Wednesday, October 18, 2006

bis Hintertux

It's great to be back in the Tux Valley in Zillertal, Tirol, Austria. This is a really special place that I've been lucky enough to visit for three years in a row now. To get here you take the highway to Meyerhofen and then drive 20 km up a narrow mountain road that passes through half a dozen small villages. Each village has several classic-looking, family-run hotels and restaurants and a bahn (gondola/cable car) that takes you up the surrounding peaks. Some of these are closed this time of year, but others continue to shuttle hikers up throughout the off-season. At the end of the road you come to the town of Hintertux and then the bottom station of Hintertuxer Gletscherbahn, the series of three gondolas that take you up to the glacier. Our hotel, the Hintertuxerhof, is near the gondola station and surrounded by green, pungent-smelling farmland. There is really nothing like going outside at 7:30 a.m. into cold, sunny air that reeks of cow manure. The three Gletscherbahn lifts take you up 1750 vertical meters (5740 feet) in about 45 minutes; when you get to the top you're in what Zillertal's tourism board calls "Die Gletscher-Welt" — the Glacier World — and it's a really appropriate name. You feel like you're on another planet, with blinding white everwhere, dotted by huge rocky outcroppings, gray and blue cravasses in the ice fields that lie in between the groomed pistes, and then lots of green farmland, houses, barns, and hotels far, far below. From one of the T-bar lifts you can see a swatch of farmland, with a house and a barn, down in an otherwise uninhabited valley over a mile from the town of Hintertux. The dirt road to get there is insane, winding up over an imposing peak; in winter there must be no way to get there except by snowmobile or on skis. This is the way the people here still live, old Tyrolean farmers living alongside flashily dressed ski coaches from Innsbruck.

Actually, the coaches and athletes training here right now are from all over the world. It's common to see ski and snowboard teams here from the U.S., Canada, Japan, Korea, and all over Europe, especially the Eastern European countries that don't have strong alpine skiing traditions but are getting more and more competitive on the world scene: Russia, Croatia, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Bulgaria... last year I even saw teams from Greece and Israel. In addition to our team, there are also disabled skiers training here now from Finland, Slovakia, and the U.K. Everyone is busy up on the glacier from 8 a.m. till noon or 1, running courses, riding T-bars and generally failing to notice what an amazing place this is. Then in the afternoon everyone comes down off the hill, goes back to their hotels, and then goes outside into the 60-degree weather to go hiking, play tennis and soccer, and just generally enjoy the sunshine.

Today was our first day on snow, so we were mostly on our own, getting readjusted to skiing and riding T-bars and trying to remember all the things we were working on improving at Mt. Hood in July. We have two weeks of training here, so in a few days we'll start running courses and by the end we should be taking timed, race-like runs.

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