“Out of service” the three words you don´t want to see plastered on the hotel elevator door on the fifth floor, in the early hours, when you´re in a rush to get down with a full ski bag, several pieces of luggage and two kids under the age of five.
Words and photos: Jaakko Järvensivu
After a few sweaty rounds of hauling luggage down the narrow staircase we enter a quiet alley and start walking towards the nearby Hamburg train station. I am carrying a backpack, while towing a ski bag on wheels with one hand and my wife Laura´s unnecessary large suitcase with the other. Laura also has a backpack on, and she is pushing wimpy travel strollers with our 15-month-old Aarne in it. Our three-and-a-half-year-old daughter Iida is clinging to her mom´s chest like a baboon to a chimpanzee sitting in her baby carrier, while asking us endless questions about the things she is seeing around her.
Upon our arrival at the Hamburg central station, I peeked at my watch: some thirty minutes before the departure of our train to Zell am See. Confidently, I reach the documents stashed neatly in my backpack, and for the first time, notice the small print in the tickets I printed off the email bookings: this is not a ticket. Great.
After visiting the only open ticket office at the station and hearing a Deutsche Bahn´s salesperson tell us that there is nothing she can do, as our tickets come from the Austrian train company ÖBB, we experience slight panic. Luckily, I finally manage to find the actual tickets amongst the clutter that is my email mailbox.
When the train finally takes off, everybody is relieved and even Iida and Aarne sit back in a moment of quietness. The landscape soon switches from urban industrialism into rural agriculture. There is still light morning dew covering the green fields, which are surrounded by naked trees and forested hills. The small valleys are dotted with steep red tile roofs and pointy church towers. Occasionally, a medieval castle or vineyard flashes by.
We´re enjoying the views facing each other, with a small table in between us. We have only really purchased two adult´s seats, but luckily, the train is not full and we can all sit together. Across the aisle from us, two middle-aged German gentlemen are slowly downing bottles of beers and a wine, while engaging in an amicable conversation.
The highlight of our day comes, when we make a smorgasbord lunch, using ingredients purchased prior to our departure in a Hamburg grocery store: salami, cheese, bread, olives, yoghurt, fruit and juice. The two gentlemen seem a bit envious as I cut the meat and cheese with my Leatherman knife, but because of the prevailing strict Covid-restrictions, sharing our meal is not an option.
The atmosphere is sedate, but Aarne doesn´t want to stay seated. He would like to get to know his new surroundings, so I walk the train end-to-end with him – several times. His walking style in the moving train resembles a duck. With a continuous smile on his face, he gets a lot of attention from the other passengers. Compared to travelling in an plane, it seems that people are more present in the moment and ready for interaction on a train journey.
As we enter the state of Bavaria, the local police walk through the train, informing everybody of the obligatory FFP-2 mask. However, it´s still Bavaria and the policeman advices the two gentlemen opposite from us to carry on drinking for as long as possible, as it would give them an excuse for not wearing the mask. Naturally, we all find this amusing. When the duo learns that we are travelling all the way from Finland with our skis, they think we are somewhat crazy. “Really, you brought your own skis from up there!”, the other one says cracking up.
After a train change in Munich, the hills in the scenery morph into towering mountains and soon we cross the Austrian border. Soon, the train travels through narrow gorges, surrounded by tree-covered hills. Familiar names start appearing on the signboards during the quick stops at the small stations: Fieberbrunn, St. Johann, Kitzbühel. The darkness thickens and eventually the landscape is only lit by the houses and villages dotted here and there, attracting weary travellers like glowing fireflies.
The children start to wear out first. Aarne is continuing his walks through the train, but this time, instead of the usual smile, he is in tears. We fight through the last hour with the help of c internet cartoons. Iida keeps repeating the classic question know to every parent across the globe: “are we there yet?”. When the train creaks to a halt, everyone is starting to feel the long day and seeing the hotel chauffeur waiting for us at the Zell am See train station is more than a welcoming sight.
Zell am See Kaprun as a sustainable ski destination
We wanted a ski destination that would suit the concept of sustainable travel. Zell am See Kaprun fit the bill, not only due to the recent introduction of the direct over-night connection from Stockholm by Snälltåget (which we could only use for the return, due to our schedule), but also by the local environmental actions: as part of the Austrian Climate and Energy Model Region system, the Zell am See-Kaprun area has set an ambitious target on withdrawing from the use of fossile energy in the near future.
When I spoke with Johanna Klammer, who is responsible for Communication and PR for the Zell am See-Kaprun Tourismus GmbH, she told me that the Climate and Energy Model Region system, or KEM, is based on 11 focal points over the next three years (from 2021 onwards), and mobility is one of the main issues of the concept: “this means offering our guests CO2-free holidays and creating sustainable mobility solutions.”
Besides offering direct train connections from European cities, another such solution is the Zell am See-Kaprun mobility card, which gives all guests, regardless how long they stay in the area, free public transport in the entire area. This is great news for guests like us, who are arriving by public transport.
According to Klammer, the KEM system has other sustainable initiatives, as well: “our cable car companies Schmittenhöhe and Kitzteinhorn are powered by 100% renewable energy sources and are using energy-saving hybrid piste machines.” The plan also includes developing the region into an eldorado for e-bikes.
Klammer says, that our family is not alone, the region has noticed a clear change in the customer trends, when it comes to choosing a ski holiday: “the demand for sustainable offers is clearly increasing and guests are becoming more aware of their choice of destinations and hotels.”
As an answer to the growing demand Zell am See-Kaprun is offering direct train connections from several European cities, such as Zurich, Amsterdam, Hamburg. There have also been special offers for the train routes, such as one-way ticket from Vienna to Zell am See for 24 euros.
The over-night direct connection from Stockholm, which we are taking for the return trip, is now (2022) available for the first time, as the Covid-19 lockdowns have prevented the previous efforts. According to Klammer the region is excited about the latest addition to their direct train connections: “we are very happy about it and the booking numbers look amazing!”
On the Kitzteinhorn Explorer Tour
Iida is running around the Kaprun Maiskogelbahn Talstation, when Werner Schuh, the park ranger of the Hohe Tauern national park arrives. After a quick introduction, he rounds up the group and we get onboard the gondola. On board, Iida is all smiles amidst the majestic alpine scenery, while Aarne looks like he doesn´t yet fully understand the situation.
The Kitzteinhorn Explorer Tour will take us on a 12-km ride on top of the Kitzteinhorn using four different lifts, while showcasing the surrounding national park. Since 2012 Gletcherbahnen Kaprun AG, the company running the lifts at Kitzteinhorn, has been in a partnership with the Hohe Tauern National Park, which is linked to the sustainable goals of the Climate and Energy Region Model system.
The aim of the cooperation is to transfer knowledge and raise awareness for the high alpine national park with high visitor numbers.The lift company has also received ISO 14001 certification for its environmental management.
When we reach the top station of the Maiskogelbahn at 1570 meters, I have to carry the strollers with Aarne sitting in them, through the sinking sleet snow into the connecting lift station. Our next leg will be on-board a 32-seat panorama tram, which was opened to the public in 2019. Called 3K K-onnection, the local pride travels a distance of four kilometers in just nine minutes, connecting the Kaprun village to the Kitzteinhorn glacier. As with the other lifts at Kitzteinhorn, the waste heat of the high-performance engines of our tram is being used for heating the associated buildings.
The scenery from the panorama windows is nothing short of spectacular: a knife-edge ridge line on our right with a deep valley below and jagged peaks on our left. As a skier, you immediately start drawing imaginary ski lines coming off the nearby ridge line.
However, with closer inspection the sun-baked face shows several recent slab avalanches, which make it less appealing. Werner delivers a coup de grace to my ski line visions by sharing us a story of his friend skiing this exact spot years earlier, releasing an avalanche, which ran all the way down to the valley below, nearly killing his own cousin.
Werner knows a thing or two about skiing or snow assessment: before returning to his hometown and taking on the park ranger´s duties, he worked a couple of decades as a ski guide for Mike Wiegele Heli Skiing in Canada. Dressed in a bright green jacket, Werner has an easy smile and an enthusiasm for wildlife and the national park that is contagious.
At the Langwied midstation in 1970 meters we examine different snow layers and the undergrowth that feeds the local animals. Werner tries to showcase Iida a set of large bird feathers hanging from his belt, but she is suddenly struck by shyness and retreats smiling behind daddy´s legs.
According to Werner, people often get a glimpse off the Ibex with their majestic horns, hanging on to steep rocky faces or bearded vultures circling the ridge tops, but we are not in luck this time. Still, after having walked through the tunnel crossing the mountain at 3000 meters, the view from the top of the Kitzteinhorn is awe-inspiring.
When we exit the tunnel, Werner recalls how the spot was used for skiing in the past: “In the 1970´s we put our skis on here.” Due to the glacier retreat caused by the climate change, this is sadly not possible anymore. With the current rate of warming, the whole glacier will disappear in 40 years-time.
According to Ms. Klammer from the Zell am See-Kaprun Tourismus AG the effects of climate change have been observed in the Kitzteinhorn open-air laboratory already in 2010. The research done by Georesearch and various other international projects and partners is not to be taken lightly: “the laser scan measurements carried out on the glacier represent the world’s most comprehensive high-alpine survey in terms of observation duration and level of detail”, Ms. Klammer concludes.
The grim future for glaciers doesn’t stop Kitzteinhorn from doing their best to hinder the development: as one of the first ski resorts, it operates a combined pump and hydroelectric power plant, which is used for the snowmaking systems in winter and as a power plant turbine in the summer to produce electricity with the help of meltwater.
According to Ms. Klammer, high-alpine glaciers, such as Kitzteinhorn will become more popular among skiers in the near future: “we need to consider that in some years time, ski areas will be situated at higher altitude than today, due to the warming temperatures.”
Everybody loves powder days – diving deep into the Kitzteinhorn freeride zones
Big chunky snowflakes dot the breakfast room window, covering the garden under a steadily thickening white blanket. After a quick refuel, I pick up my skis and boots from the ski storage and head outside, where I have arranged to meet my friend Jussi. Soon enough, he arrives from the garage with his rental car, and we start driving towards the Kitzteinhorn glacier.
The anticipation of the fresh powder waiting for us up on the glacier is as high as our spirits. We soon arrive in Kaprun and drive through the village, which seems quiet in the early morning. After climbing a few Alpine switchbacks, we enter a narrow valley surrounded by big mountains. Then, the road comes to an end, which marks our arrival at the Gletscherjet 1 tram station.
The tram hoists us over sheer vertical rockfaces, traversing over 1000 vertical meters to the Kitzteinhorn glacier. As we exit the tram building, we are glad to see only a few other skiers. We put on the mandatory face masks and, without any queues, walk in our next mode of transportation. The red egg-shaped gondola, marked Gletcherjet 2 on the trail map, takes us to the Alpincenter at 2450 meters.
Because the visibility is bad, and a lot of snow has accumulated overnight in a ski area we are not familiar with, we decide to stick to the designated, avalanche-controlled freeride zones. For the first run, we simply point our skis down from the Alpincenter, veering off left in the first right-hand corner. We drop off the small cornice off the slope, right on the X3 route.
After the first couple of turns, I sink in the feather-light, thigh-deep powder snow. To gain momentum, I decrease the number of turns and switch into GS mode. After a brief bliss, I remember that I am in a white room surrounded by rocky knolls, descending fast into an unknown terrain. I make a hockey stop and navigate through the remaining rocky terrain.
During our gondola ride up, we watch as a skier clad in a matching gondola-red outfit makes first tracks on the slope underneath us, using old-school round symmetrical turns. We ski the X3 route one more time, but we really hit the jackpot upon entering the X5 Pipeline route.
The start of the route is quite flat, so I don´t bother making any turns, before entering the actual couloir, with only a couple of tracks visible. The couloir is deep enough to create protection from the elements and the contrast offered by the rocky outlines enhance the visibility.
The snow is knee-deep and I keep my skis pointing down the fall line, so as not to lose too much speed. Skiing inside the couloir in total silence transforms you into another dimension, where your mind gives room for your muscles to find the optimal movements in conjunction with your skis and snow. Finally the muscle-burning dance on the snow comes to an end. I breath in heavily and as I look up, I can see Jussi navigating his way through the sea of powder.
Around noon, the weather clears and a hordes of helmet-wearing freeskiers with their avalanche backpacks and fat skis start exiting the Gletcherjet 1 tram. We still get to ski all the freeride zones marked on the trail map numerous times – in epic conditions. We´re extremely lucky, in more than one way: during our powder fiesta, our spouses have been walking the Zell am See village with the kids. Time to call it a day and head back to the hotel to reunite with our families.
Planes, trains and automobiles – over-night journey back to Stockholm
Our cabin sways in the tight corners, like a boat in rough seas. I listen to the lulling clacking of the train tracks and watch the occasional flickering lights move quickly through the pitch-black window. I peek down and see that the children have finally fallen asleep: three-and-a-half-year-old Iida on the left lower bunk and 15-month-old Aarne on the opposite side, next to my wife Laura.
I lie on my back in the dim light of the reading lamp, enjoying the sudden peace and quiet, which can only perhaps be truly appreciated by someone living in the daily hustle and bustle of working parents with small kids.
My moment of serenity is suddenly interrupted by a series of knocks on the cabin door. I turn on my belly and manage to unlock the door chain without climbing down. An armed boarder guard peeks through the half-open door and asks to see our passports.
I wake up my wife and then hand out both of our passports to the man on the door. First, he insists to see the identification for our children, as well, but after hearing that they are both asleep, changes his mind and wishes us a good journey, while handing the passports back to me.
When I wake up in the morning, I can feel the train has come to a halt. I turn around, draw the curtain aside and watch as a hive of people pass us on a busy platform. The blue sign on top of a metal pole says Hamburg. Some 20-minutes later, after succeeded in the sometimes difficult task of dressing the kids, we find ourselves in an elegant restaurant car, clad in dark wood panels and green velvet seat upholstery.
As I go for a refill of my coffee, I strike a conversation with the lady in charge of the restaurant car. She tells me that during the night, there has been a storm, which has resulted in trees falling over the train tracks. As a result, we´re stuck in Hamburg, with no knowledge of how long it would take to get the track cleared.
We don´t have to ponder this for too long: shortly after we have returned to our cabin, we are visited by the train conductor, who advices us to pack our bags and step outside on the platform – our journey back to Stockholm would continue by taxi.
We´re standing unknowingly on the train platform with our luggage, surrounded by a half a dozen fellow travellers and the train staff. Finally, the train hostess we spoke with in the restaurant car, announces that the journey to Stockholm will now continue by taxi. I take Iida´s hand on one hand and grab the ski bag with the other hand and start walking, following the train conductor clad in a yellow vest.
When we reach the frontside of the Hamburg train station, the train hostess starts negotiating with the local taxi drivers. I decide to stock up for the taxi ride and return quickly inside the train station, fetching coffee and Laugeneckes for the family.
When I return, the haggling is still ongoing. Then, finally, a taxi driver starts packing our luggage in a beige minivan. After instructions have been shouted in Turkish across the parking lot, between several drivers, we start off. At this point, it looks like no one knows exactly where we should be heading – perhaps straight to Malmö in Sweden or first maybe to Puttgarden, followed by a ferry ride. To make matters more confusing, according to the news, the famous Örebro bridge from Denmark to Malmö, has been shut down due to the storm last night.
I sit on the front seat next to the driver, wearing a mask, while Laura and the kids are on the backseat. Behind them, squeezed next to all our luggage is a representative of the train company. He stays mostly quiet, coordinating different route options and suitable connecting trains with his phone.
It comes as quite a surprise, when he finally introduces himself: “I´m Marco Andersson, I organized your tickets for this train journey.” The commercial manager of the Snälltåget train company is sitting on the worst seat in the taxi, being pushed back by my ski bag.
Naturally, the conversation moves over to train travel. According to Andersson, Snälltåget has noticed a significant increase of public interest during the 15-years the company has operated between Stockholm and Åre ski resort in Sweden. When thinking about Trans-European train travel, Andersson still sees room for improvement: “Even though the EU would encourage international connections, many of the member states, such as Germany and Austria, still focus on protecting their own national train company monopolies.”
Andersson sees lowering the track fees and VAT-freedom as ways of supporting international train connections: “Currently, for example in Germany, around 1/3 of your train ticket price goes to the government, less than third to the track fees and around 7% to paying VAT.” Despite the challenges, change is already taking place, according to Andersson, 467 travellers boarded the Zell am See bound train from Stockholm the day before yesterday, and the future utilization ranges look promising.
After lots of negotiations, we end up boarding the ferry at Puttgarden. When we arrive in Rodbyhavn, we continue driving, passing Copenhagen and crossing the famous Öresund bridge to Malmö, Sweden. The final hours in the cramped taxi are challenging for the lively kids and especially Aarne starts showing signs of complete frustration.
Finally, we arrive at the hotel the train company has organized us in Malmö, tired, but happy. We say goodbye to Andersson at the hotel lobby, from where he will still continue to Stockholm. Next morning, we would also take the train to the Swedish capital, from where we would continue to our hometown of Helsinkin in Finland by an over-night ferry.
Outro – motives behind our trip
We could have made the trip to Austria much easier and faster flying, but we wanted to reduce the CO2 footprint caused by our holiday. My initial idea was to incorporate my work trip to the ISPO Munich in the train journey, which would have eliminated two two-way flights from Helsinki to Munich. The ISPO Munich fair was cancelled due to the Covid-restrictions, but we did spent one additional week in Innsbruck, from where I did remote-work.
We also wanted to enjoy other perks off train travel: leisurely comfort without security checks, enjoying the changing sceneries, together with a picknick of local delicacies. The realities of travelling with small children did, of course, add to the experience: admiring mid-eval castles and vineyards in serenity could change in an instant into walking the whole length of the train with Aarne – several times over. We did feel, however, that people on the train were more open and ready for interaction, compared to aeroplanes and airports, where people usually stick within their own sound or social media bubbles.
One of our motives was to prove that an environmentally-friendly ski holiday via trans-European train journey was also possible for a family with small kids. Despite the special arrangements caused by the storm, everything went well, even though spending the night on a sleeper car would probably be easier with a child slightly older than Aarne.
Replacing flights with less CO2-emission-causing alternatives, and combining several trips into one, are concrete ways of travelling more sustainably. A train journey to the Alps could take more time and be more expensive than a traditional ski holiday, but it is also a more relaxing way of travelling, and you get satisfaction from the fact that you have made an effort in travelling responsibly.
Snälltåget has a direct over-night train connection from Stockholm, Sweden to Zell am See. We really liked the concept of a fast over-night train journey from Scandinavia into the middle of the Alps. The journey provides some fantastic sceneries and the restaurant car has a good offering with charming atmosphere.
More information about the direct over-night train from Stockholm here.
You can find more information about the direct train connections to Zell am See here.
We stayed at Haidvogl Kinderhotel, which caters especially to families with kids. The daily four-course menu was of very high standard and a welcome change to the usual ski travel grub you sometimes end up having when travelling alone.
When on a ski trip with the family, you try to find a delicate balance of satisfying everyone´s needs and wishes. In that respect, it feels like the Haidvogl Kinderhotel was perfect match for us: we, the parents valued the daycare services and the separate bedroom for the children, and the kids loved the large playground rooms, as well the children´s theater and magician shows. And everyone loved the spa and sauna area.
More information about the hotel here.
Zell am See Kaprun tourism office
More information here.
Zell am See ski areas (Schmittenhöhe)
More information here.
Kaprun ski area (Kitzteinhorn)
More information here.
Freeride Monday programs at Kitzteinhorn
More information here.