Early Season Ups – or How to Ski on Cow Poop.

Early season - spotty snow, immaculate stoke
Early season – spotty snow, immaculate stoke

IT IS GOING TO SNOW FIVE METERS IN THE CENTRAL ALPS TOMORROW!

…..this is how my buddies are pinging me on Fakebook on Wednesday of last week. Complete with maps and official-looking graphs and shit. While I appreciate the sentiment – to be totally honest – I wasn’t really ready for a five meter dump-fest, and I know my quads aren’t either. Its a long winter, and I really do kind of like the idea of easing into it. Don’t get me wrong – I hoped for nice coverage, but it seems to me that every season there is an announcement of this sort – and they rarely pan out.

I think the meteorologists do it for click-bait. You’d think that as someone who reports on observable phenomenon, they would be immune to this sort of thing – but I have my doubts. Damn you Zuckerberg and your Silicon Valley minions….even the news wants eyeballs these days.

I had a couple of requests to go out to the Stubaier Glacier – but the prospect of starting the season out with a bunch of GoPro-wearing fluorescent adolescents wasn’t high on my list – neither was the moolah for a lift ticket in what I assumed would be less than ideal conditions. SportScheck, one of the biggest sports retailers in Munich was also holding a test-day up there, and while that is always interesting – it does draw a crowd. So I decided on a hike up my local hill, Hochfügen.

The Webcam didn’t look too bad. My wife went up in the morning, and I hung around the hut and messed about with the kids. The cloudy skies and general unfriendliness of the weather made it easy to give up first tracks, and when she returned, she confirmed my suspicions. The greenness outside of my door was not, in fact, five meters of snow. There was some of it – but this was also inter-spaced with a bit of that ubiquitous flora which Americans call “lawn”.

I decided to give it a go. This is what I ended up looking at when I got to my usual parking spot by the idiot-lift over by the creepy giant dog with an open mouth that my kids inexplicably love to ski INTO.

Rippin
The dog is lurking behind the sign. Ready to eat small children.

 I figure – I’ve skied worse – and since I’ve learned that what you see at the bottom rarely tells you much about the top, I started out. Slow and steady. First tour of the season and there was no reason rush it.

This did not, however, seem to be the opinion of many others I saw. It would appear to me that the split currently occurring in ski-touring is really getting into swing this year. I saw more skin-tight Euro-fartbags than I have ever seen before. Fully four pairs of custom made carbon boots, complete with under-one-kilo skis and binding seemingly made of bailing wire and solid air. Man – these guys, and gals, were ready to go! They were jamming up that mudbath like they were on the hills of Gallipoli under heavy fire. My middle-of-the-road workaday skis were met with more than one “you won’t need those fatties today!”. The other half was the fat Fat FAT SUPERFAT crew with skittles-colored clothing, helmets, full-body goggles, gear made of strengthened steel and bindings that went to eleven.

This is a trend. Nobody wants to just tour. They want identity. Its hard to identify with “I go touring – in different places. Sometimes kind of fast and stuff. You know….whatever.” People like the gear and the sheen that goes with ski racing, and the stuff is super-best of something – they equally like the hard-core, freeriding thing with the aggro gear and the equally eye-catching super-fat skis. I get it. The truth is that the majority of people would probably be happier on more moderate gear, if it was all about how they skied. But – of course – one does spend a lot of time looking down at your skis when touring, so I suppose the warm feelings washing over them due to carbon infused awesomeness is worth something. I just worry that the middle of the road will slowly become an uninteresting market for the manufacturers and it’ll get harder to find that kind of gear as time goes by….we’ll see.

after the first 100 meters or so – it got worse:

You can, indeed ski on cow shit. Get back on those tails - and DO NOT HOP. Splashes are possible.
You can, indeed ski on cow shit. Get back on those tails – and DO NOT HOP. Splashes are possible.

I kept after it though, and after the patch above, things steadily got better. The fog rolled in and it was a bit soupy – but the snow was ok and the go-fast crew left me behind to ponder the mysteries of the universe, or at least the mysteries of modern, consumer-based economies, on my own.

Very few thin spots on the piste
Very few thin spots on the piste
Off piste is still a no-go down low
Off piste is still a no-go down low

Things went well. My fitness over the summer has not been too bad – and I got up with none of the wheezing and hacking you sometimes get. I didn’t even think about calling a paramedic! I also did not use my climbing aids at all. I think I’ve decided that I don’t need those things. I mean, the only time I want them is when I am climbing straight up some steep line, and I really hate doing that. Whenever I can set my own skintrack, I make a point to keep it very low angle – and I was again proven the smarter this time out when I passed the race-ready crew three-quarters of the way up in my beef boots and baggy pants. They did not seem impressed – but in all honesty, its not about fitness – they are all waaaay fitter than me, but the 35 degree skintrack is a bad idea, and on anything longer than about 300 meters – it won’t get you to the top faster or more ready to ski. If I could be sure of not having to follow some poorly set skintracks this season, I’d get a set of low-techs and leave it at that….but since I WILL have to follow Biff and the Bonzo crew up a few ramps to Rad-ville, I’ll probably keep my risers on.

Lifts that are closed look kind of sad
Lifts that are closed look kind of sad

Near the top – success! I started to poke out of the clouds, and I have to say – the snow was pretty good!

IMG_1550[1]

Getting to the top – I was treated to a great sunset with the peaks of the surrounding mountains poking out all over the place.

Hadn't seen the sun for a few days, so this was extra nice
Hadn’t seen the sun for a few days, so this was extra nice

I enjoyed the show and then slid back down all the way to that scary dog. Up top – the snow was really good, and I even ventured off the obviously packed piste into some untracked left and right. This proved to have a little sun-crust on it, which wouldn’t have been that bad, but as I was out for the first time this year, and I also couldn’t really be sure of the snowpack thickness, I decided to give that a pass. Down lower I took a different route down than most of the others had and enjoyed some un-tracked mashed potatoes before moving on to bovine excrement and fescue.

All in all, it was a good trip out. I felt good, I got only one minor little blister while firming up my feet for the longer days ahead, and even the thin snow is a blessing. Five meters of snow might sound great, but at this time of the year, a big dump like that would likely be followed by a long dry spell. (In fact – there has been no new snow in the Alps since) This spells trouble for ski-tourers because as that 5 meters of snow sits there, it transforms to ever-larger crystals, especially near the earth. The next snowfall then comes after a month or more, and its sitting on a layer of weak snow that could act as a lubricating layer for an avalanche. In really bad years – these early season avalanches claim lives and the weak layer can persist for the entire season.

Its far better for the winter to ease into things with small, consistent snowfall over the space of several weeks than for it to all hit us at once. Its better for us too. More time to ease into that feeling….

Hope everyone had a great start – and hope to meet you on the hill!

2 thoughts on “Early Season Ups – or How to Ski on Cow Poop.”

  1. Like it… that’s the reason for NEVER going to Hochfügen before January….in the mid… or better in the end of January…..but sometimes one must just smell the snow….hihi

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