Category Archives: Tour

Blowing up a military base in search of powder


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!

Kiddie Patrol on the Kleiner Gilfert


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.


Enter the Kleiner Gilfert. I was able to convince Henry to try a quick yo-yo tour to this peak mostly because we could take the lifts up to the Pfaffenbühl and then just drop off the backside.

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.


I put him out front. That way, he could set the pace. It was slow, but he kept moving and he wasn’t fooling about with gear, so we made the peak pretty quickly.

Got some nice shots too.



These we’ll keep till he’s big. They’ll be nice.

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.


The road out was a fast slide, and Henry was happy except for the poling at the end. We made the lot at Hochfügen, and raised a few eyebrows with a kid in tow.

We called mom for a pickup. Everybody was happy and HUNGRY!

But this is my favorite photo of the day:


It’s nice being able to share days like this with my kids. Inreally hope that someday, they’ll like all this as much as I do and I hope they still have places to do it, long after we’re all gone.

Sunny powder day at the Proxenstand


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.


You start up through the woods, nothing too thick here, until you break through to the high pasture grounds like this:


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.

Nice.

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.

Rastkogel in June – the long way

Daybreak
Daybreak

June. Not my favorite time, to be sure. I’ve got a habit – and that habit is not fed during the warm summer months. Sure – you can lug your ass down to South America or skid around on a glacier with a bunch of rich Ukrainians who call themselves their country’s ski team, but the air just doesn’t have the same smell, and the sun has a hazy, thick feel – even at four thousand meters. I’m a junky for the winter – but my family was dying for some sun time and for Italian ice cream, so we went down to the non-snowy bits of Italy for a while and had some city-time at home as well. While nice – Tuscany doesn’t get me bubbly in the same way the Italian lakes do – and while the days at home were nice – heading back up to the hut last weekend, I was dying to get some time on my sticks before the great melt finished it all.

I settled on a long tour – all the way out to the Rastkogel and back from Hochfügen. I’ve been touring around this area all winter and I had been wanting to get back there for a while. Its the major peak of the Tuxer Range, quite a way from my usual starting point, and I knew that the long, shaded ravine on the eastern side would probably still hold snow because of its shaded nature.

I also knew that the major portion of the tour would be on foot, as there were only patches of snow starting around 2000 meters, and that the total length of the tour was going to be somewhere around 20 km….so I got ready for a big day – and started hiking at three in the morning – trying to beat the melt and hopefully make some summer corn – and get home in time for a late breakfast.

Darkness at 3 AM - on an iPhone
Darkness at 3 AM – on an iPhone

Good luck on that!

Starting out on a tour alone in the deep of night is kinda spooky. Everything is quiet, but you are all in motion. I tried not to push myself, but its funny how if I sense emptiness – something in me wants to always instinctively fill that space up, with noise, with action, with motion. It was hard to keep from moving ever faster – but I knew that in order to go fast today – I would have to go slow – so I did my best. Going slow to be fast – the most counter intuitive and singular most important lesson I’ve learned in the hills. A lesson for anywhere, really.

I made slow time up the long Finsinggrund, past the ski area and all the way to the back, where the trail steepens and climbs up to the Sidanjoch – round about 2000 meters. I went in full-bore, and eschewed trail shoes, as is my habit for hikes to skiing, and wore my touring boots the whole way out. I am really liking these TLT 6s – no way I would have made this on some beef boots  – and the idea of carrying them strapped to my back seems nearly ridiculous to me.

The late, great Steve Romeo – whom I never met, but who’s blog I was an active reader of, used to call this “Teton Style” – I don’t know what everyone else calls it – but I miss that guy and it makes me happy to think of him. I suppose that doing it his way also makes me feel a little “big time” too…so Teton Style is a good name for it.

I like it so much – that I could imagine getting still lighter boots for these kinds of things. On these kinds of outings – I just don’t need the stiffness, and the lower weight would please me more than a more gripping turn….we’ll see. My wife can’t understand my gear stash as is….I know some of you hear me.

Sidanjoch - a nice view
Sidanjoch – a nice view

The sun started popping up as I was making the Sidanjoch – which was a beautiful view, but it was also at least a half hour later than I had hoped. I enjoyed the sunrise as I walked along the ridge towards the Rastkogel, and I quickly realized that I had misjudged the time it would take me to traverse into the next drainage and get up onto the flank of the mountain. I knew I’d miss breakfast.

this place is rad!
this place is rad!

I picked my way over dozens of smaller creeks, swollen with snow-melt and got down into a hanging valley that marked the start of the snowline and where I could put on my skis. I was already more than 3 hours in by now and the sun was starting to warm up, so I zipped my trouser legs open, got my sunglasses on (bro tilt fully engaged – natch) – but the shade kept my softshell on. I clicked in. Such a great feeling after four weeks off snow! skinned up suncups and got to a moraine which had been blocking my view into the main part of the little basin. What a beautiful scene! The snow-melt was filling a little lake, shallow and tame at one end, with wide, gentle little brooks running into it, getting ever deeper and green-blue at other end, before spilling over the edge of the little valley tumbling into the deep below. I could have stopped right there for a week and watched the snow melt – but I had things to do….

still some white up here!
still some white up here!

I went up the gut of the ravine I had spied some weeks ago from the Rosskopf – and it was good. Well-filled, with firm, but grippy refrozen, not too hard, not too soft, and holding up well due to the ample shade. I was already feeling it – I had been out a while already and was in for about 1000 meters of vert already, so I did my best to cruise.

I topped out into the sunshine and a view of the world! The snow didn’t go all the way, the steeper sides of the summit area were getting pounded by solar radiation, so there was no choice but to dump my skis and scramble to the top over rock, and in some places, rotten snow with semi-supportable crust on it. I was glad I had my ice-axe with me – but I didn’t feel a need to don crampons.

Last summer – I had a death-slide on the Hoher Riffler – so I’ve gotten more careful and take my axe often on spring and summer tours. Its worth it – I suppose.

Not looking grand though
Not looking grand though

The peak was grand! To the north, I could see all the way over the Inn Valley and the imposing Wetterstein and Karwendel Ranges opposite. This wall blocking paths north must’ve been an imposing and important symbol for travelers in the days when everyone crossed these mountains on foot – and you can’t understand this place without having seen them that way – I think. Stretching to the east, I saw the pass over towards Salzburg, and to the south and southeast the massive, glacier-covered peaks of the Main Ridge of the Alps. From up there – the glacier at Hintertux looks strangely small, and massive at the same time. Strange to think of the times I have been there – from up of the Rastkogel, it looked like a flat rock in the sky, not much like a ski hill.

I enjoyed it, but not for long – I had to get moving.

yeeeeesss!
yeeeeesss!

I scrambled back down, drank some water, and clicked in for some turns! The snow was perfect summer corn, fully isothermal and breeze to ski. I made nice Euro-Turns down the gully,milking my 700 meters of goodness. I stopped a few times to admire my work, but in no time I was back at the bottom, back at the little lake, and looking at about three hours of feet-beating to get back to the porn pit.

see him?
see him?

I saddled up and got to it – but by this time the sun was up high and baking, so I dropped the softshell and went in sleeves. The way down, was just like the way up, just hotter, brighter and tired-er. The wind was right (wrong for groundhogs) so I snuck up on a groundhog and got a good look. Winter wasn’t too bad for them, is my guess.

My route was also peppered with a mix of hikers who either were genuinely curious about my skis and where I had found snow on the seventh of June, or people who gave me the stink-eye for no good reason. I suppose some of them are of the opinion that anyone who skis when others go sunbathing is a nutter – and as such – should be informed of it. They don’t bother me though….some people just love putting other people down.

By this time – my legs and feet were aching – and the distance was taking it out on my toenails. I was REALLY late for breakfast though, and the missus had already told me on my call from the peak (had reception up there) that she was not pleased I had missed my deadline. So I ran. In ski boots.

For about 8 miles.

the smile that says: ouch!
the smile that says: ouch!

While my lungs and my heart may be iron-man tough – my tootsies are delicate swans. That run did them in. Perhaps for good. My toenails are all beat up from years of too-small boots and actions like these – wearing sandals is an exercise alternating in pride and shame – depending on my mood, and I think this trip made it worse.

So – after getting home about midday – I sucked it up and went to lunch with the family and some friends, and managed to be somewhat sociable until falling asleep at about four pm. Now – several days later – I still haven’t gone jogging – but it’ll happen.

That may be it for this summer – unless one of you wants to go to a big hill somewhere!

Summer!
Summer!