Skiing at Hohe Wand

003Last year, we spent 3 beautiful and arduous days in the Austrian Alps, ostensibly skiing.  There was, however, a lot less skiing than there was dragging a ton of equipment and two tired kids all around the hills of Alpbach.

But even though B got worn out, tired of walking and more than a little grouchy about the whole endeavor, he came away excited about skiing and enthusiastic for more.  (Liam, who we never actually got up on skis, remained neutral to the idea, which was really as much as we could have hoped for.  I consider it good fortune that we don’t all break out in hives every time we hear the word “ski”.)

008B has been asking to ski again.  I’ve been theoretically enthusiastic but practically daunted by the idea of taking something like that on again.  With a week off of school and work, though, it felt like the right time.

I was not going to sign up for three days of the kind of effort (and expense) it took for us to not go skiing last time, so I looked into day trip options.  Vienna = Austria = Alps … right?  The rest of the world might think so, but it’s not really like that.  Vienna is IN Austria and many of the Alps are also IN Austria, but Vienna, and the surrounding area, isn’t particularly mountainous.  But I did find one promising-looking option:  Hohe Wand, which is just outside of Vienna.

016So I did my research, we packed up our snow pants, took two U-Bahns and a bus, and an hour later we were there.  As it turns out, it is a “high hill”, indeed — just one, though, with a single drag lift and one big (relatively steep) slope down.  The snow was man-made (which we expected — Vienna has gotten almost none this year) and it very nearly covered the hill.

They have a nice looking ski school for children, but, being the school holidays, it had been booked up since October, so we were on our own in terms of teaching the kids.  Undaunted (and, after last year, fully expecting a day of skiing to be a ton of work) we fueled up with some schnitzel (really), rented skis, boots and helmets for the boys, and got suited up.

023We found a quiet and reasonably flat-ish section near the bottom of the hill, off to one side, and began our practice.  We pushed the boys up the hill, and then ran back down the little slope with them, over and over, for an hour and a half.

It was the best workout I’d had in a long while.  Shortly after we started, B was back in the groove, and he was able to go down quite well on his own.  Liam, frustrated that we couldn’t take the lift to the top, took several snowball-making breaks.  By the time we (Dan & I) got worn out, though, both boys had made many trips down completely on their own (though often with an impressive, self-induced crash to finish … because it’s FUN).  Mission accomplished —

031the boys got to ski, and they had a great time.  It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t as tough as what we attempted last year.  Dan & I didn’t manage any skiing of our own, but I imagine that’ll come in future years.

B is already asking to go back.  Next time, we’ll sign B up for ski school before we go (they only take kids over 4), and maybe Dan & I can take turns pushing Liam up the hill.  It wasn’t ideal, but it was close, easy, and relatively inexpensive.  With this place in mind, I’m much more optimistic about our future attempts at skiing.




We learned a lot this past weekend (as we always do when we travel).  We learned about the town, we learned about how to make the whole process of toting a combination of children and tons of ski equipment a little bit easier, and we learned (quite a bit) about what we would do differently next time.  Here’s what we took away from our ski weekend:

072Alpbach  We stayed in the town of Alpbach.  Alpbach is in the Alps, southwest of Salzburg on the way to Innsbruck, in the Tirol region of Austria.  It is absolutely beautiful.  It’s exactly what I always pictured when I imagined an Austrian mountain town.  I particularly loved the fact that the whole town was still decorated for Christmas, even in mid-January.  And, if I went again, I would plan to take a carriage ride around the town (they even put sleigh bells on the horses).  The village is set down in a little valley, surrounded by mountains.  The town itself is pretty compact, and is no trouble to get around without a car.  It has everything you’d need for a weekend (or a week) away:  a grocery store, several restaurants, some shops, a couple of ski schools, a variety of ski rental places, and bus routes to connect you throughout the region.  On the negative side, it was a little tough to access from Vienna.  There are two train stations close by to Alpbach:  Jenbach and Brixlegg.  Jenbach has a direct train connection to Vienna, but very few bus connections to Alpbach.  Brixlegg requires a train change (or two) to connect to Vienna, but has more bus connections to Alpbach.  Neither is particularly convenient.  (We took the “hotel shuttle” — really just a ride from our hotelier — on the way to Alpbach and took a cab for 45 Euro on the way back.)  The day we arrived, the town got several inches of fresh snow, which made everything even more lovely.

009Train  We opted to take the direct train from Vienna to Jenbach.  It was a little difficult to get between Alpbach and Jenbach (not too much though) but the train ride itself was lovely.  We had a compartment to ourselves (almost the entire time).  The trip was 4 1/2 hours (5 hours on the way there, due to delays because of the snow) and we had a great journey.  The kids handled the train ride beautifully, and we all enjoyed ourselves.  Jenbach is a small station, and very easy to negotiate.

028Aparthaus Sonnenhof  We stayed at the Aparthaus Sonnenhof, which is located a 5 minute walk straight uphill from the center of town.  It’s really an excellent location — we got the benefit of a lovely view while still being close to everything.  The apartment house itself was really nice — spacious and very clean.  The appliances were all new and everything was in great shape.  Our hostess, Margaret, picked us up from the Jenbach train station, and her daughter helped us arrange for a cab ride back to the train station for our departure.  On the down side, the management does not live on site, so although they were very helpful in getting us set up, there was no one around to ask little questions of.  Also, although we knew it was a self-catering apartment, we were taken by surprise at the fact that there was literally nothing provided in terms of paper towels, napkins, toilet paper, coffee filters — usually, we’ve at least found whatever was left from the previous guest, but there wasn’t anything.  Overall, it was a great place, though, and a good value, and we would consider staying there again if we came back.  (The only reason I don’t know for sure that we would is that we might opt to stay closer to the ski lift in town if we were coming back for a ski vacation.)

Ski school  There are two ski schools in town with very similar names:  Skischule Aktiv and Skischule Alpbach.  The prices were nearly identical, but we chose to go with Skischule Alpbach simply because they were more prompt in replying to my email queries.  They had an office right in the center of the town, and they helped us figure out which bus to take to our lesson and pointed us in the direction of the most convenient ski rental.  However, we were not very happy with our experience.  The beginner lessons are held in Inner Alpbach (which requires a bus ride) and our instructor was pretty terrible.  She seemed frustrated to be teaching beginners, and wasn’t interested in teaching children.  (Jo, Benjamin and I took the lesson.)  She acted bored, largely ignored the adults, and was neither engaged or interested in our progress.  She was frustrated when B’s attention wandered, but did nothing to keep his interest.  Our lesson was held in the same area where the Skischule’s “Kid’s Club” is held, and I saw similar disinterest and bored faces from the instructors working with the other kids.  I would try a different school if I went back to Alpbach.  (Although more advanced students might have better luck.)

104Ski rental  We used Conny’s ski rental, because they were located right in the center of Alpbach.  Their prices were reasonable, and their equipment seemed to be just fine.  At first, I wasn’t thrilled with the service — no one gave us any particular help or advice, even though we were complete beginners — but I was very happy that they didn’t charge us for Liam’s skis after we told them he didn’t use them at all.  Conny’s also has a ski shop (for sales, rather than rentals) in the center of town.  I stopped by there to purchase some snow pants and got excellent service.  We stopped by again, later in the weekend, with a question about directions, and everyone was very nice and helpful.

130Skiing  We’re complete beginners, so we don’t know a lot about what to look for (or even to describe), but I’ll do my best.  In each of Alpbach and Inner Alpbach (two little towns, close together, but too far to walk — lots of bus connections, though) there is a normal, gondola-style ski lift and also an inexpensive drag lift area for beginners.  We only used the lifts in Alpbach, but the ones in Inner Alpbach seemed to be very conveniently located to the bus stops as well as within walking distance to the center of Inner Alpbach.  The gondola lift for Alpbach itself is actually outside of town (on the way back towards Jenbach) and would be too far to walk (but also has a bus stop out front).  The drag lift in Alpbach is centrally located, behind the church and by the Congress Center.  This is where we skied our second day, and we would go back here again if we returned to Alpbach.  You do need a lift ticket (sold on site, cash only, kids are free — not sure what ages).  You can either buy a 2 hour ticket for about 25 Euros, or buy one with about 12 runs worth of “points” on it.  We opted for the point system (since we wanted the option of taking breaks, depending on the needs of the kids) and we shared one ticket.  It worked out great for us.  B got to do several runs with Dan, Dan got to do a few on his own, I went twice and Jo went once.  It was just about perfect for our second day, since we weren’t sure how much patience and energy we were going to have for skiing.  On Friday evening, we saw some night skiing not far away, but I’m not sure which lift/ski area that was — there didn’t seem to be night skiing in Alpbach or Inner Alpbach.

088Restaurants  We visited two of Alpbach’s restaurants during our stay.  Flo’s has an assorted style of food — everything from traditional Austrian to pizza, along with a kids menu.  The pizza was surprisingly good, not too expensive, and was also available for carry out (unusual in Austria).  The rest of the food was pretty good, if maybe a little overpriced.  The service there was typical Austrian — a little slow, not too interested in customer service (she brought me the wrong dish and then tried to get me to keep it) but perfectly adequate.  The atmosphere was busy enough to not worry at all about the kids.  We had a comfortable lunch there and two carry out dinners of pizza.  We also went to the Post Alm Hotel restaurant where we were very pleasantly surprised by the food and the service.  The food was traditional Austrian and excellent, and the service was attentive and prompt.  The prices were very reasonable (we paid the same for a dinner at the Post Alm as we did for lunch at Flo’s) and the restaurant felt very welcoming to families.  We also stopped in to the Gasthaus Jakober (but didn’t eat there) — they had an interesting menu (also Austrian) and a nice ambiance.

General notes  First, we expected to find some kind of lockers or storage spaces, either at the lifts or at the ski rental places — we didn’t find anything like that in Alpbach (and it would have been so nice if we had).  We rented our skis the morning of our first lesson and had to carry our boots and all of our things along with us all day, in addition to toting the skis, boots and poles for all of us.  Also, our favorite moment of the entire weekend was when we took a walk up above the town (beyond the Sonnenhof) and looked down into the valley.  Whatever time of year you visit, it’s worth the walk to see the village from this perspective.

Overall, we had a great trip, and although it was challenging, I think we’ll ski again.  I would go back to Alpbach.  I might stay in the same hotel (unless I could find one right by the drag lift in town, or a good hotel close to the lifts in Inner Alpbach) and I’d probably rent my skis from the same place.  I would definitely try the other ski school, though.  This trip was, as always, quite an adventure.

Reflections on Alpbach

I’ll post a more thorough review of our trip soon — where we stayed, what we did, what we would have done differently — but for now, I’m a little weary after two days of (exhausting, semi-torturous) skiing and a 4+ hour train journey today, so I’m just going to share some thoughts about our latest adventure.

182First, train travel is awesome with kids.  I really think it’s the way to go.  Our trip was 4 1/2 hours each way (it actually ended up being a bit longer on the way there, due to delays because of the snow).  The kids did great.  It was easy to keep them contained, keep them entertained, feed all of us, get some rest and just generally arrive relatively happy.  This was our first trip with a compartment (as opposed to just seats).  It was fantastic.  It is easy, fun, and relatively low stress.  When you consider how far ahead of a flight you typically have to arrive at the airport, plus the fact that in Vienna, the airport is further outside of town than the train station, I think it actually took us less time to take the train than it would to fly.  It was win/win.

145Second, skiing with kids is hard.  After just collecting our skis, boots and poles, getting onto the right bus and getting TO the ski area, we were about ready to quit.  But, we really did have fun, and I’m glad we stuck it out.  I think it’s like anything — there are so many little tricks and compromises that make the whole thing a lot easier, and you just have to watch the people who know what they’re doing, and ask questions, and you’ll get better.  The skiing itself is really fun, it’s just that getting everyone suited up, to the lift, and ready to ski is a lot of work.  Also, we had to accept that Liam didn’t want to ski.  If we’d tried to force him, we all would have been miserable.  Maybe he’ll try it next time, maybe not.  Either is ok.  But to really enjoy ourselves, we really had to let go of any expectations — it was going to “work”, or not; the kids were going to have fun, or not; we were going to get to ski, or not.  We showed up, we gave it a good try, we had a good time.  But so much of us enjoying this weekend came from measuring it by the experience we were having in the moment, rather than by measuring it against what we thought was going to happen.

166Finally, no matter how much preparation, thought and consideration go into planning a trip, it’ll be the unexpected little moments that really make it wonderful.  Watching B discover and enjoy skiing was amazing, without a doubt, but I think our collective favorite part of the trip was yesterday evening when we went out for an impromptu walk after dinner and ended up sledding with B in the dark and then walking up a dark hiking trail (at Liam’s urging) into a clearing overlooking the village and the valley.  That moment, of all standing together on the hillside in the moonlight, marvelling at the beauty of our surroundings, was something that I will never forget.

Let’s go up the hill!

Today was a huge improvement over yesterday’s torturous adventure. (We’re learning already!) We started out by searching for a place to ski somewhere between totally boring and suicidal. We found a spot, right in town. It had a little “button” ski lift (a type of drag lift with a seat) and a not too imposing hill.

We actually began by trying to interest the boys in a little sledding. Although they were interested in BRINGING their sleds, we couldn’t actually manage any sledding. I think that until you know how much fun sledding can be, the whole thing is just too much work to feel worth it (kind of like skiing, actually).

We knew we wouldn’t be up to a lot of skiing today — especially Jo and I, because we were sore and tired from our lesson yesterday. So, we shared a lift ticket and took turns. Dan went on his own (just to remind himself how to ski — it’s been 10 years and he didn’t ski yesterday) but then he took a very excited B up with him and they skied together.

20130120-003250.jpgIt was wonderful to see. B was so thrilled to be out there, and so brave. He kept insisting that he could go on his own (but we insisted otherwise). He loved it. He did a great job. He’s really a skier now! The smile on his face each time he reached the bottom made every bit of carrying, dragging and aching completely worth it.

Then I took a turn. I was really freaked out. It’s been 10 years for me, too, but I’ve only skied twice and I was never any good. Parts of what I worked on yesterday were a challenge, and that was elementary. Just getting on the lift was difficult, and my legs were shaking from tension, fear and exertion before I even got to the top. I got off the lift, got turned around, and suddenly realized I was up very high. But, my 4 year old had just done it a few times, and I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t try, so off I went. I went very fast and suddenly couldn’t remember anything my instructor had taught me. I managed to slow down enough to gain some control. I managed a few turns, but my legs were shaking and I was going too fast. I fell. It wasn’t too bad. The snow wasn’t icy, and I didn’t fall particularly hard. But I was then faced with the always challenging task of getting up again. My first attempt nearly sent me backwards down the hill, but I finally got it together and got up again . . . and it wasn’t too bad. I had time to take a few breaths and clear my head, and then, as I started down again, I was able to remember my instructor’s advice and actually have a pretty decent time. I was still working very hard, though, and my legs were shaking so hard by the time I got to the bottom that Jo had to get me out of my skis. But, I did it! I skied in the Alps!

Dan & B went a few more times, and then Jo tried, and after I’d rested, I went again. I was worried I was maybe doing too much — that maybe I should end on my first successful run and leave on a positive note. I’m so glad I didn’t. With the confidence that came from a reasonable first run, the second was even better. I was relaxed, thinking clearly, and comfortable enough to even enjoy my surroundings a bit. It was so beautiful up there. I had a view of all the surrounding, snow-covered mountains, some in sunlight, some in shadow, and of the cute little town below me. It was amazing, and beautiful and as peaceful as it can be when you’re gradually accelerating down a mountain in a standing position. I think I got a small glimpse into what people love about skiing. My second run was great. No falls, even!

20130120-003315.jpgAfter that, B decided he was done, and Dan took a few final runs. We had been worried that Liam would not handle a day out in the snow well (since he didn’t yesterday), but he did great. He played, ate snow and ran around. He was a happy little guy. (Maybe skiing next time.) The whole area where we skied today was perfect for kids. In fact, we saw quite a few other families in the same situation as us — a preschooler on skis and a toddler with a sled, with both parents trying to keep everyone safe & happy. It was great to see that we weren’t the only ones.

After skiing, we had lunch, returned our skis (which might have actually been my favorite moment of the weekend) and went back for a rest in our hotel.

This evening, though, we ventured out again for a walk, and the boys optimistically brought their sleds along. B chose our direction, and just a short ways from our hotel we were lucky to find a hiking trail, very snow covered and perfect for sledding. After a few tries, he figured it out and had a great time. Liam didn’t want to try, though, so after a bit, we let Liam choose what to do next. He wanted to keep walking. And when we asked where he wanted to go, he said, “Let’s go up the hill!”, so we continued on, up the hiking trail, into the dark.

This is just how Liam is. He likes to walk, he likes to hike, he likes to climb. Mountains make him happy. We thought he’d be really into skiing (maybe one day). But, he likes to go UP, not down.

20130120-003451.jpgWe walked up a short distance, beyond the buildings of the town and into a clearing. And we were treated to the most beautiful view I’ve had in Austria. We were up, a bit above the town. There was snow everywhere, a deep cushion over the field where we were standing and on all the roofs below us. Alongside the packed down path where we were walking, right next to us, there was a stream gurgling under the snow. Below us, the village of Alpbach was illuminated — the church, the Alpine houses still decked out in Christmas lights — and we could see the little dots of light on the mountain facing us, all the little buildings and outposts of the ski resorts. Our clearing was lit by the moon and the stars (some of which actually appeared lower in the sky than some of the lights on the mountains) and behind us, further up the hill, closer to the foot of the mountain cliffs behind them, were the houses of the next village, with Christmas trees decorated all around. Other than the sounds of the stream, everything was quiet, and we all stood and soaked up the magic of the moment.

We had such a remarkable day. The challenge of yesterday has been completely overshadowed by the delights of today. I loved seeing the joy B got from learning to ski and the drive Liam has to explore. Seeing B come down the mountain, the view I had at the top, the breathtaking moment of seeing an Alpine postcard fantasy in real life, the feeling of my little ones’ hands in mine while we walked through the snow — I hope I can hold on to all of these memories. I had some truly special moments today.

File under: skiing, Alps, torture

We are beach people. Ever since I can remember, my life has included lovely trips to the beach. Not every summer, but often.

We are not ski people. I’d skied twice before ever in my life, about a decade ago. Dan has skied a few times. For Jo, Benjamin & Liam, this was their first time.

20130118-230443.jpgWe have no idea what we’re doing. And I mean that in a grand sense — not just on the slopes. We are complete novices, utterly clueless. We know nothing. For instance, we didn’t know that renting skis, getting on a bus and going to a ski lesson is one of the levels of hell. There’s just so much stuff, and it’s all awkward and unwieldy. The boots are horrible to walk in and everywhere you walk is slippery. The kids can’t carry their own stuff and all the skis and boots and things are in addition to all the normal day-out-of-the-house stuff you need. It’s a nightmare. We were all exhausted before we even got to our lesson.

20130118-230458.jpgI’m sure there are ways to make it easier. It reminds me of going for a day at the beach . . . only this was our first time, so I think we got everything wrong. With the beach, over the years, we’ve learned. We know what to bring and what to leave, we know how to pick a place that’ll be as convenient as possible, we know what parts are going to be hard and in what ways. We don’t know any of that about skiing. We don’t know how to make it easier or how to prepare ourselves for the hard parts.

Liam never even got on his skis. He fell apart pretty much as soon as we arrived for our lesson and although he recovered, he opted out of participating. He & Dan spent the length of the lesson in the hotel lounge next door, being warm.

20130118-230514.jpgJo, B & I endured two hours of torture known as a “beginner ski lesson”. Although we all learned at least a little something, and watching B experience (and enjoy) skiing for the first time was pretty wonderful, it was a rough two hours. Physically, it’s tough — just standing in ski boots for a few hours is a challenge, and trying to make the skis do what you want is harder and takes muscles I don’t typically use. It was made worse by having an instructor who was unenthusiastic about teaching children and beginners. I starting checking the time about 20 minutes in to the 2 hour lesson. We got through, but it was not a great time. (Except for B, who truly enjoyed himself. He especially liked the “bumps” — little moguls. When Jo & I tried that, we fell over. B has no fear.)

While Dan & Liam warmed up inside, one of the other ski school instructors came in to get one of the other kids warmed up. They all chatted a bit, and Dan ended up asking her, “This is so hard. There’s so much stuff, and managing it with the kids is so hard. How do people do this?” And she said, “You suffer.”

Which answers that.

But also, people here who bring their kids skiing seem to have mostly separate vacations. The parents drop the kids off at the ski school in the morning and pick them up in the afternoon. The school even provides lunch. It’s like daycare, with skiing. The parents go and have grown up skiing time, and the kids have their own thing. That’s really not what I want. I want us to spend the time together, even if it’s not totally exciting for all of us. (Although after today, I certainly understand their choice a little better.)

20130118-230631.jpgB seems to like skiing, so I don’t think we’re done. (Talking to him this evening about sone logistics for the next few days, he actually said, “Oh Mommy, NOTHING could stop me from skiing!”) We’ll do some more tomorrow, and we’ll see what else our weekend holds. If we keep this up, we’ll get better at it — and not just at the skiing. It HAS to get easier. Because today was really hard, and we were literally huffing, puffing and groaning as we hiked back up the hill to our hotel this afternoon. The skiing part was kind of fun though, and I certainly get why the sport is attractive — this is a beautiful place, and I do love being outside to enjoy it. I just wish we didn’t have to “suffer” to enjoy it.


Ski time!

20130117-234003.jpgWe woke up this morning to several fresh inches of snow in Vienna, and more falling. It was a perfect day for heading to the Alps to go skiing . . . which works out, because that’s exactly what we had planned for this weekend. It was pretty exciting to have plans that agreed so well with the weather.

We finished the packing and trekked snowily off to the train station. (Apparently there was enough snow today to snarl Vienna’s roads, and the mountains were even worse — glad we were taking the train!)

It was a perfect day for an Austrian train adventure. We were all nice & cozy on the train while we watched the snowy world go by. Although there was so much snow falling, on the ground and being kicked up by the train, that certain parts of the trip just looked like white on white.

20130117-234021.jpgWe’re pretty seasoned in train travel with the kids, but we had never ridden in an enclosed compartment, which we got to try today. It was excellent. The compartment had 6 seats, and unless there was not a single other seat on the train, it was pretty unlikely that anyone was going to choose the empty spot in our compartment. So, we got a whole little room to ourselves for the entire trip. We could talk, the boys got to watch some shows on the iPad and play angry birds (with sound!). We even played catch for a little while. And when Liam fell asleep, we were all quiet so he could rest. It was nearly a 5 hour trip, but it was the best and easiest train trip we’ve had so far.

20130117-234046.jpgUntil the part at the end, when Dan, who was repacking everything in the suitcases, hit his head on a reading light and cut himself. (Requiring our first task in Alpbach to be finding a doctor to glue Dan’s forehead back together. He really is fine now.)

From what we can tell (in the dark), Alpbach is darling and surrounded by mountains . . . which we will be sliding down tomorrow. I’m a little freaked out. They still have their Christmas lights up here, which is awesome.

It’s certainly been an adventure so far.