We all remember them: the intermediate pistes on which our ski careers are built. They were the runs where everything clicked – where the sun was out, the view was magnificent, and we started making smooth and confident turns. They were where we first fell in love with the sport.
So here, in honour of those formative slopes, I’ve picked six of the best intermediate pistes in the Austrian Tirol. One is a proper first-timer’s run. Others are bona-fide classics. Whether you’re still fine-tuning your technique, or you just somewhere to get back into the groove, one of them at least is waiting for your tracks.
Piste 1, Ahorn, Mayrhofen
Let’s warm up the warm-up with something really easy: but also fabulous.
The Ahorn is a separate mountain of skiing, set apart from Mayrhofen’s main network of pistes on Penken. There’s not much to it, really: an almost-flat plateau with a few easy pistes on top, and a steeper valley run that turns black as it plunges through the trees. But that only adds to the appeal, because hardly anyone bothers to ski it. So even on sunny days it’s quiet.
So if you’re still mastering your parallel turns, and need somewhere wide, uncrowded and soothing to practise on, this is where to come. You can ski piste 1 on repeat and then – when your legs are spent – toast your growing confidence with a drink. In any normal, non-covid season there several bars to choose from. One – the White Lounge – is based in an igloo. Another – the Kunstraum – is cantilevered out from the side of the mountain in a giant glass-walled box. Both are exceptional, even in the Alps.
If the weather’s good, I’d go for the White Lounge: largely because of its deckchairs. Often, they’re full of first or second-time skiers staring – slack-jawed – at the scene in front of them. Before their holiday they’d probably heard from their friends how brilliant skiing can be and thought “yeah, yeah – you’re exaggerating”. And now here they are, bathed in sunshine and ringed by magnificent snowy peaks. Suddenly, they believe the hype.
Further information: mayrhofner-bergbahnen.com
The Kandler, Westendorf, SkiWelt
In my book the best pistes are the ones that follow the fall-line, straight down the mountain, and the Kandler in the SkiWelt is an absolute classic of the genre. Marked 11 on the piste map, it drops through a muscle-melting 1026 vertical metres, from the top of the Choralpe above Westendorf all the way to Brixen on the valley floor.
Admittedly, there’s a bit of a wiggling at the top as the piste follows the line of the ridge, but then it straightens up, and over several long stretches you get magnificent come-hither perspectives between the trees; urging you on, turn after glorious turn. Mostly, this is a steady, steepish red, but at one point it turns black, with a loop to one side to side-step the trickier pitch. Stick to the fall line if you can. Skiing this top-to-bottom run fluently is a real marker of your burgeoning ability.
Further information: skiwelt.at
Piste 26, Hochgurgl
Of course, one of the best guarantees of good intermediate skiing is soft, cold snow. You know the stuff: it looks dry and chalky, squeaks under your ski boots, and holds your edges with the minimum of downward pressure. This is the stuff that makes you feel like Dave Ryding, even though you’re skiing a gentle blue.
So let’s hear it for high-altitude Gurgl at the top of the Ötztal. Here, the lifts rise to an eye-watering 3080m, and the slopes unfurl over gentle, treeless slopes. Few resorts are so snowsure, or so intermediate friendly.
For the full, ego-boosting effect, you want to get to the top of the Wurmkogel 1 chairlift and ski piste 26. Set beside the lift’s pylons, it’s as broad and inviting as a Viennese Ringstrasse, and will drop you through 500 vertical metres, back to the bottom of the chair. Then, you can keep going: on the more winding piste 32 back into Hochgurgl. With the sun out, and the snow freshly groomed it’s hard to imagine a better descent for your first morning back on skis.
Further information: gurgl.com
Piste 7, Ischgl
Here’s another reason to love an intermediate piste: because it explores a corner of the piste map few other skiers reach. That’s the case with Red 7 on the Ischgl piste map, which sneaks away from the top of the Pardatschgratbahn gondola, and drops into the north-facing Velill valley. Essentially, you’re heading back towards town while everyone else pushes on into the centre of the ski area, and your reward for being so contrary is a blissfully quiet run. It starts with a steepish and sustained drop down to the valley floor, and then – once it has bottomed out – the skiing is never less than easy. There’s plenty of time to enjoy the view.
The more intrepid skiers will want to push on right to the end of the valley and ski back into Ischgl on a black. But intermediates will be best served by the slow Velileckbahn chair, which whisks them back out of the valley, and up towards the Pardatschgrat.
Further information: ischgl.com
The Gipfelabfahrt, Auffach, Ski Juwel
It may have a reputation as an intermediate-friendly area. But the Ski Juwel lift system includes several stern and exhilarating tests for piste skiers.
Chief amongst them are the former FIS-rated downhill course – the black-rated Hopfburg Abfahrt (marked 15 and 16 on the piste map) above Niederau; and the long, leg-burning descent from the Gmahkopf down to Inneralpbach, which combines pistes 47a and 47 and drops through 900 vertical metres.
Both are deeply satisfying. But you wouldn’t want to tackle either first thing after a long break from the snow. So it’s good to know the perfect warm-up run lies between them. Actually it’s more of a mountainside than a single piste, and it rolls down the northeastern face of the Schatzberg, above Auffach.
Here, just above the treeline, you’ll find a series of broad and steady fall-line reds, where the snow is usually in excellent nick and the runs blissfully uncrowded. Ski them on a midweek morning, when the sun’s out, and you’ll probably bin the idea of skiing anywhere else until lunchtime.
Further information: skijuwel.com
Olympia Abfahrt, Patscherkofel, Innsbruck
When Franz Klammer skied the Patscherkofel in the 1976 Winter Olympics, the whole world seemed to hold its breath.
“He’s on the edge of disaster!” yelled Frank Gifford in his commentary for American broadcaster ABC. And as the Kaiser (as he was known) bounced and skidded his way along the Men’s Downhill course everyone was thinking more of less the same thing. When he crossed the line in a time of 1 minute 45.73 seconds to win gold, Austria temporarily lost its mind. He’s been famous ever since.
If you’ve never seen it, check out the footage of his race here.
It’s hard to believe, watching the video, that skiing in Klammer’s tracks is not actually that hard. The Olympia Abfahrt may be one of the longest descents in the Tirol – dropping through more than 1000 vertical metres. It may also be, in its middle section, rated black. But if you’re not trying to ski it in 1 minute 45.73 seconds, and you tackle it when the surface is freshly groomed, it’s perfectly feasible for a confident, athletic intermediate. Just pick a day when the snow’s soft, and put in plenty of turns on the steeper sections. The proper route starts as Red 1 on the piste map, switches to Black 5 and 5a lower down, and finishes on Red 7. Higher up, Red 6 lets you to side-step the steeper sections.
Whichever route you take, it’s going to be a magnificent overture to an Innsbruck ski trip. After all, you can see the Patscherkofel from the runway of Innsbruck’s airport, as you walk from the plane to passport control. And beyond its long, forested slopes the soft, grippy snow of the Stubai glacier beckons; or, if you’re feeling salty, the white-knuckle pitch of the Nordkette. Either way, a memorable ski weekend awaits.
More information: innsbruck.info