This is a place where time stands still. At least for a weekend. On my search for epic ski touring adventures, I went to East Tirol’s Villgratental Valley for Easter 2016 – and I definitely found what I had been looking for. Here’s my adventure report with personal recommendations for a memorable ski touring weekend in the Mountaineering Village of Innervillgraten.
The efforts cause me to breath like a steam engine. I have found a rhythm and I can feel the warm sun on my back. Ski touring uses climbing skins under your skis to skate your way up snowy mountains before skiing down them. Once you rip the skins off and ski down untracked snow, it’s like floating on clouds. For me ski touring is the perfect sport – I can enjoy the thrill of skiing and get my kicks climbing the mountain too. Attaching skins to my skis allows me to head deep into the backcountry, away from the ski resorts and lifts, to reach beautiful places and ski untouched powder. Such as the summit of Gaishörndl Peak. There is fresh snow and no one else in sight.
“We have nothing to offer.” Which isn’t true at all when it comes to backcountry skiing…
On our way into Villgratental Valley, we didn’t expect that much from our weekend. After all, there was little snowfall that winter. However, avid ski backcountry skiers know that the real season for ski touring kicks-off in March. Especially in a Mountaineering Village like Innervillgraten, which possesses a unique high altitude location, 1,402 meters above sea level.
“Come visit us, we have nothing to offer.” is the marketing slogan of the valley. And indeed, you won’t find any ski lifts in Innervillgraten, although the snowy slopes would make perfect ski runs. This is much to the joy of ski touring enthusiasts—the environs of Innervillgraten alone has 15 different ski touring spots listed in my guide. If you drive a little further, your car will take you to Außervillgraten and Lesachtal Valley, where even more sweet spots await. Way too many options for just one weekend! Close to Außervillgraten and Sillian you will find the small yet beautiful Sillian Hochpustertal Ski Resort – a friendly ski environment for those wishing to make a few turns on groomed slopes in between exploring the backcountry.
We continue to follow the track toward Gaishörndl Peak. To the left, we notice a tiny Alpine pasture hut in the middle of the forest. Most of the cabins here are hundreds of years old. Such as the beautiful Kamelisenalm (elev. 1,973m), which we pass on our tour atop “Rotes Kinkele” the following day. Some of the cabins at Kamelisenalm are available for rental in the summer – as romantic as it gets.
Following Smuggler’s Trails to the Summit
We silently make our way up through the snow, which is like a moving meditation. We pass a weathered timber cross. Have we already reached the summit? No, but we find that the cross without a name is listed in our guide, which means that we are on the right path. It straddles the Austria-Italy border and follows a trail that was used by brave farmers of Villgraten Valley to smuggle goods, mainly food, tobacco and cattle, into Italy’s South Tyrol until the 1960s. They sold their goods in neighbouring Gsiesertal Valley or traded them in for Italian products such as shoes and aprons. Today, the Smuggler’s Trail is part of the “Herz-Ass” Trail, a long distance path that traverses the Villgraten Mountains.
From the 2,615-meter summit of Gaishörndl Peak, we soak in sweeping views that are boundless in the true sense of the word. There’s a superb panorama of nearly every peak in the Italian Dolomites, all of the splendid Villgraten Mountains with its epic ski runs and beyond. We take in the absolute beauty of our surroundings and enjoy some tea and snacks. Then we rip the skins off and clip into the bindings. The ski down is exhilarating and brilliant. We are so delighted that we decide to climb to the top of another summit, named Pfanntörl – to be rewarded with another incredible descent. Here, one rewarding touring destination lies close to the next. Who needs lift assistance if you can gain altitude under your own steam?
Recommended Stop: Badl Alm in Kalkstein
Right next to the trailhead, the car park in Kalkstein at an elevation of 1,600 meters above sea level, lies a strongly recommended guesthouse named Badl Alm. Kalkstein is as well known for being a popular filming location (“The Silent Bell”, “Heidi”, “Storms in May”) and for its Gothic Revival style pilgrimage church Maria Schnee.
Recommended Ski Touring Destinations: Gaishörndl and Rotes Kinkele
One of the most popular ski touring spots in Villgraten Valley is the hamlet of Kalkstein, situated only a few minutes’ drive from Innervillgraten. A recommended alternative option to driving is the Villgraten Ski Touring Taxi . Kalkstein is as well trailhead of the tour atop 2,615-meter Gaishörndl Peak. The route gains 1,000 vertical meters on its way up gorgeous Alpine pastures. You can also choose another nearby peak that makes a worthwhile destination, the 2,508-meter summit of Pfanntörl, which is the lower of the two options.
On day two of our weekend we have skied the summit of Rotes Kinkele (elev. 2,763 m), which is a somewhat longer tour that gains 1,270 vertical meters. From Innervillgraten, turn right into Arntal Valley and park your car at the base of “Lifter Höfe”. If snow conditions are fine (and your stamina is good enough) you can start this tour right from Innervillgraten. Among the visual attractions on this trip are the stunning mountain scenery and Kamelisenalm Alpine Pasture Hut (which is closed in the winter). From there, the tour continues to the top of Rotes Kinkele. After gaining the ridge, the route gets a bit tricky; otherwise, it’s a wonderful skin up through awesome Alpine meadows and pastures. Enjoy the turns down the way you came.
The Website Villgraten – A Valley for Ski Mountaineering brings you plenty of information on guided backcountry ski tours.
Recommended Lodging: Natur Residenz Villgraten
We have spent the weekend in an apartment at Natur Residenz Villgraten. Natural timber furnishings, beds and linens of local sheep wool (strongly recommended: visit the shop of Villgrater Natur in Innervillgraten), a rich breakfast with fresh and local produce and a sauna bath make this a wonderful place to enjoy the beautiful surroundings. Of course, there are many other lodging options available at the Mountaineering Village of Innervillgraten.
Recommended Guide: “Ski and Snowshoe Tours in Villgratental Valley”
The “Ski and Snowshoe Tours in Villgratental Valley” is your resource for information on ski touring powder in this beautiful corner of Tirol. It is published by the East Tirol Tourist Board and the Villgratental Tourist Information Office and provides you with the complete descriptions of 30 backcountry ski tours for Villgratental Valley and environs. You can buy it from the Tourist Information Office or from your accommodation. Moreover, you can order it by mail as well. To learn more, visit the Website of the East Tirol Tourist Board.
Recommended Links: Tirol Avalanche Information Service & A Beginner’s Guide to Ski Touring
Always take precautions and be sure to check avalanche conditions from the Tirol Avalanche Information Service before setting out. Full avalanche gear is a must. Mary Creighton reveals how to get started in her blog post A Beginner’s Guide to Ski Touring. Learn more about Ski Touring in Tirol on www.tyrol.com.