Fieberbrunn’s fortunate microclimate makes it a powder hound’s paradise
There comes a time in every avid skiier’s life when the thrill of the pistes wears off and even steep black runs lack that certain rush. Accustomed to the relative safety of prepared slopes, the eye wanders longingly toward the untamed depths of powder, and the call of the great white yonder grows louder. Fortunately, Fieberbrunn, in Tyrol’s rugged Pillersee Valley, is the ideal place to scratch that itch, being one of the best spots in the Austrian Alps for steep off-piste skiing that’s reliably deep. In the early mornings, you’ll see a young crowd gathered at the Streuböden lift station, unpacking broad powder skis, throwing airbag backpacks over their shoulders and gulping down energy drinks. Fieberbrunn has become the hip, edgy corner of the massive Saalbach- Hinterglemm “Ski Circus” region, which is a remarkable turnaround for a small town once considered a genteel spot for family holidays.
Just over a decade ago, when the advent of the fat ski popularized off-piste skiing, news got out about Fieberbrunn’s blessed topography: The jagged peaks offer accessible runs facing all four points of the compass, ensuring you’ll usually find soft, safe snow regardless of the varying weather conditions thrown out by Alpine winters. “It’s a massive freeride playground,” says the Austrian double Freeride World Tour champion Eva Walkner. “You can access some great lines really easily and with short hikes, you can find a lot of great and challenging terrain.”
“[Fieberbrunn] is a massive freeride playground; you can access some great lines really easily and with short hikes, you can find a lot of great and challenging terrain.” –Eva Walkner, two-time Freeride World Tour Champion
As a result, the World Freeride Tour embraced it as a regular fixture on its five-nation hop across the globe in 2009. It was an acknowledgement of the role the town had played in the sport’s development, having organized amateur competitions of daring-do for years.
The FWT contest, held in March, sees top stars like Walkner tackling the snow chutes leading down from the peak of the fearsome Wildseeloder, which resembles a molar tooth where slopes can reach 50-degree gradients and sharp, serrated cliffs await below. It’s stomach churning just to watch. Even the smallest of mistakes can have potentially life- altering consequences, but the riders love it – few places in the world offer such a long and varied run to show off one’s skills.
Regularly receiving the most snowfall in Austria, Fieberbrunn has runs facing every point of the compass, almost guaranteeing soft, safe snow despite its relatively low altitude.
There are a number of factors that work in Fieberbrunn’s favor. It’s a notorious Schneeloch, a “snow hole,” benefitting from an extraordinary microclimate that sees the Pillersee Valley regularly receiving the most snowfall in Austria. Yet, at least by Alpine standards, Fieberbrunn lies at a relatively low altitude – the town is 800 m above sea level with only one lift scratching the 2,000 m barrier, making it relatively safe for freeriding.
“Many of the most attractive lines are below the treeline, which helps give the snow stability,” explains local mountain guide Roman Haselsberger as we take the yellow gondola up from the white-topped roofs of the village. “And the ground below the snow is usually meadow instead of high Alpine scree and rocks, so you can freeride safely early in the season. Also, many of the slopes are sheltered from stormy winds.”
Haselsberger exudes the love of skiing. After hours of freeriding, you’ll find him in his shop, S4, near the base of the gondola station, fine-tuning the latest batch of fat skis. In his company, you feel in safe hands: There’s no such thing as a zero-risk off-piste adventure, with the potential for avalanches ever present even in ideal conditions. So before setting off, Haselsberger makes sure that you’ve packed the essential equipment: an avalanche beacon, a shovel and a probe. He’s relaxed but watchful, clearly scrutinizing my turns as we make our warm-up runs.
The key to good guiding is to minimize the danger while maximizing the sense of adventure. “I have to think about how my client’s confidence could be affected if a fog bank comes in,” he explains. “Or whether we will have mobile phone reception at a certain point of the mountain if anything goes wrong.” There’s a catalogue of risks and eventualities to factor in but at the end of the day, the green light for an off-piste run comes down to his gut feeling. “If it doesn’t feel safe,” he says bluntly, “we don’t go.”
JOINING THE CIRCUS
But times are a-changing in Fieberbrunn. Three seasons ago, the Tirols gondola was built, connecting little Fieberbrunn to the Ski Circus area that links the Salzburg villages of Saalbach, Hinterglemm and Leogang. The insider’s tip is now the Tyro lean outpost in an enormous ski region encompassing 170 kilometers of runs and 70 lifts.
This is a mixed blessing. For long-time Fieberbrunn addicts, this has meant paying a higher price for the obligatory full Ski Circus lift pass even if they remain on local slopes. Many also fear that the area’s charming backwater ski bum feel might be lost. At the end of last season, tall cranes, soaring like giraffe necks below the main lift station, hinted at new hotels springing up to cash in on an influx of tourists.
But Haselsberger argues that the change has generally been positive. The connection has made some of the freeride community’s favorite descents more accessible, with the TirolS gondola letting you ski down the pillow like north slopes below the Hochalmspitze and Reichkendlkopf without an expensive taxi ride back to the village.
“Fieberbrunn will always be unique,” says Haselsberger. “We have the north-facing slopes, we have the jagged peaks; and I think the different corners of the Ski Circus complement each other.” Hinterglemm, he explains, has the sort of relaxed, sun-kissed wide “motorway” pistes that are so beloved by tourists; Saalbach has thick forests and a wild, rambunctious nightlife, while Leogang offers family slopes, farmhouses and the spectacular karst of the sheer Leoganger Steinberge. Fieberbrunn, says Haselsberger, will always be the resort for freeride specialists – maybe no longer off the beaten track, but still snowy and edgy.
Of course, you don’t have to risk life and limb to enjoy the delights of Fieberbrunn. In the lower slopes of the Henne, just to the east of the glowering Wildseeloder, you can bounce through consistently excellent snow at much more manageable gradients. The
undulating terrain there is like a rollercoaster ride in an area so vast that you can still find pristine conditions days after a storm. The 1,200-meter vertical drop down to Pletzergraben, with its off-camber slopes and a treelined finale is also a run to remember.
Besides, having already reinvented itself once in the 21st century, you feel that Fieberbrunn has the wherewithal to go with the flow and stand out from the crowd.