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26 January 2016

Operation Secret Sölden

The renowned Tirolean party town - and recent Bond haunt - also has a quieter side, as Chris Taine finds out

Sölden has had a fair bit of press recently, in large part due to its supporting role in 007’s last outing, Spectre. The spectacular ice Q restaurant at 3048m in particular is an instantly recognizable filming location, and the resort is making the most of the opportunity to link itself to one of the most successful film franchises in history.

But beyond Bond, Sölden is a resort that is regarded, by some, as a little one-dimensional. A bonafide alpine party town matched only by Ischgl, a couple of valleys over, in its dedication to boisterous, boots-on-the-table après and hedonism in the mountains. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great ‘dimension’ to excel in, but the reputations of many resorts are often overly simplified, or even odds with what they actually deliver.

So while Sölden is undoubtedly a party destination par excellence, the mission – should I choose to accept it (sorry, wrong spy franchise) was to discover the quieter, more hidden side of the Ötztal’s biggest and most popular resort.

Schnapps in Soelden
Schnapps, schnapps, and more schnapps... but not this time round.

Hiding amongst the Holz

Chalet Resort Soelden
Brand new Chalet Resort Soelden offers up something unique not far from the village centre.

The typically, young, active crowd that Sölden attracts has resulted in the predominance of pensions (Austrian bed and breakfasts), holiday apartments, 3-star hotels, and a few fancier joints for good measure when it comes to accommodation.

One place – situated on the outskirts of the village proper – that definitely does not fit the mould is the new Chalet Resort Sölden. The cluster of tastefully done natural timber chalets (five in total, each accommodating 2-10 people) feel about as solid as the mountains themselves. The newly-constructed Holzhütten take on – and succeed – in the challenge of being luxurious, without it coming off as pure kitsch.

Initially, the idea of a weekend in Sölden sans booze had seemed like sheer lunacy, but cocooned in proper log cabin while the temperature dipped to -20C outside, any ideas about hitting the clubs were quickly put to bed (which were, coincidentally, extremely comfortable).

Away from the beaten pistes

Beyond the bars, Sölden admittedly is well known for its high-altitude glacier skiing, hosting the opening Alpine Skiing World Cup event each season. Hot off summer training, men and women both compete in Giant Slalom races on the Rettenbach glacier in late October. Along with the adjacent Tiefenbach glacier, the slopes are snow sure until well into the spring, making for one of the longest ski seasons in the Alps. With the glacier-viewing platform at 3340m, Sölden also has one of the most impressive vertical drops in Europe, and this makes for some epic long, thigh-burning piste runs.

There’s no substitute for local knowledge though, so a guide is sought out for the purpose of picking out some lesser-known gems – on and off piste. After nearly 30 years working for Skischule Sölden Hochsölden, Karl knows every corner of the mountain inside out, and has an exhaustive knowledge of the names of every jagged peak, every valley, and every glacier within view of the Gaislachkogel summit, where skiers congregate to take photos of the distinctive ice Q restaurant, which doubles as a futurist hospital in Spectre.

SkiWelt piste map 2015-16
Don't forget the pistes on the lower mountain... but definitely avoid the end of day hordes.

But the best on piste skiing is found far below, most notably the 22 (black) and 21 (red) that descend from the 2284m Giggijoch to the valley. These pistes are pure carnage from 2pm onwards, but just before lunch, once the crowds are clear, they’re steep, fast, thrilling rollercoaster rides. Although only a blue, the 2 piste is nearly as good, and it’s also the departure point for the Silbertal – a secluded corner of Sölden with several restaurants with sun-drenched terraces, and rustic huts available for weekly rental. The views up the valley are towards the Similaun, Austria’s sixth highest peak and former resting place of Ötzi the Iceman, at 5000 years old definitely past his après heyday.
Gampe Thaya
Gampe Thaya... does NOT need more cowbell.
Breakfast at the Gampe Thaya
Breakfast... all locally-sourced.
Away from it all in Silbertal.

From here it’s also possible to scope out some of the area’s best off piste possibilities, including the pencil-thin Pizzarinne (pizza chute) and the wide open, south-facing slopes the descend towards Venter Valley. Sadly, the miserly snowfall and mild temperatures early season have made for less than ideal conditions off piste, and many slopes need another good snowfall to cover the rocks and settle the snow pack.

The high-alpine nature of many of Sölden’s best and longest freeride descents means that they are typically at their best in February and March, so a return trip is already in the planning. Off piste skiing is not to be taken lightly here, with some incredible opportunities but also spicy, complex terrain. Do your homework, or make life easier and hire an experienced guide.

Nevertheless, local knowledge pays off even when the big descents are off limits, as there are untracked slopes just metres away from the Rosskirpl chairlift. It might not be steep, but knee-deep turns within view of Hochsölden’s hotels are nothing to be sniffed at!

I spy... something unexpected

Foregoing après once again to turn in for an early night, the sound of the alarm clock is still unwelcome, but quickly forgiven during an early morning hike to the Gampe Thaya.

Hiking through the forest to get to breakfast in a ski resort would have to rate as a first, but it’s no more than 30 minutes before we pop out of the trees and cross the piste to claim the best table at this 350 year old shepherd’s hut. In fact, Thaya apparently means “a place where animals and people live together”. Staying true to that, today the hut serves only locally-made products, including cheese and milk products sourced from the 30 odd cows (plus a few goats) that graze the fields around the hut in summer.

Scrambled eggs, cured ham, cheese, yoghurt, and homemade marmalade are served with liberal amounts of fresh bread and coffee, but with the chairlifts of distant Obergurgl already shimmering in the rising sun, it’s time to get out on the skis and burn off the breakfast calories. Skiing by the Gampe Thaya just two hours later (it is adjacent to the red number 11 piste) only further validates the decision to make an early morning visit, as crowds line up to get a seat. Proof, that sometimes the best way to see a ski resort in a new light is to simply embrace the unexpected. But at this rate, Sölden's secret side won’t stay that way for long.

Hiking to the Gampe Thaya
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