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