Kaprun, Austria – Like a growing number of Brits, I’d been
traveling to the other side of the pond for my annual fix of the white stuff
recently, but decided I needed another holiday, this time a bit closer to
home. I’d planned to go with my sister and her friends to Kaprun in the Austrian
Alps for a week in the middle of March. The main reason for choosing Kaprun
was the guaranteed snow cover (Kaprun is a glacier resort, which is open all
year round) and the proximity of the village to the larger town of Zell Am
See, which also has an extensive ski area. We’d booked into the all-inclusive
Neilson Club Hotel Lindshalm, which was described as "not suitable for
children" in the brochure, presumably because of the unlimited free beer
and wine we got as part of the all-inclusive package.
I finally meet up with my traveling companions at about 11:30
pm in the bar of an Italian restaurant in Birmingham (unusual, I know). There
were 5 of us altogether; my sister Alice, her friends Louise and Claire, Claires’
brother Mark, and myself. I was (mildly) horrified to discover the others
were going to be skiing all week and made it my No. 2 mission for the holiday
to get them to at least try the one-planked approach. (No. 1 mission: Not
to ride on a groomed run ever again unless strictly necessary).
We successfully managed to get my sister on and off the plane
with the help of a few valium. The flight from Birmingham to Salzburg was
a ridiculous hour and a half long (beats the 9 hour flight to Calgary), and
by a stroke of luck our hotel was the very first stop on the 1 hour 45 minute
coach transfer. Consequently we arrived in Kaprun in time for our lunch.
Kaprun’s glacier skiing area (photo courtesy Gletscherbahnen
The village of Kaprun, with the Kitzsteinhorn glacier
The village itself was fairly large, with lots of restaurants
and bars as well as the usual collection of continental-looking hotels and
houses. There was virtually no snow in the village, which we were told was
unusual for the time of year, although we were there quite late in the season
and I wasn’t really expecting blanket snow cover at 800m. Thankfully, you
could see the snow covered Kitzsteinhorn glacier from our balcony, so our
initial "shit, there’s no snow" thoughts were quickly forgotten.
Initial impressions of the hotel were favorable, the rooms were
a good size and all had en-suite bathrooms. The hotel bar was fairly small
but had plenty of room for the 30 odd guests. There was also a TV, video and
assorted board games, which made for a welcome distraction before dinner.
The other people in the hotel turned out to be a great crowd
and as the week went on we got to know everyone really well. As well as free
wine and beer, we were supplied with breakfast (the usual continental croissants
and coffee – I did start to miss those Canadian fried breakfasts), a packed
lunch (which I never ate, instead going for sausage and chips on the mountain
every day), and dinner (always really good food and plenty enough of it).
Apart from convenience, the main reason we chose an all-inclusive package
was the cost. Food and drink in European resorts, especially the suave French
mountainside villages, can be fairly expensive and can eat into your wallet
at quite a rate if you’re not careful.
The manageress of the hotel, Hayley, spotted that I had my
own board and enquired "Was I any good?" suggesting that rather
than spend the week cruising groomers with my sister et al., I could
hook up with her mates that were in Kaprun at the same time that we were.
I was introduced to Lee, who showed me their plan of attack for the following
day on a picture of the glacier. About halfway through that slightly drunken
conversation, he uttered the magic words: "The whole glacier is like
a massive powder bowl, and you can basically just go wherever you want."
In the morning, I met up with the rest of Hayley’s mates at
breakfast: Lee, Chris (Hayley’s bloke), Nial, Dan and Jake – another complete
powder hound. We walked to the bus stop (150m) and caught the bus to the lift
station at the base of the glacier. Thankfully, this was all on relatively
flat roads and the 6km trip only took about 15 minutes. First we had to take
a gondola to the very bottom of the glacier, and then hop on a 4-man chair
to get to the mid station. Alternatively you can take the funicular railway,
which goes directly to the mid station, but Jake and Lee (who’d been to Kaprun
before) told me that it usually takes ages to queue and stinks of other peoples
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The lift system was quite efficient once you were actually on
the mountain, comprising of 1 cable car, 4 chair lifts (some faster than others)
and 5 drag lifts (3 of which were double lifts). The design of the lift system
was more reminiscent of those found in American and Canadian resorts, which
usually comprise of 9 or 10 high capacity chair lifts servicing a large number
of runs from each. This is in direct contrast to most European resorts, especially
the older, more traditional ones, which will have up to 100 lifts in the case
of a large area, most of which will only serve one or two runs each.
Once on the chair lift, I got my first real view of the terrain,
which was unusual in that there wasn’t a single tree in sight. There was about
a foot of fresh snow all over the glacier at the top. Apparently it was all
tracked out the previous day, but the overnight winds had filled it all in.
We spent the rest of the day cramming in as many powder runs
as possible. The highlight of the day occurred on the very first run from
the top station (3029m). Unfortunately, this particular off-piste gem was
all tracked out by 3 o’clock, so we spent the rest of the afternoon in the
vast off-piste areas lower on the glacier. In fact, I still haven’t worked
out where the groomed runs were. Due to the distinct lack of trees and wacky
arrangement of chutes and slopes, it feels like you are riding on the moon,
especially if you venture off-piste. Fans of tree skiing/boarding should note
that in addition to a lack of trees in Kaprun, tree skiing is not allowed
at neighboring Zell am See due to environmental protection rules. If you want
trees, I’m therefore afraid that you’ll have to go somewhere else.
There are 3 main ski areas covered by the Europa Sport Ski lift
pass: the glacier at Kaprun, the smaller Maiskogelalmbahn area, and the larger
area at Zell am See. Transportation between the 3 locations is by a free ski-bus.
My lust for powder satisfied, I returned to the hotel for more
free beer, followed by a night out in Zell am See. Much bigger than Kaprun,
it has a lot of bars and clubs, most of which we seemed to visit. It does
have its own ski hill, but due to the warm weather the only place worth riding
was the glacier. A fine night was had by all, especially Mark and his newly
found "lady" friend.
Morning: Hangover. I failed to meet up with Jake et al.,
and spent what remained of the morning with my sister who’d torn a ligament
in her knee on the first morning and spent the next two days sunbathing. The
main “lodge” at Kaprun is located at the mid-station of the glacier and is
called Alpencenter. This was home to a few bars and a couple of reasonably
priced restaurants, as well as the usual collection of ski shops. Throughout
most of the week, live music played outside on the veranda, which made for
quite lively lunch breaks; in fact, a lot of the locals didn’t ski at all,
and spent all day outside getting more and more drunk and dancing up and down.
I met up with everyone at lunch, and spent the rest of the
day searching out the rest of the powder remaining from the previous day.
During the afternoon, we spotted a nice looking powder run requiring a short
hike at the side of the resort area. Due to my rather delicate state, however,
we decided to tackle it the next day.
The first two days of the week were incredibly warm and sunny,
with the temperature rising above zero Celsius in the afternoons. Consequently,
by the end of the second day we were all sunburnt. That night we went to a
local bowling alley (not at all like 10-pin bowling) and returned to the hotel
for a few more free beers to formulate our plan of attack for the next day.
By the next day, the queues were getting bloody ridiculous,
and it was taking a good hour and a half to get from our hotel to the mid
station. Still, what can you do? It was apparently a local holiday week. I’d
acquired a pretty decent feel for the layout of the terrain on the glacier
by now, and we’d spotted a couple of really decent cliff drops which just
needed a bit of pow to make the landing a bit sweeter.
After lunch we decided to ride the run we had spotted the day
before. Nial, Jake and I set off, riding a drag lift as close as possible
to the point where we would have to start hiking. I strapped my board to my
rucksack and we were off.
The start of the hike held shallow snow, occasionally interrupted
by bands of exposed rock. We made reasonable time, although Jake was obviously
fitter than Nial and I were. The top of the climb rewarded nice thigh-deep
snow, preferable to the icy rocks lower down. After a rest at the top, we
set about planning our descent route. The run was incredibly fast………. the
snow steep and deep……….the adrenaline rush even bigger. I was going so fast
that I only got about 6 turns in before we were at the bottom, where we all
lay in the snow chuckling to ourselves before the short hike out to the nearest
By Day 6, all of my drunken "snowboarding is better"
rants had finally convinced Mark and Claire to give it a go, especially as
I’d offered to teach them. The night before had seen me running up and down
the nursery slope in the village (a bit of a hopeful description really, it
was more like a flat field covered in slush), trying to teach them the basics.
Now, I figured that it was time to let them loose on a proper slope. The weather
had taken a turn for the worse, however, and it was raining in the village
and blowing a blizzard at the top of the glacier – but that didn’t put us
off. By the end of the day they were both making decent linked turns, and
Mark even took his skis back to the shop.
The bad weather had really taken hold over the next two days,
and the lifts were shut down all over the glacier. We considered going to
Zell to ride all the black runs, but other people we spoke with advised that
it was very slushy and very busy, so we decided not to bother. Our snow sliding
days over for the year, we decided to go on a 2-day partying binge to round
off the season. Needless to say, we took full advantage of the free beer option,
as well as exploring a few local bars in Kaprun, more notably the Baum Bar
and Mandy’s. The second night (and also our last) was St Patrick’s night,
which the Austrians seem to go for in a big way. Mind you, the Guinness isn’t
up to much. We spent most of the night playing a bizarre pub game that involved
bashing nails into a block of wood with a hammer. In hindsight, giving Mark
a dirty great big hammer and 6 inch nails probably wasn’t the wisest thing
we’d done all week.
Awaking to a massive (and I do mean massive) hangover, the flight
home was thankfully not too bumpy. All that was left now was to sit around
my flat, staring longingly at my board … and waiting for winter.