Winter in Tyrol
In the winter of 2024 my wife Claudia and I are spending three months in the mountains of the Tyrol region of Austria! This is an ongoing stream of posts from our time here; I am challenging myself to try to post a photo each day (or at least every few days).
The posts here are displayed in reverse chronological order (latest posts first). So if you are late to the party you can scroll down to the bottom and start from there!
We have moved apartments again; now we are in Fügen, just a short ways down valley from Aschau where we were previously. The first impression of Fügen seems quite nice; the town feels older and sits in a wider and more spacious area of the Zillertal on a broad, gently sloping hillside that provides a bit of a view over the valley and the mountains further up towards Mayrhofen.
In early March it's already springtime in the Zillertal - the meadows are green, some of the trees are starting to bud, and most noticeably the farmers are starting to push all the winter's cow crap out from the barns and into the fields. It smells RIPE around here!
Claudia is back! 😍 She's been in Germany this last week visiting family, while I've stayed here in the Zillertal doing my civic duty of tracking up powder. This morning we headed over to Zillertal Arena for a morning of skiing groomers, and I snapped a couple pics too.
Hintertux in Black and White
The last big snowstorm here in the Zillertal Alps happened last Friday, but I've seen on the webcams that Hintertux has been socked in with clouds and wind every day since then, with Tuesday being especially windy. I know by now that this is the formula for a sleeper powder day up there, so with a forecast of clearing skies on Wednesday I headed up first thing in the morning. Sure enough, the wind had worked its magic to buff the snow into cream cheesy powder perfection. I lapped my favorite zone all morning long for more than a dozen untracked 2,000' lines. Just silly.
In the early afternoon I could see the clouds starting to break off the higher peaks, so I headed up top and then had a great time shooting photos of the peaks with clouds lifting. It was a glorious scene and everybody up on the viewing platform was ooo-ing and ahh-ing (and taking selfies, of course). I was having so much fun with the photos I then headed over to the other high point above the west side of the Hintertux glacier and shot more photos looking southwest into Italy.
It was yet another epic day to remember at Hintertux. I am so in love with this place! And to be honest I kinda feel like it loves me back. 🥰 😆
Back in early January during our first week in Austria this winter Claudia and I skied at the Zillertal Arena ski area and as I mentioned in my blog post from then, we were pretty appalled by the crowded slopes there and never returned. Today I finally went back there with Jürgen who showed me around, including the whole front side of the area which Claudia and I had skipped right past the first time. The pistes were beautifully groomed and uncrowded early in the morning and I now I have some newfound respect for this area as a good place to rip some corduroy! Since we're closer in this part of the Zillertal for the next couple weeks we'll probably be back again.
The ski area powder is all beat up after Saturday, so today my new ski buddy Jürgen took me on a ski tour up a peak just outside the Hochfügen ski area. As always it felt great to get on the skin track, get the heart pumping, and use some different leg muscles for a change. And of course, the fantastic powder on the way down was a nice perk too!
Bluebird Powder Panic!
16" of fresh powder + bluebird skies + Saturday crowds = serious powder panic today at Hochzillertal/Hochfügen! The fresh tracks got absolutely devoured today. It was a bit of shock after my solo pow feast yesterday, but nevertheless I still rode some amazing lines today along with Jürgen who I met while waiting for the first gondola at 7:30 in the morning. Another incredible day in the Zillertal Alps!
Deeper by the Minute
I've been anxious all week waiting for this big snowstorm that the weather forecasts have been predicting. Would the forecast pan out? Would I find fresh tracks? Would it get tracked out immediately? Would I miss the bus and be late? After three mostly dry weeks the anticipation was building. Powder panic, you could say.
This morning I woke up to pouring rain outside and I could see on the webcams that not much snow had accumulated yet up on the mountain. But it was snowing up there, and the forecasts called for 1"+ per hour during the day! Sure enough, halfway up the Hochzillertal gondola the rain turned to snow - and it was absolutely nuking. My first couple runs were about 5" of powder on top of smooth groomers... well, that was a great start! Then I ventured off piste and by then it was more like 7-8" inches - still skipping off the old base beneath but feeling good. It was piling up fast. So I headed back towards Hochfügen and found a beautiful open gladed zone which now had a good 10" of fresh snow, and getting deeper by the minute. Totally untracked. Nobody around. I couldn't believe it.
I ended up lapping that zone probably more than a dozen times, for 5 hours straight. Each ~1600-vertical-foot run through the glades was deeper than the last and soon enough after 12" through 16" of powder I wasn't scratching the bottom at all. Never saw anyone else back there, never had to share the gondola or wait in any line. I basically had an entire mountainside of powder to myself! After a while it actually started to feel a bit gluttonous. Finally I had to leave my sweet spot and make my way back towards Hochzillertal before the lifts closed. I kinda felt bad leaving so much powder untracked back there, but there's only so much one man can do.
Cloudbreak at Hintertux
Yesterday the weather forecast called for snow in the morning and clearing clouds in the afternoon. Trusting the forecast, I headed up to Hintertux around noon, found some nice windblown powdery lines to ride for a while, then waited in the clouds at the mid-station lodge while I ate pommes dipped in pea soup. 😋 When I finally saw some clearing outside I hopped into the top gondola and spent a chilly but exhilarating half hour up top photographing various mountains as they emerged briefly from the blowing clouds. At 4pm sharp I got kicked out but couldn't resist snapping a couple last photos as the guy stood next to me with a stern and impatient look on his face!
One persistent question with my photography on this trip is whether to publish color or black & white versions of my photos. Winter alpine photos tend to be particularly well suited for black & white treatment, since the snow-and-rock scenes are mostly monochrome to begin with and often the only colors are blue tones in the sky and snow. So it's tempting to just do all the photos in black & white, but yet oftentimes I find that I still like the color versions best.
On one hand, with black & white photos there's more leeway to push and play with the contrast to add drama to a scene while still retaining a natural look (well, as natural as black & white can be). For example, I can darken the sky and boost the contrast to a degree that would look silly in color, but still natural in monochrome. So, some scenes that look somewhat flat in color can look more dramatic and compelling in black & white.
On the other hand, fully de-saturated neutral monochrome images (which is how I like to process them) have a warmer tone than the cool blue colors of winter photos, so sometimes with black & white you lose the cold winter feeling which can be an important element for many winter scenes. Also sometimes color itself adds depth and dimensionality to an image that is lacking from a monochrome version regardless of the contrast. And finally, sometimes monochrome photos can just end up looking too contrived and "artsy for artsy-sake", which is definitely not what I'm going for.
In the end, it's a gut instinct and I always just opt for the version that has the better feeling to it. With the first four photos above, the blue colors give the photos a depth and sense of winter cold that was lacking in their black & white versions; while the last three images had too much flat atmospheric blue color throughout and look much more appealing (to me) in black & white.
Back in the Zillertal
After our last two weeks spent in East Tyrol, we returned to the Zillertal valley yesterday and are staying in a small village called Aschau at the foot of the Hochzillertal-Kaltenbach ski area. There hasn't been much snow in Austria in general in the last three weeks or so and the valley here looks more like it's spring than winter, with green grass and birds chirping. But the town sits at a mere 600m (1,969 ft) elevation, and it's a different story when you take the gondola up a thousand meters (~3,300 ft) higher to where most of the lifts begin and it still very much looks like winter!
There's no ski lift in Aschau (I have to take a 5-minute bus ride to the next town over to catch the gondola) but there is a single piste that runs all the way down to the village here. In fact from the top of the Wimbachexpress gondola (visible near the top of the mountain in the first photo above) it's possible to ski continuously for 1700 vertical meters (over 5,500 vertical feet) down to Aschau!
We skied here previously about a month ago, and as I wrote then I was pretty impressed with this ski area and its off-piste potential. Fortunately the snow forecast is finally looking favorable again, so hopefully I will get to ride some powder here in the not too distant future!
On Saturday we had a casual day with Claudia's family of strolling around and browsing the stores along the colorful pedestrian shopping street in the center of Lienz, the principle city of East Tyrol in Austria. It's a charming city with its multi-colored buildings and the rugged Lienzer Dolomites towering above. But the highlight for me was the Nuss-Torte at the City Café-Konditorei Glanzl, perhaps the most delicious piece of cake I've ever had!
With beautiful calm weather today, Claudia and I returned to the Sillian ski area, rode up the top lift, then left the resort for a tour of the "backyard", which is mostly high rolling terrain reminiscent of McMillan back home, except for the Dolomites in the background!
Sillian Round 2
We went skiing with the Schulzis again today at Sillian ski area. Unlike our first time here during a snowstorm a few days ago, we could actually see where we were today and I was able to find some leftover powder stashes to lap for much of the day. I have some newfound respect for this little ski area, which I could see would have a pretty great tree skiing on a deeper snow year.
Today we dipped into Italy for a fun day of skiing with Claudia's family Gundolf, Ferdi, and Emmi at Vierschach and the "3 Zinnen" ski area, which looks directly over towards the ultra rugged peaks of the Sexten Dolomites and Tre Cime National Park. Spectacular! We were looking right at the same peaks where we did an awesome via ferrata hike with Gundolf and Ferdi 10 years ago (the first five photos at that link).
We are currently staying in a small village called Kartitsch, in southern Tyrol close to the border of Italy. Claudia's dad and family are here on their annual winter vacation, so we found an apartment to stay just down the road and will spending the week visiting and skiing with them!
It's actually snowing again, so today before they arrived we went to a little ski area near here called Sillian. It was nice to feel some soft snow under my board again, though we could hardly see anything above treeline in the whiteout snowstorm! It was a wet and wild one today and we only lasted a few hours before throwing in the towel. These photos here were taken from the gondola window on the way back down to town.
Sankt Jakob Sunset
Two Hikes Today
Today I went on two hikes - and by "hikes" I mean walking, not ski touring. First I headed up late to the ski hill and the snow conditions weren't too inspiring, so after a couple runs I decided instead to leave my snowboard at the highest lift and scramble up a mixed snow and rock ridge to the top of the little peak above the ski area. I sat up there for a while snapping photos and soaking in the view before heading back down and trying my best to zen out on my snowboard on one continuous long run back to the base, focusing on each turn and the simple pleasure of sliding over snow. But one run was enough of that.
Back at the apartment in St. Jakob in the afternoon, Claudia and I went on a long sunset walk up a road along the bare south-facing slopes overlooking town. I had feared the day that we'd be dry-land hiking this winter, but that day has come. Still nice to be outside in the mountains in any case.
Close to Grossglockner Again
This morning we took an easy bus connection from St. Jakob im Defereggental to Matrei in Osttirol to try out a different ski area in this region - the Grossglockner Ski Resort. (For our winter in Austria we each bought a Snow Tirol Card, which is basically a season pass to over 90 ski areas in Tyrol! So we can go to pretty much any ski area we want in Tyrol, which is quite nice!)
Since most of the storms so far this winter have hit the Alps from the west or north, East Tyrol has been a bit too far from the action, and it's painfully apparent around here. The town of Matrei sits in a valley that is bone dry right now, and the long gondola ride only reached snowline when it was about half way up the mountain. With a warm Tauern wind, it felt like spring skiing in February with slushy snow and all.
In any case, it was fun to check out another new (to us) ski area, especially because it is situated right across the valley from Grossglockner, the tallest mountain in Austria and the mountain we hiked past during our 8-day hut trek through the Hohe Tauern in September, 2022 with Claudia's dad. From the ski pistes we could see directly towards the same valleys and passes that we hiked through two Septembers ago! I didn't expect to be here again so soon, albeit in different circumstances!
Evening in St. Jakob
St. Jakob has more of the traditional Tyrolean architecture that you might expect in a small village in the Alps of Austria, and therefore it's a bit more photogenic. (At least in the eyes of a tourist like me).
In the photo above you can see our corner apartment on the third floor of the building on the right. So I didn't have to venture too far for this photo, though it was a bit of mission compared to yesterday's town photo which I shot from the balcony! 😮💨
St Jakob im Defereggental
Yesterday two trains and three buses carried us and all our luggage from Mayrhofen in the Zillertal to Sankt Jakob im Defereggental in East Tyrol. St Jakob seems to be just about as remote of a place as it gets in Austria and the vibe is refreshingly mellow here in this little village. No more omnipresent apre-ski techno pop here, just the gongs of the church bells instead.
This area is not too far from where we trekked with Claudia's father two Septembers ago when we did an 8-day hut-to-hut trek through the Hohe Tauern National Park. In fact, today we caught a view of Grossglockner itself (the tallest peak in Austria), albeit from farther way than last time!
We had a fun day today skiing/riding at the local ski area here. It's not a big area but it's got really nice wide groomers - perhaps the best groomers we've skied in Austria so far. And no lines or crowds at all - no pinball skiing here! Though it hasn't snowed here in quite a while, the pistes were in surprisingly good shape and not too terribly icy.
One reason I wanted to come here when we were planning our trip months ago was because this ski area can be a hidden gem when there's good snow, with lots of fun off-piste potential and not too many people tracking it up. Supposedly it doesn't snow quite as often in this more southern part of Tyrol, but when it does it can seriously dump. Unfortunately the snow gods are not indulging me with any powder this week, and even the backcountry snow conditions seem pretty rough right now. So it goes on a ski trip... it's always a gamble.
Bis später, Mayrhofen
The first phase of our Austrian winter trip is wrapping up, with just one more day left at our apartment we've been staying at for the last three weeks in Mayrhofen (and no, it's not the one pictured above!). We've enjoyed our time in Mayrhofen, but we're also excited to move on and experience some other "bases" in Tyrol. For the next two weeks we'll be staying in some much quieter places in east Tyrol (St. Jakob in Defereggental and Kartitsch), then will return here to the Zillertal for five more weeks after that.
When we were initially planning this long winter trip to Austria we tried to find a place to rent for the whole three months, but that didn't work out. So then we booked shorter stays in various different villages up and down the Zillertal valley (Mayrhofen, Aschau, Fügen, and Finkenberg). Now that we're here I'm really glad it turned out that way.
Since we are traveling after all, it's fun to switch it up and not just stay in one spot for the entire time. Also, now that we're getting to know this valley and its various ski areas we have a better understanding of the advantages and disadvantages of the different base towns here. Although Mayrhofen is the beating heart of the Zillertal, I think that the other villages we'll be staying at will each have some strategic advantages for getting onto the slopes. We shall see!
Glacial Ice Palace
Today we went back up to Hintertux and we skied on the glacier, then took a boat ride IN the glacier! In 2007 an opening was discovered near the top of the glacier to a series of natural ice caverns and tunnels. Then in 2011 a glacial lake was discovered, and now the tour includes a short raft ride through a natural water-filled tunnel deep in the glacier under the ski pistes! So surreal...
Search for Soft
The Mayrhofen ski area pistes are bulletproof right now, so we ventured out again to our go-to skinning zone out of the far backside of the area to find some softer snow. After a fun cruiser line on smooth, sun-softened windblown powder, I parted ways with Claudia and rode down to Eggalm, where I caught the lift then bootpacked up Grüblspitze for a roughly 1000m (3300 ft) descent down the gentle southeast ridge to the village of Juns. (The top half above treeline was great, but the rest was mostly speed-checking my way down an icy snow covered switchbacking road through the forest).
Although today can't quite compare to yesterday's powder bonanza, it always feels great to go hike up some mountains, strengthen the legs, explore around, and ride wild snow.
It's been stormy and windy up at Hintertux lately and this morning was the first clear sky since the last snowstorm began several days ago. The wind had worked its magic once again overnight, buffing the powder into a smooth buttery surface. Fast and firm powder is my favorite type of snow, when I can really throw my weight into each carve and feel the force of gravity. (Plus I've been working on my gravitational power the last few weeks by drinking lots of hefeweisen!) This morning might have been my best yet here... I have snowboarding dreams like this! 😌
It was raining lightly in Mayrhofen again this morning, but it was inversion rain; up higher the mountains were in a cloud sandwich with misty clouds swirling around the peaks. I was glad we woke up early and got up high to see that. By late morning the clouds had lifted and the sun was poking out.
Unfortunately the warmish temps haven't done any favors to the snow; yesterday's tracks in the powder have turned to cement, but I still managed to find some pockets of decent wind-buffed powder up high and some heavy but fun slushy lines way down low.
Rain Low, Snow High
This morning in Mayrhofen I walked to the Penkenbahn gondola in the rain, with some vague notion of just checking out if there was much snow up higher. By the time the gondola finished its nearly 1,200 m / 4,000 ft. ascent, it was snowing quite heavily up there... and I was delighted to find a lot more fresh powder than I expected in the trees! About 8-10" of thick but smooth snow with the still-soft base underneath made for yet another sneaky surprise powder day!
I met up with visiting Colorado skiers Ben and Jay and we did our best job of tracking out a whole gladed tree zone mostly by ourselves, while dodging the occasional barbed wire fences (a novel hazard you definitely would never encounter on ski slopes in the more litigious United States). The cherry on top to end the day was a long pristine line between hay barns at Eggalm - skiing with the scent of cows in the air.
What a day... my legs are toast!
Warm and Windy
Today was warm and windy up on the Mayrhofen ski area. With temps rising to 10ºC (50ºF), the snow on the groomers softened nicely offering carvable spring-like conditions, a welcome change from the icy pistes lately. (Though once they freeze again they'll probably be bulletproof!)
Mayrhofen has some great webcams, and when I'm at home in the evening or in the morning I often watch to see what the clouds and light are doing up in the mountains. Yesterday's sunset and this morning's sunrise both looked awesome, and it's a bit painful for me to not be up high to photograph them! But I just haven't figured out a way get up there during that light, since the cable cars open a little too late in the morning for sunrise and close a little too early in the evening for sunset. As far as I can tell it doesn't seem feasible to hang out for sunset and ride down in the dark - it's just not that straightforward here. Maybe I'll figure something out eventually, but for now it's mostly daytime photos for me.
Nevertheless, I always ride with my camera and telephoto lens, and it's still fun to zoom in on distant peaks when the light, shadows, and/or clouds are interesting. And there's no shortage of rugged photogenic peaks in Tyrol!
This morning we skied at Ahorn, a tiny ski area accessed the gigantic Ahornbahn tram right out of Mayrhofen. The tram is supposedly the largest cable car in Austria; it's roughly the size of two busses stuck together side by side and holds up to 160 people! The ski area is situated on an arm of the Ahornspitze and has several nice wide groomers up top, as well as a single (treacherously icy) piste that runs almost 1,400 vertical meters (~4,500 vertical feet) all the way back down to Mayrhofen.
Hochzillertal & Hochfügen
This morning we woke up early and took the train down valley to check out Hochzillertal/Hochfügen, the last of the four big ski areas here in the Zillertal that we haven't skied yet. The ski guidebook I've got calls this the "freeride hotspot of the Zillertal" and now I see why! The off-piste potential here is impressive, with heaps of low hanging fruit to be plundered on a powder day (though judging by the sheer amount of tracks I can tell it's a race when it happens!). The mountains here are very skiable, with long fall line routes, nice wide groomers, and a logical arrangement of lifts. I'm happy that we'll be staying here for three weeks in February and early March.
The recent powder was mostly tracked up today, but it was still fun to cruise around on the groomers and explore such a vast ski area. This is one reason why we chose to spend the bulk of our winter in the Zillertal, because the four big ski areas here offer lots of groomed piste options for the inevitable days between fresh snows. The last time I spent a winter in the Alps was in 2011 in Engelberg, Switzerland. That place absolutely rocks for off-piste powder, but is fairly limited otherwise. The Zillertal probably doesn't get quite as much snow as there, but the variety of options and sheer amount of terrain is keeping it fun so far!
Sneaky Surprise Powder
Yesterday it snowed only about 10-15 cm so I didn't expect much today at Hintertux except for maybe some slightly softer groomers. But the wind had worked its magic and the glacier was buffed out with excellent smooth powder! What an incredible sneaky surprise powder day! I milked it all morning long, finding fresh lines lap after lap, with usually nobody else on the lift chairs. So stoked on this place!
Clouds and flat light made for difficult ski conditions up at Hintertux today, but I sure had fun shooting photos up there with my telephoto lens! It's been snowing a lot in the western Alps the last few days but the storm didn't quite made it over to central Tyrol, aside from a few centimeters of blowing snow.
The pistes are getting icier and the crowds are getting thicker, so Claudia and I ventured out on a ski tour from the far backside of the Mayrhofen ski area into the mellow basin below Rastkogel. There's still powder to be found (along with a touch of wind crust in spots). Heaps of potential for further touring around here! 🤤
Today much of the mountain was socked in in the clouds, but with a bit of skinning I managed to find a fun untouched line up in the sun above the clouds. Not too shabby for a week after the last snowfall!
Funny thing - I was checking the webcams this evening to see if the sunset was good (it was not), and I saw that the Unterberg webcam caught me and my carves in action earlier that afternoon! 👋
Our first four days in Austria were spent skiing, so on Saturday it was time to rest our legs and run some errands instead. We are now back amongst the civilized people, with Austrian cell phone numbers! While running around town doing errands we did a side walk over to the Sillupklamm - a deep gorge that flows into Mayrhofen from the south. Our attempts to walk into the gorge were thwarted by deep snow but I still had fun shooting some photos around the mouth of the klamm.
On Friday we headed back up the Penkenbahn from Mayrhofen and explored some more distant parts of the "local" ski area - the vast south-facing open bowls of the Rastkogel area. Tons of terrain here and heaps of backcountry potential beyond. I can't wait for the next powder day to refill everything! We continued from there to Eggalm, another mountain across the valley, where I sniffed out a remnant fresh pow line followed by some bulletproof icy north-facing slopes back down to the bus stop to get back down to Mayrhofen.
The complex bus system in the Zillertal valley has proven to have quite a learning curve so far, even for my German wife! But despite some setbacks again this morning, we finally made it to the Zillertal Arena - another gigantic ski area down the valley. The ski area is stretched out in a long line, up and over numerous peaks and valleys, and it took us 2.5 hours just to ski a direct route from one end to the other.
Our experience here was almost the opposite of our time yesterday (at least as far as a decent day of skiing goes). Even on a weekday this place was a madhouse, and since everybody is packed on the same one or two runs that connect each lift it felt more like pinball than skiing. That said, the far side above the village of Königsleiten is a great part of the mountain that looks like it would be a blast on a powder day. The highlight of the day was our lunch break with my first Käsespätzle and Claudia's first Kaiserschmarrn of our trip! Yum.
This morning after some trial and error of two wrong bus stops we finally caught the last ski bus from Mayhofen up the valley to the Hintertux ski area. This is the highest ski area in the Zillertal - and in most of Austria for that matter! Much of the upper ski area is actually on top of a glacier. As we rode up the three gondolas to the 3250m (10,663 ft) summit of the ski area, the views got more and more astounding - overlooking an ocean of rugged peaks as far as the eye can see in every direction. We were enamored with the ski area too, with its wide groomers and plethora of off-piste powder (even three days after the last storm). I'm sure we will be back here - a lot!
First Day in Mayrhofen!
After a long day of flights and train rides, we arrived in the town of Mayrhofen, Austria last night and got settled in to the apartment that we're renting for the next three weeks. We slept in until 10:30 in the morning and awoke excited to buy our ski pass and get up onto the slopes! The Penkenbahn gondola is just a 5 minute walk from our apartment and accesses the Penken section of the greater "Mountopolis" ski area of more than two dozen lifts. We had fun cruising around for the afternoon, gawking at the views and exploring around a little bit.
The Alps have been blessed with almost nonstop back-to-back storms and ample snowfall in November and December, with weather forecasters calling it one of the best winters in recent memory. Mayrhofen sits deep in the Zillertal valley and the steep mountainsides surrounding town are caked white from another dump of snow that fell the day before we arrived. The forecast is clear and cold for the next week which will give us some time to explore the four giant Zillertal ski areas around here before hopefully more snow comes along! 🤞
Colorado to Austria
On Sunday and Monday, Claudia and I traveled from Ridgway, Colorado to Mayrhofen, Austria! First a quick flight from Montrose to Denver, then a 10-hour overnight flight from Denver to Munich, and finally three train rides from Munich brought us to the town of Mayrhofen deep in the Zillertal valley in the Tyrol region of the Alps in Austria.
Our plan is to spend the next three months in Tyrol, skiing and snowboarding as much as possible! ⛷️ ❄️ 🏂 Two months of that time will be based in the Zillertal, bouncing around to three different apartments in three different villages here, and we also plan to visit some other valleys and ski areas in Tyrol at various points during our stay. Since our travels are typically summer trips involving lots of trekking and backpacking, this extended winter vacation is something quite new and exciting for us!
During our stay in Austria I am going to try to post a photo a day (Or maybe every other day? Or every third day? We'll see how that goes). I will also write more about our experiences here, why we decided to come here, why so long, and much more. Stay tuned!