“This was the best day of my season, with the steepest lines I’ve ever skied,” said Brian Alsberg over aprés libations at the base of Ischgl Resort in western Austria. The resident of Golden, Colorado, was reveling in the afterglow of a picture perfect day amidst the Grand Prize trip to the Austrian Alps as part of FREESKIER and Fischer’s Ranger Days contest.
The Ranger Days sweepstakes was simple: As a way of giving back to the freeskiing fans that have supported Fischer’s research and development into its Ranger skis and boots since 2013, three lucky sweepstakes entrants would win a choice of Fischer Ranger boots and skis, as well as an all-expenses-paid trip to Austria to go skiing with Fischer athletes and tour the company’s main factory in Ried im Innkreis, Austria. Hell of a prize, eh?
Over 38,000 people entered the contest, and Alsberg, Renatta Bellini and Sten Seemann emerged the victors; the trio cashed in on their prize this past week.
The winners all came from different backgrounds, but all shared a common love for skiing and spending time in the mountains. There was Alsberg, a boot fitter at evo Denver who gets up to Winter Park and Steamboat to ski as much as possible in the winter time; Bellini, an Argentinian who ski instructs in Whistler, Canada, from December to March and in Bariloche, Argentina, from July to September—whose boyfriend, Argentinian ski team member Seba Gast, was able to join us on the trip; and Seemann, an avid backcountry telemark skier who spends much of his free time climbing and skiing down mountains in the Lake Tahoe, California, area. When we first met at the rental car pickup in the Munich Airport, we were strangers, but by the end of the week, after thousands of kilometers of car travel and countless ski laps, we’d be closer to family.
Spring had sprung in the Alps, with high temperatures expected to reach 5 degrees Celsius (41 F) at 3,000 meters (~9,800 feet) on our first day at Ischgl. Expectations were a bit up in the air; was spring corn on the menu for the day? Perhaps we could find some slush bumps. Luckily, we had a local guide lined up for the next three days. And Robert, who’s lived and skied in Ischgl since 1967, would find us quite possibly the best snow in the entirety of the Alps—and that’s not hyperbole.
Our first run foreshadowed the overarching theme of our trip—if you’re willing to work for it, you’ll be rewarded with steep, cold, north-facing powder skiing. A ten-minute ski-shuffle traverse under the late March sun had us sweating, but also standing above a 150-meter (~492-foot) ramp of untouched snow. A short shot, yes, but a frickin’ glorious one and the perfect way to kick off a four-day skiing bonanza in the Alps.
And if that was the appetizer, then our next run was the full, leg-burning main course, filled with a wide variety of snow conditions to feast upon. A short bootpack once again deposited us above an apron of untouched snow, which we tore into ravenously before the real fun began. Our guide Robert was treating us to a run all the way to the valley floor, which included an adventurous passage through a couloir chock full of refrozen avalanche debris that certainly kept the entire group on our toes. Eventually, we were spat out in the high alpine Swiss village of Samnaun, where a conveniently located double-decker tram awaited to whisk us back up the mountain. Talk about a cool way to cross the border.
Back in Austria, we were introduced to the official slogan of Ischgl, “Relax. If you can.” The motto refers to the resort town’s reputation as a party first, ski second destination. However, as our three sweepstakes winners learned early on, for us, it meant pushing ourselves to the limits each and every day on our skis. We were just fine with that.
Following a late afternoon Schnitzel break, we concluded our ski day with a 1,400-plus-meter (~4,500 feet) top to bottom descent, just to make sure we really got our leg workout for the day. Back in town, in what must’ve been a strange sight to see amongst the rowdy crowds of spring partiers, our crew strolled past the aprés bars blasting euro-beats with zero intention of throwing down. Instead, we caught a breather before dinner. “Relax. If you can.” Right?
Not-coincidentally, Fischer’s athlete summit was coinciding with our trip to Ischgl, and we enjoyed dinner, drinks and lively conversation with the likes of Kyle Smaine, KC Deane, Lynsey Dyer, Sandra Lahnsteiner and Sverre Liliquist. It certainly was a treat for our crew to be rubbing elbows and chatting it up with halfpipe world champions, iconic ski movie stars and Freeride World Tour (FWT) competitors. The laughter and smiles that emanated from Bellini, Seemann and Alsberg, especially, could’ve lit up the whole town of Ischgl. And in what would elevate our trip to even greater heights, Smaine and Lahnsteiner would be joining us on the hill in the morning.
Smaine and I stood below the extensive ridgeline, staring back up at the lines we just skied, awaiting the rest of our crew.
“Holy shit, that was good,” or something along those lines, said Smaine. One by one the Ranger Days winners dropped into the steep cirque, simultaneously enjoying cold snow and an introduction to sluff management on their way down. First Seemann and then Bellini carved turns down the run-out and joined us. Alsberg rounded out the trio of descents, funneling down the drainpipe into the untouched depository of snow where we waited.
“That was not like anything at Steamboat,” he said with a smile, referring to his home mountain back in Colorado. That remark earlier about the steepest lines of his life? Yeah, this was what he was referring to.
“On our second day, I think each of the winners skied either the steepest or most exposed lines of their lives,” commented Smaine.
Like desperate farmers, we harvested the divine bounty of snow in each nook and cranny along that ridgeline until the sun dipped low in the sky and it was time to head down. Damn right we earned an extended aprés at the Nevada bar in town. We watched the crowds dip slowly into a Friday night drunken haze and the tour buses from the cities marched up the road signaling the influx of weekend skier traffic. Luckily, we had just the crowd-diversion tactic planned for Saturday: a good ol’ fashioned ski tour in the Alps.
The beauty of the Alps comes with its access. Five lift rides and five high-speed groomers brought us to the “trailhead,” or starting point of our ski tour—a rite of passage for anyone skiing in Europe’s greatest mountain range. With bindings rotated, skins applied and sunglasses on, we ventured a short distance to the first of three transition points. Skins ripped, ski mode engaged and we wiggled our way down 150-meters (~492 feet) of wind buff, before hitting the skin track once again. Up, up, up, we switchbacked 330 meters (~1,082 feet) to a saddle complete with jaw-dropping views of the Austrian Alps to the north and the Swiss variation to the southwest. Delightful as the scenery was, we still had another big climb ahead of us, following a quick traverse and descent into the neighboring valley.
The final ascent tested our group. The route was steep, and the springtime sun hung high in the sky. But our crew was a determined one and wouldn’t let a little hard work stand in the way of the reward Robert had promised us—a secret line that wasn’t skied by many in these parts, but was one of his favorites in the whole region. So we slid one ski in front of the other and kick-turned our way to the top of the line, which provided panoramic views to Italy, Switzerland and Germany. What a place.
We set up a mountaintop picnic complete with cured meats, cheese, bread and schnapps—this was definitely the Alps. Bellies full, we packed up lunch and congregated above our line of descent, a steep ramp that lay in the shadows, thus preserving a treasure trove of cold smoke powder. How could this be? Just minutes prior we were slogging up sun-deteriorated slush, now we’re about to descend 600 meters (~1,968 feet) of soft snow into the forest. It must’ve been the magic of the Alps.
Our previous two days featured a season’s worth of incredible skiing. But as any ski tourer will tell you, there’s something special about reaping the rewards of a long walk in the mountains. Our descent was no different, and the smiles at the end of the run were just a tad wider than they had been in the previous days. We wiggled and slashed our way through the powder fields, then dutifully followed our leader Robert into the forest, where he led us through an adventurous route. We popped out directly in front of the bus stop, five minutes before our chariot was set to arrive. I think we all must’ve thought, “This guy is a damn wizard,” at that moment. What was definitive fact, however, was that we milked Ischgl for all she was worth, and it was time to mozy on down the road.
Following a lengthy drive and late night dinner where hardly a word was spoken—a seven mile ski tour will do that to you—we awoke in Bruck an der Grossglocknerstrasse, at the decidedly old world Hotel-Gasthof Post Bruck. Unfortunately, our time there was short, for we had one final ski stop on our Austrian tour. Sandra Lahnsteiner was hosting us for a day of shredding in her home of Badgastein, where the Sportgastein Resort would serve as our jumping off point to a day of off-piste adventure.
While the resort was diminutive in size, the summit of Sportgastein allowed for 360-degrees of off-piste exploration, and we spent our final day on skis figure-eighting down spring corn on the south side and pillaging steep, cold leftovers on the north face. Having a local tour from Sandra was truly the cherry on top of an unforgettable skiing experience in Austria, and when it was time to saddle up to aprés at the Valeriehaus, we all shared exhausted, yet satisfied smiles—and one last helping of schnitzel.
To cap off this trip of a lifetime, we visited the headquarters and factory where some of the products we’d been skiing on were conceived and produced. The Fischer homebase is located in Ried im Innkreis, a small town in the rural, northern part of Austria. Our group received a private tour of the factory, a privilege not enjoyed by many.
Inside the factory, we witnessed the true synchronization between man and machine. In mind-bending fashion, dedicated humans working with their hands interacted with state of the art machines and robotics to produce Fischer’s renowned skiing products. Whether it was workers stacking ski ingredients by hand, sawing off excess materials or performing quality control, or the exactness with which the machines could cut and shape the products, the efficiency and mastery of craft within the building was truly astounding.
“Have you seen the video when people that cultivate the chocolate plant taste chocolate for the first time?” asked Bellini, in regards to her experience in the factory. “I felt a little bit like that! I felt really lucky to have the chance to see the industry from the inside.”
We shared one last meal together before departing our separate ways, and it was evident during our goodbye hugs that we had developed a special bond along the way.
“I honestly couldn’t have imagined that bringing a randomly selected group of people together on a trip could be so incredible,” said Smaine. “I can confidently say we all left with meaningful new friendships. Sharing the triumphs and the backslaps, the schnitzels and the long drives through the countryside brought us together in a way that is pretty tough to achieve in such a short amount of time.”
So, Fischer, let’s do it all again next year, eh?