Wednesday, 10 December 2014 14:37

Planes, Trains, Automobiles....and two planks of wood. 1st steps of a ski virgin

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They say that the first time you take heroin you get a high so perfect you can spend your whole life chasing it. Well I've never taken heroin but for a few fleeting seconds on the snow of the Austrian Tirol I think I understood the feeling. Beneath me my skis ran smoothly across the surface of the snow, my body in balance and I was somehow both totally in control but at the same time totally free. The feeling didn't last long but lasted long enough to want it again and again and again. This was my first time on skis.

Obergurgl in the Austrian Tirol

I'd always wanted to ski but over the years life had successfully conspired to let the experience pass me by yet now I suddenly found myself balanced on two precision engineered lengths of wood, polyethelene, kevlar, plastic and metal. Encased from head to toe in the finest insulation man and bird could together create I was outside the influence of the elements and for those few fleeting seconds I was "at one" with my environment as I've ever felt. It hadn't come naturally or easily and it wasn't long before I was once again an undignified heap of hydrodown and plastic on the ground, but a heap that would never again ask "why?".

For a few fleeting moments everything seemed effortless

The chance to learn to ski had come about through a press trip with Inghams Holidays and Visit Tirol, the regional tourist organisation, and together with 7 other journalists I'd landed in Innsbruck with just 3 days to pack in everything good about skiing, apres-ski, Obergurgl and the Solden area. To join the trip had meant a lot of self questioning; yes I'd always wanted to ski, but that was before "my neck". The four years since breaking my neck had seen me drift into taking the easy options and reassuring myself that I was still pushing my limits while in reality I was living in my comfort zone and had forgotten how it felt to face an uncertain outcome. Add in that I'd be the only male on the trip which would also include a visit to a Christmas Market and a Spa and I'd be deliberately isolating myself from my comfort zone! Physically I didn't know if I'd be up to it and mentally it was going to be a challenge exposing myself to the unknown again.

Innsbruck was perhaps a little disappointing, but we'd arrived early morning and the Swarovski Christmas Tree was unlit and the Christmas Market just one of several in the town and seemd quite tourist orientated. It was, however, a fleeting stopover in the town and, of course, our minds were on the mountains not the shopping so Innsbruck really didn't get the chance to shine. As well as giving us a chance to stretch our legs, post flight, before the 90 minute transfer to Obergurgl the break at Innsbruck gave us a chance to meet and get to know each other; my fears disippated in minutes as I was instantly absorbed into the group and awarded the honour of being "one of the ladies" for the duration........but let's not mention the toilets mix-up on Tuesday morning!



Our destination for the extended weekend was Obergurgl, high in the Ötztal Alps and together with Hochgurgl recognised as one of Europe's most consistently good ski resorts. Driving up through the Ötztal Gurglertal valley took us through Solden just as the news was officially confirmed that the municipality is going to be used as a location for the next James Bond film, Spectre. A total of 22 filming days is planned in the Tirol, and at its peak the film crew will consist of 500 people, including 150 local filmmakers covering various positions.

Solden - location for the next James Bond film ©Otztal Tourismus

 Now there's no getting away from the fact that we royally treated by our hosts from Inghams Holidays and Visit Tirol and what we sampled in our three days was the top end of the market, but, and it's a very important but, we didn't have anything special set-up for us that isn't available to anyone. The party stayed in hotels Inghams features in its holidays and we ate the same food, used the same buses and listened to the same instructors as those around us. The ladies shared apartments at the first hotel built in the village, The Eidelweiss & Gurgl while, for logistic reasons, I had a room at the nearby Jenewein; though saying room it was more of a suite big enough for a family with a balcony overlooking the piste and cable car. The reality is that skiing isn't cheap, and learning to ski even less so, but that doesn't mean it's not value for money even in a resort where every hotel seems to be a 4 start hotel and every eating establishment bidding for Michelin stars.

Whether it was dinner in the hotel or lunch in a mountain hut the food was always spot-on and the atmosphere universally bubbling.

Lunch at the Nederhutte ©Tirol Tourist Board

Welcome from the Otztal Tourist Board and 5 course dinner behind us the snow started falling and I spent an hour transfixed by the piste bashers on the flootlit runs below my balcony before giving in to the gravitational pull of the bed. We'd been fitted for boots and skis and our kit was stashed ready for an early start in the morning. Day one was over and despite my fears of feeling isolated dispelled and everything I could possibly need on-hand there was still the thought in the back of my mind that tomorrow was the real test and the real reason I was there.

Floodlit slopes at night

Of the 8 of us one could already ski so had asked for boarding while another was instructor level, leaving six between two instructors as we headed for the cable car. The one day with the Chill Factore organised by Go Ski Go Board in advance of flying out allowed us to progress quickly on the first morning and under the watchful eye of Seppl and Richard. Whether by luck or some divine knowledge accumulated in their 60+ years of combined experience instructing we split into groups based on our ability before we'd even stepped off the cable car! While I remained with Seppl throughout the two days I was left in no doubt that the more rapidly advancing group with Richard were equally delighted. Even within our group we were given the freedom to progress at a different pace while still moving forward together and by lunch we'd got the idea of snowploughs and traversing; if not quite perfected it. Even the infrastructure was playing ball with a sudden and first ever power failure taking out all the lifts and cable cars leaving us temporarally stranded midway up a mountain and a perfect opportunity to give my kit a test while grabbing some photographs. The full reviews of Berghaus' Insulated Frendo and Sealskinz Winter Gloves will follow soon but they performed faultlessly as I basically lay in the snow at -10 for half an hour grabbing portraits for the ladies while we awaited the reconnection.

One short 2 minute power failure on the descent gave us as good a view as we'd get all weekend as the sun remained stubbonly shy throughout and that was then end of the electricity issues. Of course a power outage that hits the whole resort's infrastructure isn't a great advert but in its context it added to the trip. It's not a regular occurence and no-one could remember the backup failing too. By the time the backup went down they already had someone on the way from Innsbruck and the downtime was nothing more than a quick shuffle of the afternoon schedule.

The only way is down

Lunch at 2670m at the Hohe Mut Alm was an experience even though the cloud restricted a view that normally encompasses 21 peaks over 3000m. It makes a welcome change for someone else to be doing all the work at this altitude and being accessible for skiers and non-skiers makes it an ideal meeting place. Of course everyone else knows that too and it's popular. Despite the popularity the service was fast without being rushed and the food perfect to fuel the afternoon. A quick change of plan to use the area right outside my hotel even saw us back on schedule before an evening at the Aqua Dome.

Hohe Mut Alm in more cooperative conditions ©Otztal Tourismus

And so to the Aqua Dome, half an hour back down the valley in Langenfeld. Now I'm not entirely unfamiliar with the copncept of a spa, I class Buxton as my home town and there's been a spa there since Roman times but this is just taking the spa concet to a different planet. The Aqua Dome is a 50,000 square metre spa resort with 200 room hotel, conference suites and a range of spas and saunas that goes on longer than an American film credits. On the sauna side alone there's a loft sauna, earth sauna, sauna canyon, hay barn sauna, steam dome, steam bath, herb bath, brine steam bath, brine grotto, whirlpool, swimming pool, shower world, ice grotto, Kneipp trail, thematised rest areas, spiral garden, panoramic whirlpool, outdoor area and sauna bar. Then there's The Talfrische outdoor spa which contains three seemingly levitating bowl- shaped pools with a diameter from 12 to 16 metres: one brine pool with underwater music and light effects, one massage pool with a fountain of thermal water and one jacuzzi pool. Additionally, there's a 25-metres swimming pool for sports, an activity pool with underwater fitness equipment. There's 17 massage treatments alone. It's enough to just want to go and sit in a cold dark room - On yes they've got one of those too, it's the Ice Grotto. I didn't have the same level of excitement as my companions and probably didn't get quite the same experience but I can't say I wasn't impressed; apparently the James Bond film crew are too and will be taking the place over during filming. The ladies? Yes they were loving it! Dinner and back to Obergurgl and the hotel brought the day to a close.

The Aqua Dome in Winter 

The Aqua Dome at night

Monday dawned and the day looked good. With the constant cloud the team of Becky and Lydia from Visit Tirol and Inghams quickly and seamlessly reshuffled the schedule, dropping the visit to the slopes of Hochgurgl and the Top Mountain Star at just over 3000m where visibility would be next to zero. Instead the morning saw an introduction to chairlifts and starting to link turns for one group while the others had already started taking on full blue routes. I spent the morning recovering after a medication and breakfast reaction put me out of the game for a while but following another mountain hut lunch rejoined the group for the final session on the blue runs. It was still hard work and still involved falling over excessively but the falls became less frequent and for the first time we were looking down a run at an end point, a goal. That's when that moment came where it felt so right, where a single zig zag felt so natural and effortless I saw instantly what gets people hooked on skiing. That one moment that made risking not being able to ski and giving it a go, taking an adventure after too long without, all had meaning. I was the definition of exhausted but a totally satisfied exhausted that I hadn't felt for a very long time.

The final lift up the mountain

Apres-ski is a big tradition in Austria and the Nederhutte is legandary so with three of us having checked in our kit for the final time we took the last cable car up for the Monday Apres-Ski Party. For over 25 years the house band "Die Nederlumpen" have been hammering out an eclectic mix of music to go with the free flowing beer. After two days of hard but massively rewarding work it was just what was needed, and we were certainly not alone in the feeling. As the mountain rocked to the music the host and customers took to dancing on the tables and benches while others balanced trays of beer and shots precariously as they moved around the bar.


The group all together at the Nederhutte

Normally you're expected to ski down from the Nederhutte parties, with the cable car finishing at 4pm, and 3 of the group joined Becky in taking it on under floodlights while the rest of us made a spectacular final descent on the back of a skidoo.


Service to the door

And so it came to a final dinner, another 5 course culinary masterpiece, and an earlyish night for the early flight home. We'd come, we'd seen and a few of us had conquered but none had been beaten by our first experience of skiing. Everyone of us, however, had been bitten to some degree by the bug and we all have a piece of Obergurgl forever with us. In two days we'd all gone from total beginners to at least our first blue, and we'd done it in a truly stunning location.

Inghams offer a choice of 15 properties in Obergurgl, including the 4* Hotel Edeweiss & Gurgl and the Jenewein with a week’s half board from £849 per person, including flights from Gatwick to Innsbruck and transfers. Add in a 'first-time' ski or board package includes six day lift pass and equipment hire as well as five days tuition (four hours daily) for  £390 and you're looking at £1250 excluding dinners,drinks and the Aqua Dome, so it's not cheap.

For me it would have been value at twice the price. I may or may not ski again; I hope I do, but either way I took the chance and gave it a go. In return skiing rewarded me with a feeling of achievement I'd sorely missed, an experience I'll never forget and some great new friends. If it can do that in 3 days then in a week I'd be taking on reds without a second thought. I've spent as much on a mountaineering trip and people spend as much to lie on a beach for a week or two so put in the context of a once a year family the price tags doesn't look so bad.

Once learned it's something you won't forget. The costs will drop without the need for ski school and you can pick up a good beginners set of boots and skis for under £100 on ebay to cut the hire costs. Lesser known destinations can be found around Europe with lower prices and every run in every resort is unique. If I was ten years younger or even now if hadn't had my neck problems holding me back I think I'd already be addicted.

What it's all about © Tirol Tourist Board


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