The Dachstein mountains rising up to 3000 m are known for the high number of karst caves in the area, some of which are 60-80 km long. The inner Salzkammergut region, which includes the Dachstein massif and the town of Halstatt have been declared as a world heritage site by Unesco, both because of it´s natural and cultural significance – only 19 other such places exist in the world. The beautiful natural landscape lured writers and painters already in the early 19th century. Lately, however, the mountains have attracted a different kind of crowd: skiers who have heard about the good snow record, unique off-piste runs and small crowds.
After a two and a half hours train journey from Salzburg, the birth city of Mozart, I arrive in Obertraun, a village with 738 inhabitants in Austria´s Salzkammergut region. The scenery at the train station is impressive: massive mountains with vertical rock faces surround the small village, which itself seems like it has been forgotten by time. It reminds me of a better-known “hidden” ski valley – La Grave, in France.
On the way to the nearby bus stop I walk past a stonewall house with bright mural paintings depicting Disney characters. According to the sign on the window there is a butcher shop inside, but it looks as empty as the streets of the village. When I arrive at the bus stop I am greeted by two skiers, which reassures me that despite the ghost town feel, there might actually be a ski bus on it´s way.
A yellow bus with a ski rack on the back does arrive and after a five-minute ride we arrive in a parking lot surrounded by thick spruce trees. I get my ski pass from a small ticket sales office in the parking lot and walk to the neighboring tram station.
The Dachstein-Krippenstein cable car, renovated in 2007 has two sections; the first section brings skiers from the base area at 609 m to the mid station, called Schönbergalm at 1305 m. From there the second section hoists you to the summit of Krippenstein at 2100 m.
I use the small base station´s toilet as a dressing room and change in to my ski clothes. I have agreed to arrive by skis to the Krippenbrunn guesthouse where I will be staying for the week.
After the tram arrives to the top, I put on my big backpack and grab hold of a ski bag containing a second pair of skis, plus extra equipment. Despite the weight I still manage somehow to ski, and after a couple of pauses I arrive at the Bergdorf, or “mountain village”. It is easy to find by following the resort´s only real ski slope, which is 11 km long and runs right past the guesthouse around midway down.
Exhausted, I make a final right hand turn towards the restaurant and the bar. The intimidating vertical rock face of the Krippenstein mountain with it´s lit viewpoint called Five fingers, rises directly behind the restaurant, making you feel humble before you enter.
Inside the bar I meet Jochen and Elke Hüdepohl who, together with their family, have been running the guesthouse since 2008. They both have long gray hair and an easy smile. Jochen, with his John Lennon glasses and bandana has the look of a weathered ski bum.
As a German, Jochen was first introduced to Krippenstein during a student ski trip in 1976, which was also his first ever ski experience. He was hooked immediately, both on skiing and on Krippenstein. Jochen´s ski trips with friends became longer and longer, and finally in 1989 he started to organize his own trips.
He had already made the decision to keep his engineering company small enough, so that he and his family could travel and ski more. Still, when Jochen was offered to start running the guesthouse in 2008, after the former patron retired, he took up the job hesitantly, thinking that the work load would be too big. After initially working the first 10 months of that year by himself, his wife Elke followed him. They are joined every year by their four children who in turn help them out in running the guesthouse, doing everything from waiting tables to guiding guests.
The accommodation across the slope consists of a few rugged wooden huts built in a traditional Austrian style. Inside there are shared rooms with a minimalistic decoration, token-operated communal showers and a ski storage room. When I arrive at the hut where my room is located only the door and the windows are visible, the rest is buried in snow.
Next day after the breakfast, I join the other newcomers in the restaurant where we are divided in different guide groups according to our ski level. Jochen is sitting on one of the tables shouting instructions and joking, he is running the show with the ease of someone who has been clearly doing it for years. As names are being called, it seems like I am the only non-German among the whole group of new arrivals.
After the roll-call we flock to the slope on the other side of the restaurant, where we meet the other members of our groups. I am in the fastest group led by Jochen. I quickly find out that nearly all the other members of my group are experienced Krippenstein visitors. Many, like Leo, Thompson and Oliver from the northwestern part of Germany have been coming here for more than a decade.
After the initial talks about skiing in Krippenstein we turn our skis downhill and follow the slope. We take the first right hand curve, but instead of following the next curve to the left, we continue straight towards the trees in to one of the main off-piste routes, called Eisgrube. We ski a steep glade in the beginning of the route with variable cut-up snow. The further we continue, the narrower the route gets and the cut-up snow turns into moguls, which get bigger and bigger as we continue. The level of skiing in our group seems varied: some are expert skiers, but some clearly don´t have much off-piste experience. I wonder how the other groups will cope with the terrain, as I know they will be skiing the same runs.
In the end we are hurled off the mogul pinball machine to the end-part of the 11 km long slope, and we ski to the tram in an energy-saving mode. With little queue we don´t have to wait for long until we are in the next tram. As the tram starts lifting us up, I soak in the spectacular scenery that unfolds: near vertical rock faces with patches of snow and trees scattered here and there. I scan for potential ski lines, but usually the thought – or the line, is cut-off by fatal cliff drops.
The cable car we are using was originally built in the 1950´s for summer tourists, who were visiting the UNESCO world heritage site-listed caves in Schönbergalm, which today is the mid-station of the ski area. The spectacular cable car projects of the time in Chamonix gave the owners of Krippenstein the idea that it was perhaps possible to build a ski area here as well. As a result, a new tram line was built all the way to the top.
The area has a long tradition in free skiing: after the lift was first built there were no man-made slopes and people skied in areas that were naturally treeless. So people skied in the avalanche paths. The idea of building a slope came only later, with the aim to attract also more “regular skiers”.
Once at the top, we check that our avalanche transceivers are functioning properly at the checkpoint and head to Angeralm, the second of the area´s three main off-piste routes.
The routes are marked with small signs attached to poles or trees. There are also two man-made wooden bridges helping with the transfer back to the slopes. The markings were done by the local ski guiding company Outdoor Leadership, whose staff, according to the owner Heli Putz, got the tired of rescuing tourists lost in bad weather.
Despite the signs you must keep your eyes open here: Angeralm and Schönberg end in big cliff drops after the exit-signs, and dolines, meaning sinkholes formed by karst caves in the limestone terrain, make skiing on the upper mountain similar to skiing on a glacier.
When we reach the beginning of Angeralm Jochen points out once more, that because of the dolines, everybody must follow his line choice. Then he skis 100 m downwards and halts. A skier in the middle of the group, despite the warnings, skis to the left of the route and ends up crashing in a doline. Luckily it is so small and shallow that no harm, apart from a double-release and snow wash is done. Nevertheless, it works as a good reminder of the special character of the ski area.
About halfway in the run we take a skier´s right in to the woods below. For the most part I follow Jochen and the rest of the group, but seeing the potential of the rolling forest terrain I can´t refuse to make small detours to check out steeper mini-lines whenever the chance arrives. With a small transfer I am able to do a few turns on steeper terrain that often ends with a small drop, finally navigating towards the group already waiting for me.
Once we see small signs on the trees equipped with an arrow and the word exit, we begin to transfer to the skier´s left, back towards the tram. The transfer route zigzagging amongst old-growth spruce trees brings us to where the main route of Angeralm ends up and funnels into a narrow strip of moguls.
At the end of the mogul run we see the exit-sign again and take a skier´s left, which leads us on to a wooden bridge with a spectacular scenery of the surrounding mountains and a hefty drop beneath our feet. But the real challenge begins after the bridge: the transfer continues with 90-degree angle turns on a steep and icy tree run littered with big moguls. After we have navigated through the maze we end up in the latter parts of Eisgrube, where we take a well-deserved brake before continuing towards the slope and the lift.
At the guesthouse
After the skiing and showers we meet up for dinner at the guesthouse. I order a beer from the bar and look for a table with familiar faces. The room is quickly filled with laughter and talk about the day´s skiing and past experiences from the area. There is a great sense of tradition in the atmosphere; it´s easy to imagine that little has changed here since the guesthouse opened in the 1960´s.
According to my dinner companions it´s difficult to find guesthouses in the Alps that are still operating in such a traditional way. Many of the guests present keep coming back to this place for just that reason. There is no internet connection or tv, and to get a mobile phone connection, you have to walk 100 m down the slope.
After the dinner we move to the bar where I am drawn into a local bar game called nagel schlagen. The game consists of nails, a hammer and a tree stump. The aim is to pound your nail all the way in to the stump with as few hits as possible, using the pick axe side of the hammer. Which is easier said than done. Everyone has their turn and after a few rounds the loser has to buy rounds – of the local schnapps that is. While having seemed a bit dubious in the beginning, the game ends up being rather fun, although the schnapps may have something to do with it.
The next morning offers a nice wake-up: it has snowed more than 30 cm overnight and the still continuing snowfall has transformed the landscape into a post card idyll. The excitement is clearly visible at breakfast as everybody tries to get through it as quickly as possible, afraid of losing first tracks to someone else.
As a warm up we head again to Angeralm, which situated directly under tram line, has an easy access. The snow is knee-deep and in some places up to our thighs. Everybody is feeling cheerful, and I get a bit carried away by the conditions and choose a higher line than the rest of the group, who are following the main line in the middle. My speed grows fast on an open steep slope and suddenly I see a red sign in front of me. After a last-minute speed check I notice that I´m standing on the ledge of big – and deep doline. It looks so deep that I wouldn´t really want to get to know it better, unless on a rope. I sidestep upwards on the steep powdery slope as quickly as I can, and finally traverse back to the rest of the group. I can only imagine how many rescue operations they´ve had here before marking the main off-piste runs.
There is so much wind-loaded snow, that on some flatter sections it is difficult to gain speed after a pause, even with 120 mm wide skis underneath. Once you do get going, the area´s natural terrain features seem like they were made for powder skiing: there are countless options for jumps, drops and small pillow-lines. For the final section of the run we head again in the forest, where the trees are spaced just about perfectly for fast tree skiing.
Despite the powder day the queue at the tram is short. The waiting time is only long enough for a quick social-media-boasting update using the free wifi of the tram station. Our next run will be the area´s third main off-piste route called Schönberg ending up in the tram mid-station at Schönbergalm.
Once we´re at the top we make our best efforts to mimic world cup downhillers and head straight towards the top of the bunny slope rope tow. The rolling, lunar-like scenery behind the rope tow leads us east. After a 10-15 minute walk we come on top of a small ridge, where we put our skis on and ski-traverse towards the small cabin visible in front of us.
The original hut was used as a starting point in the FIS ski races here during the 1960´s, with hundreds of Austrian soldiers preparing the slope by side-stepping it using their wooden skis. During the early 2000´s the same slope was used for the world´s first off-piste skier cross competition, the Red Bull White Rush, with the strenuous course running through a natural cave.
The organizer of the White Rush event, Heli Putz built and transported the new hut with a helicopter a few years ago after the original had been destroyed.
The view from the hut is nothing short of spectacular: the surrounding mountains are steep with visible big couloirs and in the North-West you can see the blue lake Halstatt with it´s idyllic lakeside town, which the Chinese recently copied and rebuilt in China in 1:1 scale.
Not many people have ventured out here today, so we get almost first tracks. In the beginning we pass a big concentration of dolines, where a group of young skiers fell in a couple of years ago, tragically ending the life of one of them. Midway in to the run we move in to a gorge surrounded by cliffs, which is full of gigantic powder moguls. I pick up speed and jump from one mogul to another, and get face-shots after every landing.
Once we reach a forest glade I pick up speed and see members of my group having a pause. I make a speed-check and continue deeper in to the forest. The slope gets steeper and I can feel the lactic acid burning my legs. I take a mandatory pause and traverse towards a new steep line and head downhill. The snow flies silently in the air as I ski along a perfect line amongst the trees, picking up speed in the end, before finally turning towards the group waiting for me. Everyone has a big smile on the face – besides our group there is only the snowfall and silence.
During my stay in Krippenstein there was a local rumor about an international investor planning to buy an old demolished building from the top of the mountain with the intentions on building a five star luxury hotel on the site. The Krippenbrunn guesthouse was also bought in 2014 by an investor from Vienna. The new owner has already presented plans on demolishing the old huts and building new high-end chalets to replace them. At the moment it seems that the 2015-2016 ski season will sadly be the last operating season for Krippenbrunn.
Fortunately for Krippenstein, it´s location in a natural protection area keeps the biggest investment plans on bay. The resort´s limited and demanding ski terrain might also act as defence barrier for the invading five-star crowd. Still the economic situation today is not easy for small niche ski resorts: the future for La Grave in France is currently uncertain and Krippenstein has had it´s share of financial problems: the resort went bankrupt in 2001. One hopes that their chosen emphasis on free skiing pays off, so that more people can enjoy the unique ski terrain and old-world charm.
Where to stay:
This is the final season to experience the unique atmosphere at the Krippenbrunn guesthouse: http://www.krippenbrunn.de/
Where to eat:
The lodge serves local delicacies with a cosy athmosphere and a great view. Try the home-made Topfrenstrudel with coffee: http://www.lodge.at/
Whether you need basic guiding or want to go for longer ski tours, Outdoor Leadership knows the way: http://www.outdoor-leadership.com/
All photos in this story by Jaakko Järvensivu
An edited version of this story was published in 2015 in Huippu the Finnish freeride Magazine: http://huippufreeride.fi/en/frontpage/