At times we were choking on powder as we carved our way through the dense tree line, ducking under branches, jumping over snow pillows, straining every muscle to get back to the chairlift just so that we could do it all over again. Kevin, our guide, calls these forests “Little Canada”, and flying across the pristine white landscape, you can easily imagine snow-cats waiting to take you back to your base in the Rockies. Yet, we were in Hochfügen, in the Austrian Alps only an hour-and-a-half from Munich.
Munich’s skiable hinterland is usually associated with large, posh and crowded resorts such as Garmisch Partenkirchen, or Kitzbühel over the border in Austria. At the other end of the scale are a handful of small family resorts that are popular with locals but often bypassed by international travellers. But the mountains south of Munich also offer swathes of empty terrain perfect for affordable backcountry skiing. We decided to go on a road trip from Munich to connect the dots, in a Volkswagen with two snowboards and no intention of jumping out of a helicopter.
We drove around 480km, up winding mountain roads, on autobahns, across numerous mountain ranges, dipping over the Austrian border and back again a couple of times. This journey can easily be done in seven days and is for all those adventurous ski tourists who prefer the backcountry of small, quiet towns to packed gondolas in identikit alpine resorts.
Our first stop was in the Bavarian village of Oberstaufen, 168km south-west of Munich. It is home to the Hochgrat – at 1,834m the highest mountain in a range called Nagelfluhkette and a favourite of Bavarian off-piste fans. Every February since 2006 the gruelling annual Skirallye has been held here: a race where contestants first climb the peak with touring skis and then race down on the ungroomed slopes. But, fortunately, the Hochgrat also offers a small range of 4km powder runs with no hiking required and hardly any crowds.
The same goes for the village’s nightlife. In a peaceful spa destination with one main cobbled road, a Catholic church as its epicentre and 7,000 inhabitants, Oberstaufen offers pretty basic après-ski: traditional wooden counters serving local gentian schnapps and beer, multicoloured disco lights and fortysomethings doing the foxtrot to beat-enhanced Bavarian folksongs – but it’s no less fun for that.
The next day, after a 40 minute-drive through the cow-dotted mountains of southern Bavaria’s Allgäu region, passing small frozen lakes and onion-domed baroque churches, we arrived in the Kleinwalsertal, a small Austrian enclave accessible only from Germany, which is made up of three traditional villages, all a five-minute bus ride from each other.
We stayed on the edge of a fir forest in the family-run Gasthof Hammerer, a traditional wooden mountain house crammed with carvings and cuckoo clocks that, with its barn-cum-restaurant, still radiates a snugness often lost in conventional, modernised alpine lodgings. Frank, our ski guide, was waiting for us at nearby Ifen – with 30km of slopes, it is the second-biggest resort of the three Kleinwalser peaks. On the way up, he pointed to hikers clambering up a seemingly impenetrable 50m-high karst formation: “They will climb up there and abseil 30m down the other side in order to get their own ski lines.”
A bit extreme, maybe, in the search for off-piste powder, but Frank reckoned that a 20-minute hike up to the iced-over summit would be enough for us to find good snow. The snow was light and after a ride on a wide, untracked slope, past what Frank called “the snow-dunes of Ifen”, we entered a narrow rock aisle far away from the lifts, offering everything from small drops and tree-runs to fun little bowls of hip-high snow.
It was a fun run, far removed from the scariness often associated with off-piste skiing – and the two other peaks, Walmendingerhorn and Kanzelwand, had equally appealing, easygoing runs with untracked powder. At the end, we emerged from the forest and arrived directly at our guesthouse to a well-deserved ragout of local venison.
By the morning of day three, the weather had worsened. We hit an extremely foggy autobahn which, after two hours, released our Volkswagen on to a daunting mountain path amid the majestic Tyrolese mountains near Innsbruck.
As we finally made it around various hairpin corners, past intimidating descents and roadside memorials, we reached Hochfügen. A plateau surrounded by nothing more than a steep, dense forest and black runs, Hochfügen itself is basically a massive car park serving five modern hotels – and appears like a concrete misfit in a chocolate-box setting.
Leaving the car park behind, we walked with guide Kevin along a narrow path up a steep mountain range, as if on expedition. From up here, Hochfügen appears as a massive bowl revealing untouched mountain faces, most of them rideable, depending on how much time you want to spend hiking.
Kevin pointed to four steel mounts in the ground: “This is where they attach the starting gate for the Freeride World Tour Qualifiers,” he said with a smile. We peered down a 3m-high snow cornice – and what followed felt like speeding through thin, soft air with a pinch of fear.
As we reached flatter ground and looked back at our lines, the adrenaline gave way to euphoria. Chamonix, Verbier or the vast resorts of North America certainly don’t hold a monopoly on powdery adrenaline kicks. When it comes to outback skiing, less can be more – in terms of crowds, hikes and cash. In this respect, Hochfügen’s “Little Canada” seems to have it all.
• The trip was provided by the Austrian and German tourist boards. Doubles at Mondi-Holiday (+49 8386 7000, oberstaufen.mondiholiday.de) in Oberstaufen from €120, including skipass and breakfast. Doubles at Gasthof Hammerer (+43 5517 53240, gasthof-hammerer.de) in Hirschegg from €79 including breakfast. Lift-passes for the whole region start at €41.50 a day or €167.50 a week. Skischule Hirschegg (skischule-hirschegg.at) offers guided tours from €85 a day. Doubles at Berghotel Hochfügen (berghotel-hochfuegen.at) start at €168 half-board. Skipasses cost €45.50 a day or €244 a week for Hochfügen and the whole Zillertal region. Guided ski tours start at €55 a day (topprivate.at)
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