Sponsored by Tirol

Off-piste paradise St Anton am Arlberg and luxurious Lech-Zürs have always been tantalizingly close - but the Flexenbahn now provides the (previously) missing link

The Ski Club’s Tirol correspondent, confirmed Austrophile and last-lift chaser Chris Taine revisits an old favourite – St Anton am Arlberg – which, thanks to the new Flexenbahn gondola, now anchors Austria’s largest interlinked ski area.

The Arlberg region, which lies towards the far (western) end of Austria’s mountainous panhandle, is widely regarded as the cradle of alpine skiing. Hannes Schneider, who founded the first ski school here and revolutionised skiing with his ‘Arlberg technique’ is the first of many local legends. In recent years, it’s been the legendary off-piste terrain – especially around the 2,811m Valluga – that has drawn visitors, along with the raucous après-ski action that unfolds each afternoon at the Mooserwirt, Krazy Kanguruh, and other piste-side watering holes. And now, the high-tech link-up between St Anton and neighbouring Lech-Zürs via the Flexenbahn gondola has created Austria’s largest connected ski area, further boosting the Arlberg’s enviable credentials. 
However, while the lift connection is undeniably a game-changer, visitors shouldn’t overlook what put St Anton am Arlberg on the map in the first place. So mixing a bit of the old with a bit of the new, here are my own top five reasons why the Arlberg is (and always was) one of the best ski regions on the planet.

1. Steeped in history

Chris Taine

There is evidence of St Anton’s long and storied history in every corner of the resort, which has contributed significantly to the development of modern skiing. It all started with Hannes Schneider, the son of a cheese-maker who hailed from the tiny hamlet of Stuben, which incidentally is now the connection point between Lech-Zürs and St Anton. Schneider developed and popularized the ‘Arlberg technique’ – a teaching progression that remains widespread today.

But Schneider’s role in the rise of alpine skiing extended well beyond the Wedge Christie – it was together with Arnold Lunn (of the Ski Club of Great Britain) that the first Arlberg-Kandahar races were organised in 1928. The annual alpine combined competition – slalom plus downhill – contributed to the rise in popularity of ski racing in the pre-WWII period. It’s still possible to ski the Kandahar-Galzig slope today, with a long fall line black piste (#52 on the piste map) at its best early in the morning.

In 1931, Schneider starred alongside Leni Riefenstahl in Der Weisse Rausch (The White Ecstasy), filmed on the slopes of St Anton and a pioneering ski film with impressive action sequences – especially considering the equipment used at the time.

Much of St Anton’s sporting and cultural history is well documented in a small but beautiful local museum, which rather conveniently is also a notable dining spot. Guten appetit!

2. Après… done right

Burger Wolfgang

St Anton is one of those places that is a magnet for young skiers and riders eager to ‘do a season’ – whether it’s Swedish freeskiers escaping the sunless northern latitudes during the depths of winter, Brits earning their stripes as instructors, or Austrians gravitating towards the best that their own country has to offer. This mix of nationalities and cultures, along with the Tirolean proclivity for ending a hard day’s skiing with equally hard partying, results in an unrivalled party atmosphere.

Most of the action centres around an area underneath the bottom of the Galzigbahn, just above the village of St Anton itself. The Krazy Kanguruh, Mooserwirt, Heustadl and Sennhütte are directly alongside the piste, drawing in the crowds as they descend towards the village with music (often live bands) blaring from the speakers. It’s often a dancing-on-the-table-in-ski-boots affair until well after the sun has gone down, at which point skiers and riders navigate the last stretch of snow down the base of the mountain.

If all out après-ski is not your bag, swing by places like the Sennhütte earlier in the day – the food is good, the service is friendly, and you can bolt before the revelers arrive. Down in St Anton itself, there are more cafes and bars catering for a post-ski decompression session, including Basecamp, Galzig and the Anton. The Dorfstrasse, running northeast towards the Nasserein base area, is lined with further eating and drinking options.

3. Famed off piste 

Josef Mallaun

There’s a reason why Ski Club Freshtracks returns to St Anton year after year. While the vertical descents aren’t quite a match for Chamonix, La Grave, or Verbier, the ‘off the back’ runs from the top of the Valluga are deservedly famous, particularly the north face run down to Zürs. Even with the Flexenbahn gondola, this is still the quickest way to make the connection! Bear in mind, you’ll want a local guide if you really want to explore the wild off-piste terrain around the Valluga.

Not nearly as remote, but still plenty challenging, are the couloirs around the Schindler Spitze. There are steep chutes with a variety of aspects, meaning you can almost always find something with the right conditions, and it can be tempting to just lap the old triple-chair all day when the snow is good. There are some long sustained pitches here, so even if you are confident without a guide, have your wits about you here. Slightly less challenging – but a must on a powder day – is the Schindlerkar, a wide open ski route in a large bowl. Better still is the route under the Mattunjoch, which can be easily seen (and skiers envied) from the Kapall/Gampen area. 

4. Hidden stashes

Chris Taine

 Long after the renowned off piste around the Valluga and Schindler gets tracked out, you can often still find powder stashes in some of St Anton’s remote corners. With visitors now eager to ski the connection over to Lech- Zürs, it’s conceivable that areas such as Rendl and Stuben will continue to be over-looked. All the better for those willing to poke around for fresh snow when others pronounce it ‘skied out.’

Rendl is accessed directly from St Anton village via an 8 seater gondola, though many of the lifts here are older non-detachable chairs. All the better for scoping out lines in tree-filled gullies and playful powder fields. The best terrain (in my opinion) is reached from the top of the Riffel II double-chair, and leads all the way down to the bottom of the Maass chair. There are even more challenging routes ‘off the back’ (again, you’ll want a guide for these ones).

Stuben is another sector with a ton of off-piste potential, and has the bonus of catching even more snowfall than St Anton itself, due to its westward location. Stuben once felt like a far-flung corner of St Anton, however the Flexenbahn gondola starting from Alpe Rauz now puts it at the heart of the vast ski area. Shady aspects and old slow chairlifts used to make skiing Stuben a rather chilly operation, but improvements in lift infrastructure (the Albona II gondola) have greatly improved the situation, and made it possible to lap the long, rollercoaster red pistes here. Immediate alongside the pistes is some easily accessible off-piste, as well as some more challenging chutes and faces.

5. Everybody needs good neighbours…

Josef Mallaun

And neighbours don’t get much better than ritzy Lech-Zürs. Yes, the Flexenbahn is a big deal. A very big deal. Many of the lift infrastructure projects – in Austria at least – over the past few years have connected small to mid-sized resorts to larger ski domains, or joined up two medium-sized areas. The development of the Alpbach-Wildschoenau ‘SkiJuwel’ area is a prime example, and in some way necessary to draw international visitors (here’s looking at you, Brits) for whom kilometres of piste and number of lifts have become part of the holiday booking criteria.

The Flexenbahn project is a different league though, connecting two already very large resorts to create one of the five largest in the world. If you add that to the enviable off-piste, hard-charging après, and bucolic traditional Tirolean villages, it’s a recipe that pretty hard to beat. And with all of that in St Anton, why make the trip across to Lech-Zürs? I can easily think of another five good reasons, but that’s another article altogether…

More information: www.stantonamarlberg.com