Listen to this article
The most celebrated skier in the Austrian village of Warth is not an Olympic racer, nor an extreme, cliff-jumping freerider, but a 19th-century priest. In 1894, Johann Müller, the local pastor, was reading the Deutscher Hausschatz newspaper when he had something of a revelation. Then, as now, Warth was tiny, remote and reputedly the snowiest spot in all the Alps; in winter the great drifts prevented Father Müller visiting his parishioners for weeks on end. But the newspaper offered a solution: a report on how farmers in Scandinavia used skis to get around.
Two weeks later, a puzzled postman arrived at the presbytery with a strange parcel. Müller had ordered his own set of skis from Sweden and he set about teaching himself to use them, heading out after dark to avoid being mocked by the villagers. He struggled at first but, after a few nights’ practice, he left before dawn for his first expedition, over the mountain to visit the priest in the neighbouring village of Lech.
One hundred and 21 years later, we followed in his footsteps, leaving behind Warth’s pistes and ski lifts and climbing up towards the Wartherhornsattel pass, 2,220m above sea level. Every week the Warth ski school leads these “Pfarrer Müller tours”, offering a glorious sense of high alpine adventure to anyone with basic off-piste experience. After 30 minutes of sliding and sidestepping, pushing with our poles, we reached the pass and looked over at the untouched mountainside beyond, clouds swirling around us.
One by one we followed our guide, Christian Fritz, down the gently sloping snowfields, the powder snow billowing up about our faces. We paused when we spotted a family of steinbock teetering on a ridge above, then again when Bürstegg, an abandoned Walser hamlet, emerged through a gap in the mist. After that we crossed a river (“Father Müller went barefoot here,” said Fritz approvingly), walked uphill through a dark forest, then skied between some ancient barns before popping out, just as Müller had, in the streets of Lech.
The priest’s story is at most a footnote in ski history — in Switzerland by this stage, the sport was already becoming established as a holiday pursuit. But in this part of Austria he is credited with being the first skier, and for inspiring a generation of youngsters to take up skis.
A century on, he would be bewildered to see his legacy in the streets of Lech. It has grown into one of the Alps’ glitziest resorts, crowded with well-dressed shoppers browsing for fur boots or expensive watches, and packed with upmarket hotels that are the haunt of several European royal families. Lifts rise from the centre of Lech in every direction, taking skiers to pistes that connect to neighbouring Zug and Zurs, and on via a short shuttle bus to Stuben, St Christoph and St Anton, villages that together comprise the storied Arlberg ski area.
In Warth, by contrast, Müller would probably still feel right at home. While Lech has boomed, the population of Warth actually fell at the last count, down to 186, and the school has closed. There are a couple of shops and a handful of family-owned hotels. Apart from them, après-ski is limited to an outlet that seems to double as both bar and butcher.
“This village has been sleeping for 30 years,” says Martina Brenner, who with her family runs the Lechtalerhof hotel, where I was staying. The problem has been that although Lech and Warth are only four miles apart as the crow flies, the road is closed throughout winter because of the threat of avalanche. “It acts like a Chinese wall,” says Brenner. Although a few skiers have always travelled over Father Müller’s high route to Lech, the investment has stayed firmly on the far side.
Now, however, things are finally beginning to change. In December 2013, a new €12m, 2km-long gondola, the Auenfeldjet, linked the pistes of Warth and Lech. Suddenly Warth’s ski area has gone from 66km, accessed by 15 lifts, to 350km served by 97, at a stroke putting it in the premier division of world resorts. Moreover, Warth gets significantly more snow than the other Arlberg resorts (on average more than 10m per year, thanks to the proximity of Lake Constance) and its slopes are mainly north-facing, so in March and April the snow stays in better condition.
The result is the perfect under-the-radar resort — unpretentious, quiet, so small you are on nodding terms with the locals by midweek, but with a vast ski area on the doorstep. English voices are rare (only two UK operators run trips here). Those looking for nightlife or Michelin stars will hate it, but the hotels will be a revelation to anyone used to the characterless, small-roomed, meanly furnished offerings of the French Alps.
The Lechtalerhof has a small swimming pool and spa, smart, traditionally furnished rooms, five-course dinners and vast breakfasts — but above all a welcome and a personality that come from having been run by the same family for three decades. It was opened in 1980 by Hans and Angelika Brenner, who had been working as a ski instructor and hotel receptionist in Zurs but found themselves unable to afford property there or in Lech. “My father saw the potential here, knew that it would develop,” said Martina, one of their three children (all champion ski racers). “He just didn’t think it would take 35 years . . . ”
Today there is a quiet optimism in the village, a confidence that people and investment will return. A newly built hotel is due to open this winter, and the Brenners are working on their own development of 10 architect-designed holiday apartments. For now, though, it remains a sleepy, snowy retreat.
Two mountain restaurants we visited tell the story. At the Balmalp, above Lech, the terrace was lined with spent magnums of champagne, the blonde waitresses wore jeans and funky Tirolean jackets, the bar was made of backlit white marble and a cool sax-driven soundtrack played. At the Berghotel Körbersee, on the Warth side, we had to step over a vast, slumbering St Bernard to enter the silent dining room, where an ancient, uniformed waiter served linzertorte. They are two different worlds but just a short ski apart.
And then there is the snow. On another morning I joined Fritz to ski the backside of the Auenfelder Horn. It was March 26, late in the season, but the snow was deep and we sank to our knees as we climbed upwards. It was a short excursion, only just beyond Warth’s lift system, yet when we reached the ridge line and looked into the huge cirque below, it was pristine white, untouched by a single ski track. In St Anton, such accessible powder would be tracked out within an hour of the lifts opening. “You see that?” said Fritz, grinning. “Welcome to the secret side of the Arlberg.”
Tom Robbins was a guest of Ski Solutions (skisolutions.com) and the Austrian and Vorarlberg tourist boards (see austria.info and vorarlberg.travel). Ski Solutions offers a week at the Lechtalerhof from £1,320, half-board with flights from London and private transfers
Using cable cars to join villages and create vast interlinked ski areas used to be the preserve of the French, but the Austrians are fighting back and the Warth-Lech connection is part of a growing trend. This winter will see the pistes of Fieberbrunn linked by a new gondola to those of Hinterglemm, a resort in a neighbouring valley. Hinterglemm is already linked to Saalbach, which is in turn connected to Leogang. The new combined ski area boasts 70 lifts, 270km of pistes and the least wieldy name in skiing: Skicircus Saalbach Hinterglemm Leogang Fieberbrunn (skicircus.at).
The huge “G-link” cable car connecting Wagrain, Flachau and Alpendorf opened in December 2013. Together they have 120km of linked pistes but form part of the bigger Ski Amadé area, with 760km of slopes on one lift pass, though you need a bus or car to join up the various sectors (skiamade.com).
The previous year saw the marriage of Alpbach and Auffach — the two pretty, traditional villages are now jointly marketed as Ski Juwel and have a total of 128km of slopes (skijuwel.com).
Photographs: Kilian Blees; Leo Himsl; Alex Kaiser