When my first snowboarding trip of the season to Norway was cancelled due to a lack of snow, I had a week to sort out an alternative. Checking open ski areas, the Tirol region of Austria was the best option. During this review of Ischgl snowboarding in December it delivered powder days, perfect pistes and apres partying.
Ischgl is well known for its long season. Opening in November and not closing until May, it has one of the longest seasons of a ski resort without a glacier. It’s known as being snow sure, but what we didn’t expect was to be riding fresh powder for most of our visit.
Ischgl has a spectacular opening and closing concert each year with stars such as Muse, Elton John, Robbie Williams, Kylie and James Blunt gracing the mountain stage. I was lucky to visit for the opening in 2014 and wrote this article about November snowboarding in Ischgl.
Because of this trip, I knew that Ischgl is a good bet for early season skiing or snowboarding. So when our trip to Norway was cancelled with a week to go, it was a case of Ischgl and Tirol to the rescue – as you’ll fine out in this review of Ischgl snowboarding in December.
Getting to Ischgl
Ischgl is very easy to reach. Innsbruck is the closest airport just an hour and twenty minute drive away. You can fly with easyJet or British Airways from London or Bristol plus there is a new easyJet route from Manchester for the 2018/19 winter season.
You could also fly into Zurich, Munich, Bolzano or Memmingen but they are all two and a half to three hours away. For this trip we flew from Gatwick to Innsbruck and took a transfer with Four Seasons from the airport to resort.
Alternatively you can take the train from Innsbruck to Landeck and then hop on the ski bus to resort. There are also good rail links to Landeck from Zurich and Munich airports.
Introducing Ischgl ski resort
Most skiers and snowboarders have heard of Ischgl. It is not only renowned for its long season but also its banging apres and its large varied ski area with 239 km of slopes.
Located in the Paznaun Valley, Ischgl is near to the ski areas of Kappl and Galtur both of which can be easily visited by bus. Ischgl is linked with Samnaun in Switzerland and together they make up the Silvretta Arena ski area.
Reaching up to 2,872 metres, and with much of the ski area over 2,000 metres, it is as snow sure as they come. And there are 1100 snow cannons just in case the weather is not playing ball.
You won’t find any rickety old lifts in Ischgl. The resort is famed for the investment in infrastructure, with new high speed, hitech, record-breaking lifts opening most seasons.
2018/19 is no different and sees the opening of the Gampenbahn (E4) chairlift transporting 2,800 people per hour. Climbing 924 metres, it’s the largest altitude gain of any six person chairlift with a bubble in the world!
Review of Ischgl snowboarding in December
Despite receiving only about 20 cm of natural snow so far this winter, Ischgl opened 93 km of its slopes. Looking online before we left, it seemed most of the snow was man made so they’d done a good job to open.
A small amount of fresh snow was forecast each day we were there. We were only expecting a few centimeters, but the weather gods spectacularly over delivered and we had lots of fresh snow to play in.
Day 1: Surprise powder and apres
We arrived at the Eldorado Hotel for this review of Ischgl snowboarding in December at lunchtime and were keen to hit the slopes. So had a quick change into our gear and walked about five minutes to the Pardatschgrat gondola, which took us to 2,624m.
At the top we were surprised to find around 30 cm of fresh snow and excitedly set off to explore. Very soon I found myself in the powder off to the side of the piste. It wasn’t deep, and as the first significant natural snow of the winter there were rocks close to the surface.
But laying powder turns on my first run of the season was a lovely surprise. We blasted all the way back to Ischgl at 1,400m. There was a surprising amount of powder off the side of the piste all the way down to around 1,800m.
During this review of Ischgl snowboarding in December it was the first time I have snowboarded all the way into Ischgl. It was a long run and a lot of fun with some steep slopes, wide cruising bits, narrow sections and plenty of lips to do tricks off.
We took the Pardatschgrat gondola again. And after enjoying the powder down to Idalp we took the Idjochbahn chairlift to 2,760m. From here there was a lot of powder to play in between the pistes back down to the same lift.
We spent the rest of the afternoon lapping the runs in this area and enjoying the powder. You had to take it easy as there were rocks not far below the surface, but it was great fun. The pistes were also in excellent condition considering how early in the season it is.
We stayed in the same area, also using the Flimjochbahn chair until the pistes were due to close. With the end of day one of this review of Ischgl snowboarding in December approaching, we took the Gratbahn chair back to where we had started the day.
But we were not about to take the gondola down. Instead we took the 1,200m descent into Ischgl playing in powder near the top, carving in the middle and doing tricks off lips towards the end.
Once back in town we celebrated a great day by sampling the apres at Schatzi, Freeride and Niki’s Stadl. To say it was banging would the understatement of the year as everywhere was heaving to the Austrian oompah style music.
To be fair, our exuberance at not just snowboarding for the first time in months, but actually riding powder, meant we got a bit carried away. We found ourselves sitting on the balcony in Niki’s Stadl still bopping away about five hours later…
Day 2: Whiteouts and wipeouts
On the second day of this review of Ischgl snowboarding in December we woke late and a little groggy. Ischgl apres had done its job again… Conditions were expected to be challenging with snow up high and rain down low pretty much all day.
When we reached Pardatschgrat, visibility was not great but there was more fresh snow and you could at least see where you were going. We headed down to Idalp and took the Idjochbahn chair intending to explore the Swiss side of the ski area.
It was at this point the weather came in and it was a complete whiteout. Not knowing where we were going we followed a blue that turned out to have lots of flat bits and even uphill sections.
Eventually we reached the Greitspitzbahn and headed up to the highpoint of the ski area at 2,872m. It was still a whiteout so we took red run number 70 back into Switzerland. You could barely tell which way was up or down, so speed and tricks were out of the question.
Confusing slope direction I ended up riding switch. Which surprisingly made the whiteout more fun, it was also rewarding to get down a red riding switch while barely being able to see. At the bottom we took the same lift back up, but decided to try our luck on the Ischgl side taking run number 15.
This turned out to be a nightmarish long narrow cat track in poor visibility. At one point we could have taken a black but neither of us fancied that in a whiteout so we soldiered on. This was probably the biggest mistake during this review of Ischgl snowboarding in December.
Unfortunately it was flat and uphill in places with a strong wind in our face. There was a drop on one side and in the whiteout I managed to fall off the edge. Luckily it was only a couple of metres down and my wipeout was into soft powder. But it took ages to climb back out.
Eventually we came to a proper piste again and I continued the switch riding all the way down to Hollboden. As the visibility improved lower down I found myself riding the best switch I can remember. Proving you can have fun and improve your snowboarding no matter what the conditions!
From here we took a chairlift to Idalp and then did a long run back to Ischgl. This time we came out in the centre of town. At points the slope was pretty flat and the snow sticky – probably not a good option if your skis or board are overdue a waxing.
After lunch in town we took the Silvrettabahn back up to Idalp. Visibility was still poor so we did a couple more runs, including a little off piste as snow was starting to build up. We then took the long run back to Ischgl and realised that despite the conditions we had been snowboarding most of the day.
After a trip to the spa in our hotel we headed out for food and drinks. This included beers in the Golden Eagle and Kuhstall bars – favourites from previous trips to Ischgl. Being a Sunday night early season it was quiet for Ischgl, but this time of season most visitors are weekenders.
Day 3: Pow Pow Pow
It had rained hard all afternoon and night in town on day two, so on the third day of this review of Ischgl snowboarding in December we hit the slopes hoping for some fresh snow. But even in our wildest dreams we didn’t expect as much as had fallen.
The fresh snow was knee deep pretty much everywhere. On the first run we both got stuck in areas where the snow was waist deep which took serious effort to escape from. All previous tracks had been completely covered with at least 50 cm of fresh pow.
Being midweek the slopes were very quiet and hardly anyone was using the off-piste. The avalanche risk of just 1 out of 5 making the whole area a powdery playground. We took it easy at first but realising we were not hitting rocks we started to cut loose.
We spent the first couple of hours lapping the area above Idalp. There is so much space between the pistes with really good variety that we were riding untouched snow every run.
With good visibility we decided to visit the Swiss side again. The powder was just as good on the other side and we did the long duty free run (number 61 then 60) into Samnaun.
Up high it was off-piste heaven, with no-one around and fresh lines everywhere. Lower down we were the only people on the long blue piste making it perfect for high speed carving.
Once in Samnaun we had to hop on a bus (they go 15 and 45 minutes past the hour) to the very impressive Double Decker Cable Car. From the top there was again great powder, we never had to stray far from the piste and were always in virgin snow.
We did a couple of runs on the Swiss side before taking the Greitspitzbahn back to the highpoint of the ski area. From here we took the same disastrous number 15 cat track from the day two of this review of Ischgl snowboarding in December.
This time there were crazy wind lips of fresh snow all across the slope. It made the run a little like a really technical start to a boarder cross track. It was good fun and being able to see we decided to take the black 14b.
This was a great decision as there was a spectacular slope of untouched powder – I know a bit of a theme here! It was the longest uninterrupted bit of off piste during this review of Ischgl snowboarding in December, and the snow was knee to thigh deep throughout.
At the bottom we had lunch at Hollboden – it is a high class and expensive place with good food but the service was terrible. We then headed back to Idalp and again lapped the slopes above this area.
There was still amazing powder that was mostly untouched and we kept going until legs and light started to fail. The run back down to Ischgl was as much fun as ever with plenty of lips for tricks and not many other skiers or snowboarders getting in the way.
Review of Eldorado Hotel in Ischgl
A review of Ischgl snowboarding in December wouldn’t be complete without talking about the lovely four star Eldorado Hotel. It is fairly new having opened in 2017 and is located close to the road through town about 10 min walk from the centre.
The room was not the largest I have stayed in. But it was very comfortable with enough space for two people and all their gear for a week. The decor is nice and all the finish and furnishings are a very high standard. Plus there is a good sized balcony.
Interestingly the bathroom is an opaque glass cubicle in the corner of the room. This looks good and is very modern, but it affords you less privacy than a traditional bathroom. The shower is excellent, high power, spacious and limitless hot water.
In the ski room every room has a locker. Uniquely there were not just boot dryers but also glove and helmet dryers. It was a tight squeeze to get two snowboards and all our gear in, but we did it. Due to the shape it would be easier with skis.
The Eldorado has a lovely spa. Although there is no pool or hot tub, there is a Finnish sauna, bio sauna, steam room, cold room and large relaxation area. It’s a great place to chill with free teas and fruit.
During this review of Ischgl snowboarding in December we were on a bed and breakfast basis. As always in Austria, breakfast was very good with many hot and cold options. In particular the home-made hash browns, crispy bacon and omelette did it for me!
We also ate in the hotel one night and the food both looked and tasted spectacular. They were very accommodating of my vegan mate knocking up a risotto especially for him. I had one of the best burgers in a long time, which followed a delicious tomato soup starter.
Overall the staff were very friendly and always on hand to help. I would certainly stay at the Eldorado Hotel again.
Austria and Tirol to the rescue
It’s not often that I big up an entire region let alone a whole country in a ski resort write up. But in this review of Ischgl snowboarding in December a special mention has to go out to Tirol and Austria.
Despite a fairly dry October and November there are a lot more ski resorts open in Austria than elsewhere in Europe. Obergurgl and Hochgurgl currently have the most snow in Europe and glaciers such as Stubai, Kuhtai and Kaunertal are up and running with plenty of options.
In addition, big non-glacier resorts such as Lech, St Anton and of course Ischgl managed to open their doors on schedule. This is in a large part due to snowmaking, so if you want to ski or snowboard in November or December, Austria has the most choice and best options.
A ski or snowboard trip before Christmas is a great experience. The slopes are generally fairly quiet and the prices are a lot lower.
Four out of the last five seasons I have visited Austria at this time of year and had an excellent time. I have also got lucky with powder twice and even when I haven’t, the snow making has meant slopes are open.
Review of Ischgl snowboarding holiday in December: Conclusion
I have had some very good early season trips in recent years. The Ischgl season opening takes some beating, and freeriding the Arlberg was a huge highlight. However on this trip to Ischgl we had spectacular powder, perfect pistes and apres partying.
I am sure there will be great conditions in Ischgl for the next few weeks – it was snowing again when we left. To conclude this review of Ischgl snowboarding holiday in December I’d say that without a doubt it has been my best pre-Christmas trip ever.
Booking an early season trip to the mountains can be a risk. But Austria, and in particular the Tirol region, seems to deliver better options and more consistent conditions than the rest of Europe.
Although my experience is partly due to luck with snow, it’s also down to the efforts of resorts like Ischgl. Their determination to open early means they make snow and prepare the slopes to ensure early visitors experience the best conditions possible.
I hope you found this review of Ischgl snowboarding in December interesting and useful. To book a trip to Ischgl go to: www.ischgl.com and to check availability at the Eldorado Hotel visit: www.eldorado-ischgl.at. To find out which resorts are open or to get inspiration for your next trip check out www.visittirol.co.uk and www.austria.info.