It was my first visit to St. Johann in Tirol, and I doubt it will be my last.
Located in the Kitzbuherler Alps we had a few days to explore the area, learn to cross-country ski, taking in the magnificent family-friendly ski resort and the beautiful scenery. The quality and laid-back feel of the ski slopes, with wide flowing slopes for all levels really captured my imagination, it was some of the most enjoyable skiing I’ve done.
The whole area is overlooked by the striking Wilder Kaiser mountain, you can see it from the slopes, by snowshoeing in the area, or from one of the many cross-county skiing routes in St. Johann in Tirol.
Learning Cross-Country skiing in St. Johann in Tirol
Of all the various activities I’ve done in the Alps, I was excited to learn a new skill. And if you’re going to learn to cross-country ski, then there’s not many places better than St. Johann in Tirol. It has a huge reputation for cross-country skiing and even hosts Austria’s biggest open cross-country ski race, the Koasalauf. The combined areas of St. Johann in Tirol, Oberndorf, Kirchdorf and Erpfendorf are world renowned in the cross-country skiing world and have over 250km of well prepared pistes and slopes. You might not realise it, but for classic style cross-country skiing, you need groomed and ‘track-set’ snow, meaning someone has ploughed little tracks for your skis to go on.
Erpfendorf Biathlon Centre
Being our first time cross-country skiing, we booked a lesson with Gunter from Erpfendorf Biathlon Centre. We were kitted up with ultra-lightweight and very thin cross-country skis. There isn’t a boot binding, just sleek looking boots that clip in to the ski at the toe, nothing like the dreaded ski boot. Once you’re clipped in, the toe doesn’t move, but the heel releases allowing you to move and kind of step forward, out of the ski. Then ski poles complete the equipment checklist and we’re ready to go.
We headed out to a small circuit close by with a biathlon shooting range (more on that to come). At first you learn the body movement without your ski poles. You move your arms and body in a skating motion, allowing the skis to glide one by one. It’s a clever design, as the ski sticks a little with weight on it and glides along the snow without it. The technique is really to shift your weight and glide from one ski to the other, staying nimble and looking graceful.
Do I sound like a professional already? I really wasn’t!
Once we got to grips with the skiing, part two of my lesson involved the bit I was looking forward to the most, getting my hands on a biathlon rifle! As an Olympic sport, biathlon involves a combination of cross-country skiing combined with shooting, with the competitor that completes the course quickest winning. The shooting alternates between a standing shot and laying on the floor. Each shoot involves shooting through 5 targets, and when the shot is made the circular target closes. The standing targets are bigger and higher than the ones from the floor, meaning the laying down shot require more accuracy.
It was our first attempt, so we were probably a lot closer to the target than the professionals. Nonetheless the first thing that hit me having only cross-country skied for 200 metres, is how hard it is to settle yourself and take your shot. From a cardiovascular exercise which has the adrenaline and blood pumping, to a precision skill that requires calm and accuracy. It’s an incredible combination and takes some serious fitness and discipline. Still, I did manage to get a few successful shots in, and really enjoyed the challenge of one followed by the other. I suddenly saw what the fuss was all about in this up-and-coming sport.
Experience a different side of the Alps
If you’re considering giving cross-country skiing a go, my advice to you is do it. Give it a go. It’s a totally different experience to skiing or snowboarding in every way, not least in the technique and muscles involved, but because you’ll see a different side to the Austrian Alps. You can glide through the valleys, passed cute and traditional alpine villages, rivers and streams, and get a glimpse of the local wildlife. You escape the crowds and find yourself exploring the peaceful wilderness, a completely unique way to experience St. Johann in Tirol. And the best part? Using the 250 km of cross-country ski trails and slopes is completely free, no ski pass required.
St. Johann in Tirol is close to 3 main airports. Innsbruck is the closest at an hour’s drive, followed by Salzburg and Munich, both are less than two hours by car. The area doesn’t have too many shuttle or taxi services, so I’d recommend hiring a car for the duration of your trip.
Travel tip shared by Scott for Travel Dudes