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Hitting the Slopes in Arlberg, the Birthplace of Modern Skiing

Our writer makes fresh tracks and earns his après-ski beer in the Austrian Alps.

Arlberg’s slopes

Peak season: European tourists hit Arlberg’s slopes late December through March.

“You’re a lucky man. This is going to be the best day of the year,” my guide Christian Putz confidently tells me. Thirty centimetres of snow fell overnight, the sky is as blue as a tarn and our tushes are planted on a plush heated chairlift that’s whisking us to a ridgetop above Zürs, one of eight villages that make up the sprawling Austrian mountain resort of Arlberg. I hear dynamite detonating in the alpine for avalanche control, a drum roll for what’s about to happen. We offload, nodding at a sixtysomething liftee, face tanned and creased like an old map. Boots buckled down, goggles on, I launch into a warm-up run, following Putz as he pops off the edge of the groomed piste and lands in snow as light and fresh as the -6°C mountain air. The bowl below us is trackless and tempting, whipped into a soft meringue.

Learning to snowboard; Lech

Left to right: Learning to snowboard in rose-coloured goggles; shingled chalets and stone churches line Lech’s quiet streets.

Arlberg’s cluster of peaks on Austria’s western frontier is, as the locals here are fond of reminding you, the birthplace of modern skiing. In the 1920s, Hannes Schneider, the son of a Stuben railway labourer, ditched the awkward single-pole telemark style favoured at the time and created the Arlberg technique that revolutionized the sport, taking skiers from snowplow to parallel. Schneider went on to found one of the world’s first ski schools in St. Anton, the village now best known for its debaucherous après-ski scene (so wild some bars have instituted a “no drinking in ski gear” policy after 8 p.m. to prevent drunken schussing). The Tyrolean villages soon became a holiday playground for Russian oligarchs and European royalty: princesses from Lady Diana to Caroline of Monaco have carved up Arlberg’s slopes.


Nothing but blue skies in Arlberg.

Nowadays, locals like Putz are intensely proud when it comes to all things winter, including their ski lifts. Since last season, thanks to the new Flexenbahn and Trittkopfbahn cable cars, largely inaccessible terrain on the north face of the Trittkopf Peak is now open for skiing. The added lifts “complete the circle” says Putz, explaining that they make it possible to travel between the area’s villages via more than 300 kilometres of piste, 200 kilometres of off-piste and 88 lifts – the largest interconnected ski area in Austria. And you can do it all on a single day ticket (if you’re quick enough) and without ever having to remove your skis.

Herbert Jochum; Lech river

Left to right: Veteran ski instructor Herbert Jochum; a river runs through it in Lech.

We make the most of our passes and head up the Trittkopfbahn II, so pristine the cable car still has that new gondola smell. Putz squeegees a porthole in the car’s window to point out the alpine bowls and chutes that make the area a Valhalla for powder fiends (there are also plenty of groomed green-square and blue-dot slopes around Arlberg for newbies). At the top station, we navigate selfie takers like pylons, then drop down through a cleft in a band of dark rock, landing with a face wash in a pillow of white. So the day goes, cloudless skies and nearly every turn a powder turn; we pause only once to refuel with an espresso and slice of linzer torte. By last ride, my legs are as flimsy as overcooked spaetzle.


Fresh powder on a bowl of Kaiserschmarrn (shredded Austrian pancakes).

Après-ski hour leads me to the Ski Club Arlberg social held at the Hotel Krone in the village of Lech (St. Anton’s responsible older sibling). Tonight a few new inductees will be welcomed into the nearly 8,500-member club. Along with the honour of joining one of the oldest ski clubs in the world, they also get the the satisfaction of knowing that their €50 membership fee supports young racers hoping to ski in the tracks of local Olympian gold medallists like Patrick Ortlieb and Egon Zimmermann. Settling into a leather chair with a tumbler of pear schnaps, I look out the window at the gothic St. Nikolaus Catholic church, which dates to the 13th century when migrants from the Swiss canton of Wallis first settled this remote mountain valley. It’s easy to imagine the club’s first meetings way back in 1901.

A local commutes by snowmobile

A local commutes by snowmobile.

To prove their bona fides, inductees – including this evening’s recruits, an elderly American gentleman and a stylish young couple from Vienna – must have skied Arlberg for the last three years and been endorsed by at least two members who can vouch for their devotion. They bow their heads as they don the red, white and gold club sweater and sign their names in the leather-bound registry. Snifters of schnaps are raised. Next to me, the club secretary Pia Herbst whispers, “I was in Beaver Creek, Colorado, last year for the world ski championships, and you wouldn’t believe how many Ski Club Arlberg sweaters I saw. People are proud to wear them.” Afterward, I step out of the hotel into a clear night full of stars, thinking that I have witnessed a ceremony more akin to the Knights Templar than a ski club.

Adalbert Leibetseder; downtown Lech

Left to right: Former ski champion Adalbert Leibetseder makes ski boots by hand in Zürs; booting it through downtown Lech.

Part ritual, part transport, turning on snow with planks underfoot is also an efficient way to get around here. The next morning, that’s how I travel to Stuben, a village of just four or five streets and 100 residents nestled in the head of a box canyon. From a windy knoll high above Lech, I survey the powder left over from two days ago. It’s been thoroughly tracked, but I manage to sleuth out pockets of fresh snow preserved between the runs. On the way, I spot four ibexes, who gracefully scale a razor-edge ridge below me, finding a peaceful sanctuary of wilderness in this densely skied corner of Austria.

Relais & Châteaux Gasthof Post hotel

A quaint chalet exterior belies the luxe interior of the Relais & Châteaux Gasthof Post hotel.

Soon I’m clomping through Stuben in my boots, window shutters clattering as restaurateurs prepare to greet the lunchtime ski crowd. It doesn’t take long to find the bronze statue of a weather-beaten Hannes Schneider, skis on shoulder, eyes turned toward the mountains. He stands across from the local church – skiing is like religion here after all – and a cheeky passerby has popped a pair of goggles on his bronze face.

I’m here to meet Gertrud Schneider, daughter of Olympic slalom gold medallist Othmar Schneider (no relation to Hannes) and the manager of Hotel Kristiania, standing in front of a stout, three-storey chalet. Gertrud is one of many enterprising locals who have figured out the delicate balance between preserving tradition and evolving the area toward glossy luxury.

Goldener Berg Hotel

Après-ski at the Goldener Berg Hotel.

Two years ago, backed by French and American investors, Schneider renovated the modest building where Hannes was born in 1890, turning it into a extravagant private getaway that rents today for $40,000 a week complete with a butler and chef. I wander the three floors, as much a vacation rental as a tribute to the man himself. Its walls are adorned with framed black and white prints that follow the perpetually suntanned Austrian’s rise from mountain bumpkin to globetrotter, starring in early ski films and meeting the Emperor of Japan.

Gertrud Schneider

Gertrud Schneider sits for a portrait at Hotel Kristiania.

That same reverence for skiing can be felt at the Strolz rental shop, a modern silo that sticks out among the tidy post and beam chalets of Lech, like the Guggenheim airlifted into the Austrian Alps. Cobbler Ambros Strolz began making leather ski boots in 1921, launching a company that’s grown into a hand-made boot, gear and fashion hub. “The goal was to build a rental shop with the feel of a five-star hotel,” Ambros Strolz (a relative of Ambros senior) tells me as we descend a staircase that spirals around a crystal chandelier fit for a Vienna ballroom. Customers lounge on loveseats beneath a ceiling designed to look like ski tracks in the snow, and a spectacular painting of a glacier by hyperrealist artist Helmut Ditsch dominates an entire wall. It’s so uncannily real that I barely contain the urge to reach out and carve off a piece of ice. I’ve forgotten that the function of this place is to fit customers with gear.


Take a peak: Lech nestles neatly into the Arlberg mountain range.

Back out on Lech’s busy thoroughfare, the thump of Austrian pop draws my attention toward the packed Hotel Krone Sun Terrace, where my basic Gore-Tex shell is lost in a sea of posh fur-collared parkas. A friendly hand waves me over; it’s my guide Christian Putz. I join him at the bar, next to his father Herwig, a suave silver fox who I learn has been a ski instructor for five decades and has more than earned his après-ski beer. The bright winter sun begins to set, glinting off the fluted face of Omeshorn, the 2,500-metre peak that looms large over the town, before it disappears behind the mountain. We clink glasses of weissbier. Prost! says the elder Putz. Here’s to another century of powder.

Get ski schooled

Schuss through 100 years of the sport’s history.

Vintage photos of Hannes Schneider

Vintage photos of Hannes Schneider.

Skischule Warth

On the guided Priest Müller Freeride Tour, follow in the tracks of Johann Müller, an intrepid priest who ordered a pair of wooden skis in 1894 to visit his parishioners over the mountain in Lech. He became the first person to make the cross-country journey between villages.


Hall of Fame

This alpine multimedia exhibit at the top station, where Trittkopfbahn I and II and the Flexenbahn cableways converge, showcases Arlberg athletes who have made their mark on skiing, like the late Olympian Othmar Schneider, whose acrobatic one-legged turn was a staple of 1950s black and white ski photos.


Chart the evolution of ski boot technology, from leather lace-ups to the high-tech plastic moulded models of today, at the Strolz Rüfi location (100 metres from the rental shop) adorned with Strolz family artifacts. Bonus: Get measured for a pair of custom boots that will be ready to wear before the holiday is over.



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