Austria on skis, published in Fall Line magazine

Published in Fall Line magazine

"OK, I drive," said Franz Klammer, 26-times World Cup race winner and Olympic champion. We were a couple of miles short of our hotel near Villach in western Austrian, it was 3.00 am and the snow was falling thick and wet.

A couple of us stayed behind to lighten the load as Klammer hit the accelerator and began spinning the car up the icy road, veering it in a wide slalom, using the turns to cut into the surface.

A few minutes later we saw the headlights appear through the sheets of snow. Klammer came level with us and whipped the car around in a perfect 180 degree spin, coming to a halt next to us. This guy has a feeling for snow, I thought. He really knows snow.

This was the final night of a three day press trip, hosted by Klammer as a means of popularising his beloved Austrian alpine resorts, the slopes where he showed the first signs of the world-beating speed and power which culminated in an Olympic gold medal in Innsbruck, 1976.

Still formidably strong and good-looking, Klammer these days concentrates on building ski apartments in the U.S. resorts of Boulder and Vail, playing golf and bringing up a family (which stays mainly in Austria). But his name remains synonymous with the great tradition of Austrian downhill skiing.

It was an Austrian, Hannes Schneider, who is credited with inventing the world's first proper downhill technique: he moved away from the Telemark swing - a technique popularised by Scandinavian skiers - and developed the stemmbogen and stemm-christiana, which allow greater control at high speed.

In 1927, Schnieder teamed up with Arnold Lunn, another pioneer of downhill and slalom techniques. They created the Arlberg Kandahar in St Anton in 1928, now recognised as one of the most challenging runs in Alpine skiing. The region bred a World Cup champion in 1969 and 1970 - Karl Schranz, before the arrival of Klammer.

St Anton attracts an ever-growing band of enthusiasts. The range and challenge of the skiing is enormous, with some of the most testing black runs, vast areas of off-piste skiing and a great variety of less problematic runs to chose from. The snow is almost always good, with the highest lifts topping out at 2,800 meters. The 2001 World Alpine Championships took place in St Anton.

A single lift pass allows access to St Anton, St Christoph and Stuben through an interconnected lift system, with Lech and Zuers a short bus ride away (and still on the same lift pass). Among the most famous downhill runs are the Valluga (the dare-devil's favourite), the Tansboden and the Kapali, luring some of the most intrepid skiers and snowboarders in the world to tackle the resort.

The town itself is littered with high-class hotels and restaurants, alongside a bustling youth scene: it was once known as the 'bad boy of the Alps' for the number of ego-heavy lads in evidence, but has broadened its appeal substantially in recent years. Among the best-rated bars are the Krazy Kangaruh and the Funcky Chicken, with serious clubbers making for the Kartouche Club for late night revels.

Second in overall prestige and skiing range is Kitzbuehel, with its fearsome Hahnenkalm downhill run and a series of smaller resorts accessible on one ski pass. These include Aurach, Jochberg, Ashau and Pass Thurn, allowing skiers to complete grand tours without skiing the same run twice. While the town retains a hard core of sophisticated visitors, the overall flavour has become more widely spread in recent years, as Australian backpackers and European students have colonised the many bars and clubs.

Nevertheless, recent visitors praise the town for retaining a good deal of its folksy charm. "There is a lovely feel to the place," says Leslie Woit, editor of Fall Line Skiing magazine. "It's come a long way in the last ten years, without losing that gemutlich nature which the Austrians do so much better than the Swiss Germans. And the language is much more intelligible."

Woit spent a long weekend in Kitzbuehel in December 2001, hiking up into the mountains with a guide for some serious off-piste action and skiing across some parts of the Hahnenkalm run. Most of it had been roped off in preparation for the downhill, which takes place in mid-January.

Kitzbuehel, along with downhill runs in the Swiss resort of Wengen and the German downhill at Garmisch, has been granted an exemption from stiffer safety regulations in downhill racing, after a series of fatalities over the past decade. In 1994 the Austrian skier Ulrike Maier broke her neck and died just before the finishing line in Garmisch; in both 1991 (Austrian Gernot Reinstadler) and 1997 (Frenchman Adrian Duvillard) there were violent deaths on the Lauberhorn, while French champion Regine Cavagnoud died earlier this season in Austria when she ran into her coach at high speed, dying of brain damage and internal injuries.

The Hahnenkalm is not typical of the resort - much of the rest of the skiing can be relatively tame. And Kitzbuehel is quite low-lying, so snow conditions can be unreliable. There are also internationally renowned downhill runs at Saalbach, Flachau and Innsbruck.

In total, there are well over a hundred ski resorts in Austria, many dozens of them in the Salzburg region, which acts as a central hub for skiers to use, taking trips out to different resort as they chose. For example, the Gastein Valley includes three different resorts: the fashionable Bad Gastein, the quieter resort of Bad Hofgastein and Dorfgastein, popular with families.

Also accessible are Zell am See, Stubai and Kaprun which each have glaciers and are skiable all year round. A ski safari, taking in seven different ski areas, can be booked in advance.

The Austrians make a point of providing plenty of fun extras in their ski resorts. So, for example, when we skied with Franz Klammer near Villach, we also played a form of curling, using brushes and flat bowls on ice, and had a night-ski experience where we were pulled along on a rope behind a couple of horses. There were liberal quantities of schnapps, beer and wine, which Austrians seem to enjoy at lunchtime.

Innsbruck, with its Olympic tradition and lively city centre, forms another hub for skiers who can travel out on short bus rides to the resorts of Igls, Tulfes, Mutters and Aximer Lizum. Igls, for example, is only a few minutes by road from Innsbruck city centre, with a cable car taking you up to 2,250 meters: this was the site of the Olympic downhill race won by Klammer. The Stubai glacier is only 30 minutes away, while the Hintertux glacier is about 40 minutes distant.

One smaller resort surrounded by glaciers which gets high marks from many visitors is Obergurgl in the Otzal valley. It is one of the highest alpine villages, at 1930 meters, meaning very reliable snow; it has good links with its neighbouring gurgls - Untergurgl and Hoch Gurgl (even higher at 2150 meters) and lifts which take you up to 3,200 meters. Once a week there is floodlit skiing and the quiet, friendly, attractive village brings in a clientele looking for mountain tranquillity and sport (nightlife is limited).

Austria is particularly keen on attracting British skiers because, after Germans, the British are the most common visitors to the slopes. For the British themselves, Austria comes second to France as a ski destination, but for some, finding a resort where you are not surrounded by fellow countryfolk is an achievement.

Snowboarders have colonised the Austrian resort of Meyerhofen recently, with its access to a very wide domain, but elsewhere they have made less inroads: Austrians covet their legacy of extremely fast downhill racing on two skis where the French seem far happier to go around looking like Michelin men and falling over all the time.

Nevertheless, Meyerhofen is a top-rated resort, with lovely Tyrolean architecture, ultra-quick chairlifts and a fantastic 5.5km long slalom trail running down the mountain. Your lift pass gets you onto the Hintertux glacier. But for many, the apres-ski is the main pull: the cool youth heads for the Movie Bar, Niki's Schirmbar or Scotland Yard.

Skiers looking for extensive domains can try Ischgl, where a free bus links the resort with Galtur, Samnaun and Kappl, giving 310 km of terrain, serviced by quick lifts.

Coming in Franz Klammer footsteps, another Austrian makes international headlines in the men's downhill these days: Hermann Maier. Known as the 'herminator' he has outperformed the competition for the past five years, and has just drawn level with Klammer by winning his 26th World Cup race. Maier has built up a reputation as an indestructible force on the slopes, winning his first Super-G World Cup race while wearing a cast on his broken hand; during another race he crashed spectacularly, but then brushed off the snow, waved to the cameras and won another race later in the day.

"When Klammer raced there was no Super-G. He would have won many more races in that event," says Maier. "I have all kinds of respect for Klammer, so I don't want to say I'm better than him yet." The 'yet' is a giveaway, and Klammer himself is under no doubts: if he was racing today, he blow the herminator off the piste. "Of course I'm better," he told me as we shared a T-bar up the slope. Only the Swede Ingmar Stenmark commands his ultimate respect, for his unbelievable 86 World Cup victories.

When we skied with Franzie (as he is affectionately known) he would often be spotted by ardent admirers, some of them wearing ski outfits bearing his name. The company making Klammer suits has ceased production, but he remains a national figure, almost as famous as his friend Arnold Schwartzenneger, with whom he skis in both Austria and the U.S.

Austria has a major reliance on tourism for the health of its economy - it contributes something like eight per cent of the national income. Skiing makes up a good deal of this figure and means that the Austrians, in addition to their shining record of ski champions, are extremely hospitable hosts, doing whatever they can to improve their guests' experience in the alps.

As Leslie Woit of Fall Line magazine comments: "The one thing about some Austrian resorts is that they're quite low-lying. So if you believe that global warming is happening, you'd better go ski in Austria while you still can!"