The last time I went to Ischgl, Austria, I went out every night. I had long lunches in mountain restaurants, indulged in wild and gloriously unhip Austrian apres-ski sessions and at the end of the night often ended up in Pacha nightclub, which was then in the basement of the Hotel Madlein.
It was almost a decade ago but even in my younger days that wasn’t normal practice for me in the mountains. Ischgl was most definitely a party town, the ‘Ibiza of the Alps’, and the slopes were sunny and mellow, with very little to challenge a powder-loving snowboarder, so I figured I had little to stay up for.
The trip I made recently could not have been more different. I found Ischgl to be snowboard heaven. I rode powder all day, on long, varied and at times technical runs, with plenty of off-piste. And I went to bed early every night, because all I could think about was the next day’s snowboarding. ‘Can this really be the same resort?’ I asked my freeride guide Michael Zangerl from the Ischgl ski school, while brushing a beard of fresh snow off my face. ‘Of course. You obviously weren’t looking hard enough,’ he laughed.
Back then, this wasn’t a side Ischgl was showing to the world. Party-lovers flocked here to hear Paris Hilton on the decks and join crowds of 25,000 at the outdoor Top of the Mountain concerts with big-name acts.
‘We’re proud of our entertainment heritage,’ said Zangerl, ‘but we also want to promote our active side – from off-piste skiing and snowboarding to cross-country skiing or even winter hiking and running. We want people to explore the mountain more, to have an adventure.’
With this in mind, the ski school has expanded its freeride offering, with individual and group guided sessions which include avalanche training and rescue techniques, plus women-only clinics and ski hut safaris. The biggest boon for those wanting to ski and snowboard off the beaten track here came three seasons ago when the Piz Val Gronda lift opened up a fantastic freeride area previously accessible only via a long, steep hike.
Despite it being a powder day, and one of the best spots on the mountain, there was no queue when I headed out to put it to the test – an unimaginable scenario in a more well-known freeride resort, such as Chamonix or even nearby St Anton.
From the top of the Piz Val Gronda there is a great red piste, but the real excitement lies on either side of a majestic ridge to the left as you’re looking down the mountain. We let a GoPro-toting group leave ahead of us then walked along the flat top of the ridge for about 10 minutes enjoying views of unending white peaks.
One side had a series of mouthwatering chutes. I counted at least eight, which joined back up with the red piste from the top. But we dropped off the other side to Nederberg, a notional ‘Neverland’ according to my guide, which was apt given its curves and deep hidden pockets of fresh snow.
It’s a treat to have so much off-piste terrain so close to the lifts without the need for a tough hike on splitboard or touring skis. And while it’s best to tackle the Piz Val Gronda ridge with a guide, there are plenty of top-quality black runs and off-piste terrain as well as a few good lines through the trees. We spent the next afternoon exploring, often tracing out first tracks.
Ischgl is a relatively high resort, and has a good snow record, with the season running until May. Zangerl told me that seasonal workers from St Anton often come here to beat the crowds.
Of course, there are still plenty of visitors who come to this smart former farming village for the bonkers oompah-style apres-ski at places such as Trofana Alm and Kuhstall. Others come for glitzy restaurants including Michelin-starred Paznaunerstube at the Hotel Trofana Royal or award-winning Stuva, though there are also plenty of affordable options.
Many hotels, including Hotel Antony where I stayed, do good-value half-board deals, with tasty and energy-replenishing Tyrolean set menus. Highlights include kasespatzle, a kind of superior macaroni cheese, and spinatknodel (spinach dumplings).
The resort attracts a lot of beginners and intermediates, and they tend to stick to the pistes, leaving ample fresh snow elsewhere. An added bonus is that the off-piste scene is not intimidating, as it can be in places like Chamonix.
And after all, if you give it a go and find it’s not for you, there’s no excuse not to dive head-first into some of the most extreme and amusing après ski you’ll ever see. And on my last night, with no more mountain days ahead of me, I did just that.
A day with a freeride guide at the Ischgl ski school (skischule-ischgl.at) costs 68 euros (Dh270).