The Zillertal caters to both daredevils and families, boasting Austria’s steepest slope and gentle pistes
At last, the wind blew the last storm cloud o the knobbly buttresses of Penken mountain, leaving one of Austria’s most famous ski runs right beneath the tips of my skis, glistening invitingly with a thick coat of fresh snow. With a gradient of 78 percent, or around 38 degrees, the Harakiri Run above Mayrhofen in Tyrol is the steepest groomed slope in Austria; skiing it had long been on my bucket list of must-do experiences.
The beginning was disingenuously gentle, like a snowy siren luring me into gathering speed. I glided effortlessly toward a ridge anked by avalanche barriers, launching myself into the unknown with a delicious sense of weight- lessness – until the inside edge of my right ski dug into the slope and my left hip almost kissed the snow. Wow! My mouth gaped as I blew my breath out in effort and exhilaration, swinging back into a right turn and placing my skis almost perpendicular to the slope.
I love it steep like this. On hard ice, inclines like these might very well feel like a form of ritual suicide, but with these soft conditions, the piste was as enticing as a down feather bed and after a few intense turns, the slope flattened out. Now I was alone on a snaking track through snow laden firs in the early Zillertal morning. Tengoku, the Japanese word for paradise, felt far more appropriate.
Even without such a memorable run, Mayrhofen is a breathtaking place to ski. As you approach the village, the last stop on a charmingly rustic railway line, the craggy Penken rises up vertically from the pancake at Zillertal valley, resembling a reclining human face with a small cliff tumbling down from the tip of the nose and a dramatic drop from its tree-stubbled chin. On damp days, the clouds swirl around the hollows, seeping under the cable car line that spans across the chasms. Modernized in 2015, it now brings skiers and snowboarders from the village to the slopes in state-of-the-art 24-seat gondolas.
The forested Penken has wide pistes and, aside from the Harakiri, much of it is gentle and family friendly. There are more challenging runs on the lofty Rastkogel and Horberg mountains, where the rarefied altitude of 2,500 m keeps the snow reliably powdery from December to late March. It’s worth a trip for the Schneekarhütte alone: A huddle of two pyramid shaped buildings and a spire pointing skyward like a witch’s hat, this hip restaurant is refreshingly free of après-ski clichés. You’ll find good value organic food here, including a pulled pork burger that will keep you going even on the coldest day.
The serrated peaks of the Zillertal are among the most striking in the Austrian alps and have played a notable role in mountaineering history. It was here that local hero Peter Habeler made his early ascents before he and Reinhold Messner became the first men to scale Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen. His family still runs a ski school in Mayrhofen; now in his 70s, he is still regularly seen on the highest slopes. “I love the mountains,” he told me,“and I respect them. I think it is important that we understand not the hardness of the mountains but their softness.”
Mayrhofen is very popular with thirsty British skiers who party at the raucous, beery Scotland Yard pub, a former police station. The small town even hosts two British-run events: early in the season there’s the Altitude Comedy Festival, which has hosted Eddie Izzard and Bill Bailey, while Snowbombing marks the coming of spring with an all-night clubbing marathon.
If you prefer a more restorative holiday, try Hotel Edenlehen, 10 minutes from the heart of the village. It has a swimming pool straight out of a James Bond villain’s lair: Partially outdoors, you wave your hand in front of a sensor and then swim through a sliding door into the fresh mountain air. Through the curtain of rising steam, the Ahorn mountain is visible, home to Mayrhofen’s smaller but more homely ski area. You’ll also see the lights of the White Lounge, a cocktail bar carved out of the ice and snow.
You could easily spend a week in Mayrhofen and the villages of Finkenberg and Tux-Lanersbach, with fir forests and low-slung timber huts straight out of a Heidi fantasy. But the whole valley is served by one Superski Pass that gives you access to 179 lifts and 508 km of pistes. To make the most of it, take a 10 minute ride on the bumbling train to Zell am Ziller, which also serves as a gateway to the expansive Zillertal ski area.
Here the slopes are quieter, with remote mountain passes where you’ll see vast snowfields rounded like white pillows surrounding the villages of Gerlos and Wald-Königsleiten, just downhill from a frozen lake. It all feels a world away from the bustle of Mayrhofen.
It’s tempting to stray ever further into this idyll, but there’s an added motivation to head back to the main valley: Zell am Ziller is home to Tyrol’s oldest private brewery (established 1500), producing a full-bodied amber Märzen that gets my pulse racing as much as the Harakiri. A perfect companion while watching the sun cast its dying rays over the peaks, toasting another long, thigh burning safari in the Austrian alps.