Kitzbühel, St Anton, Mayrhofen, Ishgl... Austria is home to some of the most famous ski resorts in the world. But with over 400 ski hills in total, for every glitzy mega-resort there are many smaller set-ups which benefit from a lower profile. Sure, you might not be able to find much in the way of apres-ski in these places, or glitzy, Instagrammable apartments to stay in, and OK, some of the lifts might run a little slower than elsewhere. If you don’t have to wait in a queue for ten minutes to get on the lift in the first place, though, who cares if it takes its sweet time getting to the top of the mountain? And if the crowds are light, meaning plenty of powder to go around when it snows, could you perhaps make do with accommodation that’s a little less bling?
On the whole, popular ski resorts tend to be popular for a reason, but every now and then you’ll find a beautiful little cluster of pistes and lifts, perhaps just a few minutes’ drive from some bucket-list ski Mecca, and wonder to yourself... where is everybody? Such is the case with Tauplitz, a relatively under-the-radar resort in Styria, about half-way between Salzburg and Graz and only a few kilometres away from the historic ski town of Schladming – home to the famous World Cup night slalom race, and the huge interlinked ski area that incorporates the resorts of Planai, Hauser-Kaibling, Huchwurzen and Reiteralm.
If you’re visiting the area from Salzburg (which has direct flights from Edinburgh), drive straight past the Schladming resorts and keep heading east along the Enns Valley until you start to see the immense bulk of 2,351m Grimming filling the horizon on your left. When you get to the fish restaurant at Trautenfells (you can’t miss it, as it’s surrounded by its own fish ponds), hang a left, drive around the formidable cliffs of Grimming’s east face, and about half an hour after passing Schladming you’ll be pulling into the much more down-home surroundings of Tauplitz.
We made a family visit here late last season, and after several days of sun-drenched and unseasonably warm skiing elsewhere we were only expecting to be able to access the upper half of the resort. However, not only did we find the pistes in good nick at the top of the mountain (the highest point, at the summit of Lawinenstein, is 1,965m), the link run down to the base station at 896m was also complete, meaning we could do full, top-to-bottom laps, even if the last few hundred metres were turning to slush by mid-afternoon.
That said, even if the lower pistes had been closed it wouldn’t really have mattered, as most of the skiing at Tauplitz happens further up the mountain anyway. A four-seater chairlift takes you from Tauplitz village to a large plateau called the Tauplitzalm ("alm" meaning "mountain pasture"). With its six lakes, larch forests and flower-strewn meadows, in summer this area is a hiker’s paradise, while in winter it’s home to an impressive network of cross-country ski trails. On reaching the top of the Bergbahn lift, however, downhillers won’t be looking right towards the cross-country trails, but left, towards the summits of Lawinenstein and the neighbouring Schneiderkogel (1,765m), and the various runs snaking down them.
There are some fun blues and reds on the Schneiderkogel, plus a straight-down-the-middle black, but if you’re looking to get stuck into some wide, high speed turns, the top section of red 23, which begins near the top of Lawinenstein, is hard to beat, particularly the top section, which has a good, even pitch and also offers jaw-dropping views of the Enns Valley to skier’s right. And speaking of the views, after a few laps of red 23, you’ll likely be in need of some refreshment, at which point you should head to the Kriemmandl ski hut on Lawinenstein, which – even by Austrian standards – offers pinch-yourself panoramic vistas from its south-facing terrace.
Another major selling point of Tauplitz is the potential for off-piste fun: almost every run marked on the piste map seems to have been designed to give access to tantalising un-pisted terrain. In the runs directly above Tauplitzalm, this is mostly of the "duck off, grab a few powder turns, then duck back on again" variety. However, things get more serious when you take the run marked blue 29 off the extreme west end of Lawinenstein, towards the town of Bad Mitterndorf. The run itself isn’t challenging, but the terrain that opens up in between its many zig-zags ... well... after a good dump of snow, there are all kinds of interesting angles for creatively-minded freeriders to frolic in.
Such antics can often result in aches and pains at the end of the day, of course, but happily Bad Mitterndorf is home to an enormous spa, Grimming Therme, which boasts various indoor and outdoor thermal baths. After a few bad falls, sitting up to your neck in hot, bubbling water, watching the last of the sun’s rays catching the summit ridge of Grimming is highly recommended.