Austria’s answer to Chamonix, Heiligenblut is a freeride mecca in the heart of the Hohe Tauern National Park. Louise Hall discovers a small historic ski resort with big off-piste access and serious wilderness steeps.
"Blimey, it’s been wind scoured!” exclaims Simon, a lawyer in our group, brightly hiding his dismay as we gaze out of the frost-covered bubble window at the windblown wasteland below. We are headed up to the Scharek top station. This is the first lift of our Ski Club ‘expert’s off-piste’ week.
"I’m not going to lie, it was brutal up here yesterday, with winds gusting 80km,” says Susie, our Ski Club rep. "I gave up and went back to the hotel for a swim and steam to warm up. I don’t remember the last time I did that.” Simon and I look at each other and wince as the bubble grinds to a halt. Even the clouds hang limply in the dishwater sky. It’s not exactly a brochure first day. It’s frustrating. We’re here on account of the record snowfall across the Alps.
There is an irony to arriving on an off-piste week to find the best powder in recent years rendered windblown. But, as perfect irony would have it, we needn’t have worried. For, the following day, the snow arrives.
THE HOHE TAUERN ‘BIG FIVE’
It swiftly becomes ‘the week that keeps on giving’. In the end, we clock-up 33,000m vertical. Not bad for a small resort with no mechanical bird in sight. The only birds we see are soaring golden eagles and bearded vultures (a Persian symbol of luck). Keeping your eyes peeled for the Hohe Tauern ‘Big Five’: the golden eagle, the bearded vulture, ibex, marmot and chamois - and skiing to the silence and soundtrack of nature - is part and parcel of the 'Heiligenblut experience', we discover, as the week progresses, once this lift is moving again.
Arriving at the top station, it’s fair to say, moods are not high. We’re the only ones up here, being buffeted by a wind so strong and steady [now] that it blows a long trail of airborne snow that obliterates the sun. Nobody is out to play today.
But this is where good mountain guides show their worth. And with Matthias Lackner, 34, a guide of 10 years and avalanche safety guide of four years, who was born in Klagenfurt, the region’s capital, we have lucked in. He couldn’t know the mountains better and his grasp of English is excellent.
"There is no such thing as good or bad conditions, just good or bad skiers,” he says, when at one point I beg to know how he masters the ‘shark fins’ so effortlessly. "Close your legs, create one surface and float over,” he explains.
Skiing, he reminds us, is all about mindset. "This is an ideal opportunity to nail the windblown off-piste and all condition technique,” he says. "The idea is to move the lower part of your body not the upper part.” He’s right, of course.
After a surprisingly good morning’s freeriding, speed carving the corduroy pistes, tree skiing and riding gentle powder bowls around the central Scharek freeride zone, we stop for lunch at the Schistadl restaurant, known locally as the ‘Poison Hut’. Hans Fleissner-Rieger, the rugged blond curly-haired local owner, welcomes us like old friends. He waves us to a table by the bar and serves lashings of steaming homemade ‘knoblauchsuppe’ (garlic soup) Karpfensuppe (meat-filled Tortellini soup) and Apple Strudel, ‘made by mama’, washed down with shots of their famed family ‘poison brew’, a digestif made from local tree roots. Hearty and simple, lunches here are ultra-affordable(10-15e each).
We are staying at the historic four-star Nationalpark Lodge Grossglockner . The rooms are spacious, the newly renovated spa is too but it’s the food and staff that are standout.
The next morning, the snow arrives. Today, at the mid station we turn right, taking the rainbow ‘ghost train’, as the guides call it, for a spooky front-row-ride right through the dark mountain heart to the Fleisselm freeride area, with Matthias blacking the light with his bag and "wooing” like a ghost.
Heiligenblut is divided into six main freeride zones; the Fleisselm has steep alpine terrain on the upper part, with gentle, wide powder fields in the lower part. We take the drag to the top of the resort, ride the steeps and deeps down, pop out in the woods, and then loop and repeat, with differing routes.
Later in the week, Matthias, now known simply as ‘our man of many talents’ (thanks, Susie), picks us up to take us ice-climbing in his car. He comes stocked with ropes, harnesses and, of course, the local ‘poison brew’, to warm us as the light starts to fade - along with the feeling in our toes. It’s freezing climbing a wall of ice but it’s beautiful; the sky lit with stars. We may not be climbing the mighty Grossglockner but its satisfying to conquer our fear and learn to climb, like spiders in spikes, trusting the sharp tip of the metal grasping the ice.
Back at the hotel, after a soak in the spa, we reconvene in the hotel bar - the Pioneer’s Bar - for the evening’s briefing. It is then, as Frank, the barman, tops up our glasses and places another log on the vast open-hearth– that we learn that this is the exact spot that Austria’s first (ever) ‘early Alpine’ mountaineering clients met with their guides to climb the Grossglockner, over a century ago. In essence, this is the very site that Austria’s winter tourism industry was born - now worth over one billion euro annually.
It isn’t every day that one gets to ski in the wildly romantic heart of the Hohe Tauern national park, come back to warm up in your wilderness spa lodge hotel, with four-course dinners, and take home that fact. This is the week that just keeps on giving. Pure gold. Not half bad for probably the best Austrian ski resort you’ve never heard of.