The back of beyond: Off piste in Kaunertal by Christopher Taine

date: Monday Oct 24, 2016

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The Kaunertal glacier, tucked away in the southwestern corner of the Austrian Tirol, is the gateway to one of the Alps' most varied and untamed ski touring regions

Branding itself as “Tirol’s Youngest Glacier” (referring to the youthful nature of the clientele, rather than the age of the glacial ice itself) Kaunertal has a storied history as one of the first European resorts to embrace snowboarding during its initial mid-1980s boom.

More than thirty years on, the resort remains dedicated to providing top-notch freestyle facilities, ensuring a steady stream of young skiers and boarders during the high seasons in autumn and spring but its ‘youthfulness’ is also due to undeniable family appeal. The wide, gentle pistes are seldom crowded, and are largely set within a broad natural amphitheatre topped by the 3,518m Weissseespitze.

But much more than providing glacial eye-candy for those sunning themselves on the terrace of the 2,750m Weisssee Glacier Restaurant, the icy domed summit of Weissseespite represents the vast ski touring and freeride potential of the Kaunertal. Off-piste skiers, splitboarders, ski tourers and alpinists are lured here to explore remote valleys, as well as the promise of fresh tracks many days after the last storm.

Without breaking a sweat

"The touring potential here is huge, but it’s also the super long descents that can be easily reached directly from the lift or with a short hike that give the whole area so much variety" explains Simon Möst, a mountain guide and ski instructor who grew up in the valley, between Kaunertal and nearby Landeck. “The same could be said, of course, for Verbier or St Anton, but the difference here is that there is so much terrain, and few enough skiers and riders that it’s usually no problem to find untracked snow days after a snowfall.”

It’s the lift-accessed freeriding that is immediately obvious when arriving at the resort for the first time. Kaunertal is basically “upside down,” in that the most interesting terrain lies under the Ochsenalm quad chair, below the main base area, while the beginner slopes are high up on the glacial slopes. This means that freeriders will find some of the most technical and challenging terrain – including narrow chutes, cliffs and natural kickers – under a modest chairlift that might be dismissed by some as only an access lift. And despite being the lowest lift-accessed point in the resort, with a starting elevation of 2,150m it’s snowsure throughout the winter season.

Some of the best lift-accessed off-piste is found at the end of the 170m long 'Wiesejaggl' tunnel, which was constructed in 2014, making more of the terrain accessible without a hike. Consequently, it’s possible to descend as much as 1000m straight off the top of the Karlesjoch gondola, on playful and varied terrain, featuring natural halfpipes and wide open powder slopes. Beware though, the serpentine sealed access road that winds all the way up to 2,750m crosses through this area, so a “check yourself before you wreck yourself” approach is well advised, and depending on the route it may be necessary to “de-ski” in places.

A modest investment - a big payoff

If you are willing to invest 15-20 minutes in a hike (no skins required – though they do make it easier) then the rewards can be substantial. From the top of the Nörderjoch T-bar, it doesn’t take much more than a quarter of an hour to gain the Nörderjoch, at an elevation of 3,062m. It is from here that alpinists prepare to ascend the rocky ridgeline that leads to the white-capped Weissseespitze, but turn and look down the mountain and the view reveals an expanse of off-piste terrain and a multitude of lines is revealed. The short hike is rewarded with more than 1000m of vertical, with immense glacial ice fields tumbling down the opposite mountainside, fed by the Gepatchferner. From the bottom of the so-called ‘Münchner Variante’ the valley funnels back to the access road near the Gepatchhaus at 1,928m. Although there is a bus service that returns to the base of the Ochsenalmbahn, it isn’t frequent, so be prepared to hitch - or draw short straws to see who shuttles.

The Weissseejoch, accessed via the Karlesjoch gondola and Wiesejaggl tunner, is another easily accessible trip for ski tourers, and perhaps the best one to get familiar with the area – bearing in mind that a good knowledge of snow safety and off piste experience is still a prerequisite. There are multiple variants possible, with the midstation of the Ochsenalmbahn the natural endpoint for these descents.

Earning your turns out the back of beyond

Reaching over 3500m and visible from far down the valley, the Weissseespitze itself is a goal for many ski tourers too, and while the approach is best tackled with a guide, the ski descent over the Gepatchferner is an epic – perhaps unsurprising given this is the largest inter-connected ice field in the Austrian Alps. The skiing itself is not highly technical, but as it involves glacier travel it does require settled weather and a safe snowpack, not to mention the right equipment.

On the other side of the resort, beyond the Weissseejoch there are other challenging daytrips that include less lift-assisted vertical, and more effort, though the ends certainly justify the means. The Glockturm at 3,370m boasts one of the best vantage points in the valley, taking in the easternmost reaches of the Swiss Alps as well as the glaciated peaks that mark the watershed and natural border between Austria and Italy.

And speaking of Italy, future developments may open up even more off-piste possibilities, with talk of a gondola being constructed in the Langtaufers valley. While this would primarily allow glacier access from the Italian (South Tirol) side of the border, it would also open up more prime freeride terrain. To be fair, it’s a route that’s eminently skiable without a lift – were it not for the matter of a 70km trip back to the resort at the end of it.

As if that wasn’t enough to keep the thighs burning for days, Kaunertaler Mountain Guides offers a number of multiday excursions, ranging from 2-day touring weekends, though to 6-day traverses of the Ötztaler Alps, as well as freeride-focused camps – where the guiding principle is simply finding the best untracked snow. And in this part of Austrian Tirol, thankfully that’s not so difficult!

Key Dates:
31st Kaunertaler Opening (Festival): 7-9 October 2016
Freeride Testival: 25-26 March 2017

Chris was a guest of the Kaunertal Tourist BoardKaunertaler Mountain Guides, and stayed at the ***s Hotel Edelweiss in Feichten.

 

Contact

The Tyrolean Oberland Tourism Board
Kaunertal Tourism
Feichten 134
A-6524 Kaunertal
Tel+225 43 50 200
office@kaunertal.com

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