Stories off the slopes
Romantic tranquillity and a little history: the “Zeitreise” (“Journey through Time”) winter hiking trail on the Penken takes you through both stunning Zillertal mountain scenery and the history of alpine skiing.
T he snow crunches beneath their feet. The sun warms their faces. It is one of those days in Zillertal when the sky is so clear that the towering mountain ranges around you look like paper cut-outs. The perfect day for Karin and Gerhard to head out on a romantic winter hike. After a comfortable ascent with the Penkenbahn cable car from the valley station in Mayrhofen, the route takes them step by step back in time along glistening snowy slopes. After all, they are following a very special circular trail: entitled “Zeitreise”, it tells the story of the early days of skiing.
At one of the ten stations, the couple discover historical skis in a modern display case. At another, black-and-white photographs document the ancient beginnings of skiing in Zillertal and provide fascinating insights into its history. And as the couple step back in time to 1954, childhood memories are awakened for Zillertal local Uli Spieß. After all, the former skiracer’s mother founded the first ski school in Mayrhofen in winter 1954 together with her husband Ernst. “In the first season, we had 18 skiing students”, he tells us. Today, 25 ski schools with 500 instructors give lessons in 17 languages to allow all sorts of fun on Zillertal’s pistes.
Karin, enthusiastic holidaymaker
It is therefore no surprise that Uli Spieß was just two years old when he first put on a pair of skis and learned the then popular technique of stem turning under his mother’s careful guidance. However, his skis were rather different to those he uses today: “They were made of ash or hickory wood and the edges were simple iron rails that we had to screw on ourselves. What’s more, my shoes were attached to the skis using a so-called ‘cable binding’”, the now 63-year-old recalls.
This comprised a leather strap that held the foot in place at the front. On the heel, a kind of cable pull with a tensioning device provided the necessary hold. Despite its basic design, the solution still allowed skiers to gracefully wedel their way down the slopes. And this included an ever-increasing number of British visitors as Mrs Spieß had friends in England who she regularly invited to come skiing. However, the English did not have skis! “And so my parents came up with the idea of establishing the first ski equipment hire service”, explains the son. A concept that has now long since become an integral part of the international ski world.
State-of-the-art facilities. Back to the here and now. The Penkenbahn glides over Karin and Gerhard’s heads with barely a sound. Since its renovation in 2015, this has been one of the world’s most modern cable cars and can bring 2,880 people per hour up onto the Penken. As such, the cable car is state of the art, the ski slopes are perfectly groomed and the hiking trails are naturally no longer prepared with simple snow shovels like in the old days. Instead, grooming machines compress the snow to such an extent that Zillertal’s 400 kilometres of winter hiking trails are always in good condition. Anyone who still gets tired though can make the most of the many wonderful and romantic huts. Just like Karin and Gerhard are doing right now. They have pulled up a seat on the panoramic terrace to enjoy the magnificent view and the Tyrolean delicacies. Just what is needed at the end of a journey through time.
Image: Julia Rotter and Text: Johannes Stühlinger
Zillertal magazine Winter 2019/20
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