From Austria with Love: Learning to Ski in Höchfugen!

This blog entry comes two months after the trip but testing positive for Covid the day after our return and feeling unwell for around four weeks then the everyday busyness of work and a trip to my old home city of Córdoba, Spain, have delayed this a bit!

I’m a secondary school teacher and was part of a team of 5 staff who took 50 of our students on a ski trip to Höchfugen in the Zillertal region of Tyrol in the Austrian Alps, for a week. We were supposed to go on this trip back in 2020 but for obvious reasons, it was postponed a couple of times until February half term, 2022.

We were originally meant to travel for 28 hours via coach and I was not exactly enthralled at this prospect and had started scouring online for a decent neck pillow, so when it was decided that we would fly into Salzburg instead, it was excellent news for all. It was still a full day of travelling, however, with an hour’s coach to Manchester airport, a few hours waiting, two hour flight, then 2 hours to Höchfugen.

We were tired and freezing when we all arrived into the dark, chilly, Austrian night around 10pm with snow quietly falling down all around.

The night view from our room’s balcony

We ran indoors into the warmth, kicked the snow off our boots then checked into our rooms. Once the students were sorted, my colleague/friend and I went to our room and the first thing I did, as I always do, was make a beeline for the window to see what the view was like.

The first thing I noticed even before the ski slope and inches of snow piled up on our balcony was the clarity and brightness of the stars. The iPhone never picks them up well in photos but it was much clearer than the photo above shows. Snow ploughs serenely made their way up and down the slopes, laying the ridges into the packed snow for the day ahead’s skiers.

After we announced bedtime for the students, we headed to our rooms and I was excited to see that view the next morning in the dawn light.

The morning view from our room’s balcony

When our alarm went off at 6:45, I dived over to the window and flung back the curtain, not expecting such bright sunlight that streamed into our room. The brightness of the early sun that reflected off the pure white snow was dazzling and you could now make out the thousands of contours in the mountains that hadn’t been so visible in the dark and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bit alarmed at the height and steepness of the ski slope I was going to be trying out!

I had never skiied before this trip. Most of our students on the trip had skiied several times before or had practised at the Chill Factore in Manchester. I went into this trip to supervise the students and assist with the travelling and so on but the bonus was also getting to learn how to ski.

I spent roughly £200 on basic skiwear which consisted of:

  • Three sets of thermal base layers
  • Several pairs of ski socks (make sure they go up to just below your knee)
  • Ski goggles
  • Ski jacket
  • Ski pants/ salopettes
  • Factor 50 sun cream and a lipbalm for skiing conditions with SPF
  • A faux-fur lined gilet (I never thought in my life I would purchase a gilet…)

On top of this, I brought ski gloves I already owned from a trip to Iceland a few years ago, sunglasses, flat ankle boots with a good grip for walking on snow, several t-shirts, a zip-up fleece jacket, a pair of waterproofs to go over pants, a few pairs of leggings and normal socks and a few items of casual clothing for wearing of an evening. Skis, boots, helmets and poles were provided by the ski school.

After a very Alpine breakfast of holey cheese on fresh bread buns and muesli with yogurt, ensuring we got sufficient carbs for an active day ahead, we all proceeded down the hill to the ski centre for the ski fit.

A very pretty cafe/restaurant with views of the ski slopes

Once we had all been fitted with our ski gear, I brought the group of students I was supervising down to the slopes where we met Biane, our very patient instructor for the beginners’ group.

The strangest sensation was being clipped into the skis and having to continuously reprogramme your mind that you can no longer just step around freely as when ski-free. You naturally want to lift your leg and foot up freely in any direction as normal and if you forget you can wobble and fall over even whilst still, as I did whilst the instructor was talking us through some logistics.

We started off with some basic exercises to get used to the feeling of being on the skis and how to best navigate ourselves whilst on them, including the side-stepping technique to move uphill which BURNS your quads after a few hours of doing this during the first couple of days.. but the plus side is it’s great exercise and you see progress very quickly when you start at zero and complete the beginners’ stages.

Kitted up: all the gear with no idea on day 1!

We moved up a couple of metres on the nursery slope and practised gliding down without poles. At this point, we were learning how to control our centre of gravity to slow down when needed, turn, and stop.

Biane taught us the snowplough move which he called “the pizza’ as you have to make the triangular shape of a slice of pizza (the front of your skis touching with heels/back of skis apart like a ^ ).

He laid rubber cones down the small section of slope and we would side step our way up then take it in turns to slowly glide down, hands on knees and in snowplough to control our balance and movements.

The lessons each day were split into two three-hour sessions with an hour for lunch in between. When 12pm came, we were all starving and ready for a rest. The hotel was uphill with a few twists and turns and walking in the ski boots up that from the ski slope was the most strenuous part, as silly as that may sound. The relief at unstrapping the clunky boots that had been digging into your shins for the last three+ hours was almost indescribable… we kicked them off into the boot store and positioned them on to the radiator hooks then dragged ourselves up the stairs to the dining room.

Sitting down for lunch, downing several cups of water and having a strong coffee for increased energy for the afternoon session set us back up. Time to gear back up and head back down.

We were really fortunate with the weather on the first two days and by around 2pm it was very bright and sunny and so warm you could take your ski jacket off and ski with just a t-shirt and your padded ski pants (padded to help cushion inevitable falls). The après-ski bar in the near distance was playing chilled tunes into the afternoon and it really had a holiday vibe, albeit very peaceful with the only other sound being the gliding of fast skiiers whooshing down from the top of the slope.

Higher up on the nursery slope around 4pm

On day two, we were taken up the ‘magic carpet’ where you swipe your ski pass at a turnstile then step on to an ascending conveyor belt with grips so you don’t slip. This meant we didn’t have to do the dreaded side stepping up the slope as much and although it is quite slow, it is still more fun to have the view of the ski resort from higher up and you feel a bit more daring descending from there.

Day two was also Valentine’s Day and it was cute to see a love heart drawn into the snow by the ploughs the night before (as shown in the picture below).

Valentine’s Day heart in the snow

The next few days weren’t so blessed with sun. There was a heavy snowfall on the night before day three which in some ways made it easier to ski with the fluffy, unpacked snow giving a bit more resistance. Still, fresh snow is so pretty and looks like icing sugar. I asked the teachers who had been to various ski resorts in other European countries if the others are as lovely as this and they conceded that this was indeed one of the prettiest.

Thick, fresh snow looks almost edible like icing sugar
A misty view downwards due to falling snow

I had been skiing with just normal sunglasses on for the first two days, wondering why I had bothered buying ski goggles, but when snow is falling and it gets a bit windy, you realise then why they are needed. It doesn’t detract from the skiing itself though and by this point, we were all getting a bit braver in the beginners’ group. I was so impressed with the more advanced groups and the swiftness and skill of how they would swoop down the slopes, leaving a fine spray of snowdust in their wake. Something so cute was the infant ski schools with trails of little, very brave and fearless children from aged 3+ who wore high-vis jackets and carried their much shorter poles and were so good!! Small babies were cocooned in star-shaped baby ski suits and pulled along in wooden sledges which was one of the cutest sights I have ever seen.

Snow dusted fir trees

I just love stunning scenery and nature and found one of the highlights of being in Austria was just how picturesque and fairytale it looked. The landscape was totally new to me as someone who hadn’t skiied previously, and the tall spiky trees and even the little semi-isolated chapel perched beyond the ski slope coate in layers of thick snow like royal icing on a wedding cake recalled Hansel and Gretel style buildings that looked good enough to eat. This was not only my first time skiing but it was also my first time in Austria. I had a slight experience of Austrian food and culture when I visited Trentino in the Italian Alps in December 2021 where we were only 30 minutes away from Austria and signs were in German and menus served schnitzel and canederli, but it was great to finally visit Austria itself. I would love so much now to visit Salzburg and Vienna.

The small chapel just beyond the ski slope

By the end of day three (18 hours of skiing already!), tiredness was really starting to set in. Late nights, early starts, two three-hour sessions of skiing and the treks back up the hill each time were taking their toll on energy reserves, regardless of how many carb-loaded meals and coffee I was consuming. My legs felt like lead in the mornings and fatigue was really taking over. I also felt like I was coming down with a cold as skiing in snow can really get to the lungs and throat. I decided to take a day off to restore some energy as it was just becoming a bit too intense and I was conscious of becoming ill. The school term had ended quite tiringly as it is always full-on especially from January-Easter in secondary schools.

What I didn’t know at this point is that I and some others had contracted Covid and the symptoms would hit hard upon my return to the UK and endure for a good 4-5 weeks for me, at least.

In the meantime, my friend and I took the cable car up to a much higher level, 3000 ft up, and I had never been in a cable car before… couple with my fear of heights, I spent ten minutes fearing for my life and sitting suspended in a state of muted panic with my arms futilely reached out across to the opposite seat thinking that gripping on to that might make me feel safer in the event that the cable car should randomly snap from its cable and plummet into the jagged mountains below.

This is the ridiculous thing about phobias: they are irrational but bank into that very small possibility of… what if ? I had seen the cable cars going up and going down peacefully thousands of of times throughout the day for the last four days but a slight gust of wind that caused a slight sway and the periodic jolts at each gantry had me close to tears, thinking “but I really want to see my family/partner/friends/dog again…”- it sounds melodramatic but this is exactly what I was thinking in the moment!! I don’t know how my friend stayed so calm with me carrying on like that…

The cable cars up the mountain

Once I finally staggered off the cable car, yes, the view was worth it. There were bars up there and yet more chilled vibes of people sitting outdoors and enjoying the scenery. It was reassuring to see how calm everyone else was to rationalise that this particular method of transportation was safe. We met our colleagues up there who had been traversing the black slopes and off-piste areas on ski and snowboard and admittedly all I could think about was the dread at having to descend in another dreaded cable car.

When it was time for the last cable car of the day, I had no choice but to clamber in apprehensively yet resignedly and control my breathing and think rationally. I sat with my back to the descent but when my friend remarked how beautiful the view was, I had to turn round slowly to see what I was missing out on.

As with most mobile phone photos, the picture below doesn’t do justice. Imagine it a hundred times clearer with the sensory additions of the wind flowing through the sliding window that had been rolled down a few inches by the previous passenger, snow flakes hitting the windows and momentarily lingering before melting or blowing away, and the jagged terrain of dark, snow-capped fir trees coming ever closer as the comforting sight of the landing pad was approaching ever closer…

View from the cable car around 2000 ft up

The next day, with some strength recouped, I braved it back out on to the slopes. The snow clouds had shifted or all fallen down to earth, and the sun was able to reemerge.

Muscle memory from a couple days before kicked in and I caught back up. It was time to try the next level: the button lift. You catch a seat on a rope as it comes around the carousel and have to quickly push the button-shaped seat between your legs but you don’t sit on it, you just lean back against it and let the lift bring you upwards. It is much faster than the ‘magic carpet’ and it is that bit higher; I felt a bit daunted at first when I looked down but our instructor was breaking the descent down into manageable exercises. This, however, meant placing a LOT of weight and resistance in the quads to stay controlled during all the twists and turns, with one arm raised and one stretched out to the side, then switching arms for the next turn. It felt graceful when doing it correctly, but that slight fear of losing the control and careering down the slope and potentially falling badly was always there.

It can be frustrating when you are trying with all your physical and mental effort and still not staying in perfect unison with the instructor and the rest of your group, and I did submit to gravity a couple of times and go swooshing down the rest of the slope rapidly, willing my centre of gravity to stay where I wouldn’t fall horrifically… oddly I only fell whilst stationary and not whilst zooming down the slope. I would either hold my knees or throw my poles out behind me to try to temper the descent which somehow worked. I honestly credit years of roller blading as a kid and a fair bit of ice skating with giving me some strength in my thighs which allowed me to negotiate gravity on my first time skiing at the ripe age of 34.

The view from the top of the button lift

As I document on here and on my Instagram, I am a lover and student of languages and so I always make sure I learn some basic vocabulary for the countries I visit. German is the official language of Austria and I had never studied German; it is so distinct from the Latin languages I am used to but I wanted to have the courtesy to say the basics to Austrian and German people working on the slopes and in neighbouring shops/cafés. A teacher of French and German at my school made booklets for everybody to take for practice and here is what I remember, two months on:

Hello- Hallo

Good morning- Guten Morgen

Good day- guten Tag

Thank you- Danke

Please- Bitte

Goodbye- auf Wiedersehen

Yes- Ja

No- Nein

So…. essentially the German that any tourist might know! It’s better than nothing though..

After a week, it was time to return to Manchester. We had a three hour delay at Salzburg airport and with only one counter selling food with long queues that wound throughout duty-free, we had to sit on the floor, all 55 of us, waiting for the eventual departure, tired, aching, hungry, and thirsty, but the students were remarkably well-behaved and everyone had a great time. We all came away with new skills and great memories and although I was surprised at just how strenuous skiing is when you’re a newbie, I would definitely go again (especially now I have the gear!) and look forward to skiing again the future!

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