There is one ring to rule them all – at least among alpine skiers. In Austria, where skiing is a most serious and earnest religion, there is a great 22km circuit of continuous pistes that winds through the high Arlberg region. This is Der Weisse Ring – the White Ring – which completes a circuit from the township of Lech to Zürs, Zug, Oberlech and back to Lech, giving skiers the chance to descend 5,500 metres of ski slopes. This, in any skier’s language, is heaven.
Each January there is a formal White Ring race – a mad daredevil rush of 1000 competitors from a massed start – but the circuit is open to anyone at any time.
You don’t have to be gung-ho, with at least half of the White Ring graded as intermediate difficulty. It is an irresistible challenge.
The task can be completed in about three hours of continuous skiing, although it requires bravery to keep your speed up on long downhill sections – or risk long walks to ascend several crests. Fatigue is your enemy, but even if you’re not confident, there are guides who lead parties around the ski area via a network of easy routes, to obtain a sense of what the White Ring circuit has to offer.
While the skiing is exhilarating, the views are the true star of the show. The first can be enjoyed as you ride the cable car from the centre of Lech to Rufikopf mountain peak at 2362 metres. A giant White Ring logo peeking out of the snow marks the start of the route – a badge of honour. Many stop for photos, but often the wind is biting hard so most push off immediately without ceremony. Individual skiers are dwarfed by the enormity of the landscape, a cathedral of towering white peaks surrounding big open snow valleys.
This attraction was the vision of legendary Austrian ski racer/daredevil Sepp Bildstein, who encouraged the introduction of chairlifts to Lech and Urs that created the White Ring route in 1940. However, Olympic and World Champion Patrick Ortlieb created the White Ring Race in 2006, to celebrate the 50-year anniversary of the ski circuit between Lech and Zürs. Ortlieb still holds the course record for this longest ski race in the world, taking only 44 and a half minutes, which includes riding the network of six cable cars and chairlifts. For anyone bold enough to be among the 1000 participants in this race each year, professional training is available from Ortlieb and fellow World Champion Marc Girardelli.
There is a second, more informal lap of the Alps that places eating lunch as a higher priority. Leaving St Anton, you can catch two cablecars to the highest point of the resort and roll all the way to Stuben for lunch. This tiny town that was the home of Hannes Schneider (the pioneer of modern skiing instruction, who is commemorated with a bronze statue) now mostly makes its living out of serving meals to skiers stepping off the piste.
The Post Hotel has bands set up on the open patio to entice lunch crowds to linger a little longer, while at the Gasthof Mondschein dining room, delicious plates of venison sausage and blueberry strudel are the main attraction. While service is slick, most skiers seem keen to pack away more than a few drinks and big servings – so a line of taxis wait to take wobbly skiers back to their St Anton resort accommodation.
Another option for the hungry skier is to visit Arlberg Hospitz in St Christoph. Adjacent to the home of the Austrian ski Academy and national ski racing team, the Hospitz is a globally coveted place to dine and drink fine wine, thanks to its owner Adi Werner. Built around the Brotherhood of St Christoph chapel and cellar, constructed in 1386, the Hospitz has luxurious dining rooms for guests, but also has a famous lunch lodge at the edge of the piste. Ask to be taken to the big bottle cellar that houses the world’s largest collection of large-format bottles of Bordeaux wines – more than 3000 big bottles, from 3-litre double magnums through to 18-litre Melchiors, forming a significant part of a 50,000-bottle collection spread through five cellars within the Hospitz complex.
While people come from around the world to dine, drink and stay at the Hospitz, many more simply ski in for lunch – and if the glare is too bright on the large dining patio or the balcony, there are straw boaters for gentlemen to wear. Similarly, if the breeze is too chilly, there are blankets. Such comforts may tempt you to consider another bottle of wine with lunch – because there’s always a nearby taxi that can ferry you and your skis home.
All photos by David Sly – All Rights Reserved
First published by The Adelaide Review in February 2014