Arnie Wilson delves in to the fascinating history of the ‘cradle’ of Austrian skiing

It’s almost impossible to have a quiet time in St. Anton. The lion of the Arlberg roars triumphantly both on and off the slopes in this iconic ski area, which likes to fashion itself (with some cause) as “the cradle of Alpine skiing”.

But then generally people don’t come here for R+R. They go for the powerhouse skiing – some of the best in the Alps – and the cacophony of celebrated slope-side bars like the Krazy Kanguruh and the MooserWirt.

At lunch time, after an exhilarating morning skiing just a fraction of St Anton’s huge and challenging ski domain, concentrating on the Kapall and Gampen slopes, there’s no sign of Karl Schranz, one of the greatest skiers of all time, at the SENNsationell (their joke, not mine) Sennhutte, where he’s a regular. The service is avalanche quick. 

But when we’re invited to dine in the peace and quiet of the exquisite museum – used as the main chalet exterior in the 2011 film Chalet Girl – it’s a welcome opportunity to reflect on the extraordinary history of this historic Tyrolean resort.

One of the museum’s main attractions is a truly impressive collection of scenes from wonderful old silent ski films from the 1920s and ‘30s – the silence again providing a refreshing contrast with St Anton’s pervading razzamatazz. Most famously, the 1931 movie Der Weisse Rausch – neue Wunder des Schneeschus: The White Flame – new Miracles of the Snowshoe (back then the word snowshoe also meant skis) has another celebrated local guru (pre-Schranz), Hannes Schneider playing himself.

In 1909, Schneider had been the first instructor to abandon the Telemark method, and teach the stem turn and stem Christiania instead. The Hannes Schneider Ski School became famous, and brought welcome guests to St Anton. During the 1914-18 war, Schneider taught mountain troops to ski, and this helped him deal with the many pupils who came to learn from him when he returned to civilian life.

After the war, Arnold Fanck made a series of ski films, and persuaded Schneider to star in them. In 1927, the British ski pioneer Arnold Lunn received an invitation from an American, Walter Bernays, to visit him in St Anton. While he was there, Lunn organised slalom for the local schoolboys. Schneider felt this was the best way to test a ski racer’s skill at avoiding rocks and tree-stumps. Together, Schneider and Lunn planned an historic combined slalom and downhill race to be run in 1928. It would be called the Arlberg-Kandahar, or A-K – the first alpine combined events in the history of alpine racing.

Initially the races alternated between St Anton and Lunn’s base in Mürren, Switzerland, but were increasingly held elsewhere too, including Chamonix (Les Houches), Garmisch-Partenkirchen and Sestriere, where there are Kandahar runs to this day.

And the race tradition lives on too. The annual nine-kilometre White Thrill race held each April involves 555 international participants who meet at 2650 metres for a mass start in three groups. In the words of the local tourist office, the skiers are “nervous, cool, tense, nonchalant, anxious or concentrated – their faces literally speak volumes” as they hurtle down from the Vallugagrat to the valley at breakneck speeds. Half way down, it’s skis off for a 150-metre climb – then skis, snowboards, telemark skis on again and full speed ahead. “Participants are the fiercest of enemies – but after crossing the finishing line – having surmounted one last obstacle by clambering over a huge “snow-stack” – they fall into each other’s arms, the best of friends all over again.”

Our group remained friends even while we stormed down the slopes, but then we weren’t really racing. The Vallugagrat was rather too misty for that, but after a hectic morning on the less well trodden wide open spaces of the Rendl slopes across the valley from the main St Anton skiing, we did fairly whizz down to get to the small but perfectly formed neighbouring resort of St Christoph for another good dining experience at the celebrated Hospiz Alm.

As St Anton is keen to stress, not everyone is a great skier, and certainly we had no such pretentions. “Many would just like to spend some carefree hours in the snow and get a taste of an international ski resort” says the resort. “While some are looking for the challenge only a downhill run or off-piste slopes can bring, others are looking forward to just gently carving down an easy slope. Some are venturing out on skis or boards for the very first time and want to have a go without any pressure to perform.”

Meanwhile a study by the University of Salzburg suggests skiing has both mental and physical positive effects on human health, especially for those over 60. “Improvements were detected in cardiovascular efficiency, muscle growth, balance and social skills” said Prof. Dr. Erich Müller, Head of Sports Science at the university. “One very important factor, however, is the psychological state; the great joy of exercising this sport brings in the long term.” Not to mention the joy of consuming adequate amounts of food and drink in between, as we certainly did! 


This story was originally published in Snow Enthusiast magazine. Read the full issue free at http://magazine.snow-forecast.com/snow-enthusiast-sf-2018#!page1