“Please don’t tell me this is the only way down,” I said.
“Yep, afraid so – you’ll be fine, just don’t overthink it,” Matt said.
I was at an altitude of nearly 2,500m on the highest, east-facing mountain in Zürs, Austria, looking down a sheer cliff drop. I was definitely overthinking it. The view acted as the perfect distraction from the fact that this was the only way down. Resplendent under the cloudless blue sky, the mountains spanned as far as the eye could see. The fresh layer of powder from the night before glistened in the sun, ready for the first lines of the day. Despite the sub-zero temperatures, you could feel the sun’s warmth, and there’s nothing quite like the contrast of warm sunrays and fresh snow.
I was coaxed up to Muggengrat by Matt – a British, German-speaking ski technician I met when hiring skis. He had a solid flirting game and offered to show me around on his day off, and when an attractive 6'4" local offers to take you skiing, it’d be rude to say no. He sold me on Muggengrat by telling me it was one of the longer, more scenic red runs in the Zürs Mountains, but funnily enough, he forgot to mention that it started with a cliff…
We’d skied off the chairlift, around a bend and down to the cliff’s edge where a group of skiers had collected. Their body language said it all – stiff as planks, looking for another way down. I made my peace with the fact there was no turning back and started assessing the drop. I’d planned to traverse slowly across the piste making nice controlled turns, unlike Matt who charged down in seconds, but the minute I slid my skis over the edge I could feel the ice. My slow traverse turned into a fast slide across the icy piste, skis scraping and scratching trying to find traction. It was hardly the graceful traverse I was aiming for. After a few uncomfortably fast turns, the piste flattened and I was down. I’m not religious but I’m pretty sure I said a prayer.
I was eager to see what the rest of the run had to offer so I continued around the next corner to see a view rivalling that from the top. Matt wasn’t wrong, Muggengrat was the longest and most scenic red run in Zürs, and you can’t help but feel grateful when you’re looking at a view like that. For any first-timers: don’t let the cliff scare you. It’s such a unique, exhilarating experience, and I promise it’s one that you’ll want to keep doing over and over.
The Lech Zürs am Arlberg Area
Zürs is part of the wider Lech Zürs am Arlberg region in Austria and is one of most prestigious ski areas in the world. With over 300 kilometers of ski runs it caters to skiers of all levels, but it's particularly well known for its 200 kilometers of off-piste powder tracks. The nearby resort of St Anton offers more advanced runs in comparison to Lech, but the Ski Arlberg pass allows you to ski in all of five Arlberg resorts. The Arlberg runs are vast and varied and the region is extremely well connected; mechanical lifts and free local buses make skiing here considerably stress-free and easy.
Some hear the word Lech and think: ostentatious and expensive, with visitors like Princess Diana and Tom Cruise, you can’t help but think they’re right, but those who know it better know that behind the expensive hotels and champagne bars, it’s still very much like a small farming village it once was. It’s home to only 1500 people in the winter, all of them living here because of their passion for skiing, or because they were lucky enough to have been born there. Bus drivers and family run café Baristro for example, they’re what make the locals feel like
Where to Stay
While there are a number of villages to choose from, Lech is the most popular after St Anton. I recommend staying in the areas surrounding Lech like Zug, Oberlech or Stubenbach, which are all connected by the local buses, just minutes from the Lech ski lifts. My personal preference is Zug – k it sits in a picturesque valley away from the crowds, with it’s own chairlift to the main Lech runs. Accomodation in Zug is slightly cheaper than in the center of Lech but it is by no means any worse.
Once you book your accommodation, you’ll be able to arrange ski passes with your hotel or chalet manager. For ski hire, I'd recommend Full Service by Marco in Zug – the staff are knowledgeable and you'll get a deal on ski hire. If you’re not staying in Zug, just hop on the free number 2 bus and it’s a 5-minute bus ride from Lech Rufiplatz to Hotel Rote Wand, where you’ll find the shop.
I’ll admit I may be a little biased because I fell in love in Lech, with the guy who took me to the cliff, no less. Matt and I clicked very quickly after we met in Lech, but it was also the week full of amazing skiing, ski hütte lunches and meeting the locals that made the week unforgettable. I’ve since been back to Lech four times spending nearly two months living among the locals. The town is made up of around 1500 locals, so everyone knows everyone.
Where to eat
There’s no shortage of great places to eat in the Lech Zurs area. I particularly love stopping in at the ski hüttes dotted around the Alps for lunch and drinks after a long morning of skiing. You’ll find that most huts serve traditional Austrian plates like goulash, schnitzel and spatzle – all of which must be tried, because the Austrians seriously know how to cook. It also wouldn’t be a trip to Austria without trying a glass of Gruner Vetligner; a white wine that is served almost everywhere, which is generally cheaper than coffee and far too easy to drink.
Zurs: the ski hutte at the top of the lift is the place to be on a sunny day. Try and find a sunny table and order the spatzle to share. If you're not on skis, head to Brändle – an après bar and restaurant at the end of Muggengrat serving classic schnitzels and colossal burgers.
Lech: my favourite place in Lech is Schneggarai, a ski hutte at the bottom of the main lift, near the famous Hotel Krone Bar. The food is excellent and the atmosphere is second to none. They're open till late if you're up for a big night – if you see a log with a hammer in it, I urge you to ask one of the locals to show you the game, but only if you’re prepared for schnapps or jagermeister. For something a little more upscale, catch the chairlift up to Schnegglkopf where you’ll find a Japanese restaurant that serves amazing sushi. It’s not cheap, but there’s something about eating fresh sushi with a view of the Alps that’s pretty memorable. For a great Italian pizza, head to Olympia's in Lech, just down near the Postamt bus station – there’s a rival Italian restaurant across the road, but I assure you Olympia’s is the best.
Zug: the restaurant at the Rote Wand hotel has an excellent cocktail bar and dinner menu, so if you’re looking for a bit of relaxed luxury make a booking before you go. You should also take the chairlift up from Zug and head to Balmap for a drink – on a great day the views are breathtaking and the atmosphere is lively.
Getting to Lech is surprisingly easy - I should know, I've done it enough times. From the Sankt Anton train station, it's a 1-hour train ride from Innsbruck or 2.5 hours from Zurich. From Sankt Anton, the 92 bus gets you into Lech in 40 mins for under 10 euro.
on train station, it's a 1-hour train ride from Innsbruck or 2.5 hours from Zurich. From Sankt Anton, the 92 bus gets you into Lech in 40 mins for under 10 euro.