ST. ANTON AM ARLBERG, Austria —
“Have you ever been to a place called North Conway, New Hampshire?” asked my tour guide, Wilma. My mind flashed back to the previous summer, when I spent hours hiking up an endless waterfall of loose rocks toward the seemingly endless Mount Washington summit. It was the last question I expected this far from New England, surrounded by peaks that dwarfed Mount Washington.
Everyone in St. Anton knows of North Conway. The two towns share a crucial connection thanks to the man depicted in that bronze statue, Hannes Schneider.
The western state of Tirol is Austria’s natural crown jewel. Its glacial waters and cloud-cutting mountains give it a pristine, fairy tale-like quality that charms tourists and Austrians alike. The Tirolean Alps are unique both visually and historically, and the Arlberg region even more so. Life at this isolating elevation was challenging for previous generations of Tirolean farmers, who developed versions of sleds and skis as both a necessary way to travel along the mountain pass and a hobby.
Over time, the Arlberg developed the reputation as “the cradle of alpine skiing,” thanks to its pioneering residents. In the early 1900s, six friends created what they believed to be the world’s first ski club in St. Christoph: Ski Club Arlberg, which incorporated the villages of the greater Arlberg area (St. Anton, Lech, St. Christoph and Stuben). In 1922, Hannes Schneider — one of the original six — set up the St. Anton Ski School. Schneider, who won the title of Europe’s fastest skier and starred in several ski films, created the world-famous Arlberg teaching technique, which is still in use today.
It’s impossible to mention St. Anton without talking about alpine skiing, and it’s impossible to mention alpine skiing without talking about Hannes Schneider. Then, the conversation inevitably turns to the place he spent the second half of his life: North Conway.
During the Anschluss of 1938, Schneider was put under house arrest after several outbursts against the Austrian Nazis. Successful New York businessman Harvey Dow Gibson (who was originally from North Conway) brokered a deal to bring Schneider to New Hampshire.
At the time, skiing had started to take off in the area. After reading about St. Anton, New England skier and businessman Carroll Reed started an American branch of the St. Anton Ski School called the Eastern Slope Ski School. Once Gibson’s stepdaughter took ski lessons at the school in Jackson, he determined that Cranmore Mountain should also have a ski school.
As ski historian and North Conway journalist Tom Eastman puts it, “We have this fantastic, rich heritage thanks to the visions of our early leaders. Carroll Reed’s vision was for the ski school. Gibson’s vision was to awaken North Conway’s winter economy. Hannes Schneider put us on the map. We got the Babe Ruth of skiing to come to North Conway.”
The St. Anton side of ski history is laid out in great detail inside the Alberg Kandahar House. This local cultural museum outlines St. Anton’s history as of the 15th century, when it was a stop on the Arlberg pass trade route to Western Europe. Over time, the house has served as everything from a regional hospital to a war-time base for several nationalities. In addition to the museum rooms, the chalet boasts a perfectly preserved library, a farmhouse room, a piano room, and a popular winter restaurant.
Unlike alpine resort areas in many neighboring countries, Tirol is open year-round. Centuries of family-owned businesses give Tirol — and St. Anton in particular — a comfortable, friendly atmosphere. This allows for creative surprises at local restaurants, like experimental flavors of homemade schnapps or off-menu desserts that incorporate berries hand-picked during an early afternoon hike. It also allows for some horticultural experimentation. At the scenic Sennhutte, the Senn family makes everything from their expansive mountain garden – from restaurant meals to bath salts to skincare products.
Nearby, the Wunderwanderweg (which translates to “wonderous hiking route”) is an interactive nature path through the woods that explains the local herbs, plants, and wildlife in a unique type of open-air science museum. The route leads to a field of over 20,000 edelweiss that appear to cascade down into the colorful valleys.
In the summer, it’s possible to hike between the Arlberg villages – and as of this winter, it will be possible to ski through them all for the first time. (Previously, one required a bus transfer.)
With its picturesque white-capped mountains and sprawling green vistas, the Arlberg swaths of Tirol could easily be admired from the porch of the Arlberg Kandahar House — but that wouldn’t truly do it justice.
To truly appreciate the scale of this part of the world, you have to head upward — specifically 9,216 feet upward, to Valluga. Glass-domed ski lifts (the preferred method of public transportation across Tirol) bring visitors to the Valluga summit year-round. At each of the two tramway stops (conveniently named Vallugabahn 1 and Vallugabahn 2), the weather changes significantly and the landscape below turns rockier. As the altitude climbs, you travel through clouds that white out all of the glass panels before revealing a razor-sharp landscape of dark stone. It’s winter (nearly) year-round at the summit, where below-freezing temperatures and bitter winds create a thin layer of ice.
This is one of the most breathtaking views in the Alps. On a clear day, you can see peaks stretching into five countries (Germany, Liechtenstein, Italy, Switzerland, and Austria). Everywhere you turn, there are mountains: countless snowcapped crags plunge down into valleys, bright greens fade to gray as the distance increases, cowbells ring faintly in the distance, and at the bottom of it all — almost imperceptibly — a little chalet that holds a piece of New England history.
Hillary Richard can be reached at Hillary@HillaryRichard.com.