When you are looking for a snow sure ski resort in Austria, you are not necessarily looking for the highest point on the longest ski lift. And you are not really looking for a long trip on a cable car at the start and end of every ski day.
The problem with looking at the highest skiing in a particular country is that it can end up with a list of one glacier ski area after another.
And, while glacier skiing has its own advantages, someone on a ski holiday is generally looking for a ski area where a piste runs all the way down to the village.
Far more important is the level that the skiing starts from – the height of the village where the ski runs return to – and that there is a proper community at the bottom of the ski lifts, rather than a collection of buildings in the snow.
In other words, a real high altitude ski resort where you can rely on the snow conditions.
Here then are five of highest ski destinations – real villages and each an Austrian ski resort where you can be sure that the snow is extremely unlikely to be scarce. (And, yes, although it is not measuring this, it even includes the closest ski resort to the highest ski lift in Austria!)
Kühtai is the highest ski resort in Austria, perched on a high mountain pass which separates the Ötz valley from the main Inn valley and the Tyrolean capital of Innsbruck.
The ski area here is a real Tyrolean favourite – the winding road up the Sellrain valley is often busy with cars bearing Innsbruck licence plates. Many of them are heading for a day on the open ski slopes above the village, but plenty are also taking advantage of the nearby mountains for ski touring excursions.
The skiing at Kühtai covers a decent amount of terrain, despite its elevation and is generally suitable for a skier at a good intermediate level. It is mostly above the tree line and flat light or poor visibility can create problems if the weather starts to turn.
Despite the height of the resort, there is plenty of accommodation on offer, ranging from luxury hotels (one of them a former Imperial hunting lodge) through to self-catering apartment accommodation.
Those on a day trip to the ski resort should be aware that the road in both directions can be closed in heavy snow because of avalanche danger and winter equipment is a must.
Elevation: Kühtai lies at 2020 metres above sea level
How to get there: the road up the Sellrain valley is the most popular route – this starts just to the west of Innsbruck. An alternative is to drive up the adventurous road from Ötz past the smaller ski area of Hochötz – not suitable for drivers of a nervous disposition.
Obergurgl has traditionally been a great hit with for those taking a ski holiday from the UK or Eire. In the days when there was nothing going on in the summer apart from cow-herding up in Kühtai, Obergurgl could market itself as the highest permanently-occupied settlement in the Tyrol.
Even though the crown has now been knocked off its head, the height of Obergurgl is only just under 2000 metres and it can also boast of the even higher satellite village of Hochgurgl on the road through to the Italian border (only open in summer).
The ski area at Obergurgl is linked by cable car to that above Hochgurgl and Untergurgl and the skiing is perfect for the intermediate skier. Ski school instruction is also generally of a very high standard with nursery slopes within easy walking distance of the village centre.
Once again, the resort offers a good mix of accommodation from the five-star superior Hotel Hochgurgl through to family-run guesthouses and apartments. Après ski is popular at the Nederhütte on the homeward run from the main slopes above Obergurgl.
Obergurgl is at the end of the long Ötz valley, which heads south from the main Inn valley. Roads are generally kept in good condition in the winter months, although drivers unused to the mountains should be aware that there are a number of hairpin bends to negotiate on the route up from Sölden.
Elevation: Obergurgl is at 1930 metres above sea level. Nearby Hochgurgl is at 2150 metres.
How to get there: Obergurgl is about 90 minutes’ drive from Innsbruck, taking the motorway west and then turning south into the Ötz valley. Public transport is also available with a train to Ötztal Bahnhof and connecting buses up the valley.
Obertauern is the only non-Tyrolean ski destination in this list. The settlement in the province of Salzburg is another which is located on a mountain pass and is probably one of the closest Austrian equivalents to a French-style ski-in ski-out resort.
The ski runs head up the mountain on both sides of the valley and the accommodation is spread out along the road which runs over the Tauern Pass. Skiers can do two intermediate-level ‘circuits’ around the area – one clockwise and one anti-clockwise.
Although the ski area is relatively high, the skiing at Obertauern benefits from a number of shorter tree-lined runs above the resort, which helps with visibility in bad weather. The skiing is not the best for advanced skiers, with the pick of the runs probably being the black pistes down from the Gamsleiten.
Obertauern is functional rather than attractive and can lack the traditional atmosphere of an Austrian ski resort. Having said that, there are a couple of infamous apres-ski haunts and the accommodation tends to be more up-to-date than rival destinations.
Elevation: Obertauern is at an altitude of 1738 metres above sea level.
How to get there: access is relatively straightforward as there is a single main road running south from Radstadt (near the junction with the A10 motorway) towards the border with Styria and Carinthia.
The Pitztal is actually a long valley in the Tyrol and, right at the end of it, the settlement of Mandarfen offers easy access to two different ski areas.
The lifts up to the small but interesting Rifflsee area leave from right outside the village, while access to the nearby Pitztal glacier area is only a short ski bus ride away at the hamlet of Mittelberg. Because Mandarfen is at a decent altitude, the Grubenkopf lift at the relatively modest Rifflsee area tops out at 2800 metres, while the glacier ski area offers Austria’s highest lift with the Wildspitzbahn gondola reaching the Hinterer Brunnenkogel at 3440 metres above sea level.
Mandarfen is a small village so there is little in the way of ski resort atmosphere. It does have a decent selection of three- and four-star hotels, as well as guesthouses, restaurants and ski hire shops. There is also a much smaller choice of accommodation at the base of the Pitztal glacier lifts just up the road.
Elevation: Mandarfen is situated at 1680 metres above sea level
How to get there: Mandarfen is a relatively straightforward journey of around 36 kilometres up the Pitztal from the junction with the Inn valley near the regional administrative centre of Imst.
Galtür is the smaller neighbour of the well-known Tyrolean ski resort of Ischgl in the Paznaun valley. Around ten kilometres and 200 metres in altitude further up the valley, Galtür marks the point at which the winter journey stops in this region. (Summer visitors can take the road further past the Bielerhöhe and the Silvretta reservoirs down the impressive road into the next province of Vorarlberg.)
The small but interesting ski area, known as the Silvapark, is actually located about two kilometres outside the village near the hamlet of Wirl. It offers a moderate 43 kilometres of prepared ski runs, but the attention of more advanced skiers will be drawn by the number of ski routes and black runs available. In fact, Galtür is a favourite destination for snowboarders and freeriders, with specific marked sections designated for adventures away from the groomed ski slopes.
Galtür was hit by a major avalanche in 1999 and visitors will see the Alpinarium in the centre of the village, which now acts as a barrier wall protecting the community as well as a museum which explores the relationship between local people and the environment of the Alps.
Ischgl may be the major tourist centre further down the valley, but Galtür does offer a limited and very popular range of accommodation away from the nightlife and the bustle of its livelier neighbour.
Elevation: Galtür lies at an altitude of 1584 metres above sea level
How to get there: Galtür is 33 kilometres away from Pians, where the main road from Innsbruck splits for the Arlberg express road and the route into the Paznaun valley.