The sequestered slopes and secluded log cabins of Zettersfeld offer a different kind of skiing holiday.
There’s a certain romance in packing a week’s provisions into the cabins of a gondola cable car. OK, this is hardly the pioneer spirit of a ski trip to wilder parts of Alaska, but when you are leaving the world of cars and supermarkets behind for a week’s skiing based in a snow-bound Hansel-and-Gretel-like wooden hut in the woods, there is a frisson of excitement as you question whether you packed enough beer and toilet paper.
The ski resort of Zettersfeld, perched above the East Tyrolean town of Lienz, snuggles against a small forest at an altitude of 1,660 metres (around 5,500 feet) and is only accessible by cable car. Your luggage is picked up at the top of the lift by a man on a ski-doo and this airy height, with lack of any roads, means that even in the risky Christmas season, you are almost guaranteed to step out into a village that is clad from head to foot in soot-free snow. From across the valley, the village is overlooked by the dramatic buttresses of the East Tyrolean Dolomites, plummeting columns of grey, ice-laced rock. Zettersfeld is one of the rare places that manage to fulfill all those ski-holiday fantasies you thought only existed in kitsch Christmas cards.
Now don’t let me slip into romantic hypocrisy; I’m a regular consumer of our 21st century ski culture of eight-man chairlifts with heated seats and endless skiing of Austrian mega-resorts like Ischgl and Sölden. But it’s that very addiction that makes me appreciate the charms of tiny Zetterfeld, with its seven lifts, cosy, informal ski-huts and huddle of wooden cabins. It’s the sort of place where you can sit at night with a log-fire burning, drinking rough wine with rough friends while watching the snow pile up on the window ledges and wondering whether 21:00 is too early to go to bed.
The stuff of legends
If heaven was guaranteed to be like this, I’d start behaving myself.
But with so few lifts and a handful of runs, is Zettersfeld also a sporting destination? Yes, argues my old friend Sigi Grabner, a recently retired Olympic medallist and pioneer of snowboard racing. I meet Sigi, an immensely fit 40-year-old with a trademark pony-tail, at the circular Steinermandl panorama restaurant at 2213 meters from where you can see as far as the mountains of Italy. “It’s a great spot to ride medium steep slopes, all sunny-side-up,” enthuses the snowboard legend, “and the altitude means the snow is always pretty good.”
Sigi, who lives in a James Bond-type house built into the cliff walls of the local Gaimberg mountain, is now a sort of godfather of the sport he helped pioneer; and he is a cult-like figure in Japan, where the aesthetics of hard-boot snowboard carving are more appreciated than in Europe. Right now he’s hosting two insatiable young Japanese riders Masaki Shiba and Kentaro Yoshioka who have just polished off family sized portions of Tiroler Gröstl, oil fried potatoes with bacon and onion, and are now, alarmingly, perusing the dessert menu with cheerful intent. When we can prize them away from this calorific orgy, I see what Sigi means by the sun. The late-afternoon sunset of the early winter has turned the steep Osthang (east slope) into a pink field. I set off after the three boarders, who, with the hard-boot racing boards, carve through the snow at an angle so acute it looks like they could kiss it.
In Europe hard-boot race boards are becoming ever rarer, as the soft-boot freestyle boards take over, but Sigi, who designed and markets his own SG Snowboards wills me to give them a go: “When you get that angle, it is an amazing feeling,” he enthuses, “speed and power in the turns, laying into the curves – you feel like the motorbike racer Valentino Rossi.”
As the days go by, I find the limited size of the resort more than enough. The lifts fan out in a wide arc so you can take all sorts of variant routes off-piste. Zettersfeld, blessed by that Dolomite panorama, is also a favourite resort of ski tour enthusiasts, a boom sport that involves walking up the mountains with loose bindings and skins, escaping the maddening crowds and taking the sport back to its roots. I even try out a bit of boarding, spending much of the afternoon on my backside.
Home sweet Hütte
Every night, at dusk, when the snow takes on that desert sand tinge, I ski down to my home for the week: the self-catering Wernisch Hütte, skiing right onto the terrace, kicking off my skis and sipping a wheaty Weizenbier while watching a squirrel busying itself on fir branches that are weighed down by the recent heavy snowfall.
I know what lies ahead: pasta in bubbling pots, endless rounds of cards by the wood stove and another go at that fearsome bottle of East Tyrolean schnapps. It’s the most minimalist après ski you can imagine. But who wouldn’t want to go to bed early when the next day you can reattach your skis on the porch of your hut and hit the slopes again in a magical wintery world?
A world where, just for once, time always seems to be on your side.