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The Amazing -- But Little Known -- Ski Scene at Solden, Austria

Bob Goligoski

SOLDEN, Austria – It is a bit challenging to describe the skiing and snowboarding at Solden. There are so many superlatives that could be used to describe the experience – awesome, epic, mind-blowing, spectacular, panoramic and breathtaking – to cite a few.

After skiing at more than 100 resorts around the world, Solden has to rank as the epic ski experience of my lifetime. Most other resorts pale by comparison. American giants like Aspen, Vail, Heavenly and Sun Valley now register in the mind as nice little ski hills when contrasted with Solden.

Solden’s vertical drop is nearly 7,000 vertical feet, more than double that of major U.S. areas. The above-the-tree-line skiing takes place over vast expanses and the longest runs roll on for nearly 10 miles, about three times longer than anything you will find at an American resort.

The skiable terrain is so vast that you could probably put four or five Squaw Valley’s inside the boundaries of Solden. But there really are no designated boundary lines here – no ropes or fences to alert you that you have skied out of the ski area.

A resort spokesman explained that “on every top station, there is a sign in various languages telling people that if they leave the immediate slopes, they are in high alpine areas and therefore there is no safety guarantee.”

Two dozen bars and restaurants are sprinkled around the 90 miles of ski runs. It is so tempting just to pop out of your bindings, sit back at an outdoor, slope-side bar, sip a hearty Austrian brew and admire the 30 jagged 10,000-foot Alps that surround Solden.

Many Americans have never heard of Solden, the largest glacier ski area in Austria. Flashier ski resorts in Europe such as St. Anton, Davos, Chamonix, Zermatt and St. Moritz typically get all the media attention when stories about the European ski experience are published.

The shopping and bar-hopping may be livelier at those resorts but the skiing at Solden is unparalled. A maze of wide-open runs, fed by a modern complex of 34 chairlifts and gondolas fan out from two glaciers, Tiefenbach and Rettenbach.

This is big-league skiing at a bargain price. Daily lift tickets go for 41 Euros (about $60 U.S.) and multiple-day tickets bring the price even lower. Solden is not a jet-set ski resort, there is a quiet solitude across the slopes and our longest lift line all week was four minutes.

The glaciers have helped give Solden its reputation as one of the most reliable, snow-sure resorts in Europe. So much so that the first race of the World Cup circuit is held here annually around the first of November. Last year, more than 18,000 people lined the race course to watch the world’s fastest skiers compete.

The resort does have more than 100 super-size snow guns to augment the natural stuff.

Solden also is blessed with its location – far inland from any ocean. So the wet storms that often blast hard into the French and Italian Alps are somewhat spent upon arrival here. Storms typically are of short duration, and locals rave about the dry, light powder. We skied in all-day sunshine for five of our six days at Solden.

On stormy days, many visitors head for historic Innsbruck and a day of sightseeing. Innsbruck, a bustling college town, is easily reachable in an hour via frequent bus and shuttle service. Innsbruck, which has a population of 120,000, lures tourists with its shopping, night life and ancient architecture. A number of airlines service Innsbruck with connections through numerous European cities.

Although it lacks the Tyrolean charm of some Austrian villages, Solden is surrounded by spectacular mountains. It is a cozy hamlet of 3,300 residents – a population that swells to about 15,000 when winter visitors arrive to fill the many hotels and inns. Most of the townspeople speak English.

Some of the lower lifts plunge down to the main street of town so many skiers and boarders can walk to the slopes each morning or catch one of the many shuttle buses. Visitors who crave the night life typically stay near the bars and cafes in town while those seeking a quieter ambience bed down in the small hotels and inns that line the roads that wind around on the lower mountain.

We settled on a place on the mountain – a snowball throw from the lifts – called the Gruner Alpengasthof. As with most lodging here, Gruner is a family-run operation and has been around for half a century.

Matthias Gruner, who owns the hotel along with his father, was quick to point out that the hotel brews its own beer. Over a tall stein of tasty chemical-free, unfiltered beer, he told us a bit about the quiet success story that is Solden.

“Solden is different,” he explained, “because the glaciers are here. This is a less expensive place than many European resorts. Austrians love to ski here, of course, but we also get many German and Dutch people. We see very few Americans because they do not know about Solden.”

(We encountered one taxi driver who told us that he and his fellow drivers have to learn a few words in Russian because so many Russians, who are prospering in an oil boom, have suddenly discovered Solden.)

Gruner noted that “this has been a very good snow year. We have a big festival here in April and the ski resort is open into the month of May. Many families, such as ours, have owned the hotels, bars and cafes for many years. We keep things very traditional here and people seem to like that.”

Gruner prices, typical of local lodging, run about 115 Euros daily during the low season and 130 Euros in the high-visitor periods. Prices include a daily full-course breakfast and a major dinner feast that stretches on for a couple hours each evening.

Popular downtown hotels include the Bergland, Costello and Regina hotels. Hotel and ski resort information is available at www.oetztal.com or www.soelden.com

For something totally different, you can bed down in one of the large igloos in Solden Snow Village at the top of the mountain. Cuddle in warm sleeping bags and enjoy a breakfast, all for 100 Euros a night.

Perhaps the popularity of Solden in Europe can be attributed to the extensive slope grooming and the wide range of terrain for all types of skiers and snowboarders. Glacier ski areas, such as Solden, are relatively gentle at the top as the glaciers sit on very gradual slopes. So confident intermediate skiers and riders can go right to the top.

With the vastness of the terrain, off-piste powder skiing attracts many hard-cores. Swatches of fresh, untouched terrain can still be found days after a storm has passed.

We were fortunate to have sunshine virtually every day. With no trees on the upper terrain to provide slope definition, it could be somewhat troublesome coming down in flat light conditions or during a snowfall. 

The best investment one can make here is to buy insurance for possible accidents and mountain rescues. The fee is only 10 Euros, good for the length of your stay. If you lack that insurance, and are injured on the slopes, you may be charged several thousand dollars for your rescue and trip to a doctor or hospital. Most of the rescues are done with helicopters due to the enormity of the terrain.

Altitude sickness is less of a problem here than at many resorts. The elevation of the town is 2,200 feet and the slopes top out at about 10,000 feet.

 The resort has a large half-pipe for snowboarders. Every Wednesday, there is night skiing and a fireworks show on the snow. And for those for favor another mode of slope sliding, there is a four-mile long, lighted toboggan run.

Probe around at Solden and you will find plenty of history dating back to the early days when the Romans first ventured into the area thousands of years ago.  And it was in 1991 that “Otzi”, the 5,000-year-old man, was found entombed in the ice about 15 miles from Solden. But he was found just a few feet across the border in Italy so his body resides in a museum in the town of Bolzano, Italy.

Don’t count on visiting Otzi in the winter, unless you have a helicopter at your disposal. The mountain highway linking Solden to Italy is closed during the winter. 

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Bob Goligoski, a ski and travel writer based in Sunnyvale, CA, has visited more than 90 ski resorts around the world and has written stories for numerous publications including Ski Magazine, Ambassador, California Journal, San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News. He formerly worked as a ski columnist and reporter for the Mercury News and the St. Paul Dispatch for 18 years. bgoligoski@sandisk.com. (More about the writer.)

 

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