Kaunertal glacier lies deep in the heart of the Eastern Alps, straddling the border between Austria and Italy, and far from the maddening crowds

The elusive Ibex, or Steinbock as it's known around these parts, is in many ways a fitting symbol for the small glacier resort of Kaunertal, tucked away in the farthest corner of the Austria's Tiroler Oberland.

Alpine Ibex are hardy and agile creatures, and excellent climbers. Not unlike the off-piste skiers, splitboarders, ski tourers and alpinists that come to this quiet valley to conquer glacial peaks, and explore remote and untouched valleys. Their preferred habitat is rocky terrain between 1800-3300m, which is almost entirely contiguous with Kaunertal's small (but more than sufficient) lift infrastructure. The ibex are shy creatures though, blending in with the rocky terrain that they inhabit, and difficult to spot for the untrained eye. A metaphor, it seems, for Kaunertal itself, oftentimes overlooked by skiers and boarders with sights firmly set on more hedonistic habitats, such as Sölden, Ischgl, and St Anton.

To be fair, the 60 mile stretch of highway between Innsbruck and the Arlberg pass serves up more world-class ski resorts than any comparably sized area on the planet, so perhaps its no surprise that Kaunertal flies under the radar of the masses.

But that's not necessarily a bad thing, even in the eyes of Marcus Herovitsch, Marketing Director of the Kaunertal Glacier and Fendels Resort. "Kaunertal is essentially a very quiet, laid-back valley," claims Marcus. "We're not interested in directly competing with Sölden for the party crowd - after all it is the unspoiled nature and quiet atmosphere that makes Kaunertal unique, it's what brings many guests back year after year. We might have 2000, maybe 2500 skiers and riders on the mountain on a busy day, and that means that we hardly ever have lift lines, or crowded slopes, and freeskiers find untracked powder many days after the last snowfall."

Make no mistake though, Kaunertal is more than capable of letting its hair down and throwing a party, but a visit during the winter months may leave true apres-ski aficionados wanting. A few quiets at the Pfiff Alm in Feichten can turn into a rambunctious evening, but the biggest event of the year is without a doubt the Kaunertal Opening, taking place each year in early October. 2015 marked the 30th edition of this iconic event, which takes place both up on the glacier (primarily around the perfectly sculpted snow park) and down in the valley.

Three decades ago, at a time when only around 10% of resorts in North America and Europe openly welcomed snowboarders on their slopes, Kaunertal glacier - itself still in its formative years - recognised the potential of building a snow park and bringing together the rapidly growing snowboarding subculture for a festival. Through this annual early-season party, Kaunertal quickly established itself as an important hub for the fast-growing sport, though the fortunes of the snow park have waxed and waned in the interim.

"Kaunertal was really leading the way for freestyle snowboarding in the early nineties," explains Simon Möst, a mountain guide and ski instructor who grew up in the valley, between Kaunertal and nearby Landeck. And although Simon himself is skier who never crossed over to 'the dark side', as a local he's witnessed how perceptions of the resort have shifted over time. "As as snowboarding became mainstream, other resorts wanted a share of the action, and for a time Kaunertal developed in other directions".

The resort returned to its freestyle roots though, and these days Kaunertal once again offers one of the best snow parks in the Alps, designed and built by specialist park company Schneestern, whose impressive resume includes the setup for the gravity-defying Nine Knights, and the Stubai Zoo (another of Austria’s freestyle hubs). The snow park is at its best during the so-called Kaunertal 'Spring Classics', a series of events through April and May that attract local as well as foreign skiers and riders. The ‘Spring Break’ week sees Kaunetal well-populated with young Brits who have already discovered “Tirol’s Youngest Glacier.”
While Kaunertal’s tagline is “Tirol’s Youngest Glacier,” this is a reference not to the age of the glacial ice (it’s old) but really that it appeal to young freestyle skiers and riders, adventurous freeriders, and families. What Kaunertal can offer families that many resorts do not, is quiet slopes, and a broad, mellow glacial amphitheatre that always funnels skiers back towards the base area, where the Weisssee Restaurant serves as a focal point. Like many glacier resorts, Kaunertal is a little bit “upside down”, in that the most interesting and technical terrain lies under the Ochsenalm Quad Chair, below the main base area, while the beginner slopes are high up on the permanent glacial ice.
Of course, like any resort, Kaunertal cannot afford to stand still, and there are future plans to build upon the existing lift infrastructure and offer visitors even more. The remote location rules out an easy connection to an existing neighbouring resort, future plans could see a gondola built in the Langtaufers valley, which can be viewed from the top of the Karlesjoch gondola, where the 3-way border of Italy, Switzerland and Austria is clearly visible. Access to the glacier from the South Tirol (Italian) side would primarily open up the area to locals in the Vinschgau, plus visitors to the Nauders area. But lift-access from the small village of Melago is unlikely to take away from the rugged charm of this Tirolean gem, while adding a dash of La Dolce Vita.

Key Dates:

Kaunertal 'Spring Classics': 9 April - 29 May 2016
Spring Break (British Snowboard Week): 2-8 May 2016
Commencement winter operations: 17 September 2016
31st Kaunertaler Opening (Festival): 7-9 October 2016
Freeride Testival: 25-26 March 2017

Chris was a guest of the Kaunertal Tourist Board, Kaunertaler Mountain Guides, and stayed at the ***s Hotel Edelweiss in Feichten.

Related websites