One pastime that is barley known outside of Tirol is ‘Figln’ or ‘Firngleiten’. I am not a native to this beautiful country, so this was one of the things I had to learn when I moved to Tirol a few years ago. When I rented my first apartment in Innsbruck, the owner of the flat talked about having fun at cruising down Arzler Scharte couloir in spring with “Figl”. I smiled and nodded in agreement while being puzzled, asking myself: “What is this guy talking about?” A quick online research didn’t help, either. Typing the word “Figl” in a search engine, some of the first results for the query are Leopold Figl, the first Federal Chancellor of Austria after World War II. Not exactly what I was looking for.
A few months later, something completely unexpected happened while I was out mountain biking—I finally solved the mystery of the Tirolean ‘Figl’ thing. My girlfriend and I were on our way up to Thaurer Alm near Innsbruck. Most of the snow was gone – most. Having mastered the final climb, I raised my head and gasped for breath. And there I saw it. A snowfield, separated by a road, with staggered blue and red gates screwed into the snow.
Up there, at the top I noticed a few people. Suddenly one yelled, “Go!!” – and off they went in teams of two, sliding down the hill. It was only then that I realized they had kind of skis strapped to their feet, very short skis indeed. The skis extended no further than the back of the boot and about 20cm beyond the front of the boot. Moreover, the two skiers had to complete the course while being tied to a rope. If one of the two-person team fell, the other was pulled off as well. Much to the pleasure of the audience.
The skiers gave the crowd something to cheer for when they cruised down the course, more or less “artistic” in their execution, more or less courageous and more or less elegantly. The task was made even more difficult by the fact that they had to stop halfway at a checkpoint, where a judge offered them some schnapps. Men stumbled, women fell to the ground and rolled into the snow—and they were all having a great time. I was happy too, because finally I knew what that “Figl” thing in Tirol was all about. Very short skis called ‘Firngleiter’, abbreviated to ‘Figl’—what else?
In the 1930ies, a growing number of Alpine skiers began exploring the high Alps of Tirol, inventing the first short Alpine ski in the process. It was named the ‘Firngleiter’ (“Firn” means ‘corn or spring snow’ in German and “Gleiter” means ‘glider’); the activity itself is called ‘figln’. The Firngleiter was a stubby homemade ski about 50 cm long and was (and still is in the Innsbruck Area) used to ski narrow, snow filled couloirs and corn snow in the spring. Very easy to manoeuvre in steep terrain, these short skis have been growing in numbers ever since in Tirol. This is not a mainstream sport however. It is truly under the radar in terms of media coverage but ‘figln’ is a barrel of fun, so it’s no wonder it caught on here in Tirol. Today, Figl are made of aluminium. And wow, do these bring an immediate smile to your face.
Not surprisingly, there is a company called Kohla in Tirol that makes and sells Figl (in addition to producing high-quality climbing skins, telescopic poles, backpacks, gaiters and baby carriers). Or, simply cut off your old skis and make your own Figl. But that’s a different story…
Find out how much fun figln actually is in this video: