Glacier resorts in Alps at center of latest skiing boom
The Alps were green well into December this year. Clouds hung low above the valleys, and the wind blew warm from the south. Pansies were even blooming in this picturesque Stubai Valley, which over the past 10 years has been transformed from a summer climbing base to a boomtown for year-round skiing.
Most of the Alpine villages across Austria and the southern Alps were sleepy quiet when they should be waking for the busy winter season. Innkeepers, ski instructors and everybody with anything to do with tourism, which is most of the Tyrol, looked at the skies with mounting concern.
But not in the Stubai, Solden, Hintertux or any of Austria's six or seven year-round glacier skiing developments. Here, below the famed 10,400-foot Stubai Glacier, the immediate concern was overcrowding. Nobody was lacking business.
''It is not too good. It will be too crowded at Christmas and holidays,'' a young German complained to me as we rode one of Austria's endless T-bars - a system which covers a vast expanse of treeless snow stretching to the glacial summit and beyond to lift-serviced bowls on the backside.
I bowed to his superior knowledge, but I had to wonder how good skiing must be before Europeans give it decent marks. This happened to be a holiday, and much of Innsbruck was on the glacier. Perhaps 4,500 people were using six drag lifts plus Austria's longest two-stage gondola, which rises over 4,000 vertical feet to some five square miles of skiable glacier. The lift lines were not too long, and the slopes, because of their sprawling width for the most part, were not unduly crowded. Only the ''base'' station at the top of the gondola was packed at lunchtime.
The big surprise was the snow. I had expected ''glacier skiing'' to consist of crushed ice and crevasses, ''washboard'' skiing at best. But here, as at Solden earlier in the week, there were bowls of packed powder in which to frolic , although in some places it had not snowed for a week or more, and not much then. Of course, there is more slope grooming in the Alps now than in the past, even on the glaciers.
The grooming helps; but that natural refrigeration from 30 to 50 feet of ice below those pleasantly pitched powder fields gives the glacial resorts an unparalleled edge for ''guaranteed'' early- and late-season skiing.
The advantage, of course, is being assured of snow, regardless of the weather , when lift and lodging rates are lowest. But as with development everywhere, there are prices to be paid. The character of a mountain can be altered.
People have long skied the glaciers in summer, but they used to climb to them. The Alpine huts above the Stubaital, from which people have climbed and skied for generations, are among the world's most celebrated. They used to be the main source of the Stubaital's then few beds. But 10 years ago, a technological breakthrough allowed the construction of big cable lifts on glaciers. In a decade the number of hotel and pension beds in Neustift below in the valley went from a few hundred to 6,000, not to mention indoor tennis courts , a sports center and three shuttlebus systems. They support other ski areas and villages, but the reason they exist is the glacier and its new super-resort potential.
The increasing rush to mechanize and tame one of nature's few remaining wild places was brought home again as our bus burrowed through rock in a new half-mile tunnel deep beneath the Rettenbach-Tiefenbach glacier high above Solden. After passing a tollgate on the glacier road, we came upon a sprawl of slopes and the Rettenbach base station, seemingly at the top of the world. Before we could digest the sunny scene, we plunged into the dimly lit tunnel, made even dimmer by the haze of exhaust fumes. Somewhere high over our head, a new triple chairlift whisked skiers from the new Tiefenbach side of the glacier to the old Rettenbach side.
Suddenly we emerged, and there at nearly 10,000 feet were the new Tiefenbach restaurant and base lodge, two triple chairlifts, T-bars and thousands of happy skiers, who without this ''mechanized'' glacier would be doing something besides skiing. Unlike the Stubai glacier, Solden's is open only for spring, summer and fall skiing, a huge mountain below handling the winter version. But like all the glaciers, it is an on-snow training ground for many national ski teams in the fall.
Karl Spahn, director of the Stubai glacier ski school, explained to me the breakthrough that has opened up the glaciers. The top and bottom terminals of lifts are anchored into rock far below the ice. Intervening towers are mounted on concrete platforms on top of the ice, and a center cable from top to bottom tower is strung in a way to produce the proper tension. When the ice shifts, the middle towers are moved so as to keep the correct tension. In a year, Spahn says , the ice can move three or four meters, or more than 12 feet. Some towers only have to be moved once in two years, he added; some two or three times in one year.
It can be a lot of work, but the reward comes in the form of all that lovely and otherwise foregone packed powder skiing.