Dirtbag Debauchery in the Alps

Dirtbag Debauchery in the Alps

Skiing in the Alps may seem high-end, but it doesn’t have to break the bank. Here’s how we did it.

WORDS LILY KRASS | PHOTOS MAX RITTER

We’re sprinting through the winding streets of Chamonix, France. I have skis and poles slung over one shoulder, a bag of buttery croissants in hand and a precariously placed shot of espresso held down by only the marginal strength of my pinky finger. In typical fashion, Jake, Sophie, Max and I crash through the doors of the 11 Bus with seconds to spare, bowing our heads as the driver glances back to give us a subtle, yet unmistakably disapproving glare. So French. 

As the free bus zigzagged through the Chamonix Valley, razor-sharp peaks looming over us on all sides, I couldn’t help but smile as I looked down at my breakfast—The Formule Express, a €1.50 croissant and espresso combo followed by a €3 ham and cheese quiche for a skintrack snack. I hope those skids are enjoying their $10 breakfast burritos in Jackson Hole.

We had been skiing in Europe for most of the month of April, traveling through Austria, Italy, and finally, to Chamonix, our group gradually growing from four to nine as friends from the Tetons and Colorado joined us for various stops along the way. Amidst twice-daily trips to lavish cake shops to sample whatever rendition of puff pastry and powdered sugar the local bakery could come up with, we had skied some of the best steep terrain any of us had encountered, gorged ourselves on four-course meals in lofty alpine huts, tried one cigarette each to see if it would help us blend in (it did not) and of course, dipped our toes (ever so slightly) into the supernatural world of European aprés. All while spending a remarkably low amount of money for the gluttonous lifestyle we had effortlessly slid into.

“Europe is too expensive, I don’t know how you guys can swing that,” was the resounding response when we had asked the rotating cast of ski bums that ended up at our dinner table last winter to join us on this year’s pilgrimage to ski across the pond. 

While a trip to Europe can give off an air of sophistication and elegance—two words that couldn’t be more paradoxical to our borderline offensive jaunt through some of the finest snow sliding the Alps had to offer—the reality is, once you’re in Europe, it’s massively less expensive than skiing in North America. In Austria, we paid 35 to 50 euros a day for lift tickets at world-class ski resorts like Axamer Lizum and the Stubai Glacier. Forty-five euros a night paid for a room, breakfast and a four-course meal in an Italian hut in the Ortler Alps. In Chamonix, 90 euros got us a three-day unlimited lift ticket with free entry into an outrageously grandiose spa. And of course, three-euro bottles of wine were the star of the show as we killed hours winding through the mountains by rail, looking over maps and planning the next day’s route between swigs of prosecco and bites of prosciutto.  

Our month-long trip began somewhat anticlimactically while forcing our way through public transport to navigate the blaring streets of New York City. The Big Apple has some of the cheapest flights across the Atlantic, so a brief stint on the crowded city bus seemed like a worthy price to pay for a $315 round trip ticket from JFK to Paris. A budget flight from Denver to New York the day before kept our total cost of airfare at less than $500 per person, including checked bags. 

Most ski areas in the Alps are pretty accessible within a day of travel, so flying into a big hub like Paris allowed us to wait and see where the snow fell as the trip got closer. Plus, a flyby through the city for a crepe and quick blast of museum culture would prove to be a great way to balance out hedonistic mountain escapades and assure our families that we’d actually learned something while away.

Once we touched down in Europe, we found the five-trip Eurail Global Pass to be the most cost-effective and flexible way to get around (the deal is only available if you buy online ahead of time). We waited for passes to go on sale in the spring and the breakdown was about $50 per trip, great value for long transfers. Plus, the Global Pass lets you stay flexible and hop on almost any train without reservations if the snow looks better across the border in Italy. The unlimited month-long passes are pricey, but worth the money if you plan to be on the move every few days. 

A few weeks before our blundering encounter with the public bus in Chamonix, we found ourselves in Austria, staring into a towering case of macarons, intricate chocolate cakes and fruit tarts in Cafe Munding’s steamy windows. Munding is Tyrol’s oldest cafe, opened in Innsbruck in 1803, and sits conveniently right below Nepomuk’s, an affordable no-frills hostel that serves leftover pastries for breakfast. We paid the woman behind the counter 25 euros per person per night and fire-lined our ski bags up the tight staircase to our bunk rooms. After getting settled, we wandered into the night and discovered Austria’s greatest gift to dirtbags: the dӧner kebap, a Turkish wrap made with sliced rotisserie meat that’s not unlike a gyro. Washed down with a Hefeweizen, dinner rang up to 8 euros a person. 

The next morning (after scarfing down a few slices of cake comprised of mostly powdered sugar) a free bus ride from downtown Innsbruck took us right to the base of Axamer Lizum, a freeride paradise with walls of mouthwatering couloirs just a few steps out of bounds. A day ticket costs 35 euros, or 11 euros for a single ride up, to access the backcountry. We opted for the latter and hopped on the Olympiabahn, a 100-passenger funicular train built for the 1976 Winter Olympics. I squeezed in next to a leathery-faced Austrian man rocking a tight wool turtleneck and aviator shades while the cherry red train car rose to the top of the mountain. A few minutes later we were sliding on snow towards the jagged couloirs we’d been eyeing from the base. 

We skinned up the apron towards the Malgrubenspitze before slinging our skis onto our backs and booting up the last steep pitch. Europeans, we learned, hate bootpacking more than anything and will set the daintiest skintracks up suffocatingly narrow couloirs to avoid plunging their boots into untouched snow. We decided not to follow suit and instead wallowed through a few hundred feet of waist-deep snow to gain the ridge. Two hours after getting off the Olympiabahn, we were peering into a dark abyss that we later dubbed the Toilet Bowl. Our descent took us through a tight choke that wound under a precariously balanced rock pillar before dumping us out onto a steep apron with stable spring powder. Whoops and hollers echoed through the valley as we etched smooth turns down to the mid-mountain hut for a pretzel and a beer before heading back out for round two. 

While our first day in Austria had us marveling at the sheer simplicity and accessibility of the mountains, throughout the course of the month we discovered that it wasn’t a fluke—that’s just how skiing in Europe goes. In the Alps, the mountains are a way of life, accessible for anyone who wants to slide on snow, bag a peak, take a walk or just enjoy a perfectly foamy cappuccino in the presence of Mother Nature’s finest (we did all four).

Our month in Europe taught us three things: good skiing doesn’t have to be expensive, chocolate baguettes make great skintrack snacks and there’s no reason every mountain range shouldn’t be peppered with full-service mountain huts ready to serve you a Radler and slice of apple strudel whenever you damn well please.

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