It’s the fastest and longest gondola of its type in the Alps and, with an astonishing price tag of €68 million (£61 million), it’s the most expensive in the world. Since it opened on October 22, 2016 it’s been ferrying skiers up the Stubai Glacier above Innsbruck at the rate of 3,000 an hour.
The 3S Eisgrat with its 48 gleaming red cabins is the first of a stream of new cableways set to open in the coming weeks: 15 in Austria alone, along with one in France: Val d’Isere’s much heralded Solaise lift.
But the Stubai has the undoubted flagship and it’s a tribute to Sudtirol engineering company Leitner, which has been building ropeways since 1888. The cabins of the Eisgrat – each costs €250,000 (£224,000) – purr up the mountain at 25kph covering 4.7km in 11 minutes.
On the opening Saturday 10,000 curious skiers and racers-in-training made their way from Neustift up the beautiful Stubai Valley to new giant car parks at the base of Austria’s most developed glacier.
The first surprise was the absence of any real queue, even at rush hour time. The futuristic steel and glass buildings top, bottom, and at the middle station could be art galleries rather than plain old lift stations.
I found myself in a crowd of maybe 200 people shuffling through the turnstiles. But with 24 seated (on real leather seats) in each cabin and eight standing we were all comfortably aboard, skis in hand, within a couple of minutes.
Of course, we all know what happens when you dispense with lift queues…the volume of people simply shifts elsewhere – to the piste. However, the Stubai can cope remarkably well with what is a near capacity crowd for the time of year.
In autumn only the higher runs are open and you have to download at the end of the day. It was busy, but not dangerously so, while fresh snow beneath a perfect azure sky added to the enjoyment of the first day of the season.
Perhaps the most important feature of this giant investment is the fact that the lift can continue to run well within its safety margin in a 130kph wind. This means no ‘down’ days for skiers and even if the weather dramatically deteriorates while you on glacier at 3000m, they’ll be no waiting out the storm for hours in a mountain restaurant. Your journey home in time for tea is guaranteed.
No run down a glacier in the weeks before the winter season is complete without testing some skis. Indigo is a boutique German ski manufacturer based in Munich won the coveted gold award at ISPO this year for its ACR all mountain ski.
What’s positively weird is that it’s two pairs of skis in one. The ski is split down the middle, with an actual see-through gap for most of its length. One side is made from carbon, the other from glass fibre.
In soft snow conditions you put the easy-to-turn glass fibre on the inside. When the surface is hard you simply switch skis from one foot to the other and…bingo…you’ve got an untuned race ski and you’re ready to run gates.
Sceptical? Me, too, until I tried it. But I agree with the ISPO judges, it really works. I began in the cold early morning with the ski in stiff mode. It carved beautifully – even on the occasional patch of raw glacial ice. It performed like a GS ski and required full attention on every turn. After a bit of a workout, switching skis to soft mode was an absolutely pleasure. The ski turned at the lightest touch, both on the developing moguls and in the dusting of powder on the edge of the piste.
I’d love to try their freeride range, which is a wider 94mm under foot as opposed to 80mm wider of these ones.
However, before you rush to buy, I advise you to check your bank balance. Like the Eisgrat gondola, such a pleasurable ride doesn’t come cheap. Ski prices start at €1,390 and go up to a stratospheric €3,990. But then, they only make 3,000 pairs a year – and they sell nearly all of them.
If you’re playing with skis of this sublime pedigree, you need somewhere to park them at night. The ski room of the five-star Relais & Chateau Hotel Jagdhof down the road in Neustift fits the bill perfectly.
This is the perfect Austrian hostelry, built in Tirolean style with warm and inviting bedrooms decorated in fine fabrics, copious wood paneling. and corridors furnished with antique family wardrobes, writing desks, and antlers on the walls.
Chef Boris Meyer presides in some considerable style over the Hubertus Stube restaurant and specialises in such Tirolean stalwarts as fresh trout from the valley river, venison and game from the hotel’s own hunting preserve – and an abundance of delicious white Alba truffles.
The candlelit wine cellar, the setting for regular tasting evenings, houses some 1,100 different wines including some rare vintages of Romanee-Conti Grand Cru.
Like most of the best Austrian ski hotels, the Jagdhof is family-run. Armin Pfutscheller and his wife Christina are fully hands-on, as was his father and mother before him – they started with a café in Neustift in 1956.
Understandably the hotel clings to tradition, but it also has a magnificent 2000 sq m spa on two levels. This offers some 20 different saunas and steam rooms, interconnected pools and an outdoor hot tub. There’s even a private spa chalet for couples with a private treatment room, pool, Finnish sauna and steam cabin.
With new BA flights from Heathrow to Innsbruck this winter, Neustift, The Jagdhof and the glacier make a great destination for a short weekend like my visit, or a full winter week.
However, I came away happy, but puzzled. If the new lift cost €68 million (£61 million), how is the lift company ever going to get its money back?
“15 years, with a glacier that allows skiing to continue from October to June, that’s all it will take,” said a spokesman.
Oh well, by autumn 2031 I might have saved up enough euros to buy myself a pair of those skis.
Four-night short ski breaks at Hotel Jagdhof cost from €766pp inclusive of half-board with tea included, a three-day Stubai ski pass and a €100 voucher (per room) to spend in the spa. Zenith Holidays offers packages here, along with Crystal Ski.
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