The end of January / beginning of February of 2014 brought together five friends for a four day weekend touring around the Alpengasthof Praxmar – a ski-touring hotspot in the Selrain Valley in Austria, not all that far from Innsbruck.
I really like this place a lot – and I’m not the only one. Several years ago – this area went against the tend and actually removed the few lifts they had – there is now only a little baby-poma – and decided to focus on cross-country and human-powered skiing instead of building up and bringing in the umbrella bars and discos so many of Austria’s alpine valleys are now filled with.
I don’t know all their reasons for doing so – but the choice was a good one. The little towns have remained sleepy – the traffic is non-existent, and from the looks of things – there is still plenty to be earned for the families living here from the sizable numbers of ski-tourers who come here to get away from the crowds you find near the resorts.
As you can see above – we hit three well-known classic tours and kind of mucked around on another day with high avalanche danger – all right from the doorstep of the Alpengasthof – a nice spot – but more on that later….
On the first day out – we took a tour up the Lampsenspitze. Its a looooong tour – you’ll be out for a good three hours climbing at least unless you’re pushing it – and four is not unusual. (Well – 10 is also not unusual for Blue Horse-drinking FREEEEEEriders with super-heavy-gonzo-gear….but I digress.) The tour is probably a bit less avalanche prone than some of the others nearby, as it covers more heavily forested ground and also rolls more gently than the hills near it. Even though its a long tour – you can pace yourself here, and the rolling terrain helps one avoid “racing” with the incredibly fit skimo racers who train here quite often. It is a losing battle – trust me.
I flag sometimes on the long up – but near the top, and shown on maps, but not marked on the tour trail, which is a ski-touring “learning path” and very well marked with signage and information, there is a very small cabin, with room for 3 or 4 really close buddies. Its located on the shores of a little pond up there, and serves as a changing room, but we took advantage of it to get out of the cold and the fog while holding a little safety meeting.
The ride down is usually a joy. Lots of options and paths through the trees down lower….many little bumps and playful features. On that day, though, we were really plagued by the fog – as was a member of our group whose boots were already starting to give him real trouble.
Pretty much everyone who tours in this place – and that’s a lot – associates it primarily with peak you see above – the Zichgeles. Its a classic tour, fairly long, with a scramble to the peak, great views, and a wide-open, perfectly angled face that takes you down into the trees and over rolling terrain near the bottom. Total elevation gain is around 1200 meters – and that one nice ski-face is non-stop up once you hit it – so its probably not for first timers – but if you take it slow and easy, its usually not a problem for anybody.
It can get icy – but this is usually only after March or so – but I have seen unfortunates climb well up the hill, only to slide waaaay back down on their butts. If you’re not a great “gripper” knives are recommended. (ski-crampons for you North Americans)
Another thing to mention is that the Zichgeles IS a known slide path, and several skiers have been killed touring there. The slope is nearly the perfect angle, and it can and does get wind-loaded, especially the top, where it is also steeper. Several fatalities have also occurred because skiers went off route due to poor visibilty, and ended up on, or under clear avalanche slopes which one would never cross in winter.
We hit it on our second day – but there had been a fair amount of snow overnight, and the wind was howling the whole time it was coming down. The avalanche forecast had issued a level 3 for north Tyrolia – but the proprietor of the hut – an experienced man – had upped the level to a level 4 for the local area. We were skittish from the get-go – and when we reached the main slope – what we saw was not encouraging. We decided against trying to become famous and turned around.
Its worth pointing out that in a place like this – it can be really hard to stick to that decision. There were – despite the bad weather – two other groups and another, lone skier. The two groups went up, and even the lone skier trucked up the gut of the slide path, well after everyone else had gone. I thought it was pure blindness. As it turns out – the slope did, in fact, slide later in the day, but no one, thankfully, was on it at the time. It can take a lot of willpower to do the right thing though, when everyone else confidently slides by and kind of makes you feel like a loser…. but I’ve got a great crew, so that helps. We stick together,
Instead of hitting that main slope, one of my buddies and I hit a side-slope, which wasn’t as loaded, offered a safer path up, and was under the magic 25% grade. Never in a guide-book, but it was so good, we lapped it, and they were the best turns of that trip and some of the nicest I had all year. Just goes to show….I guess…
The Schöntalspitze was up next on the block. Its a short drive down the road – but we were enjoying the steep valley sides here and the sunshine. Everybody was ready for some of that after the days prior.
At 9 AM though – we were still getting our shit together (add an hour to projected start times for every member in a group…) and already my foundation was running. We didn’t know the way up exactly – as we had never toured this particular spot before – and the route we took required a bit of bushwhacking to get into it.
We followed the little forest road, until we reached a little power station. Here we had to cross a little creek, which was kinda tough due to the steep sides and the lack of a clear path. After that, fairly steep switchbacks through heavy woods. Easy….but not for everybody. The fittest of our band zoomed ahead with contented smiles on their faces, while at the back there was a bit of grumbling.
All was forgiven as we cleared the trees and got into the high valley above. A bit more climbing and we topped out in the shade above a gently sloping glacial remnant as wide as three football fields and with plenty of pow to slake our thirst for fluff.
We whooped and hollered in a gang ski down the mild slope. Until the trees…and the heat. At the treeline, the snow rapidly deteriorated to horrible mashed potatoes – which despite different equipment and style – none of us was able to ski very well.
We were happy when we got out of there and could follow the cross-country track to the little gasthof at the bottom. Notable: the menu item for “poor mountain climbers”…a beer, a slice of bread, and one cigarette for 2 Euros!
The place we stayed, the Alpengasthof Praxmar, is well-known and a good place to stay. It offers private rooms, and full restaurant and a small wellness area with a dunk-tank, quiet room and a sauna as well. They offer both half and full board and the rooms are simple and clean. Tours start right from the door.
Right in front of the hotel is a big parking area (paid) which is where the day-trippers come to go up the Zischgeles and the Lampsenspitze. This is a hard-core touring area, so this in itself, is a draw for me. You will meet the scene here – and the crowd is decidedly lightweight, and older than tourers at other spots. While this can be intimidating – don’t be shy. Even just watching – one can learn a lot about what works, and what doesn’t here.
In the evenings – the restaurant is heaving with the stories and the events of the day. I really enjoy it – and I’m sure I’ll return several times this year as well. Its a great spot!