiing down green hillsides is how we get our fix.
As I watched that same Candide Thovex video for a 28th time earlier this year, I found myself thinking: isn’t there another way?
Taking the Plunge: Summer in the Alps
Of course, the answer was yes. For a person that has spent several weeks on snow every year of his life, it’s always been a source of shame that I’ve never really spent any time in the Alps when the hills are green and alive with the sound of music.
This had to change. A lack of quality skiing (only two weeks, poor me) this season just gone and left me hungrier for an adrenalin rush than ever before.
I mean, for the locals, the idea of being a skier that doesn’t spend the other half of the year climbing, mountain biking, or similar is bizarre. And yet I know I’m not the only British skier with such an unbalanced commitment to the Alps.
It was high time I invested some energy in summer mountain sports.
Which is why I’ve spent the last week based in little Westendorf in the Tirol, trying my hand at no fewer than eight snow-free Alpine activities. Some you’ll know, and I dare say a couple you’ll never have considered before.
Who knows? Maybe this is push you need to spend a week in the mountains next summer…
Via Ferrata Is Perfect for Novice Climbers
With a comfortable transfer from Heathrow to Munich in the bag the night before, I had almost no idea what to expect as I arrived in Mayrhofen on Sunday morning to meet my guide.
Nobody I know returns from this resort, which is best known as the host venue for music festival Snowbombing, talking about ‘via ferrata’. And as a result, I had very little sense of what would come next.
It turns out that via ferrata (Italian for “iron road”) is a form of mountaineering on rails.
Using a harness and a pair of carabineers, climbers secure themselves to a steel cable that runs up the mountainside, protecting you from a fall without the need for a pulley system traditionally associated with rock climbing.
Grabbing the cable as well as iron rungs, pegs, ladders and bridges carefully placed along the route, you’re able to climb, shimmy and scramble up an otherwise dangerous route.
In practice, this means a relatively inexperienced climber like yours truly can discover dramatic views and access difficult peaks that would ordinarily require years of training. Sure, you still need some equipment, a good head for heights and basic technique…but boring old mountain walking this ain’t.
Here’s a GoPro video we put together of the morning, to give you a taste (credit to my good friend Ben Corbey, videographer for the week)…
Experienced climber? No bother. The modest equipment requirements, ability to do them solo, and potential to cover a lot of ground, mean that via ferratas can also appeal to more experienced climbers too.
All You Need Is Guts to Try Everything at Area 47
How does one explain an experience like Area 47?
When I heard ‘Europe’s largest water park’ was an option for a day’s outing, around a 45-minute drive from our base in Westendorf, I was all ears.
I love a good waterslide, and that’s precisely what I expected when we turned up having done no research whatsoever.
Just a stone’s through from Sölden – known these days both for its starring role in SPECTRE, as well as being the traditional first stop of the Alpine Skiing World Cup – Area 47 is a whole lot more than a water park.
In fact, for an adrenaline junkie like me, Area 47 has it all.
The water park acts as the centre of operations. It has six slides, including a freefall tube where riders hit speeds of 80kmph (50mph).
Then there are five diving platforms, the highest of which, at over 27 metres (90ft), would make even Tom Daley think twice.
And there’s plenty more besides. You can be shot out of a cannon, try wakeboarding or fly like Tarzan from a rope swing into the lake. You can get massive air off of a trampoline and you can even fly off a ski jump wearing skis, a snowboard or a BMX.
Area 47 Is More Than Just a Water Park
But none of that does justice to this place, which is an ‘outdoor adventure park’ more than it is just a bunch of water slides.
The UK’s rather health and safety conscious Go Ape franchise has nothing on the high ropes here [PHOTO], whilst the flying fox – which zips its way across the entire complex – is a truly Bond-like experience…
And, sitting at an elevation of almost 1300m (5,000ft) on a huge plot of land, surrounded by striking mountains and a raging river (yes, whitewater rafting is available), there’s natural beauty all round to match the endless list of activities on offer.
It’s Hard to Beat the Classic Rush of Sport Climbing
“It’s a short walk, you don’t need hiking boots,” says local pro and our guide for the day, Guido Unterwurzacher.
It’s 9am on a bluebird Thursday morning, and we’re standing in the car park of Wochenbrunner Alm – a mountain restaurant located a few minutes’ drive (and a €4 toll, operated by a local farmer) above Ellmau. I’ve been to this spot before, between the villages of Going and Scheffau in the Wilder Kaiser mountains and the vast SkiWelt circus. But like most of the experiences I’ve had this week, there’s a lot less snow than I’m used to.
I stick on my hiking boots anyway. I bought them from TK Maxx in Brixton just last week for this purpose, so I may as well.
And I’m glad I did. A 90-minute trek (and occasional scramble) through hillside cow fields in 35C temperatures later, pouring with sweat, we reach our destination – the climbing garden at the Wilderer Kanzel.
This is a popular spot for climbers in the region. The hard-to-reach location and range of options are part of it – the rock wall between the Kleiner Törl and the mountaineer’s grave where we set up is full of easy, short routes whilst more experienced mountaineers will find some 25m routes with a UIAA grading as high as 10- (or ‘really f-ing difficult’, to you and me).
The other reason the locals love this place? The views, which from the summit of the Ellmauer Halt, Treffauer or Kaiserkopf as well as the main ridge of the Alps to the South, are truly stunning.
But it’s the laid-back, friendly guidance of Guido that really makes the day. For a full-time pro that finished 4th at the Youth World Championships in Courmayeur aged just 14 before quitting indoor competition to focus on the mountains and his climbing and ski school, he’s incredibly down to earth.
We all make progress under Guido’s tutelage, not least Ben, who completes his first lead climb:
Seven hours later, lunch has never tasted better as we return to the Wochenbrunner Alm. It’s 4pm and still a little over 30C, and I’ve never had Käsespätzle quite like it.
Is it the chef, or just pure exhaustion?
You’ll have to come here and find out for yourself.
Forget Doing Lengths, Try Swimming in an Alpine Lake
You don’t need me to explain this to you. Just look at this picture instead.
Make This Summer the Last Time You Don’t Visit The Alps
So there you have it. Seven days in the Alps, a whole range of new activities to try.
Yes, we all love skiing.
But isn’t it time you explored the mountains a different way?