OBERGURGL, Austria — While spending some cold-weather time in Austria, I made a strange discovery. On Tuesday nights during winter, an odd but very pleasant ritual is enacted here in Austria's highest parish. A bar is set up in the snow outside the Pension Olympia and the action begins, as if it hasn't been going on all day.
Lights come on and people drift in from the night. Once they have fortified themselves at the bar, they appear to be overcome by an urge to leap upon overinflated inner tubes of trucks or cars, sometimes tractors, and go scooting down the mountain on the peculiar conveyances.
They are doing so in increasing numbers and with ever-growing ingenuity.
The tubes are ridden in the manner you would sit on them in the ocean, a lake, even a large pool. They are virtually uncontrollable and rotate slowly as they head speedily down.
It is quickly apparent that the more people aboard, the faster and longer the ride will be. But there's also a snag, for the faster they go, the more the tubes buck like broncos. That spells possible disaster, but who cares? Certainly not the survivors, who are in the majority.
It also means a lot of hilarity, for the slope becomes littered with fallen riders and ricocheting steeds. But as a nighttime pastime, it is a lot more fun and much less dangerous than tobogganing and more comfortable than "poly bagging," the name applied to the arcane art of riding large plastic bags.
Whoever dreamed this one up is a genius of the first order; the sport was last year's invention and it's bound to catch on in other resorts, so you may be doing it this winter.
It is hard to believe there could be a resort with more repeat business than Obergurgl, which is decidedly one of this world's real winter gems. In conversations with fellow passengers on the bus from the airport, I realized that six consecutive visits is about par.
It's easy to see why: an excellent snow and sunshine record, very little walking to the lifts, no lift queues or traffic to speak of, and no trouble getting a table for lunch.
Top of the Valley
Yet this is not some ghastly, purpose-built resort but a cozy, very lively and definitely friendly village at the sunny top of the Oetztal Valley. It is quite high, 1,930 meters, but it is not exposed, for the sheltering trees grow as far as 2,150 meters above sea level, which is somewhat remarkable.
As nothing in life is perfect, so Obergurgl has its imperfections too, though minor. The skiing is somewhat limited, the lifts don't link up too well and the essentials are expensive, although extras such as drinks and discos are not. It is also a long transfer from the airport, but that's rather a blessing in that you are not surrounded by weekend crowds.
The place tends to be favored by older, married skiers. I do not mean to imply that there are no young people about; it has its share, but this is one great place for the middle-aged, where they need not be in constant competition with much younger people on the slopes or on a dance floor.
It is quite safe to categorize the person least likely to enjoy Obergurgl as a young, piste -bashing, randy, chauvinistic single male. I use the word "chauvinistic" in both its sexist and nationalistic connotations because there are pleasant young Dutch, German, British and Danish men around, with Americans--so far--in the minority.
But Obergurgl does seem to work a strange magic on all visitors, all of whom seem to be on their best behavior, most of the time.
Obergurgl is the middle and principal of the three Gurgls. There are also Untergurgl and Hochgurgl, which are on the same lift pass. The latter two are linked to each other by lifts and to Obergurgl by an efficient and free bus service.
There is no denying that no lift in the system carries you more than 700 meters up at a time. There is a respectable vertical drop between the top of Hochgurgl and Untergurgl below of about 1,289 meters, but the run is not particularly challenging, which may be its appeal for an "older" crowd.
You have to ride a series of four lifts to get back and start all over again. It's not all peaches and cream, but who cares? Not here, anyway.
One Rugged Run
One quite rugged run, however, is that of Hohe Mut above Obergurgl. It's tough for me, at least, because it is not piste and I'm no longer even middle-aged. Therefore, it becomes heavily moguled and is the first place in the resort where rocks appear through the snow. Even that has only a 560-meter vertical. Worse, there are only 22 lifts in the system. And a beginner is clobbered by the way they drop short of one another.