Maria Alm, Feb. 2015 – The western face of the Hochkönig is a steep expanse of snow and rock. “The refuge is up there on the right,” says the waiter pointing to the ridge of the peak that gives its name to the ski area south of Salzburg. We frown and squint through the restaurant’s floor-to-ceiling window but all we can see is a vertiginous cliff face.
With a slightly disappointed smile, he goes on to explain that the refuge can only be accessed in the summer months, either hiking from the back or climbing up from this side. He is clad in prim traditional costume but his hands look like they have spent more time clambering in rocks than handling espresso cups. The toughest ascent, he says, takes ten hours; he’s only done the easier three-hour one. We’re impressed, of course, but right now, our mind is turning to the coffee and waffles he’s just brought.
It’s only mid-morning and we wouldn’t normally stop for a snack this early in the day. We had lunch in the chalet-style section of the restaurant, the Steinbockalm, yesterday. It was cosy and friendly – although the family whose table we shared didn’t appear to feel the same – but really we wanted to sit in the modern extension by the huge picture window looking out to the 2,900m high Hochkönig. So we’re back here today, our last day in the resort, treating ourselves to a second breakfast with the sun shining outside.
The Hochkönig ski area is a network of half a dozen villages and hamlets, some with just a few guesthouses, linked by a surprisingly efficient lift system giving access to 130km of nicely prepared pistes. We’ve based ourselves in Aberg, at the western end, about a mile from the larger village of Maria Alm.
Once a small farming settlement, Aberg is now mostly a gathering of guesthouses and hotels. It’s right by one of the main lifts at the start of the Königstour, a 35km-circuit taking skiers around all the villages of the Hochkönig area and back. “My ski group is doing the tour on Thursday; maybe you and C could join us,” J suggests. The next morning, 10-year-old goddaughter C and I set off early. “Shall we do this?” I ask her. By lunchtime we’ve completed the Königstour and are tucking into a schnitzel at the Bärmooshutte. We don’t want to boast but we’re rather pleased with ourselves.
The next day, C and I leave J to finish her leisurely muesli, with the vague notion of setting a new Königstour record. We get distracted by a couple of off-piste runs through the trees above Dienten, a village roughly at half point of the tour, on a side valley. The weather has also closed in, making orientation a little tricky but also resulting in miles of empty lovely pistes.
Dienten is a pleasant surprise. A tiny place with a string of hotels and penzions, it manages to have a small supermarket, a baker, a bank, a post office and a couple of coffee shops – a concentrated version of the ideal Austrian ski resort.
By the time C and I get to Mühlbach, a sprawling village at the other end of the Königstour, it’s almost 11 a.m. and it’s now snowing quite heavily. We agree to stop for hot chocolate, in part as reward to C for skiing backwards most of the last flatish blue run. Warming oompah music is pumping on the covered terrace and a few of the locals are already on beer and schnapps.
The ski back is a bit of a rush, especially as we go down the wrong piste, and we just manage to catch J for a few minutes over lunch before she goes out again with her ski group. After yet another schnitzel, C and I decide to ski around the jumps in the fun park before calling it a day.
The next morning we’re greeted by 20cm of fresh snow. It has transformed the resort. The pistes are amazingly soft and off-piste the snow has nicely fluffed up. The sun is out too, with fantastic views in all directions. In the distance, a flock of hot air balloons is rising above the mountain line. C and I venture in the forest again, which we have almost to ourselves, and we pootle on and off-piste around the Gabuhelbahn, one of the main lifts on the Dienten side.
We’re in the middle of February and slopes get a little busy at times but there are hardly any queues. Back in the village, cars have mostly Austrian and Dutch number plates. We hear English spoken once, by a small boozy group of chaps one lunchtime, and French twice, first by a French junior ski team at the top of a lift and then by a Belgian family at the hotel.
The runs are perhaps not very long compared with larger resorts – about 4 or 5km on average – but they are hugely enjoyable and most are within the tree line, finishing in wide meadow fields. Few are challenging but several have a 1,000 vertical drop and will make your thighs burn. Maybe we’ll go down number 29 to Hinterthal, and then 30 to Hintermoos to finish the morning. But first, let’s go back to these waffles.