Family ski: can small people tackle St Anton's legendary big slopes?

The cradle of alpine skiing, Austria’s St Anton am Arlberg proves to be a challenging yet rewarding resort for novice skiers who can keep their nerve.Tuesday, 22 October 2019

St Anton am Arlberg, a village in the Tyrolean Alps, is often lauded as the cradle of alpine skiing for its role in pioneering the sport. It’s part of the largest inter-connected ski area in Austria, with 190 miles of groomed pistes and 125 miles of marked off-piste.
St Anton am Arlberg, a village in the Tyrolean Alps, is often lauded as the cradle of alpine skiing for its role in pioneering the sport. It’s part of the largest inter-connected ski area in Austria, with 190 miles of groomed pistes and 125 miles of marked off-piste.
photo by Sepp Mallaun

“We’re going to die!” yells my daughter — or words to that effect — as she waves a ski pole at us frantically. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard her make such a melodramatic statement on a family break. In fact, if we don’t take her somewhere that elicits this kind of impassioned response, I start to believe I’ve failed as a parent. Usually, it’s far from the truth, and we’re just edging her slightly beyond her comfort zone. Although, at first glance, it seems there’s very little in St Anton that fits within a child’s comfort zone.

Soon, the children’s ski school group is wending its way through a snow-covered pine forest, as we look down from the comfort of chair lift, which is why I can’t quite hear what our daughter is saying. This is probably for the best. Such is life in St Anton am Arlberg, a village in the Tyrolean Alps, gateway to the vast Arlberg ski area. Often lauded as the cradle of alpine skiing for its role in pioneering the sport, it’s part of the largest inter-connected ski area in Austria. There are 190 miles of groomed pistes and 125 miles of marked off-piste, among which you’ll find challenging steep slopes and deep-snow runs, snowboard parks, carving areas, permanent racing circuits and 88 state-of-the-art cable cars and lifts — a few with heated seats.

What does this mean to the uninitiated? In layman’s terms, St Anton is a hardcore ski resort with a capital H. The slopes here are vertiginous, challenging and, it seems, ultimately fun — the latter, something we’re all working towards, with varying degrees of success. The kids are being quite vocal about their displeasure.“Why does ski school have to be so long,” asks my 10-year-old son. “Can’t we just do the morning?” adds my daughter. Admittedly, at first, I had wondered why Skischule Arlberg runs from 10am to 3pm — as opposed to the more usual afternoon or morning sessions. Out on the slopes, we quickly understand why. The last thing you want to do is leave beginners fending for themselves on these challenging slopes.

Our two-family party of eight has travelled to St Anton on a debut group ski trip. Most of us are beginners, apart from the two dads — both experienced skiers and boarders, who drop us like hot coals as soon as the slopes are in sight. Still, I’m content to be out in the mountains while the children are taken care of. 

We’ve arrived in the middle of a mini heatwave — a peril of late-season skiing — so the resort’s snow isn’t at its best. I need all my focus in order to face my own minor nemesis: a steep, slushy white slope of based-out moguls. Tackling it entails 15 minutes of intense concentration. “That,” says Georgina, my British guide, “is a St Anton blue.”

St Anton may favour the brave and more accomplished skier — pistes classified as blues here would generally be reds in other resorts — but it’s not an unsurpassable test for others. Off-piste is popular here too, but a guide is recommended. “People come to us after the second or third day as they can’t navigate it at all,” says Georgina. “It can be hard to read the map, as the ski area is so big and the runs don’t always start where they seem to.”

But despite being mostly comprised of novices, our group somehow manages to carve its own path — and, as a group of friends, we all survive, friendships intact after a tiring week of skiing. My fellow mum moved to private tuition within a matter of hours, where fabulous Fabian, her Austrian ski school guru, finally put to rest her fear of skiing. Later, we’re all regaled with stories of his ‘heroism’. The gung-ho dads admit they could have done with a guide but are happy with their achievements and chuffed to be back on the slopes.

Our kids’ main gripe — apart from a fear of dying — is they’re not with their friends, but on day three that changes, as classes merge, with skill levels constantly assessed. Fun is ultimately achieved (and skiing progress too). And moi? “You’re not doing great,” says my guide on day four. “You’re OK. But if you can learn here, you can ski anywhere.” 

I’ll take that.  

St Anton may favour the brave and more accomplished skier, but it’s not an unsurpassable test for others, children included.
St Anton may favour the brave and more accomplished skier, but it’s not an unsurpassable test for others, children included.
photo by Patrick Saly

Ski school: beginner's tips

First impressions: Lessons will help you see an improvement from those tricky first moments on the slopes for beginners and make challenging resorts like St Anton more accessible.

Part time: Morning lessons, if offered, allow a group to reunite for lunch or drinks — and more skiing if there’s the legs for it.

Group lessons: Learning with other novices is more fun, and cheaper, than learning solo. Kids often baulk at being dumped at ‘school’ so ideally pair them with siblings/friends of similar ability so it all seems less daunting.

Don't miss

Arlberg Wellcom
Spend a day here to enjoy the indoor pool, whirlpool bath, heated outdoor pool, four saunas, infra-red sauna and steam room. 

Rendl Beach
Not an beach but a piste fun park. It’s a great place to watch snowboarders doing crazy acrobatics.

Galzigbahn’s Funitel gondola
This Ferris wheel-like gondola lets passengers board at ground level, then it rotates the gondolas up to the main high-speed cable-cars. The funitel accesses the Galzig slopes and the Schindler and Valluga peaks. 

VIP Ski offers a seven-night stay at Haus Gamskar from £4,868 for four, based on two double rooms, including return flights, transfers and chalet board. 

Did you know?

Travelling in March and April is much more affordable for families, although snow conditions can suffer.

ESSENTIALS

Ski hire and lift passes can be arranged, via VIP SKI or slope-side Jennewein or Interlaken Sport, where kit can be stored if you don’t have a ski-in, ski-out facility. A six-day adult lift pass costs from £272; six-day ski and boot hire from £153.

More info: stantonamarlberg.com

Published in the National Geographic Traveller (UK) Winter Sports guide 2019

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