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Winter enchantment

A torchlight walk in the Montafon Valley appeals to all the senses.

Author: Michael Birner

When our mountain guide Manni lights the first torch, a soft, gentle light illuminates the darkness and a warm glow spreads through the cold winter air. Each of us holds a torch in our hand and gazes into the flame lost in thought. Our small group of hikers will soon be setting off – wrapped up warmly in ski trousers and thick down jackets. And the flames from our torches will gradually float along the mountain, sprinkling small bright dots of light into the darkness of the landscape.

Snow-steeped Montafon

  • Torchlit hike © Silvretta Montafon / Daniel Zangerl Torchlit hike © Silvretta Montafon / Daniel Zangerl
  • Mountain huts Montafon © Österreich Werbung /  Ebersberg Mountain huts Montafon © Österreich Werbung / Ebersberg

Pulling the (cheese) strings

The guided torchlight tour begins when the ski slopes have closed in St. Gallenkirch, from where we ride to the middle station of the Valisera cable car at an altitude of 1,680m above sea level. But before we set off, we take time to fortify ourselves in the rustic mountain restaurant Gäßbarga – quite literally the “goat shed” – in Montafon dialect. Goats really did once live here although all that remains of the bleating inhabitants nowadays are the goatskins hanging on the wall of the rustic snug.

No sooner have we made ourselves comfortable than the innkeeper brings a regional speciality to our table: “Keesknöpfli” are served together with roast onions in a wooden bowl and on the way from the bowl to the mouth the spicy cheese has a habit of forming long threads. At times it can be hard not to laugh as the cheese strings just seem to get longer and longer.

Over a mug of mulled wine around the crackling wooden stove there’s time to become better acquainted with the other winter walkers, most of whom have come from nearby East Switzerland or southern Germany. What is it that makes them want to go back up the mountain in the evening after a long day on the ski slopes? The couple from St. Gallen is looking for a romantic end to their wedding anniversary; the geologist from the Allgäu in Bavaria is looking forward to the torch flames. The senior female manager from Munich is using the time outdoors to experience the calming effect of nature and to find inner peace.

Winter in Motion

  • Startbild Video Winter in Motion © Österreich Werbung Startbild Video Winter in Motion © Österreich Werbung

Shadows and swirling clouds of breath

With full stomachs and thick gloves, our group leaves the mountain lodge where darkness has now settled over the mountains. We light our torches and set off on our walk through the night. By now we’re happy that we put on sturdy shoes and ski clothing, because at night time you feel the winter cold even more intensively. The route takes us along snow-covered forest paths, ski slopes and through a thick forest of spruce trees.

In the darkness all our senses are wide awake. The silence and the darkness of the forest produce a feeling of pleasurable fear mixed with excitement. The majestic trees lining the forest path are up to 200 years old and I feel as if I’ve been whisked away into a fairy-tale world from my childhood. Even the smells of the forest seem to become more intensive the less you can see. I can almost feel the woody fragrance of the spruce trees in my nose and the smell of the fresh snow.

“At night everything goes silent,” says our guide Manni, and occasionally we hear a tree branch cracking as it gives way under the weight of the snow. The only other sound is the crunching of the snow beneath our feet and our breath as we march in the direction of Garfrescha. The cold winter air tingles on the skin and I notice a slight warm burning sensation in my muscles. Every breath we exhale forms clouds in the clear winter air which soon vanish again in the darkness.

Switching-off made easy

Torchlight hike © Silvretta Montafon / Daniel ZangerlTorchlight hike © Silvretta Montafon / Daniel Zangerl

“On a torchlight walk, you get to know the ski area from a completely different perspective,” says Manni, whose real name is Manfred Sprung and who has been guiding visitors through the winter landscape of Montafon for many years now. After the crowds and noise of the day, most members of the group first have to become accustomed to the darkness and silence. According to Manni that’s something of a challenge for many people, especially those who never allow themselves to take a break at work. For that reason, some hikers need a little time before their thoughts stop spinning and they begin to relax. “But then a night in the mountains works wonders!”

At night, the ski region seems to be enchanted. During the day, there are hundreds, sometimes even thousands, of skiers racing downhill – in the silence of the darkness it feels as if we’ve stepped into another world. By now we’ve stopped talking. Each one of us is enjoying the silence. The tranquillity. The here and now.

A picture-postcard Alpine village

After three quarters of an hour walking we have reached our destination. The idyllic mountain village of Garfrescha is situated some 1,500m above sea level and has slightly more than 20 houses.

Up here, it’s immediately clear that the brief exertion required on the walk was absolutely worth it. Full of satisfaction we stand on the mountainside and look down into the glittering valley, where the lights of the houses dot the night. And in the night skies, the stars twinkle like a never-ending sea of lights. At home in the city, we could never see this many stars. Some of us search the skies for well-known constellations like the Big Dipper or Cassiopeia - the “heavenly W“.

Most people wanting to warm up again in Garfrescha after a torchlight walk go to either the Brunellawirt or the Alpenhotel. Setting off for home, we now have a choice: to borrow a toboggan from the summit station and whizz more than 5km down to the valley on the brightly lit night-time toboggan run - or to take a gentle ride down the mountain on a two-seat chair lift and to relive the impressions of the romantic walk as we go. The couple from St. Gallen will probably make themselves comfortable on the chair lift. The manager from Munich who is seeking relaxation will also later choose the gentle descent. Only the jolly geologist from the Allgäu is looking forward to the toboggan run.

Torchlight hikes and moon-lit tobogganing

Torchlight Walks and Night-time tobogganing in Garfrescha

Torchlight Walks and Night-time tobogganing in Garfrescha

An interview with Manfred Sprung

The attraction of winter walking

He’s almost never to be found in the office. Ski and mountain guide Manfred “Manni” Sprung is never happier than when out on a mountain. Since moving to Vorarlberg 20 years ago from the Salzburg Alps, the peaks of the Montafon valley have become his second home. The 46-year-old accompanies winter sports enthusiasts and outdoor fans through the snow even until after dark.

Austria Info: Usually you’re out and about at a high speed and through steep terrain – what is the appeal of quiet winter walks?

Manfred Sprung: What I especially appreciate about the torchlight walks is that you get to know so many different kinds of people! Before we set off on the torchlight hike, we sit down together for a drink at the Gäßbarga and talk about ourselves and our lives. You wouldn’t believe the amazing, interesting and amusing tales I get to hear! It’s the friendliness and the human touch that make an evening like this so special. And that’s even before we’ve set off on the walk.

Time for yourself away from the daily grind”

Manfred „Manni“ Sprung, Ski- and mountain guide

Austria Info: Not everyone is used to hiking - how do you persuade a tired holidaymaker to keep on walking?

Manfred Sprung: I just keep on going. And then they’re left standing in the dark and have to hurry to catch up with me (laughs)! No, seriously: If someone really doesn’t want to go on, I try to motivate them and say, “We have to get through this together now.” Sometimes gritting your teeth and simply getting on with things is also part of the mountain experience. And in the end, when you arrive at the top and look down on the sea of lights in the valley, it really is worth it.

Austria Info: Which mountain experience is an absolute must if you’re spending a winter holiday in the Silvretta Montafon ski region?

Manfred Sprung: The Storming of the Zamangspitze or the Freeride Adventure Day are great for anyone who enjoys off-piste skiing. The guests beam when we get back from the mountain. I love my job when I see the guests have enjoyed themselves as much I do. If you’re not a winter sports enthusiast, then a torchlight hike is a great idea: an evening in a mountain hut with keesknöpfli, a romantic walk through a snow-covered forest and perhaps a toboggan run to finish off with - and all in one evening. That’s definitely an experience.

Austria Info: You know practically every mountain peak here. What is your own favourite spot in the Montafon mountains?

Manfred Sprung: The terrace at home (laughs). No seriously - my two favourite mountains in the area are the Heimspitze and the Madrisella. The view from their summits is absolutely breath-taking.

Austria Info: And what is your favourite word in Montafon dialect?

Manfred Sprung: “Madöpfl”. Not even most of the locals know that one - only the people who have been here for generations know that it’s the inside of a carline thistle and tastes delicious.

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