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Merlin Gröber

Wintersport to the Power of Five

Updated on 20.01.2022 in Sports, Photos: Bernhard Poscher

Wintersport to the Power of Five

Many people come to Tirol in winter with a specific sport in mind, be it skiing, snowboarding, tobogganing, biathlon or ski touring. But what if you put them all together? Our author set out in a quest to broaden his horizon by challenging an Innsbruck local to a mini Winter Olympics – five sports in four days. Who will win? 

Tall, mighty and with a craggy snow-capped peak, the "Wildes Mannle" is a mountain to be reckoned with. It stands 3,019 metres high and blocks our path. "Don't worry," says our guide, Kilian. "We will go round it to get to our destination." We are in Vent in the Ötztal Alps. The day began at seven o'clock in the morning, when Vanessa and I met up with guide Kilian for a ski touring adventure onto the Ötztaler Urkund, a huge mountain near the Wildspitze – the highest peak in North Tirol.

It is day three of our challenge. Vanessa and I are spending four days in the Ötztal Valley. Vanessa lives near Innsbruck and spends much of her time in the Alps: mountain biking, snowboarding and capturing her adventures on camera. I, on the other hand, come from the area around Lake Constance – an area of Germany where the landscape is more rolling and the activities are less extreme. Vanessa is keen to show me around her home region of Tirol and challenges me to five sports in four days: biathlon, ski touring, tobogganing, snowboarding, skiing. Some we have tried before, others are completely new to us. Easy, right? After all, I am not exactly a newcomer on snow. I have been skiing since the age of three, so a sport like biathlon can't be that hard, can it? Full of confidence that I will come out on top in our little challenge, I meet up with Vanessa. And then everything changes.

Merlin and Vanessa are both sure they will win. Who will come out on top in their snowsports duel?
Merlin and Vanessa are both sure they will win. Who will come out on top in their snowsports duel?

Day 1: Cross-Country Skiing

"Hey, don't smash your poles down into the snow so hard. Cross-country skiing is supposed to be a gentle sport!" Martin, our cross-country skiing instructor for the day, is less than impressed with my technique, it seems. He has been teaching cross-country skiing for 20 years. Now he has the unenviable task of introducing us to biathlon, a winter sport combining cross-country skiing and rifle shooting. We are in Niederthai, a village in the Horlachtal Valley, and even the gentle cross-country skiing trails here are proving a little challenging for Vanessa and me. The sun on our backs, we try to focus on what Martin is telling us.

The most important rule when it comes to cross-country skiing is: the arms support the legs, not the other way round.
Martin, cross-country skiing instructor

He spreads his legs so his skis form a V-shape and asks us to do the same. Vanessa slips over immediately and lands in the snow. I slide back and just about manage to keep my balance. Martin smiles. "Okay, let's take the skis off to start with. You have to learn to control your movements." We stand behind Martin and jump from one foot to the other with our toes pointing outwards. "Cross-country skiing is one of the most complex winter sports," he says. "It uses around 90% of the muscles in the body." Martin reassures us that we are by no means the only ones to struggle on day one. "Some people get the hang of it fast, others need more time."

Cross-country skiing is harder than it looks. Good job Martin is on hand to give tips on the right technique.
Cross-country skiing is harder than it looks. Good job Martin is on hand to give tips on the right technique.

After almost two hours of slipping and sliding (and falling over) we finally start to make progress. Instead of picking ourselves up from the cold snow every few seconds, we glide (slowly) along the well-groomed trails and even begin to enjoy ourselves. "Now it's time to try shooting," says Martin. Visitors to Niederthai have been able to try out the sport of biathlon since the centre was set up four years ago. The rifles we are handed are the real deal, but with one important difference: instead of shooting pellets they use laser beams. They end result, though, is the same – if you hit the white target it turns black. "Rest the rifle on the ball of your hand and push your elbow into your hip," explains Michael, our shooting instructor from the Nordic Team Niederthai. The crosshairs dance wildly across the white target. Every beat of my racing heart causes the rifle to move up ever so slightly. I pull the trigger. The target stays white. It's a miss. "Aim the crosshairs above the target and then slowly come down," says Michael. I follow his advice, pull the trigger – and hit the target! "Well done," says Michael. He does, however, point out in the most polite and gentle way possible that we have taken 15 minutes to shoot twice – professional biathletes, he says, need 25 seconds to arrive, lie down, shoot five times and ski off again. At the end of our shooting session I have managed to hit three of the five targets. Vanessa gets two. "I guess you win day one," she admits with a wry smile. Day number one, win number one – let's hope things continue that way.

Strong nerves and a calm hand are essential if you want to hit the target in biathlon.
Strong nerves and a calm hand are essential if you want to hit the target in biathlon.

Vanessa hits the target only twice. It is Merlin who wins the day.
Vanessa hits the target only twice. It is Merlin who wins the day.

Day 2: Alpine Skiing

We are up bright and early in the hope of being some of the first on the ski pistes in Hochoetz. The perfectly groomed slopes are empty, waiting to be explored. However, just spending a day tearing up the slopes would be too easy – after all, this is supposed to be a challenge. We decide to up the ante a little: I will teach Vanessa how to ski, she will introduce me to the world of snowboarding. Whoever manages to master their new sport the best by  the end of the day gets the point.

When it comes to snowboarding, it is important that you get a feel for your board.
Vanessa

Snowboarding is up first. I slowly point my board down the slope – and all of a sudden I am travelling at a speed I hadn't quite expected. "Keep your upper body still," shouts Vanessa. Too late. I catch an edge, fly face-first into the hard snow and slide to a stop. No point feeling sorry for myself. Back up and at it. It takes me a couple of hours, but by the time our little session comes to an end I have more or less got the hang of it. I think.

Merlin never imagined snowboarding would be this hard.
Merlin never imagined snowboarding would be this hard.

After lunch we swap our snowboards for skis. "So when it comes to skiing, it is important that you…". Before I can say anything else, Vanessa zooms past me with her skis pointing straight down the slope and her poles tucked under her arms for extra speed. "My dad taght me to ski when I was three years old," she says with a cheeky grin. It's clear that today's point will be going to Vanessa. No score for me today, but at least I've found out how much fun snowboarding can be.

Vanessa shows off her skills on the ski slopes and wins day two.
Vanessa shows off her skills on the ski slopes and wins day two.

Day 3: Ski Touring

We are only half-way through our mini Winter Olympics, but my legs are already super-tired by the time we roll up to the village of Vent at seven o'clock in the morning. Vent is one of Tirol's Mountaineering Villages, a collection of remote places considered good base camps from which to explore the mountains. We are met by Kilian. A mountain guide for 25 years, he certainly has the look: red jacket, stubble, and a climbing harness around his waist with lots of carabiners and other climbing accessories. "I suggest we head for the Ötztaler Urkund," he says. At 3,554 metres above sea level, it is one of the highest peaks in the Ötztal Valley and lies next to the Wildspitze, Austria's second-highest mountain. 3,500 metres? Sounds a bit ambitious to us. After all, it's our first time ski touring. "No worries," says Kilian. "The most important thing is to take it slow at the start. The mistake lots of people make is racing off and then running out of energy." We do as he says, ploughing our way through the snow as the sun appears on the horizon.

The ascent to the top of the Ötztaler Urkund mountain is long and steep – the right technique and a slowly-but-surely approach are key.
The ascent to the top of the Ötztaler Urkund mountain is long and steep – the right technique and a slowly-but-surely approach are key.

After three hours of walking, the Wildspitze mountain appears in front of us. Below the summit we can see the Rofenkarferner, a glacier between steep rockfaces. "I used to come here to go ice climbing," explains Kilian and points with his ski pole to an impossibly sheer face. We continue our journey. The only sound to be heard is our own breathing. I am feeling it, to be honest, but I try to control my breathing and focus on the tips Kilian has given us.

Save energy. Don't pick up your feet but instead push them over the snow and let the skins glide.
Kilian, mountain guide

Vanessa's time travelling in South America seems to have made her a little acclimatised to the thin mountain air, but I am struggling. We soon reach the glacier. Aren't there things like crevasses to fall into? "This late in the season they are all full of snow," Kilian reassures me.

Mountain guide Kilian gives Merlin and Vanessa tips on saving energy – don't pick up your feet but instead glide forwards over the snow.
Mountain guide Kilian gives Merlin and Vanessa tips on saving energy – don't pick up your feet but instead glide forwards over the snow.

After six hours of climbing we reach the summit of the Ötztaler Urkund. The view is incredible, stretching all the way to the Bernese Alps in the west and the Schober Mountains in the east. Between lie countless valleys with green meadows and tiny houses. We take out the provisions we have brought with us and tuck in. The landscape is truly breathtaking – and we are so tired from our exertions that we completely forget to pick a winner.

Day 4: Tobogganing

"Do I really need a helm to go sledging?" Seriously?" I ask Vanessa as she passes me a shiny black head-protector. It is nine o'clock in the morning and we are standing at a car park in the Sulztal Valley. "We're not going sledging," Vanessa says, "We are going tobogganing." She holds out the helmet once again and says: "Take it – you'll need it."

Of all our sports challenges, tobogganing is the most dangerous. You'll be surprised how fast it can get.
Vanessa

After a quick introduction to the basics of steering and braking ("If you get into trouble, just pull up on the toboggan as hard as you can.") we are good to go.

Vanessa gives Merlin a quick introduction to tobogganing.
Vanessa gives Merlin a quick introduction to tobogganing.

Equipped with everything they need, the duo head off.
Equipped with everything they need, the duo head off.

With my helmet in my backpack and my toboggan on a leash behind me, a little like a reluctant dog being made to go for a walk, we make our way up through the forest. Our smartphones are switched to flight mode. Nothing, we agree, should impose on the beauty and silence. After all the action and adventure of the previous three days, it's nice to do everything a little more slowly. We chat as we make our approach to the Amberger Hütte. We park our toboggans outside the hut, head in and order a hearty portion of sweet "Kaiserschmarrn" – a classic Tirolean dish comprising thick pancakes cut up into pieces and served with apple sauce on the side and icing sugar on top.

We suddenly remember that today is the last day of our challenge – and we still haven't crowned a winner. "Does it always have to be about winning?" asks Vanessa as she spears a lump of Kaiserschmarrn with her fork. She's right. Holidays shouldn't be about winning or losing. "It's been really nice trying out new sports and going back to being a beginner again," she says. I agree. Over the last four days we have made lots of new experiences (and a few mistakes along the way). It has been eye-opening to go back to zero and learn something from scratch.

After a meal at the Amberger Hütte, it's time for Vanessa and  Merlin to race down into the valley.
After a meal at the Amberger Hütte, it's time for Vanessa and  Merlin to race down into the valley.

We head outside, put on our helmets and sit down on the toboggans. Soon we pick up speed, racing along the straights and braking just enough to make it through the corners. Trees and rocks whizz past – Vanessa was right about the helmet. I watch Vanessa, who has been tobogganing a lot longer than me, and learn to brake ahead of the corner rather than in the corner.

Vanessa and Merlin are happy with their performances and head off for the next adventure.
Vanessa and Merlin are happy with their performances and head off for the next adventure.

After half an hour of pure adrenaline we are back down in the valley. We brush the snow off our trousers and put the toboggans back in the car. I take off my helmet and lean against the vehicle. Day done, right? Then I catch a glimpse of the cross-country skis in the boot, together with the right shoes. A few minutes later we find ourselves on cross-country skis ready to explore the local trails – the next adventure, it seems, is about to begin.

Window fitter, goldsmith, bouncer. And now a freelance journalist. Studied history, ethnology and communication in Freiburg, Munich and Canada. A graduate of the German School of Journalism. Prefers sleeping outside to inside – and whenever possible in Tirol.

Merlin Gröber
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