As my hordes of loyal readers will have noticed, muggle life kept me out of the hills for two whole weeks. Wasn’t so bad. The snow is beat and I had an injury (sprained spleen) and the time off gave me the opportunity to concentrate all my energies on the psychosis that my double-bathroom renovation is causing me. (Hint: my builders told me “we don’t generally use technical drawings for our projects!”
Enter the spring holidays: Fasching – commonly known in other parts of the world as “carnival” or to the US: Rio de Janero. My kids are off school, so Grandma came down to herd them while me and the missus went looking for some snow.
Things didn’t really get off to a great start. We went down to Tyrol and dropped into a little side valley off of the Inntal – going to the Guest house Innerst, where you can park and skin up to the Weidener Hut. From here, there’s a bunch of tours and, as you are far away from the main valley, you’re up there with your own kind. Coulda been nice.
Wasn’t. The road in to the Weidener Hut was melted out and we were late in the day to make the 2 hour walk up there. We wouldn’t have been able to do any of the routes from the hut, so it would have left us with another slog out.
We did what all married couples do in situations like this: we fought bitterly. We turned around – and half-lapped one of our standards again. Mostly without speaking. The snow had gone positively springlike – soggy. The skiing left much to be desired.
The next day we woke to low visibility but at least a little snowfall. We decided not to tour and kicked around Kaltenbach for a while. No big deal. But we were under pressure to make the next day, with its new snow and forecasted great weather, into something special.
I chose the area around the Lizumer Hut. As you drive down the Inn valley from Ebbs towards Innsbruck, you see a lot of good-looking spots to ski. The area around Wattens, however, is the exception. It would appear that in the hills behind twin, there’s really nothing worth writing home about.
You’d be wrong.
Behind Wattens, there is a deep and long valley that extends into the heart of the Tuxer range. You can’t see it from the highway because it is waaay back there, and the general public doesn’t head there because there are no ski resorts back there.
That’s because – at the very back of that valley (the Wattener Lizum) there is an Austrian military base keeping tabs on the groundhogs back there. The whole area is officially restricted – but for reasons that are unclear to me – this does not preclude one from ducking under the checkpoint at the end of the road with ski gear and poaching all that heavily guarded pow.
I was thinking: 2 hours in, a bite at the hut, then a quick jaunt up one of the many routes at the head of the valley and then back out on the road. What we got into was a lot bigger than that though.
The road in is loooong and there is nothing back there save for an isolated guest house which might as well be an outpost on the moon. Then, all of a sudden, a parking lot, with an military checkpoint behind it and lots notices about live ordinance and how awesome it is to shoot stuff.
We ducked under the crossbar while being ogled by a less than steely-eyed draftee and opted for a route off the road in order to avoid, well, the road.
The path worked it’s way along a brook and through a Hansel and Gretel looking forest before opening up for a glimpse of that high mountain valley. Still disconcertingly far off. Undiscouraged, we continued meeting up again with the tank-free road and followed it, and a path through the woods, up past a monument to people dying in lots of gruesome ways, past a barracks that was obviously empty but nonethess huge and almost hotel-like, to the Lizumer Hut.
Wow. What a spot. Sitting in the bottom of that valley and surrounded on thee sides by the highest peaks of the Tuxer range and all above treeline- one can imagine a solitary existence filled with light, silence and endless possibilities for chasing powder dreams. The hut is large, and comfortable with suitably eurohuttish decor.
Strangely- the entire staff is from Singapore, and does not speak German. It’s not really that surprising to me. Huts have a hard time finding people willing to run them. The people who do basically lease the property and have lots of restrictions on what they can do. They often lose money, and an isolated hut like this one, far from the road, with no cell phone service and a strenuous hike in, is a logistical nightmare. More and more Huts are filling positions or even renting out to foreign management. They are either happy for the work, or sometimes, may not know what they are getting into. The ladies here were very nice, and served us some good, traditionally Austrian food.
Then it was back into the sun and the trek began. Routes were, despite the terrain, limited. The bad snow year was in full force here as well, so all the routes on the west side of the valley were dusted dusted. The east side was a little better but the routes were less attractive. Lots of terrain traps and exposure to avalanche hazard over there.
Naturally- anyone who does this enough looks to north facing slopes – and so did we. At the end of the valley there was a ramp up that looked to hold snow, as well as a wide-open bowl next to it that was screaming “unsurvivable slab avalanche” – and since surviving is a temporary, but nonetheless central, life goal of ours, we chose the ramp.
Plus – somebody had already put the skinner in.
Off we went. And went. And went some more. You ever seen that Bugs Bunny cartoon where he digs his way to the beach, but took a wrong turn and ends up in the Sahara? Runs for miles trying to find the surf…. it was like that.
Sometimes – seeing the whole route stretch out in front of you can be daunting. In the mountains, with no trees or buildings, scales can be off, and what looks close just drags on for donkey’s years. We finally made the ramp and we’re happy to have kick turns to give cadence to our climb.
The sun dipped behind the ridge, but the glimmer above and beyond pulled us up, despite the more than 4 hours of steady climbing since the morning.
Then we crested.
It wasn’t the ridge. It was a plateau. We still had a little more than 100 vertical meters to climb to our right. I felt really bummed. Sabine wanted to sit down and cry.
I waited for her while thinking positive ways to cheer her up and contemplating the possibility of digging a hole and expiring in it in a way that would cause me the least possible embarrassment at my funeral.
Sabine came up- and I tried to build her up, and it worked. I figured, we could still make it up and out before sundown – and hey – the snow was stable, and was the best we’d seen all season. So we grit our teeth, had some candy, and slogged up to the top.
Well, almost. I went to the top. But 15 meters below the peak there was another one of these plateaus, and Sabine called it quits. I went alone- claimed the land for Queen Isabella of Spain, ripped skins and met my sweetie engaged in her usual splitboard puzzle-problem.
The ride out was sublime. We were concerned about lurking shark fins, so we rode conservatively- but we had no contact and things were solid. We yo-yo’d into the valley floor, skinned up and went back to the hut.
Long story short, we made time and survival skied that road with low snow cover, throwing sparks off our edges and making the parking lot in the dark.
We were beat. All in all, we made about 1600 vertical with about 30 miles travelled. That is super-big in anybody’s book. That guest house on the way in got two hungry visitors, and after the whole day in the sun, it might as well have been the Waldorf Astoria.
The food was great – and then all of a sudden, a troop of Fachings-Revelers came in with hand carved wooden masks and elaborate costumes. They danced, and shared schnapps with us, and we felt really lucky to finish our day with such an unusual highlight in that isolated place.
If we go back – the better way would be to make a weekend of it, instead of a day. We will surely return- as there are few places like this left in the alps.
Don’t tell anyone!