The Obergurgl region’s rich snowfalls make it a skiing paradise beyond wintertime.
As I walked out of the Alpine Hotel Laurin in Hochgurgl in the early morning this January, Martin, a seasonal worker from Czechia, was clearing a walkway that had disappeared overnight under freshly fallen snow. “Ah, this is nothing special,” he said, noticing my childishly-delighted expression, “only 50 or 60 cm fell last night.”
At 2,150 m above sea level the tiny village of Hochgurgl, alongside nearby Obergurgl at 1,930 m, is blessed with some of the heaviest snowfalls in Austria, making it the perfect destination for the early season or sun-kissed spring runs. Remaining crisp and powdery when lower resorts are drowning in slush, their 24 lifts often stay open until May, giving access to 110 km of pistes.
Obergurgl has a special place in my heart: it was the first place I ever visited in Austria, when I was still an impressionable 14-year-old on a family holiday from England. With its quiet streets, still coated with compact snow in late March, I was mesmerized by its old-world charm and enchanted by the glamor of its traditional hotels. My hormones were troubled by the rosy-cheeked waitresses with their soft, throaty Tyrolean accents and I was fatefully marked by those first furtively stolen swigs of Austrian beer. It was no coincidence that after returning home I studied German, eventually returning to Austria for good seven years later. It’s an understatement to say this holiday left an impression.
Vistas and Memories
There was one particular view that really stuck in my memory back then and, returning for the first time over 20 years later, I was determined to seek it out. At 3,000 m above sea level and just below Wurmkogel peak, there is a narrow, wind-blasted ridge between the rocks close to the invisible border with Italy, where you can see right over to the Dolomites. Hoping for solitude, I took the very last lift up to watch the sunset play out among the jagged peaks.
20 years ago, there was a square timber hut straddling the ridge. Gloomy and dark compared to the blazing sunlight outside, it served square sausages, bottles of beer and – a new taste for me – plenty of schnapps. It had memorable open latrines that dropped over the cliff, much to the delight of my toilet humor- loving dad, since you could “shit towards Italy.” That old hut has since been replaced by the Top Mountain Star, one of Tyrol’s most innovative examples of mountain architecture, a circular, glass-walled bar with a spiked roof that makes it look like a giant spinning top. Needless to say, it has fully functional lavatories.
A metal viewing platform encircles the building and through the glass, I could see a few holdouts sitting with half-empty beer mugs. But I wanted to feel the frosty wind cutting my cheeks, and plumes of powdery snow were blowing over the shark-finned peak of the nearby Schermerspitze. Few things make my worries (and ambitions) feel as transient and insignificant as these timeless vistas. Few things make me feel so alive.
I’ve heard it claimed that Obergurgl’s slopes are not challenging enough for ambitious skiers, but I still needed to take a deep breath before launching myself off Wurmkogel ridge onto black run number 28, which leads back to Hochgurgl. There’s also deliciously steep off-camber skiing in the fluffy, windblown snow below the Schermerbahn.
That said, there are plenty of wide and relatively flat thoroughfares above Hochgurgl, perfect for families or a post-prandial cruise. Most of these offer panoramic views along the valley and across; my favorite is red piste number 42, a sweeping run below the brand-new Kirchenkarbahn gondola lift, built a couple of years ago at the cost of €15 million. If you look up, you’ll be spoiled with a grand view reaching from the snow-capped roofs of Obergurgl to the Lehnerferner glacier. At the bottom, there’s an eccentric motorbike museum next to the tollbooths for the road over to Italy, open only in the summer.
You’ll hear a lot of English spoken here, as Obergurgl has been popular with British holidaymakers for generations. Alpine tourism pioneer Walter Ingham offered vacation packages here as early as 1934 and today, the resort provides a training base and sponsorship for British slalom star Dave Ryding. When the sun sets, many Brits can be found crammed closely at the raucous Nederhütte, which offers live music four nights a week. There’s always a sing-along and owner Rudi Gamper positively encourages you to dance on the tables. Thankfully, there’s not much to fear on the cruise back to the village on the gentle blue piste number 6.
I enjoyed staying at the reasonably-priced and friendly 3-star Alpenhotel Laurin in Hochgurgl. There are stunning views from the dining room’s glass front, you can cool off after a restorative post-ski sauna in an igloo and in the morning, you can snake down through the trees before you even have to take a lift. If you can afford it and fancy a touch of razzle-dazzle glamor straight from a 1960s Bond film, pop in for a drink at the genteel bar of the Hotel Edelweiß & Gurgl in the main village. It’s one of the noble stalwarts of Tyrolean high-altitude hospitality and you’ll see well-heeled patrons clinking champagne glasses as they toast mountain life.
But I prefer the more rustic charms of Hohe Mut Alm (2,670 m) myself. On a good day, you can count 31 peaks of over 3,000 meters from their terrace and when it snows, there’s a consoling fire roaring away inside, the perfect place for a last tipple of wheat beer. You can sip away contentedly, reveling in post-skiing endorphins while anticipating one last helter-skelter plunge back to the village. Obergurgl enchanted me as a teenager and, two decades on, the magic is still working.