RIEZLERN, Austria — To do my thing when heading for the Big White, like any T-Bar-fly ready to sizzle down a thousand feet of vertical, I take snow seriously and am careful. Plenty careful.
I chanced upon a new ski heaven, a winter valley that's waiting to be tested by Stateside ski freaks.
My reverie resort is called Kleinwalstertal, a name some folks can't pronounce in one breath. To get to Kleinwalstertal, which is part and parcel of Austria, you don't come to Austria because from this country you cannot get to Kleinwalstertal.
What you do is go to Germany, to the town of Oberstdorf. From there winds one road across the border into Austria. The reason for having to go all around the mulberry bush is that Kleinwalstertal is shut off from the rest of Austria by a U-shaped wall of impassable mountains and ridges.
For people who want to go through the fun and fuss of getting to Kleinwalstertal, which is about 110 miles west of Munich in the Bavarian Alps, the fuss is less than it seems and the fun is much more than it promises. The tourist office here says that snow is guaranteed from the end of November to about the middle or end of April.
There are 30 ski lifts and chairlifts, two mountain aerial cable cars, eight ski schools and even a ski-bob school with its own run for ski-bobbers.
Other apres-ski features include skating rinks, tobogganing, sledding, bowling, curling, winter camping, indoor swimming pools, saunas, bars, discotheques, dancing, nightclubs, a gambling casino, movies, a theater, a Walstertal folklore museum and a vast network of cleared paths for cross-country buffs or snow-hikers.
The woods give you a zestful feeling that the whole planet Earth belongs to you. But mere words like these won't do. So let description rest there.
However impressive your foray into the interior may be, the snow-show is still Kleinwalstertal. Make no bones about that. It comprises four towns that run together like linked sausages: Riezlern the capital (altitude, 3,666 feet), Hirschegg (3,860 feet), Mittelberg (4,060 feet) and Baad (4,167 feet). They boast a native population of 4,000, all of whom in one way or another work at jobs to make your ski stay a great one, and collectively, the quartet of villages provides 9,000 beds in 75 hotels, inns and boarding houses, plus 500 other accommodations in private homes.
Riezlern, the largest of the four, is a working town, not a Disneyland stage set. In the wide, basin-shaped valley, it is the center point for the best skiing. The 16-minute cable-car ride takes you to the Kanzelwand's end-station, 6,666 feet up (where some folks sun themselves on the terrace or gobble up a scenic meal), from which point you can move on to several skiing grounds with one of three lifts.
Access to Ski Grounds
If continuous descents rev up your spirits, there is a four-miler with 2,000-foot verticals from which you can yo-yo your way back to the village.
Hirschegg, in the middle of the valley, is preferred by many skiers because it provides access to the large skiing grounds of the Schwarzwassertal. Networked with chairlifts and T-bars, this part of Kleinwalstertal will keep you skiing all day if you want. Lift lines are generally small. Except for the open slopes above the tree line, the runs are laid out on trails that nip through pine forests. Altogether, Hirschegg commands 40 miles of groomed downhills.
With high chalk mountains surrounding it, Mittelberg--pegged as the loveliest of the towns--has several miles of elegantly prepared slopes for high-speed cruising. Mittelberg is definitely intermediate skiing where even a cautious snow plower can track the mountain while drinking in what may be K's most spectacular view.
As the highest of the villages, Baad is the southernmost point of the valley. It almost seems like the end of the world. Baad has only one ski lift that takes you to two lackluster runs that would not petrify even the most shaky of novices, so this is the place for the scaredy-cats.
In Kleinwalstertal you won't meet any of the VIP celeb set because the prices are low, but you will find everything a snow-freak needs. There's even the world's only drinks bar made out of ice and snow.
A Bright Idea
More than 20 years ago Gyula Varga, a waiter in a cafe at the base of the Parsenn lift, had the bright idea of using a shovel on a mound of snow and sculpturing it into an eisbar (ice-bar). Varga keeps his bottles properly cooled in rectangular niches he has carved into a snow wall that is bedecked with flags from many nations and that faces a long frozen bar that has been leveled into an elongated flat plateau.
Only the bar stools are not made from snowflakes. And naturally, all drinks come with ice cubes on request.
Like everything else in Kleinwalstertal, Varga's outdoor Jack Frost saloon is designed to keep you in good spirits. There's snowplace like it.