The big news for the coming ski season is a new set of lifts in Austria’s Arlberg area. They’ll link glitzy Lech and raucous St Anton but will also benefit treasures like tiny, snowy Warth.
It is 3pm in the Arlberg, Austria’s premier ski area. In glitzy Lech, expensively clad skiers cosy up under sheepskin throws at the Tannbergerhof champagne bar, tucking their shiny Swarovski and Moncler shopping bags beneath the bar stools and posing at the spot where the easy pistes trickle to a halt.
On the far side of the mountain in St Anton, a different scene is unfolding: the shrieks and singing of an après ski scene that is already well under way drown out the striking of the church clock. Drinks are being necked at schussing speed, spilt beer mixes with melted snow on tabletops that bounce under the weight of the revellers dancing on them in ski boots as they celebrate a day of steep descents – or just the end of yet another hangover.
But I’m above the sleepy village of Warth, riding down wide, empty snowfields, still untouched since the previous night’s snowfall, passing the occasional glowing chalet window, before sweeping into the forest, where silence settles thickly.
These three resorts are only a few miles from one another, yet offer very different ski experiences. Skiers have long been aware that the villages of the Arlberg, west of Innsbruck, offer all things to all types of skier. The received wisdom says St Anton is for the young ski-and-party-hard set, Lech and Zürs are playgrounds for the European elite and Stuben is a good-value family option. Zug and Warth are quiet retreats in between.
What’s new is that this winter these resorts are all being linked by a €45m network of three new lifts. And when these lifts, which cross the Flexen pass between Zürs and Stuben, begin to turn this season, the final piece of the jigsaw will click into place, and St Anton, St Christoph, Lech, Zürs, Warth and Schröcken will be united to form the largest ski area in Austria, with 340km of pistes and some of Europe’s best backcountry.
It’s the big news of the coming ski season and is being heavily promoted by tourist boards and operators in St Anton and Lech. But it is the small, as yet under-the-radar resorts that stand to benefit most.
Tiny Warth, at the region’s northern end, has until now been overlooked by all but the most investigative British skiers, despite its claim to be the snowiest resort in the Alps, with an average snowfall of 11 metres a year – more than double that of big-hitter Val d’Isère.
That fact alone made me want to snowboard there and, even in late March – the tail end of the season – it didn’t take me long to find plenty of mellow untouched powder to ride. The joy of Warth, I soon discovered, is that it has the advantages of bigger, more famous neighbours, while remaining a small traditional village. Warth has about 150 permanent residents to St Anton’s 2,500.
After a couple of days tearing around this undulating terrain, stopping for coffee and Kuchen in cosy places such as Berghotel Körbersee, where I had to step over a snoozing St Bernard to access the toilet, I ventured further into the backcountry with the Warth ski school, whose range of guided off-piste excursions is more original than any I have seen.
We hiked and descended a thrilling route down the back of the 2,297m Auenfelder Horn before trying the Father Müller tour (€75pp) which follows the route used by a local priest, said to be the pioneer of skiing in the Arlberg, to reach Lech.
In 1894, after reading about them in a newspaper, the good Pfarrer ordered a pair of skis from a manufacturer in Sweden convinced that they would enable him to reach his scattered parishioners more easily in darkest winter. He set about teaching himself to ski, but did so only at night, under a full moon, so afraid was he of being thought ridiculous by anyone who spotted him.
Perhaps I would have done better on a moonlit night myself, or at least on a pair of skis. The initial traverse around the belly of the Karhorn mountain was too flat for snowboarding, so I abandoned the priestly path to the skiers and opted for the 2km-long Auenfeldjet gondola to Lech. There I played in the fun park and admired staggeringly expensive dirndls, lederhosen and leather boots in the Pfefferkorns sport shop, before reconnecting with the tour for steep powder and tree lines back to Warth.
Warth had its first big boost when the Auenfeldjet opened in December 2013, enabling skiers to reach Lech and Zürs without going off-piste. Those wanting to continue to Stuben and St Anton used to have to hop on the bus, but this winter’s new lifts remove that snag, making seamless long-distance forays quite possible. Enthusiasts could ski to St Anton for a few runs and a Jägerbomb in the Krazy Kanguruh before pelting back for tea.
With a toddler in tow, après ski for me meant a quick beer then a swim at our hotel – the Lechtaler Hof, smallest and sweetest of Warth’s handful of family-owned hotels – followed by fantastic five-course dinners that might include fragrant dumpling-and-wild-chive soup, roast lamb and divine fruit tarts. Our kind waiter, Paul, delighted our tot with her own special jug and cup, and steaming bowlfuls of spätzle pasta. She adored him.
Staff kindness runs all the way to the top, to owners Hans and Angelika Brenner, who opened the hotel in 1980. Their story was recounted to me in the bar one night, over a vivid lilac cocktail, by their daughter Martina, a keen forager. “The colour is from the lavender I collect,” she said. “They call me the Herb Witch!”
As well as that title, Martina, like her brother and sister, made her name as a ski racer before working in the hotel – the siblings’ trophies adorn the hotel walls, along with the odd taxidermied marmot.
“My parents couldn’t afford to buy anywhere in Zürs or Lech,” said Martina, “but they were always optimistic Warth would develop and be connected to the larger resorts.”
They waited a long time. But Warth is used to waiting. It got its first chairlift in 1964, whereas St Anton opened a cable car in 1937. To this day, the road that connects Warth to Lech, and then on to Zürs, Stuben and St Anton, remains closed by snow all winter.
The new lift is a step towards future-proofing Warth, where depopulation and the closure of the school had presaged a sad demise in recent years. It’s reassuring, though, to hear that thinking big is not on the local agenda, and ambitions remain circumspect.
“We need more beds to fill and more young people to move here … so we can support a little shop, for example”.
Despite the new connection, those ritzy Lech shopping streets just over the hill still seem a world away.