King Of The Mountains
Travel+Leisure|January 2017

Austria’s Most Famous Alpine Villages— St.Anton, Zürs, Lech—are About to Become One Massive, 87-lift Ski Area, One of the Largest and Most Diverse in the World. Tom Robbins Schusses Through the Arlberg and Discovers That Though Bigger Will Indeed Be Better, These Story Book Hamlets Haven’t Lost Their Small-town Charms.

Tom Robbins

Dusk was falling as I arrived in St. Anton, so I set out for a stroll through the village, my city shoes skidding on the snow-covered sidewalk. I passed an onion domed church and traditional, half-timbered hotels, then paused and looked up at the ski run that swoops straight down to the main street. It was 7:30 p.m., three hours since the lifts had closed, but the piste was crowded with skiers. Some were moving at a snail’s pace, anxiously feeling their way in the half-light; others were slaloming down with abandon, apparently oblivious to risk. Still others had already come to grief—the snow was littered with clumps of tangled legs, skis, and poles. Yet instead of shouts of pain and recrimination, there were only gales of raucous laughter, ringing out across the moonlit mountainside.

This, I would learn, is a near-nightly ritual in St. Anton. The resort markets itself as the “cradle of skiing,” thanks to its pivotal role in the early development of the sport. But a still bigger draw for many visitors is the unadvertised fact that it is also the cradle of après-ski.

Actually, après is a misnomer; in St. Anton, the drinking takes place before, during, and after skiing, not just in the village but up on the mountain, too. There, the young, wealthy, and ski-mad from across Europe cluster together in rustic cattle sheds and hay barns converted into bars. After several hours of enthusiastic drinking, they clip back into their skis for a demolition derby of a final run, which ends, conveniently enough, not just beside St. Anton’s pretty, pedestrianized main thoroughfare but also within 20 yards of the local emergency clinic.

The tourist office is not amused, concerned that such revelry—good-humored though it always is—lowers the tone. It has tried various ways of cooling the party, attempting, for example, to ban ski boots in restaurants at night (forcing merrymakers to change their footwear back at the hotel, where they might decide on a nap instead). But the authorities are fighting a losing battle. In St. Anton, the slightest pretext for a party—a few inches of fresh snow, say—is exuberantly seized upon, and winter 2016 brought the biggest excuse in a generation.

The resort was already one of the Alps’ best ski areas, with pistes that stretch west to the much smaller villages of St. Christoph, perched on the Arlberg Pass at 5,900 feet, and Stuben beyond. This winter, though, three new lifts will open, built at a cost of nearly $50 million. These will stretch over the Flexen Pass to join Stuben’s slopes with those of Zürs, the next village to the north.

That in itself would scarcely be worthy of note outside St. Anton, were it not for the fact that Zürs is already connected by pistes and lifts to Lech, which is in turn connected to Zug, Warth, and Schröcken. The three new lifts form a kind of missing link that joins two halves of a chain, at a stroke creating Austria’s largest ski area, and arguably the most compelling in the Alps. The eight newly connected villages, known together simply as the Arlberg, will have every type of terrain—from wide-open bunny slopes and heli-skiing to powder-choked couloirs. And on top of the skiing, this scenic swath of mountainside will offer everything from rustic dumplings to tasting menus, farmhouse B&Bs to fine hotels. Whether skiers come in search of riotous nightclubs or remote chapels, adrenaline or authenticity, all will be represented here.

And it will be vast. Consider that an American big hitter like Jackson Hole, Wyoming, has 14 lifts, and Park City, Utah—the largest ski area in the U.S. by a hefty margin—has 41. The Arlberg will have 87. The link has been a long time coming. A lift connection over the Flexen Pass was first proposed in 1925, and skiers have been asking for it ever since.

Early the next morning, I rented some skis and set out to explore. Forget lapping the same lifts and trails, going up just to come down. Here, skiing is about journeying through the landscape, touring from one village to the next. And unlike purpose-built ski areas, where the trails are laid out to maximize space like the fairways on a suburban golf course, here the runs follow timeworn routes across the mountains.

It was a bright, clear day, and from the top of the Vallugabahn, St. Anton’s highest lift, I looked north, beyond Zürs and Lech, to a distant mountain called the Karhorn. The idea of skiing all the way to that remote peak, then continuing beyond it to the village of Warth—more than a two-hour drive from St. Anton—seemed absurd. But the new lifts will make the route possible for all but the most novice skiers, creating a sort of Alpine expedition, albeit on perfectly groomed pistes, with stops for glühwein along the way.

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