The five guys in my WhatsApp group “Hochtirol”, created for another tour in another place at another time, start pinging each other about where we can go riding this Saturday. Three of them I don’t know so well, and there are no descriptive pictures about who’s saying what, so its not long before I’m completely confused and begin typing in old-man Caps: “WHERE ARE WE GOING? LOSERS.” Or something like that.
Tobi cuts the crap and decides on the Pfuitjöchl, a popular tour right behind Lermoos, just across the Austrian border from Garmisch Partenkirchen. I’ve never been up to this particular spot, but the tour goes up to a big ridge-line which stretches for miles on either side, and I’ve been up to the left and right of it several times.
Its a great touring spot in my opinion. There are miles of treeless gentle slopes once you get above treeline, and even if the Germans are lined up like tourists at a cuckoo-clock shop, you can pretty much always find a fresh line by bearing a little to the left or right. Its downside is that the belt of trees at the bottom is pretty tight and gets skied out, making for survival skiing in all but the best years. Its also technically the “wrong” aspect. Fully south-facing, you’ve got to hit it quickly after a snowfall, and there’s got to be a lot of snow too because it is either going to be melted out, or have a crust like week-old bread all over it. Its quite literally on the bright side, however – all the sunshine on that face makes for dicey snow, but average snow in the sun beats good snow in the shade for me most days. When its good there – it’s great.
I picked up Tobi at seven AM at his place, after the drive from Munich. I tanked up and got some croissant fat-nuggets along the way, in wonderment at the people hanging out at the gas station at six in the morning, sucking on smokes and drinking beer while rocking out to techno. At a gas station. Oh well. We met the other guys at the trailhead and started up into the trees and first light.
The snow down low was thin. Skiing it proved to be a challenge later in the day, but thankfully, its mostly grass. That’ll go. As the sun peaked out illuminating the surrounding peaks and making for inspirational-motivational quote photos, we made the treeline and started warming up in the sunshine. Badly needed too. It was going at something like minus 10 degrees Centigrade, so my perennially cold fingers were not doing so hot despite the fast pace and all my hatches battened.
No stops, and we made the round about one thousand meter climb in about an hour and twenty minutes. The snow was not as bottomless as we had hoped, but at least it was fluffy. On the ridge, the wind was howling, and everyone was happy when we dropped into the shelter of a bowl on the backside, which was the best snow of the day. Its only about one hundred and fifty meters of altitude, but it was creamy and good. We treaded back up, and climbed back to the ridge-line we had just dropped off of a little further to the left.
Another rip of the skins was followed by careful skiing down the main face, which proved to be studded with rocks and other undesirables. It wasn’t bad, but when you don’t know what’s down there, you have to ski more carefully – and its not the same. Despite the thinnish snow – I wished for some fatter boards. I took the really light ones out, and my tips weren’t staying up. Faster riding would have helped, but, here again, the danger of shark fins kind of precluded that. I made one cranial snow sample on the way down as a result. So – the next round in the bar is on me – which, with this group, could be a substantial problem.
The sun was in full effect, and we had a quick break at treeline for a bite to eat. I recited my usual “reasons why it is great to be me” to the group. Chiefly, I am good-looking, intelligent, and modest. All were in full agreement, so I truncated the usual four-hour listing after about one-hundred points.
We skinned back up, passing the only group we saw that day, a group of four, I think, with three ladies and a dude, who had left the skirts at a picnic and made for the ridge to the left of where we had descended. They had been conspicuous in their disdain for their equipment on the way down, skiing more rock than snow on the aspect they had chosen, which led to speculation that they must be the heirs to the Conrad Sports ski-shop fortune. Only people that get new gear every day ski like that.
In any case, P-Tex-Rex had broken a nice trail up to the ridge, so we followed it, despite some reservations about coverage. Another five hundred meters or so, and we were up. Mr. Rex had muddled about on the ridge and either disappeared into thin air or dropped off the back side, so the even thinner snow on the face we had just ascended was all ours.
It made for entirely mediocre skiing. Which is kind of the point of all this writing. At no point was it awesome, but the combination of sun, good friends, beautiful scenery and a few laughs at my crashes made for a great day. The ride back down through the trees to the car was, as always at this spot, crap – and will probably pay for the Conrad Kids next skis due to the repair work we will need, but all in all, round about one thousand five-hundred meters of skiing was had that I won’t soon forget.
Most people can’t say that about their Saturday – but I’ve been fortunate enough to find this lifestyle where I have it all winter long, nearly every weekend. A day at the resort might be objectively better, but subjectively – this is better than ten days at any resort, for sure. Its tough to say why, but I think anyone who’s done it can agree.
At the car, bases were examined, I was cajoled into not driving in my ski boots, and we all agreed we’d do it again in a week or so. It’s going to be a great winter.
Are you looking for an unusual ski trip, or perhaps even just a departure from the normal for your next vacation? Have you been looking at wild escapes to central Asia or guided ski trips to Afghanistan in an effort to break the droning inside your head from endless traffic jams, office politics and vapid sports discussions around the water cooler? I bet you have been. “Adventure travel” is all the rage – and the more far out, the better. If its dangerous enough that your loved ones will beg you not to go – even better.
I see two problems with these kinds of trips. Speaking from personal experience, they are firstly, often kind of a pain in the ass as far as execution goes. Having to pay bribe money to a cop standing on the side of a (dirt) highway every thirty km or so in order to pass on the way to Karakol, Kyrgyzstan, and being withheld by the same at the airport for two days until I ponied up $500 are two particularly memorable examples. Additionally, the infrastructure sucks, sometimes it really isn’t that safe, and travel is often long, and uncomfortable. Secondly – despite the fact that on these adventure trips, (you are often roughing it in every sense of the word,) they tend to be really expensive. Your mileage my vary, but heli-trip expensive is not uncommon and even more. (I’m looking at you ice-axe expeditions.)
What if I told you, then, that there was a way to get truly away from it all, have a unique vacation experience with a deep connection to the land and the locals, and that it was inexpensive, cheap even, and that it was safe, clean, cozy, and – everything – from the travel to the wifi network – works and runs on-time? Plus – the skiing and the selfie-backdrops are second to none and there is zero chance of armed conflict – unless you consider billy goats to be weapons of mass destruction. (which I most certainly do)
You can have this in the Alpine Club Hut System in Central Europe. The Alps are famous the world over for their beauty and their skiing and ski-touring. In addition to the unbelievable (for North Americans) access, these mountains are figuratively lousy with alpine huts, both big and small, most public and many with personnel and service akin to a hotel or bed and breakfast in the United States.
These are a great resource – and its the reason multi-day ski tours in Europe can easily be done with a ten-liter pack. These huts have everything you need, beds, blankets and food, (lots of food) so you don’t have to carry a thing. This is no secret – but did you know that there are other options as well? Dozens of huts are also available to private parties, and you can book them for between four and twenty-five Euros a day! You read that right. Some of these huts, weather deep in the alpine, or just meters off the trail head – located in the middle of some of the best touring in the world – can be had for you and your friends for less than a night at Taco Tuesday.
The huts available run the gamut from spartan to cozy, and most all have blankets, cooking facilities and utensils, and heating, along with fuel for that heater. Some are small, with space for four people or fewer, and some with space for yourself and all your Fakebook friends. You must book them in advance, however, and you must pick up keys before going. Upon finding your way to your accommodation, you’ll need to open it, make beds and fire up the heater, and possibly dig a path to an outhouse – that’s it. Home sweet wilderness home. Wake up late – tour right out the door through the most beautiful mountains the world has to offer, and return to cook, and eat, all that great stuff you bought at the shops in the village in the valley on the way up.
It goes without saying that while you are welcome to make like a German and play animated rounds of Schafkopf while drinking pear or raspberry schnapps – you should leave the hut cleaner than you found it, in good repair, and buttoned up against the elements. Should anything have gone broken, be sure to report it to the club when you return the keys.
What follows are some recommendations of mine, plus a link to the German Alpine Club’s listing of huts for rent. Note: many of these huts are actually in Austria or Italy and there are other sites where you can easily rent huts in a similar fashion from the Swiss Mountain Club, The Austrian Alpine Club, or the Italian Alpine Club as well. I’ve also included a link which explains the process of booking….but it’s straightforward. Keep in mind also that to rent most of these huts – you’ll need to be an alpine club member – but this is about 100 Euros for a year (sometimes less) and the German and Austrian Alpine Clubs recognize each other’s memberships – so a member at one is (mostly) a member at the other and can book huts, get discounts on lodging and food at serviced huts, and can even take part in hundreds of guided tours and training courses that run the gamut from “Alpine Horticulture” to “Zen Meditation on Skis” – (as well as courses of a more serious nature, ala Avalanche Safety etc – many of which are offered in English too!) Your membership not only opens all that up to you – it pays for the maintenance of the huts, trails, and course offerings as well as supporting the DAV in its efforts to preserve and protect this beautiful range and the culture it has spawned.
If you have any questions about any of this, or would like some tips – just comment! I’ll help!
The huts available in the DAV (German Alpine Club) System, with the possibility to book. (In German, but Google can translate for you) https://www.davplus.de/selbstversorgerhuetten
A good overview of what membership in the DAV (German Alpine Club) gets you in English: http://www.bergfreunde-muenchen.de/dav/dav-alg_e.htm
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.
Then we crested.
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.
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.
Don’t tell anyone!
Saturday’s are for resting, so today, despite the super weather, we stayed in bed till late and munched on a big breakfast until nearly midday. My best touring buddy was sick, so I was looking for alternatives. I tried to get my oldest to go for a tour and a Schnitzel up to the Loashütte, but interest was low.
I neglected, in a masterstroke of omission, to mention that the climb back up and out is actually much longer than the little 400 meter tour to the Loashütte. Oh well – the weather was FABULOUS!
So my boy is 10 years old. Doesn’t do too badly with a little pow, and will certainly get much better than us very soon. He still bit it – haha! No harm done.
Got some nice shots too.
The peak has a multi-denominational cross on the top. Created by an artist and quite the thing. In reality, the Kleiner Gilfert is not a peak, it’s just a high point on a ridgeline. You won’t find it mother maps. Also – the Gilfert is a peak on the opposite side of the Pfaffenbühl, so even the name is kinda weird. It’s certainly been named by tourists. The tackle up there is selfie-worthy though, so I guess it’s fitting that it’s got a fake name.
We dropped the other side of the ridge in the shade and got at least a few blower turns. Dad tried keeping everyone to the right out of the sun, but neglected to remember that the route cliffs out over there. There is a way down, but it definitely NC-17 and Mom wouldn’t want me barreling our firstborn down that line.
We reversed course and made boot tracks back to the sun-baked slopes frequented by the freeriders crossing out from the resort. Yuck.
We called mom for a pickup. Everybody was happy and HUNGRY!
But this is my favorite photo of the day:
Almost anyway ….. I started out with the plan to head to the Proxenstand because my guidebook told me the whole tour was under the magic 35 degrees and under 1900 meters. The avalanche service has been warning about depth hoar above 1900 on shady north-facing slopes, so my plan was to stay low. I had to search a bit. Close to the hut, but I didn’t want to go to one of my regular places for this kind of situation. I kinda wore them all out last year.
The Proxenstand is a locals tour above Schwatz. Never been there, although it’s just on the other side of the Kellerjoch. The pic above shows the road that runs waaay up to a restaurant up there in the woods on the north-facing side of the Inntal.
Really remarkable, because the whole route is really gentle and just when you think it’s gotta go steep, a route opens up that gets you higher. The way I found was never exposed to any serious slide danger, so when the time came to bend off towards the left for the Proxenstand, a sub peak, I kept going towards this:
Back there, to the left, there is a low angle playground of shaded north powder! The cirque around it is high and steep, but the center of it is raised and forms a natural barrier to the slides that come down off the steep flanks. The way in is flat! You could come here for days in a 4 and as long as you kept the alpha in mind, you could avoid any heavy danger! This place is now on my list of go-to spots! I know some of you will understand my excitement.
It just wouldn’t stop though! I found a stable route out of THAT cirque and into the next drainage on the right (to the west). I gained the ridge, only to find that the ridge wasn’t a ridge, but rather a hanging valley.
I know my map could have told me that, but I hadn’t paid attention and hey – I was only going to the Proxenstand- right?
I followed through that basin, and recognized the Kellerjochhütte – which I’ve been to before, but only from the other side. It became my new goal.
There was a ridge leading up, so I figured I could stay on that and get all the way up. Good thing too:
If you look at the ridge, you can see the self-releases that went all down that north-facing side. These certainly went on the layer of depth hoar that the LWD is warning about. Any safe route would have to stay on that ridge, away from the drop on the other side too – cause by now, I was over 2000 meters. Cue that Kenny Loggins tune….
I gained that ridge, and the Austrians who were already there did a remarkable job of ignoring my existence. Even my physical presence was summarily ignored and two ladies tried to walk through me. I did my best to accommodate them, but the laws of space time made my vaporization quite impossible.
The view is great – you can look over the whole of the Inn valley on one side and the Finsinggrund on the other.
The ride down was perfect ankle deep pow. I had fallen light and has dried out quite a bit. Of course, I doesn’t dry out – what I was skiing on was surface hoar, which can be a drag once snow falls on it, but as a top layer, it’s rad.
I dropped down along my uptrack, staying clear of the north facing side of that ridge enjoying the views and the blue blue sky. The route was flat, so it was all easy cruising, and although I was by no means the first, I still found the goods. Always enough to share.
I dropped back into that first high valley and passed the Proxen alm – which is open in the summer, and looks nice. Those turns in there were the best, and had I had the time, I would have skinned back up to get some more.
The way out through the forest and bearing right took me back to a road and from there a sledding track. I was able to find a few patches of good turns, but there is surely a better way out. I’ll have to come back and find it.
By this late in the afternoon, the alm pastures were getting a little baked, but I muddled through and hit pavement just before the sun dropped behind the ridge.
So – a nice place! Good for when you’re looking to stay safe – but there is plenty of temptation, so if you go, make sure to stick to your plan. Well – mostly.