Sunday, February 13, 2011

Austrian Magic

Who would have thought that the ski trip that seemed doomed because of an extreme thaw in the region would turn out to be the magical XC ski adventure that one thinks of when looking at travel brochures?

My old friend Sabine and I left her home in Freising, about 45 minutes from Munich, on Tuesday morning, after I had arrived in Europe late Monday. My baggage remained lost until Friday (when it finally showed up at MUC), but I had packed with just such a possibility in mind and had my XC tights and jacket in my carry-on—and enough undies and socks to keep me rolling for a few days.

It was clear and sunny when we left in Sabine’s Skoda, heading south toward the Alps. But there was no snow, nada, nothing, zilch. It was in the 50s, and it looked like spring. Only the tops of the Alps were white, but that’s not where one finds XC trails. Our plan was to keep driving until we found some place that still had a bit of snow left, with no idea where that might be. The drive was beautiful, first on the Autobahn (with the occasional BMW or Mercedes blasting by us as if we were standing still, even though Sabine was staying at a steady 130 to 140 klicks), and later through the scenic Sachrang valley. We crossed into Austria, and suddenly there was snow on the ground as we wound our way up to higher elevations. We crossed a small pass (probably not more than maybe 3,000 feet, and had a magnificent view of the Inntal where Innsbruck is located in the far distance.
View of the Zahmer Kaiser
Riding shotgun and occasionally consulting the map I suggested that we’d head toward St. Johann where Judy and I had spent a great week XC skiing years ago. As soon as we started to enter the Tirolian area known as the Kaiserwinkel (there are two massive mountain complexes here, the Wilder Kaiser and the Zahmer Kaiser, the wild one and the tame one) the snow was uninterrupted. Even though the valley’s elevation is only around 600 meters, or 1,800 feet, this is one of the most snow-proof areas in Austria. We couldn’t believe our eyes. With the blue skies and intense sun this was a fairytale landscape!

Instead of going to the better known St. Johann we decided to stay in Kössen, a much smaller (and quieter, and most likely less expensive) small town of 3,000 souls or so. With the help of the tourist info we found a two-room apartment in a small Gasthof, and not only did we have an apartment, but we had a bright room with a beautiful view of the mountains and a wood-fired stove. Our host was the warm and friendly Frau Schlechter, and over breakfast (typical Kaiserbrötchen, good coffee, a hard-boiled egg, cheese, meats, and jams) we heard much about the local culture and gossip (for example, the local post office clerk refuses to sell stamps by not ordering any!).

Our guest house

For two days we cross-country-skied through the valleys surrounding Kössen, with some of the most spectacular views of the surrounding countryside imaginable. While many of the south-facing slopes showed signs of the recent thaw and were patchy, the north-facing mountain sides were covered in deep snow. The quality of the groomed trails in the valleys was astonishing. All trails featured at least one classic (parallel) track, but more often than not two; additionally, a wide skate track allowed those “flying on skis” to use the same interconnected system of 140 kilometers of loipe. Only when we crossed small roads or tiny asphalted paths that led to outlying farm houses were we forced to step out of our skis because of the lack of snow.

Taking a break in front of a farm house
 I had rented a complete set of skis, boots, and boots and poles for 8 euro a day while Sabine had her own classic equipment. There are no fees to use the groomed trails, and there are no parking fees at the trailheads, either. We had been given a handy trail map, and over breakfast we decided which loipe to follow. The trails are marked according to the standard color system indicating level of difficulty, but even the black trails were technically not much more difficult than the blue ones—just longer and with longer ascents. We both managed to crash a few times on the blue and red trails, and I banged the same rib twice on consecutive days so that I currently feel as if that rib may have a bit of a crack. Oh well. 
Perfectly groomed trails
We’d hit the trails around 10 a.m., after our extensive breakfast with our host and other guests. For lunch we had hoped to hit little guest-houses along the loipe, but with our luck several of them just happened to have their “Ruhetag” when we came along—their Day of Rest. On our second day, though, we lucked out with a small restaurant that offered not only a wonderful spot outdoors in the sun but also an out-of-this-world wood-smoked garlic trout! Of course, there’s always beer to be found, and on the first day Sabine had a Jägertee (a hot toddy made mainly of rum with some water and sugar) that damn near put her out of her misery. We’d finish off our day of skiing around 5 p.m., when the sun was about to set behind one of the two Kaisers.
Magic Tirol

Each one of our three evenings in Kössen we had initially planned to go out to the local pizza joint, and three times we never left our apartment. We both were so tired that we preferred to grab a bottle of wine, local bread from the bakery, cheese from the local “Sennerei,” and the best cold cuts ever from the “Metzger.” We had dinner next to our warm oven, and we couldn’t stand the thought of going out again. It’s a good thing when two people think alike in those matters!

Wood-smoked garlic trout ...

...and beer in the sun!
 On our last day we had first intended to do a few more laps on a local trail, but with the weather turning sour (clouds, way-to-warm temperatures, even a bit of rain) and my rib asking for mercy we decided to leave Kössen without having to hurry and take the scenic route back to Freising, where we needed to pick up Sabine’s son ,Jonathan, from his own one-week ski adventure in Tirol. (Apparently, all schools in Bavaria offer such a trip to their pupils at one point, since every Bavarian is expected to know how to ski.) The total distance from Freising was about 140 kilometers, and on the way we stopped by the Chiemsee, a lake that attracts the rich and the not-so-rich, and Wasserburg am Inn, an amazing medieval city built on a small slither of land where the Inn on its way to the Donau forms a looping gooseneck.
The ascent to Schwendt
 What a great trip!

I am updating all this on Sunday morning here at my friends Inge and Wolfgang’s house in München proper. I left my stuff at Sabine’s yesterday and took the train from Freising to München, and we had a long afternoon and evening of catching up yesterday. Everybody is still asleep, so I have a chance to use their computer to write all this. (Actually, I am writing on my laptop, will then use the memory stick, and crank up their computer since there’s no network here.) This afternoon I will take the train back to Freising, and tomorrow Sabine will take me back to the airport. On the way home to the US I will stop over for 24 hours in Madrid to see Howard and Lydia, so there may be more photos soon.

If you want to cross-country ski in Europe one of these days, feel free to ask me questions. I’ll be back for sure.



  1. Nice little adventure! Beautiful country!!! As mentioned, the weather here has been stellar, but will soon be showing its rear end with rain and winter coming back for an encore.

    I stole the photo of the tree branches with snow/frost on them for my desktop pic. Nice chatting with you guys this morning. Gotta love the nearness that Skype can assimilate with those you're not able to be near...

  2. Jurgen- Glad you finally received the luggage and found some snow after all. Safe Travels over to Madrid and then back over the pond, where temps in the 70s and possibly 80s will await. - Scott

  3. Lovely photos - it looks a beautiful area. I did wonder for a few seconds what XC stood for but got there before you'd typed it out in full! I'm a bit ignorant about these things coming from the Thames Valley. Enjoy Madrid and Paris!

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