A snow cannon provides a much needed top-up in Sölden. Photos: Duthie
For most British snowboarders, winter is a funny old thing. There’s so much that gets us excited; dropping temperatures, new snowboard gear, video releases... Even the Daily Express’ annual ‘It’ll Definitely Kill Us All This Time’ headline gives us a twitch.
And yet, with the exception of those with deep enough pockets to book a trip over Christmas/New Year, the payoff doesn’t usually come until January or February – or even later.
Until then, snow isn’t on our radar in any practical sense. If it is, it’s a menace that adds further complication to the days where you swap the only hours of sunlight for stress headaches, unbearable colleagues and bad coffee.
"Are we needlessly prolonging the torture? With several resorts already open for business in December, would it not be better to scratch the itch early on?"
We’re like that guy in the Rustlers advert – except that instead of a highly suspect slab of repurposed off-cuts masquerading as food, our reward is a snatched week or two away in the mountains [just kidding, Rustlers – we’re sure your microwaveable mystery meat is as tender as a lover’s embrace].
It begs the question: are we needlessly prolonging the torture? With several resorts already open for business in December, would it not be better to scratch the itch early on with a cheaper deal, and then hope that there’s enough left in the coffers later in the season for another trip?
To find out, we’ve travelled to Hochsöden in Austria’s Ötztal Valley, in the last week of ‘low season’. Situated just above Sölden, this tiny hamlet is the quieter alternative to one of Austria’s most vibrant après destinations. What it lacks in pissed-up dads trying to remember how to throw shapes at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, it makes up for in character and ride-in-ride-out convenience.
Resorts don’t come more snow-sure than this; the glacier opens in September, and the lycra-clad loons of the FIS Ski World Cup circuit make it their first port of call in October. Over 350 snow-making machines flank the runs, giving the fleet of piste-bashers plenty to work with.
"Sölden in December is quiet... Westminster-Bridge-in-28-Days-Later quiet; Michael-Gove-Fan-Club-meeting quiet"
Of course, the main risk in travelling to the mountains this early in the season is that all you’ll get is what they can spray out of the cannons. ‘Low tide’ is the expression that springs to mind often during our trip – there’s been no precipitation for three weeks, so anything off the beaten path is a no-go. The famous Gaislachkogl freeride area has death written all over it, the avalanche barriers are bare, and even a slight stray from the groomers isn’t an option.
It’s a similar situation for freestyle fans; the sight of the park’s impressive number of rails and boxes piled up in a heap is a sorry one. With a bit more snow there’d be a decent setup, but for now the park rats' only option is an occasional (and relatively rare) side-hit.
Riding options are limited, then. Realistically, the only thing you can be sure of this early in the season is well-groomed pistes. Is it enough?
In a word, yes. Given that most folk wait until the new year to visit, Sölden in December is quiet. We’re talkng church-mouse quiet; Westminster-Bridge-in-28-Days-Later quiet; Michael-Gove-Fan-Club-meeting quiet – and when there’s so much immaculately groomed piste for the taking, that’s A Very Good Thing.
For those desperate to get their elbow down after getting high on Glue, Yearning For Turning and Slice ‘n’ Dice, it’s hard to think of a better place to do it than on these long, rolling slopes. The corduroy remains in good nick even into the late afternoon, so unless you buy your own resort Russian-oligarch style, you’d be hard pressed to find quieter trails. Naturally the Innsbruckers make their presence known at the weekend, but through the week it’s a very different story – and with 146km of pistes, it’s easy to keep things fresh.
"For those desperate to get their elbow down, it’s hard to think of a better place to do it"
If a week without the promise of powder and/or park doesn’t do it for you, then it’s still best to save up a bit more cash and head over in the new year. If, on the other hand, you want to feel the G’s as you blast down wide, traffic-free groomers – not to mention shortening the wait for your first turns of the season – then an early blast in a snow-sure destination like Höchsolden will deliver every time. Besides, you might get lucky with a dump; after three poor starts to the winter on the bounce, it might be worth rolling the dice in 2017...