Ridgelines: My love of Austria

Austria has continued to beckon me back — a special place where I feel a distinct kinship.

Tom Kelly

Black clouds danced around the 12,000-foot peaks of the High Tauern range in the heart of the Austrian Alps. The first rays of dawn glinted off the spike of the Kitzsteinhorn, its white flanks shining against the deep green of the valley below. From my vantage atop the Schmittenhöhe, I could see light shimmering on the waves of the Zeller See nearly a mile below.

One might ask, why did I leave 100-inch bases and powder every night to ski in Austria, where the winter has not been so kind? I’ll admit, on the final leg of my train journey from Wörgl to Zell am See, I had second thoughts as I watched mere strips of snow winding through fields, including the track for the fabled Hahnenkamm in Kitzbühel.

My love affair with Austria began 44 years ago this month when my boss gave me six days to get a passport and join him in Lienz for the Dolomitenlauf ski marathon. It was my first trip to Europe and everything was so different. As I walked around the Hauptplatz of Lienz, I was struck by so many sensory images, initiating my understanding of the nation’s culture. 

Since then, Austria has continued to beckon me back — a special place where I feel a distinct kinship.

Today, when you walk through any Austrian ski village you are captivated by the sounds, the lights, the outdoor bars and schnapps flowing deep into the night. It’s a culture of pride and independence. You won’t find Gucci or Prada storefronts. What you will find are Austrian brands, local merchants and cultural heritage.

Austrian ski resorts are quite different from ours. There are no real base areas with parking lots, as we know them. Instead, huge Doppelmayr gondolas spiderweb off ridgelines to myriad valley locations 3,000 feet below. Mountainside inns, run by the same local families for decades, serve regional cuisine.

On the mountain, greens are blue, blues are red and black runs are avoided by most. The serpentine runs we love at home are replaced with wide open freeways coursing down the broad shoulders of towering alpine peaks. On the mountains, eight-pack chairlifts with heated seats and bubbles whisk skiers back to the top so they can drop down into another valley, a new village and a new experience.

If you measure your ski days by vertical drop and number of runs, you’re touching on only one small part of the experience. My days were highlighted by time spent on mountain peaks absorbing the view, munching on a krapfen while sipping a heiße schokolade in the Eder Hutte or walking through the display of old Volkswagens at the Areitbahn mid-station. I pored over maps plotting how I could reach the next valley, and how I might get home that night by bus. 

One morning I slipped unnoticed into the quiet stüberl of the Breiteckalm above Zell am See. Above my hand-crafted old wooden table was a display of pictures and trophies. Among them were several from the Harriman Cup in Sun Valley. “Do you know the history,” I asked my bearded waiter. “Yes,” he replied, “those are my grandfather’s trophies. You know, they must have had such a good time in Sun Valley.” 

In the winter of 1938-39, Peter Radacher joined legendary skiers like Otto Lang and Hannes Schneider, coming to America. They became the poster children of a burgeoning new sport, Radacher winning the 1939 Harriman Cup. The war brought him back home where he later built the Breiteckalm, which has remained in his family for eight decades. He was a ski instructor until he passed at 93!

Dressing up for my dinner for one, I sat in the elegant dining room of the Hotel Steinerwirt in Zell am See soaking in every ounce of the experience. I slid a knife through the puffy brown breading of my Wiener schnitzel, savoring the red preiselbeeren complemented by a blaufrankisch red wine from a region south of Vienna.

On my last day, as I waited for a bus at a remote gondola base outside Saalbach, I watched a young mother bundle up her two-year and three-year old boys. It was an arduous task to ferry them – and their gear – across the highway to a lonely magic carpet standing alone in a snowy field.

Run after run they put their tiny skis onto the carpet for the ride up. Then it was all downhill as they jubilantly slid at top speed to the bottom – the joy evident in their smiles. On a snowy January afternoon, this young mother found time to introduce her children to skiing – an important part of their lifestyle deep in a narrow mountain valley.

To me, it was another reminder of what we all enjoy with life in our own mountains.

Auf wiedersehen Österreich!


Betty Diaries: Helloooo, Betty

It was opening day at Park City Mountain. After a few runs at PCM, I headed to Canyons side to meet up with some friends who were riding over there. We spent the afternoon lapping Kokopelli and decided to take the gondola back down to Umbrella Bar. My friends got on, but I was too slow getting my skis loaded, so I had no choice but to take the next one.

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