Mar 18, 2017

Ski: Austria

The best thing about Stuttgart is really how close it is to much more interesting places.

Rafa and Magda and I had been talking about a ski trip for awhile, and we finally decided to go last weekend. Naturally, the only ski equipment and gear I had brought with me from the US was a few pairs of ski socks and some long underwear, so we had to stock up a bit first for the trip. Spring, as the end of the season, is a great time to shop for ski stuff, so Saori picked up a pair of ski pants from NorthFace in "high risk red." I am still pretty satisfied with the ski pants I have mouldering in a storage container in St.Louis, so I went for the cheapest ski pants I could find. I would not have imagined that I could buy ski pants for $25 normal price in Europe, but there you go. Decathalon is like Wal-Mart for sports goods- middling quality and low, low prices. They have a pick-up shop on the high street here so I also went ahead and bought some gloves and a mini backpack for the slope. Which didn't arrive until after I got back.

Thursday night we reserved our skis, boots, and poles online. (Why we have never done this before is beyond me), and Friday afternoon after work we packed and went to bed early. Saturday morning, Rafa and his girlfriend Wiebke picked us up at 6 AM and we drove southeast, towards the Alps and Austria. As the sun slowly rose, the wall of the Alps filled the horizon, and less than two and a half hours after leaving Stuttgart, we had crossed the border in a sleepy ski village called Hirschegg and arrived shortly at the ski rental shop.

Our boots surprisingly fit perfectly and everything was already ready for us. Rafa parked the car, we changed in the parking lot into our ski pants, and headed up to the cashier to buy our lift tickets. It was a breathtakingly gorgeous day. Sunshine, not a cloud in the sky, warm. Perfect spring skiing weather. Cute little town, probably deserted in the summertime. Wood chalet style architecture with a definite 70's vibe.

Lift tickets were cheaper than what we paid at the big resorts in Utah, but then we were in much smaller ski areas. about $65 per person for a two day pass. The nice thing about the pass was that the pass covered actually five ski areas which stretched across the German-Austrian border in the area.  It was such a beautiful day, I ended up leaving my "ski jacket" a waterproof parka, in the car and went up only with a water-repellant running zip up. I also wore grandpa Case's old ski hat, a red and white "CONOCO" knit cap from the 70s or 80s. I remember seeing a photo of what must have been my first time on skis, standing by him wearing this cap.

The area we skiied in was outside of Oberstdorf- the first day around the village of Hirschegg on the Austrian side, and the second day over in the Fellhorn area in Germany.

What a delight to be skiing again! The weather was perfect- warm, sunny, not a cloud in the sky. Actually, a bit too warm, towards the base of the mountain, the snow was oatmeal slush and ice after noon, but Rafa and I went higher up, up to the peak areas and the snow there was great. We skiied about an hour and then Weibke wanted to take a break so Saori kindly joined her to keep her company, and Rafa told them we'd be back in about "half an hour." We skiied along a beautiful trail along the side of the mountain towards an old village with an old stone church, and the sun shining down from the snowy mountains all around, the village through the trees at the base of the valley, and skiing above it all just filled me with joy. Skiing, sunshine, nature, travel, all things I don't get enough of, all combined.

We dropped down to take an old 60's gondola up to the top of the mountain, and it was packed- we ended up having to wait half an hour just to take the gondola, but when we got to the top, it was fantastic, beautiful panorama of snowy peaks all around. We skiied a run or two and then worked our way back down to meet the ladies. In the end, it took us nearly an hour and a half to get back to them.

Skiing in Europe is a bit different from the US. The slope grading system is different, for one. In theory, US "green-blue-black" equates to "blue-red-black" used by the Europeans, but in my very limited experience, the slopes skew more difficult- I found myself strenuously challenged by red slopes which would have rated black in the US, and spent most of my time on the blues, which actually match better to US blues than green slopes.

The runs are shorter, the ski areas smaller than the US. There seems to be a lot of combined ski areas relative to the US. By this I mean, a major US ski resort might have a huge area and many many lifts, where the German ski areas I saw were mostly smaller areas connected into a big area, with a lift pass valid on all of them, even in different countries!
Also, beer available almost everywhere. I can't remember if you could sit outside, in a big terrace at the normal slopeside restaurants, and order a beer, but its pretty common practice here.

We finally found Magda, my other coworker with whom we had planned this trip, and her husband and daughter. They had gotten confused about the ski areas and were stuck in some more challenging runs, and her young daughter was having none of it, refusing to ski. So they were walking when we passed them, much to the parents frustration.

We had a short lunch of Gulasch soup at the ski slope restaurant. Six bucks for a bowl with some bread. Not bad for skiside, but the service was terrible. I can imagine that these kind of places are served by people who basically work to ski, super chill, super laid back, and that combined with the general slowness of European service, if you need anything, or want to pay, for example, you have to nearly tackle your server.

After lunch we took a combination of short lifts and T-bar tows to get to the big gondola again. It was my first time to use a T-bar tow, and I was a bit nervous about it. Nothing to worry about, as it turns out, but the height difference with Saori was a small thing to negotiate. In the end, kind of amusing since you're gently yanked forward and dragged up the hill. Like going sledding in reverse, except I'm the sled.

We skiied another two hours through some reds and blues from the top of the mountain. Saori discovered that she enjoyed skiing moguls, although she took them very slowly. I am not such a fan. With moguls, you have to listen to precisely what they are telling you to do, and to go at their speed. I get scared when I start going to fast, and I am not so willing to let go of control, so my knees took a beating this trip.

At the end of the day, we skiied back down from the top, and then zig-zagged across the slope in a hurry- we were parked at the other end of the mountain, and if the lifts closed we would be stuck walking back along the base for a very long distance. When we cleared the last lift, we stopped for a drink on the wood patio of a ski restaurant. I got a small beer, and most everyone else got berry schorle. It was a nice way to cap the day before we skiied back down to the base.

Magda's husband had booked us a hostel- we had an entire room for our group, two bathrooms, four queen-sized bunk beds and that worked great. The only drawback was that the town with the hostel was about 40 minutes from the sli slopes, and Saori, letting everyone else shower before her, ended up with no hot water. She was so miserable, she declined even to go out for dinner, and stayed in with Wiebke, who was also having some stomach problems.

The rest of us piled into Magda's car and went to a typical Allgauer German restaurant- a big inn/bar/restaurant, a tavern, with wood everywhere, waitresses in drindls, etc. In the US, or really, anywhere else, it would come across as a bit cheesy, you might as well name it "Bavarian Brunhilda's Beer Barn" and it was a bit touristy even for the area. But it was packed and our group of five including Magda's 4 year old daughter, joined the Stammtisch, a big, big table prominently located near the bar and TV for the regulars.

The Stammtisch (literally, tree trunk table) is an interesting slice of German culture- you find it in most corner bars and in traditional rustic restaurants and taverns. It speaks to the habits of socializing in Germany- if you're in the Stammtisch group, that means you're going to the same place several times a week, and hanging out with the same group of drinking buddies. The chef may come out and join for a chat or a beer, or the bartender.

Food was really good. I had a pork loin with roasted onions and it came with a side of Allgauer kase spaetzle, a relative of mac and cheese, but with simple eggier noodles and a cheese sauce made with some really aromatic mountain cheese. Good stuff. Washed down with a local export beer.

By the time we got home. Saori had managed at least a warm shower and was in a much better mood, and ate the salad with relish. We were all exhausted so we went to bed relatively quickly and we were lights out before 10:30pm.
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