With Austria in lockdown, it is a miracle that ski resorts are still operating. However, they are not open for everyone. With the borders (sort of) shut and hotels closed, skiing is reserved for Austrians and the lucky few foreigners that live in this country in the Alps. We are two of those lucky foreigners living in Salzburgerland who are able to ski this season. So this weekend, my wife and I chose the nearby region of Hochkönig to hit the slopes for half a day of skiing and these are our experiences.
At the risk of making other Europeans even more envious, snow conditions across Austria are very good this year. There is lots of fresh snow and the occasional sunny weather. In a normal season millions of foreigners would have enjoyed these perfect weather conditions. Usually, in years without a pandemic, winter sports in Austria are extremely popular amongst German and Dutch tourists but also attracts big numbers of tourists from basically any other European country, as well as the Brits.
Hochkönig is part of the Ski Amadé ski network. A network of 28 resort towns, named after the Salzburg’s famous composer Mozart, make up the second largest ski area of Europe. The area is famous and can get very crowded on sunny peak season days and today’s weather conditions would definitely have made it one of those busy days. However, during the pandemic, everything is different and skiing is another experience altogether. Before we share our experiences of today, you should know that skiing is not without controversy this year.
Over the Christmas period, when Austria’s ski areas first opened, there were lots of reports about overcrowded areas and snow lovers not following strict COVID-19 protocols. Guests weren’t keeping distance and/or wearing the proper face mask (only FFP2 masks are allowed). Austrian state media like ORF and some others, reported that there were long lines at lifts which concerned the authorities. Especially during the weekends, resorts got too crowded and caused the authorities to perform increased checks across the country.
You might wonder why the ski resorts are open in the first place? Let us try and paint the picture. The Austrian government has been very lenient towards outdoors sports activities during lockdown. Despite an all-day curfew, Austrians are allowed to leave the house to exercise or for example take a walk for mental health benefits. Also, ski lifts are argued to be public transportation and skiing is considered a preventive health benefit, to sum up a few of the points that weighed in on this decision. Nevertheless, the decision to keep the ski areas open drew criticism from political leaders in the European Union as the New York Times reported late December.
Expectations about skiing during COVID-19
All the stories about overcrowded lift areas and increased checks by authorities made us a bit nervous. Family members back in the Netherlands, where we come from, also don’t understand that a country that is on complete lockdown, keeps its ski areas open. Only after Austrian friends told us about their experience which included empty slopes and no lines at all did we decide to take a look ourselves.
We remained cautious and went to ski when most of the others are already gone. Based on our pre Covid experiences, we know that Austrians like to get up early and tend to be the first ones up the mountain in the morning. After a few hours of skiing, many Austrians leave again early in the afternoon, when the sun causes the snow to get a bit slushy and the morning skiers have made the slopes less enjoyable. We decided to take the risk of slush and decided to head out after lunch. Hoping we’d change seats with the morning crowd, we arrived at 12:30.
Of course we were prepared to follow all rules that we knew about and packed the mandatory FFP2 face mask, made plans on how to keep distance and made sure we could pay everything cashless. We also pre-empted the unavailability of food and drinks as all huts, for which Austrian skiing is famous, are closed. This means that it is impossible to buy anything on the mountain, so we brought a backpack with some snacks and drinks. Fully prepared we pulled up at the parking lot.
First impressions: full car park but small lines
As we arrived in the parking lot, we noticed that it was quite busy. We were shocked to find that all negative press seemed to be true. Not only was the car park in front of the ski lift full, all the overspill car parks were filled with cars as well. Lucky for us, we soon realized that our arrival couldn’t have been timed any better and that our theory was right. Many Austrians only ski in the morning and some had already left, leaving open park spaces dotted around the parking lot. We managed to park directly at entrance of the ski lift and while getting dressed, more and more cars pulled out and drove off. Looked like our afternoon strategy paid off.
Despite all cars in the parking lot and the warnings on the news, there was no line at the ticket counter at all. After paying cashless for our afternoon passes (which we recommended to minimize contact) we were handed our tickets and a cotton, Buff style, collar to wear while skiing. Masks, like everywhere else, are a very important tool in combatting COVID-19 and also play a big role in keeping the resorts open. In and around all ski lifts, rental facilities, ski busses and ticket booths, FFP2 masks are mandatory for everyone over 13. Older children, but under 14, are allowed to ski with regular face masks and very young children can ski without a mask at all.
Looking around us, most fellow skiers and snowboarders were wearing masks. Those that didn’t wear the proper masks or those who forgot to wear their mask near the lift were reminded to do so by large signs, as well as the staff on duty to reinforce all safety measures. Mostly an easy job as there were no crowds and most people adhered to the rules. Compared to a regular season, there is barely anyone on the mountain because tourists can’t stay in the region and foreign visitors that have their own vacation home, have to do a 10-day quarantine upon arrival. Only a negative PCR test can set you free from day 6 onwards. With hotels and apartments closed, only the lucky locals (with or without a vacation home) have the privilege of a COVID-19 ski experience.
Half capacity lifts and social distancing
After buying our ticket, we made our way to the gondola which would bring us up the mountain. At the entrance of the gondola, a few separated lines, indicated with ropes lead the way. While this setup keeps you from getting too close to the person next to you, you have to be cautious to keep distance from those before and behind you. With only a few fellow skiers and many Austrians already calling it a day after an intense morning, keeping distance at the lift was easy.
Inside the lift building there was no line at all and we had the gondola completely to ourselves on all rides. The resort was seemingly operating well below its COVID-19 limitations. All lifts are set to operate at half capacity to ensure that people are not too close to each other. Only families are allowed occupy lifts together and most tourists don’t want to share lifts with others. As a result, you are only sharing a lift with your own group members. Furthermore, the windows of all lifts need to remain open to ensure proper ventilation.
The situation on the slopes
Today’s conditions were perfect. The sky was blue and there was a nice layer of fresh snow from the night before. Even in the early afternoon the ski slopes were bliss without any moguls, known as buckels or hügels here, which usually appear after a busy morning. The temperature was just below 0 degrees Celsius (32 Fahrenheit) and from time to time the sun was bursting through the light clouds.
While it gets occasionally busy in normal years, there were hardly any fellow skiers and snowboarders. This meant that you could make use of the full with of the large slopes and do whatever you want. Off piste skiing was not possible due to an avalanche warning, but this is not something we do even in normal times.
The only places where it was busy was around some key ski lifts that connect different parts of the resort. In Hochkönig this was for example the King’s cab, a large 10 person gondola ski lift that is part of a chain of lifts connecting the two resort towns of Mühlbach with Dienten. At the King’s Cab there was a relatively large line, but it was well controlled. Three security guards were focused on enforcing orderly behaviour and making sure that all winter sporters wore FFP2 masks. The line itself was set up similar to lines in theme parks. You had to make your way through a kind of labyrinth to get to the entrance of the lift. The setup was well made and left lots of space between sporters that were lining up. The lift, which operated at 50% capacity, had enough space for families to go up the mountain alone and again we didn’t have to share the lift with anyone.
All the other lifts that we came across had no lines at all. You could simply ski up and enter without being in close proximity to anyone. Rules were enforced at each lift and masks were mandatory everywhere, even if there was nobody around you.
Skiing without lunch or apres-ski
Part of the charm of skiing in Austria are the many huts scattered around the resorts and mountains. The Hochkönig ski resort has huts absolutely everywhere which are usually filled with excited winter sporters. Unfortunately, all of these huts are currently closed as part of the Austrian lockdown.
That these huts are closed makes sense. In early 2020, it was an Austrian ski resort that served as the catalyst of the coronavirus. In the ski resort town of Ischl, packed bars full of party goers, were said to have spread the virus across the European continent. According to Politico.eu, the damage was done ‘by the time Austrian officials realized the extent of the outbreak’. Late action by authorities led to lots of international criticism and negative press for the Tirol authorities and stained the image of Austria.
All bars and restaurants on and off the slopes are closed as part of the nation wide lockdown.
Apart from all bars being closed for the famous après ski (drinks after skiing), almost none of them offer take away either. Many Austrians deal with this situation by either going for just a half day or by bringing their own lunch. We have seen skiers eat and drink on benches of empty restaurants, in parking lots or on the side of the slope and many Austrians have also come up with a solution for the lack of beer in the resorts. We have seen lots of cans of beers being consumed on the parking lot and even on the slopes. Nothing crazy and definitely less than what is normally consumed there though
People that go skiing now are trying their best to make the most out of it. The atmosphere is good, people are keeping distance and the resort staff is as accommodating as they can be whilst enforcing the rules. You are constantly reminded of all rules in place by signs and frequent broadcasts over the resorts audio system. Add in empty slopes and the experience is complete. None of the home made and self-brought lunches were littered and none of the drinking was annoying. Austrians have a temporary ski paradise and as long as people continue to follow the rules, they might be able to keep it.
As I am writing this post in January 2021, Austria is in a nationwide lockdown. Tourists cannot enter the country. Hotels, bars and restaurants are closed. FFP2 face masks are mandatory in supermarkets. Follow all government rules and recommendations!
Stay at home and wear a face mask if you can’t.