I was fortunate to spend the weekend before Christmas 2015 snowboarding in Lech and Zurs in the Vorarlberg region of Austria. Part of the mighty Arlberg ski area that is renowned for freeriding I was as excited as a kid at Christmas. Read this review of Lech snowboarding holiday in Vorarlberg to find out if it was a Christmas cracker.
December 2015 had been a warm and dry month all over Europe meaning a lack of snow in many resorts. We landed at a rainy Zurich airport, and it was still raining when we pulled up to the Hotel Der Berghof in Lech. Rain in resort meant snow on the mountain and we were lucky to enjoy the first powder turns of the season.
Having never been to Lech or skied in Arlberg, I have to admit I was a little confused how the different ski resorts and the Arlberg ski area link together, and how it relates regions within Austria. So lets start this review of Lech snowboarding holiday in Vorarlberg with a little geography lesson.
Lech is a town within the Vorarlberg region of Austria. Vorarlberg is the most westerly state in Austria, bordering Tirol to the east, Germany to the north and Switzerland the south. Next door to Lech is the town of Zurs, together they make the Lech Zurs Arlberg ski area that also includes villages of Oberlech, and Zug. Warth and Schrocken are linked as part of the ski area but are run independently of Lech Zurs.
Arlberg is the name of the mountain range that separates Vorarlberg from neighbouring Tirol. Ski Arlberg, normally shortened to Arlberg, is also the name given to the combined Vorarlberg and Tirol ski area. This includes the above Vorarlberg ski resorts plus St Anton and St Christoph in Tirol which are linked with Stuben that is actually in Vorarlberg.
An Arlberg ski pass covers you for both the Vorarlberg and Tirol sides of the ski area, however they are not lift linked together. You can only ski between them by heading off piste, you’ll need to be experienced, have a guide and all the safety gear. However you can hop on a bus between the two areas, there is free bus that can get busy, or a paid bus that is quieter.
It all might sound a little confusing, however all you need to know is that there are 350km of piste to ski plus 200km of marked and avalanche controlled – but not pisted or patrolled – off-piste ski routes. Around half of the runs are on the Vorarlberg side of the Arlberg with 180km of pisted slopes accessible from Lech.
The town of Lech is very attractive, with mountains rising on either side and a river running through the middle. It is considered an up market resort, which many of the shops prove, however it does not feel exclusive. Drinking in the bars and eating on the mountain it reasonably priced and a lot cheaper then most French resorts.
We were lucky to squeeze in a few hours boarding on arrival and departure days, plus two full days snowboarding in Lech Zurs Arlberg. For the two full days we had a guide and avalanche safety gear so were hoping to enjoy some freeride snowboarding.
As previously mentioned it had been a terrible December for snow all over Europe, however around 70% of the ski area was open with around 40cm of snow up top and 30cm at resort level. We arrived while it was raining low down, fortunately this meant there was 20cm to 30cm of fresh snow higher up.
We arrived in Lech at about 1:30pm, fifthteen minutes later we had lift passes in hand and in our excitement jumped on the closest lift – the Rufikopfbahn. This proved to be a mistake as from the top you can only get to Zurs, something we did not realise until we were part way down the run.
In our defence we had thought we were getting the Schlegelkopfbahn, and it took a while and quite a bit of piste map investigation to realise our mistake. Conditions at the top were rather poor, it was fairly windy with sideways snow, visibility was not great but we could see far enough ahead to realise our mistake.
Chastising ourselves we set about making the most of the run. To start with there was a nice layer of 10-20cm of fresh powder, thoughts of the error were replaced with yells of delight. Not only were we boarding but we had fresh tracks despite it being late in the day.
Unfortunately the run into Zurs has frequent flat bits and a few uphills. On a normal day of snowboarding you could probably ride through, however we couldn’t see far enough ahead to carry enough pace. The lower we got the wetter the fresh snow became until it was acting like a brake slowing us down further.
By the time we arrived at the Schuttboden T-Bar it was around 3pm and we had already unstrapped a few times. The next run had a similar amount of flat sections and we made it to the Trittalp chair not long before it closed. From there the run down into Zurs was steep enough to keep our pace and we arrived into Zurs as the lifts were closing.
For two very experienced snowboarders it was a rather poor showing. However we were both buzzing as it was our first snowboarding of the season. We jumped on the free bus back to Lech which took about 10 minutes.
We met our guide, Chris from the Lech Ski School, at 9:30 and got kitted up with an avalanche transceiver so we could head off-piste. There was not enough snow to need a full avalanche pack, which was disappointing, but saved us a little money. Chris said the best chance of fresh lines was to head to Zurs, so we caught the bus over and started with the Seekopf chair.
We did three runs back down to Zurs using both the Seekopf and Zursersee chairlifts. The pistes were in great condition and we pretty much had them to ourselves. Between the pistes there was lots of untouched powder with a crusty top, it was only 20-30cm deep but was fun to ride.
When the Muggengrat chair opened we headed to where Chris felt there was most likely to be powder. From the top of the lift we cut leftin the opposite direction to the piste. After a short traverse through powder we were rewarded with a run through a chute in deeper, fluffy, untouched powder – the first powder turns of the season!
By the time we were halfway back to the Muggengrat chair the powder had turned crusty again. Back to the top and there was a queue of skiers waiting to cross the traverse, following our trail and our powder stash had been used up. Chris recommended we skip a second run and instead headed down the closed Muggengrat-Tali run.
Although we were not the first to head this way there was still fresh(ish) powder lines to ride, particularly through the steep top section. As it flattened out it started to become crusty powder again but it was still a lot of fun.
Lower down the crust had melted and it was more like snowboarding in spring slush. Rather than following the piste, we took a narrow undulating path off to the left. It was a lot of fun and brought us to a car park on the edge of Zurs.
After a traditional Austrian pancake soup for lunch we headed up the other side of Zurs. Unfortunately the Trittkopf lift and runs were closed, so we took the Ubungshang which gave us access to the Hexenboden and Trittalp chairlifts and a range of runs in the area.
We spent the afternoon snowboarding around here, popping off piste for slushy powder, and using every little lump and bump to jump and do tricks. It was a fun afternoon snowboarding in spring like conditions. We finished with a bus back to Lech and a couple of beers with our guide.
A review of Lech snowboarding holiday in Vorarlberg would not be complete without actually experiencing the Lech slopes, so we stayed local on day three. Again we met Chris at 9:30, but this time headed up Schlegelkopf chairlift for a couple of warm up runs back to the same lift.
The runs were noticeably busier in Lech than Zurs, perhaps as the last Friday before Christmas kids were off school – there certainly were a lot of families about. From the Schlegelkopf we took the Kriegerhornbahn. At the top is a Panorama photo opportunity, you scan your lift pass and it takes a picture, you collect your photo online using your lift pass number.
With all runs except the blue closed we took a busy run down to the Zugerberg lift. Although it felt busy this is only in comparison to the rest of this trip when we had runs pretty much to ourselves. I quite enjoyed the challenge of weaving in and out of slower skiers.
From the top of Zugerberg we took Mohnenmahder down to the Auenfeldjet cable car. It was a fun run and we popped off the side to play in the powder. Near the top it was still quite fluffy but the lower we got the crustier it became. Compared to the day before the crust was harder to break and my toes kept catching in it causing some comedy spills.
The Auenfeldjet cable car links Lech with Warth. It was only opened in 2013/14 season and increased the Lech ski area by 50%. Last season Warth had the best snow record in the Alps, it averages over 10m at resort level meaning it receives significantly more snow than neighbouring resorts.
We did a few runs including heading off-piste into a hidden valley where some nice snow had accumulated. We then worked our way down into Warth for a spot of lunch. We spent the afternoon exploring the area, it was very quiet in comparison to Lech. On the whole the slopes in Warth are less steep than Lech, but they are steep enough to carry pace and often undulating making an interesting ride.
On the way back from Warth we encountered an uphill section, where because of a closed lift a snowmobile with a tow rope was waiting to pull us up the slope. This proved to be excellent fun and was not dissimilar to wakeboarding, I half expected someone in front to fall and create a pile up but everyone made it to the top.
We then took the Auenfeldjet cable car back over to Lech and boarded down to the Kriegerhornbahn chair again. We then did the same route as the morning, but rather than heading to the cable car to Warth we took the Hasensprungbahn chair. From the top of the lift it was a long and fun run down through Oberlech and into Lech.
Again we convinced Chris to join us for a beer this time in the Schneggarei Ski Hutte. It is next to the ski school and had a fun but relaxed atmosphere. They serve lovely pizzas that are not too expensive.
Quite a few ski instructors were drinking in Schneggarei Ski Hutte and we ended up playing ‘Hammerschlagen’ the nail game. Basically using the narrow end of a hammer to hit a nail into a waist high upended log. The owner of the last nail standing buys drinks for the others, we headed back to Hotel Der Berghof a little worse for wear.
Our airport transfer was due to depart at 12:30 so we got a couple of hours riding in the morning. We stayed in Lech mainly on the runs into town and Oberlech. They are great runs, wide, with decent steepness and fairly empty – probably because it was changeover day.
Early in the morning the pistes were in pristine condition, fairly hard packed but not too icy so I took the opportunity to practice some carving. By the time started to get busier we had to leave the slopes and get packed up for the journey home. We were sad to be leaving Lech after a top quality, short snowboarding holiday in Vorarlberg.
For this review of Lech snowboarding holiday we stayed in the four star superior Hotel Der Berghof. It is one of the nicest hotels I have stayed in, the staff were super friendly and the rooms and common areas had a luxurious feel. The breakfast was self service with a good variety of cooked and cold options. The evening meal was four or five courses of absolutely stunning food.
We flew from Birmingham to Zurich on Swiss Air. Although more expensive than budget airlines, Swiss give free ski or snowboard carriage which makes their prices very competitive. The transfer took just over 2 hours, you could also fly to Innsbruck Airport (1 hour 30) or Friedrichshafen Airport (1 hour 45) in Southern Germany.
If you prefer to book a package ski holiday then Inghams, Crystal Ski, Ski Total and Ski Solutions offer holidays to Lech. If you fancy a short break then Flexi Ski are worth checking out.
For a warm early season without much snow the pistes were in great condition – Lech Zurs had done a great job in opening the majority of the ski area. The range of runs suit all abilities, and except for getting between resorts there are not many flat bits. The bus network is free and efficient, although we did not do it you can head over to St Anton and the Tirol side of Arlberg.
A big reason to visit the area is the off-piste for which Arlberg is famous, but because of the snow conditions we did not experience this in all its glory. However we did get the first powder turns of season, and from what we saw, I’d love to return when there is plenty of snow.
Lech is known as an upmarket destination, although there are expensive boutique style shops and some top restaurants, it does not feel exclusive. The price of food and drink is cheaper than major resorts in France, but I wouldn’t recommend you do your Christmas shopping there despite the Christmas market being good.
To conclude my review of Lech snowboarding holiday I’d say it is a resort that would suit most snowboarders and skiers, probably the only exception is those looking for a banging apres scene every night. We were disappointed to be leaving this cracker of a resort, but at least we still had Christmas to look forward to.