There are lots of ways to enjoy Austria’s High Tauern alpine range, home to Grossglockner, the country’s tallest peak.
The ability to ski in the mountain’s shadow is an obvious choice, the one that brought me there in late February for the first time. Another, depending on your level of fitness, is walking, hiking, bicycling or trekking, one that will bring me back in the summer months. I’m sure that having your first off-piste experience on skis on the area’s steep unmarked trails is another. For someone other than me. But I’ll get back to that in a moment.
My 2017 explorations of Austrian ski areas continued last month with a pair of visits to the Grossglockner Resort Kals-Matrei, a 270-hectare alpine expanse set in an impossibly beautiful landscape surrounded by more than 60 of Austria’s 3,000-meter high summits. With 42 kilometers of trails serviced by a network of 14 lifts, it’s not considered huge by any stretch, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in diversity, challenge, sensational views and ease of access.
Its center point is the 2,621m (8,599ft) peak of Cimaross –home to the mountaintop Adler Lounge, Austria’s highest fine dining establishment– that is easily accessible through a series of lifts from both the quaint village of Kals to the east and the less sleepy town of Matrei to the west.
If the skies cooperate, there’s no escaping views of Grossglockner, whose dramatic peak jabs the sky at 3,798m (12,460ft) when making your way towards Kals and its eponymous Kalser Valley.
It’s said that that the Kals side is generally less busy but be aware that that doesn’t mean it won’t get crowded. The resort is a major attraction and the slopes do fill up. There’s a slightly heavier concentration of black runs on that side as well, especially from the summit of the Blauspitz lift, which also thins back the crowds somewhat.
The slopes on the Matrei side offer more trails in general, and more of the blue and red variety in particular — which means bigger crowds. That in turn means having to keep an eye out for the parades of Austrian pre-schoolers taking lessons. Which in turn means more stops for me to take pictures.
Surrounded by these sorts of mountain settings, along with an ample supply of lodges offering mulled wine and bar stools from which to share my ‘How I Survived my First Off-Piste Experience’ story, I’m fine with that.
Oh, about that off-piste thing.
Fueled and primed by an over-priced double espresso from the chic Adler Lounge, I decided to explore a black run that wound its way in the direction of Kals, one that was marked closed two days earlier but on our second visit, listed as partially open.
The start was easy enough, a fairly straightforward zigzag over some moguls and past a sign that read ‘gesperrt/ closed/ chiuso/ ferme’. Obviously, the crew forgot to remove it.
Almost immediately beyond the sign, views to the right of the trail offered nice vistas towards the Kalser Valley and the distant peaks of the Glockner Group that dominate it. Some 100 meters from the start the views to the left open up, mirroring those to the east and southeast in both majesty and steepness.
I stopped several times to take in the views and snap some photos; each time a pint-sized boarder would pass by and descend to the right through fresh powder down slopes that to me appeared impossibly steep. Each time, I stood and watched, convinced that those three-second bursts of adrenaline would be their last. But miraculously they all survived and I moved on to the next scenic overlook to take a few more photos. There were many of those, too, as I gradually continued to make my way along a brief flat portion of the trail that crested the split between Kals and Matrei.
As the trail continued to narrow, I began to question whether it was a trail at all, and wondered if the actual descent was the one those boarders were sailing down. The possibilities grew more bleak with each passing stride. I finally stopped at the top of what appeared to be a slightly less severe incline to weigh my options. Another teenaged boarder came by and he too stopped briefly. I tried to mask my panic.
“Is this the way down?”
“Of course, it’s not a problem,” he said, before hopping up, shifting direction in mid-air and disappearing down the mountain. That was the last I saw of him or the ‘fear nothing’ decal stuck prominently on his helmet. I turned too and began my cautious descent atop a set of freshly made tracks.
Things went swimmingly for the first ten meters. That was when I suddenly sunk knee-deep into the powder, fell onto my side and saw the top of a small bush appear through the snow next to where my head broke through the soft cushiony surface. I couldn’t see my right ski; the bottom of my left was snagged behind a rock or rocks at least half a meter deep, while the top, barely exposed, pointed towards Grossglockner with the accuracy of a stubborn Swiss-made compass.
That solo game of Twister didn’t last long.
I managed to work my left leg free and bring the right to the surface, but with at least two feet of freshly-fallen snow between me and solid ground, actually getting up and standing without sailing backwards down the steep escarpment was impossible. So I swam, an odd alpine backstroke-breaststroke combo, flailing my arms behind and in front of me, somehow propelling my skis to forge a path mini-avalanche style.
Progress was frustratingly slow. Twenty minutes later, after covering about a third of the descent, I got stuck again. This time both skis were wedged behind a large rock. Out of breath, I decided to just lay back and work on my tan. Two skiers carefully worked their way towards me to ask if I was okay. I thanked them before waving them off.
I eventually managed to pull off my skies and attempted to walk; imagining that my boots were snowshoes didn’t really help. Neither did imagining my skis as a toboggan.
About a dozen steps and tumbles later I came upon slightly more solid ground. There, I managed to get my skis back on but before getting my bearings or balance, I began to move at a steady clip towards a nearby drop off that definitely wasn’t meant to be part of anyone’s off-piste experience. But again I was stopped by knee-deep snow, this time some ten meters from the cliff’s edge. As I sat again to catch my breath, I looked up towards the crest where I started my descent. I’d barely covered half the distance.
My better half called, asking where I was. Knee-deep in snow, I said, off-piste. Near a cliff.
“What?” It was great to hear her voice, but I wasn’t in the mood to talk. I hung up.
More swimming. Then more sliding. Any decent progress was usually met head on by a hidden boulder or partially exposed branch. This went on for another twenty minutes before I finally reached the solid ground of a proper trail. I looked at Grossglockner’s saddle and saw a smile.
Kals-Matrei: the Nitty and the Gritty
14 lifts: thee gondola cable cars, two six-seat chairlifts, three four-seat chairlifts, seven T-lifts
42km of trails: 6km difficult (black), 22.5km intermediate (red) and 8.5km easy (blue)
Hours: Lifts run daily from 9:00am – 4:00pm
Rates: day pass €45/adults (19+), €22.50 children (6-18). Half day and other options available. All rates here.
Rooms and accommodation in Matrei and Kals (via Booking.com). We rented a house in a small village in the nearby Defereggen Valley (20min drive); an immaculate fully-furnished three-bedroom apartment for just €86/night. If interested, drop a line and I’ll put you in touch.
And to get your bearings:
Kals-Matrei Image Gallery
If you haven’t yet quite overdosed on pictures of the Austrian Central Alps, 29 more images are below to make 36 in all.
First up, on and from the pistes.
Next, some more mountainscapes and vistas.
Down the mountain to Matrei
Most visitors return to Matrei via the cable car, but there are a series of pistes that will lead you almost to the valley floor. If you start at top by the Adler Lounge, it’s a trip of 12km. At the end of the run, a bus awaits to take you back to the cable car area. It’s a nice run but be warned: if it’s warm near the valley, you’ll meet headlong with soft, thinning, even slushy snow. To experience those sorts of conditions in the waning days of February was saddening.
A few shots from the trail, mainly taken from the last section of red piste #2 and red piste #1. To give you an idea of how the snow conditions changed, they appear in the order they were shot.
And finally, a few more views of Grossglockner, all looking towards the northeast.