Bliss Below Zero

Grab a warm pink onesie and some bunny ears and take your party to the piste for Austria’s Gay Ski Buddies Week. Story and photos by Marc Andrews.

It takes a lot of coordination and a calm nature to manage 69 gay men, two lesbians and four women-who-like-to-holiday-with-gay-men on a one-week ski vacation.

Thankfully the man in charge of the annual Gay Ski Buddies Week in St Anton am Arlberg, Austria, is handsome Greek miracle-worker, Niko Martikas, whose boutique travel company specialises in giving gay men holidays they won’t soon forget. In March, he put on a snowfield extravaganza packed with dazzling Alpine views, bountiful ski pistes of varying color-coded difficulty and après-ski activities that invariably ended each night in a hot tub with four of your new best friends.

A multinational gaggle of gays flew to Zurich and from there crossed the Swiss border into Austria. Kind of like a reverse ending to The Sound Of Music, except via an air-conditioned coach with its own toilet. That’s how you solve a problem like that, Maria!

St Anton is tucked away in a quiet valley and looks like it has been carved into the mountains. Travelling through tunnel after tunnel (which the Austrians call “galleries”) you arrive in a village of chalets, ski shops and wellness centres. In the summer this area is beloved for offering what the German speakers call kur – a detox or “cure” of the mind, body and soul, but ski season is when it is at its bustling peak.

St Anton has less than 3,000 inhabitants, but is so important to skiers it’s even hosted the Alpine Ski World Championships. Sandwiched in the Austrian Alps between Germany, Switzerland and Italy in the state of Tyrol, this 800-year-old town offers 340km of marked ski runs and 200km off-piste options. It also has an impressive 20 après-ski bars.

For now, in mid-March, St Anton is covered in a thick layer of recently topped-up snow, which puts everyone into high spirits. Of course the welcome cherry schnapps cocktail doesn’t hurt either. In our rooms the staff have left trays of another of Austria’s treasures, Mozart balls – chocolate with a gooey marzipan centre that can become quite addictive, especially after a hard day’s skiing.

The hotel, Anthony’s Life And Style, is a relatively new entrant in the marketplace but more than happy for the entire four floors to be overrun by gay men and their admirers. The rooftop hot tub can fit 13 at a push and even 15 when the boyfriend and I barge our way in on the first night. The hotel’s “wellness” area also encompasses a sauna with stunning Alpine views, steam room, relaxation room, a masseur on demand and complimentary Bavarian mint herbal infusions. Yes, this is bliss below zero… and we haven’t even begun to ski yet.

On the slopes one thing becomes obvious – this is not a place for beginner’s luck. Those who haven’t skied before remain in the valley at the Ski School perfecting their snowplow, while the rest divide into groups based on speed and how many stops for coffee you prefer before midday. By lunch, our initial group of intermediates has whittled down from 18 to 12 as some decide they have already had enough. The hot Irish psychologist has twisted his ankle and decided he needs to go off-piste (i.e. back to the hot tub) and one gay couple had a major spat and stormed off to go hang their dirty laundry in a less public place.

The weather is glorious blue skies and sunshine with breathtakingly gorgeous valley views, snow-capped mountains and a smattering of hot beefcake snowboarders, possibly from the Middle East, sitting at an adjoining table. Their taste in gear is questionable (one appears to be wearing Eddy from Ab Fab’s La Croix jacket!), but when this hunky band of boarders strip down to their T-shirts to soak up the sunshine they prove to be crowd pleasers.

So do the huge Weiner Schnitzels, served up as belly-fillers, while the extra-large Frankfurter Wurst also gets plenty of takers, and it’s all washed down with Almdudler, the local soft drink mixed with mountain herbs. Some of us even decide to indulge in another of Austria’s wanton pleasures (no, not fondue), the Germknödel, a huge yeast dumpling with a thick layer of jam topped with vanilla custard. Definitely one to sweat off on the slopes!

As the light starts to fade in the afternoon sky, the light in people’s eyes starts to brighten with the thought of that term which can either warm the cockles of your heart, or curdle your booted toes – après ski! While most places offer cheesy music, Jäger-bombs and lots of barely legal kids who look like they are enjoying their first holiday away from mutter – there is one that tops them all: Taps. The liquor shots at Taps come thick and fast and hit like a rocket, the music is cranked up considerably and people start dancing on tables with shirts coming off. What else would you expect from so many gay men in one place at one time?

An Italian interloper pops his head in to observe the hi-jinx.

“Are you all gay?” he asks, brow furrowing.

“Yes, we are!” comes the response.

“Good for you!” he replies, quickly leaving for the Krazy Kanguruh bar next door, where a man outside vomits on his girlfriend’s hair.

At our buffet breakfast the next morning we gleefully indulge in a ginger multi-vitamin shot recommended as piste-preparation before trudging uphill with our ski shoes, skis, poles, helmets (now an essential part of the ensemble) and goggles to the multitude of ski lifts, chairs and gondolas. It’s exhausting work and little wonder that most of the attendees end up having an early dinner and an early night. Some do party on though, and a 3am finish at the hotel’s own après-ski (next to the hot tub) becomes something of a regular occurrence.

Visits to other slopes nearby during the week give everyone a chance not just to find their ski legs, but to perfect their technique as well. Our group managed to find its way down a black diamond slope, as we got a tad lost with our map reading and black was the only way down. Steep and scary are the words that come to mind, but if you overcome the fear and simply ski on, you shall overcome.

Another highlight is the “gay ski bunny” day – leading to plenty of big pink ears, fluffy onesies and even a bunny shaped helmet.

The week finishes with a boogie, oogie, oogie inferno – the Disco Pornstar party – which does not disappoint. The most memorable moment in the evening was when a group of professional gay men – predominantly doctors, lawyers and accountants – maintained their monopoly on the dance podium despite a struggle to topple them by a straight stag group.

As a complete beginner it took my boyfriend four days under the patient tutelage of instructor Nils Otto until he realised there was fun to be had in whooshing down the slopes, rather than just hoping you wouldn’t be killed either by crashing or by an avalanche. On our last day, finally, my boyfriend and I could ski together. He was thrilled when I, a competent if somewhat over-confident skier, plowed smack bang into the barrier on the training slope – taking the barrier with me. Thankfully, no one was quick enough to film my ungainly stack and post it to Facebook, but my boyfriend is only too keen to remind me of it constantly.

On the bus winding back to Zurich, everyone compares photos, stories and leg injuries from the slopes, but, hey, isn’t that what all good ski buddies are supposed to do? See you next year, and don’t forget your bunny ears!

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