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!

Yo-Yo-ing up the Rosskopf

Up top

So – Sunday came around and while the weather on Saturday had been kinda bad, the night was cold and clear, and the forecast was for a bluebird day. I was hoping for a firm start, so I hauled myself out of bed at five AM and was at the base of the ski area a little before six.

Hochfügen had closed for the season on Friday….two days early. It certainly wasn’t due to a lack of snow. They announced their early closing via Facebook at about four PM on Thursday. Apparently – somebody died and everybody wanted to go to the funeral on Saturday, so, they just folded up the sidewalks and that was it.

I mean, don’t get me wrong – any time someone dies, its important. That person, whoever they were, was loved by someone, and its important to mark their passing, not so much for the person that is no longer, more so for the people left behind. Closing a destination ski area with short notice, a business that half the valley depends on to pay the bills and the host of hundreds of guests every weekend (at least) which have to make plans to get to….that’s a little bush league.

I said as much on their Facebook site. I have to admit – I’ve got a beef with these people, because they do things of this sort all the time. The details are pretty boring, but on more than one occasion, they’ve advertised a party, only to start it earlier than advertised and drink all the beer with their local friends for free – or outright rope off the party and conspicuously only allow locals inside the ropes. (Seilrennen – anyone?) I got stroppy with them, and was promptly thrown to the dogs wearing milk-bone underwear….I admit it, I may have shown my ass a little on that one – but ain’t nobody gonna have a moment of silence at the lifts for me when I shuffle forth….

In any case – the place was empty. That was rad.

Early morning stoke! No people!

It was cold until the sun came out – the car said minus 8 centigrade. I pulled up my hood and put the hammer down to get warm. The sun wasn’t up yet, so I had to work to stay heated, but I cleared into the alpine pretty soon and I got those first sun rays that are always the best.

Spring down below – here, still winter

Still saw nobody on the trail, and since my route was a non-standard, I figured I wouldn’t. I climbed up on the slopes of the ski resort, still pristine with a bit of fresh still on them from Friday night. Down in the valley, everything was green, but up here looked like prime corn harvesting time. I enjoyed the silence and the weirdness that is an empty ski area.

Saw a new memorial to the employee who died near the top, under the slope he was buried on. He was on the avalanche commission for the ski area and was digging a snow pit when he got caught. I did not know him, but he looked like a nice guy in the photo. I suppose – if you weren’t a nice guy – they’d still try to put a nice-guy-photo up for you….but nice-guyness is surprisingly hard to fake and this guy looked legit.

Doing what I do – these things always make you pause, as they should. What if that was me? Would they be able to find a nice-guy-photo of me? Am I doing the right things? Should I even be here? I always think about stuff like that – not doing so would be stupid. I always come back to the idea that life without risk is pretty boring – and life should not be boring. Risk should be the sauce though, and never the meal. I love what I do, and its the thing I love the most, but its not worth dying for – no way. I say this because people actually say things like that all the time – and they equate a skiing and mountain lifestyle with death-defying risk. I don’t. I’m just as happy cruising around on the flats as I am gripped at the top of the Murderhorn – there is no inherent benefit for me in huge risk-taking, and I do believe that the current obsession with just this kind of risk is mostly due to emotional imbalance or narcissism, or both.

there’s another too – that I had never noticed to the right

I kept it up and made the ridge, just before the sun cleared onto the backside – a good time too! I don’t really keep track most of the time. I tell time in the spring by the snow condition, but I guess I was up in an hour or so. A lot faster than the last time I took this route, which was at the start of the season.

front and back
feet are light, and I got the moves

Took those turns down the backside. Nobody ever goes there. I don’t know why, there is plenty of nice treeless alpine and you can run a long way if you want. Nice and firm, which suited my gear and I went well down, losing about 5 or 600 meters of altitude and moving into a zone that looked completely untouched all winter. Funny how that ridge separates two worlds so completely….one side, Euro-Ski-Madness and on the other, the stillness of the hills. I felt really fresh, so I skinned up and went back for some more, but this time moving southward instead of straight up where I had come from.

I was moving down the ridge, but there was no clear route directly to my goal of the Rosskopf, so I thought I’d yo-yo over and get a couple runs in on the way and make lemonade out of lemons. I got back up near the ridge, but it got steep up there and the sun was already shining on the top half of that face. It was probably still cold enough, but I move like a scared bunny in the hills, especially solo, so I ripped the skins and took a nice run down again, still pulling to the south.

got some a deese!

As always, a blast, and nothing even remotely near the magic 25 degrees. The hard snow ran fast and easy – so I slapped the fur on again for a trot up the Rosskopf, still further south.

I came up the backside. When I got near the peak, I curved around to the normal route up, which comes up from the ski area on the other side of the ridge. MAN! it was a bunch of people. I got kinda peeved, but then I thought – of course – on a day like this, this was the perfect place to be. I couldn’t fault them for making the same decision….and….best part was, I had changed it up, so these were the first I’d seen all day. I am a sly fox after all.

nice view up there….
but sharing is caring….

Took the run off the frontside this time….all the way back down to the parking lot. I didn’t bother with photos or video of that one – but what a blast! A nice long run, probably near 1000 meters, all in the sunshine, with perfect carvable corn all over it. Lots of terrain features and only a few tracks.

I feel better than I look.

All in all – one of the best days out this year. The weather, the snow, my gear, fitness….I love it when I a plan comes together!

I probably won’t be out this weekend, and my kids are jonesing for some time on the Italian lakes – so I may be out a week or two….but by the looks of it, if you seek, you shall find….for some time still!

Hope to meet you in the hills!

Touring around Hochfügen

Kruezjoch - looking out
Kruezjoch – looking out

My wife and I try to take at least one trip every season without the kids or other friends to go touring together. Skiing is what brought us together and we’re skiing all the time, but with the kids, either one or the other of us is always having to keep watch over our little pro-team, or we end up in groups of friends for tours around the world. Taking the time to go out together has become one of my skiing highlights every year – and I say this even though my wife is a splitboarder.

This year, we were all gunned up to go back to the Italian Alps someplace, but the snow’s not that good there, and booking a place to stay was a hassle. Sabine suggested just staying at our hut near Hochfügen, which has a lot of possibilities, a fair amount of snow, and is cheap to boot – so we collected Oma at the train station, said goodbye to the groms and headed down to our home sweet second home for a four day weekend.

Sabine through the woods at the Sonntagsköpl
Sabine through the woods at the Sonntagsköpl

Friday was a bit touch and go with the weather. There had been some fresh, and it was still snowing, with marginal visibility and kind of blah weather. Since it was a short day anyway (we left Munich after breakfast) we decided to just run up the Sonntagsköpfl – which is probably the closest thing I’ve got to a standard. I think I’ve been up there about ten times this season – but what it lacks in adventure, it makes up for with options, access, ease and comfort.

Dicey weather - but no crowds
Dicey weather – but no crowds

This is one of the most popular tours in all of Tyrol – so I was suprised to be putting in a track the whole way up. The snow was hot pow – only about 5 cm, but it was enough. We dodged snowfall and clouds the whole way up, but topping out the sun shined through and made for some nice turns off the left hand side of a spine that points to the northeast, meaning on that aspect I can usually find good pow. We did.

Nice snow and occasional sun too!
Nice snow and occasional sun too!

Cappucino and Aperol Spritz at the coffee bar in Hochfügen were well appreciated by Sabine as well.

Saturday was the best day of the trip – with bluebird skies and warm temps well into the teens. We hit a tour I’ve never been on, despite its proximity to the hut, the Kreutzjoch. There is a very small parking spot right behind the Gasthof Schellenberg on the road to Hochfügen – about halfway up – next to a dirt road/track going up and to the east. There is only space for about three cars if you squeeze, and there is no visible skiable terrain from the road. These two things together mean that very few non-locals frequent this tour.

this is looking up the trak from the road
this is looking up the trak from the road

I’d looked on the map and seen that above the treeline, the road empties out into a high cirque, and while the amount of skiable vertical didn’t look that great – the terrain features looked beautiful. I was excited to be getting in there with Sabine, and on such a nice day too.

We followed the road up, got impatient, bushwacked, climbed up a streambed and engaged in general mountain orienteering sillyness. Yes – we knew where we were, and yes, we got where we wanted – but no….the road wouldn’t have been a bad option. Yes – it winds and winds up and down, but I think it would have been faster in the end. Simpler for sure.

roads - good things
roads – good things

Those road-building-guys kinda know what they were doing. I think its notable that they usually try to keep a 15 degree angle whenever possible or less. This is pretty much a perfect skin-track as well. I’m gradually coming to the conclusion that if there is a road going where I want to go – always follow it. It will almost certainly be the more efficient option.

Bushwacking is not sooo bad
Bushwacking is not sooo bad

Topping out into the cirque – the scenery was fabulous. The walls to the east, and especially the west, are so steep, and the whole place has a pleasing aesthetic. Here again, we saw no one the whole way, and took our time until Sabine heard a giant wumpfing in the snowpack. She was standing on the flat base of the cirque bottom, so no direct slide danger, but the snowpack had spoken, so we ripped the skins right way and picked our way out through the mashed potatoes of the afternoon.

topping out into the cirque
topping out into the cirque

I’ll be back to this place next winter for sure. There are many small chutes on either side of the cirque which could be a lot of fun for the right crew.

there is some serious bro-fume applied in this photo of the Schellenberg Am
there is some serious bro-fume applied in this photo of the Schellenberg Am

Sunday the weather was coming in, and since we started late – we took the lifts up into the ski resort and dropped off the backside of the Pfaffenbichl intending to then skin up all the way to the Rosskopf, which overlooks the entire massif.

Hochfügen backside. Skins are a must you ABS-people
Hochfügen backside. Skins are a must you ABS-people

The drop into the next drainage over from the ski resort in the sun was a dream. Amazing how a resort so known as a “Freeride Mecca” has NO TRACKS anywhere on the backside. Despite the marketing hype – most of the guys on Dukes and Beasts don’t actually have or use skins….a fact I’ve learned to count on and exploit.

weird inclusive christian religious symbol. A wurst hut would've been more universal still.
weird inclusive christian religious symbol. A wurst hut would’ve been more universal still.

On the way up, we were moving fast. Sabine’s Phantom Bindings and hard boots have really made her quick compared to most splitboarders, but it wasn’t enough to beat the weather that was moving in from the southwest. We bailed on our plan, took a shorter route to the ridge and the sub-peak of the Kleiner Gilfert, and then dropped off the ooposite side of the ridge back to the sledding track that leads all the way down to the base area of the ski hill.

Cappucino followed.

The next day was really crappy weather. Rain, and lots of it – so we had a long breakfast and went home early to the kiddos. As much as I like the time alone with my wife – life is kinda slow when they’re not around.

Me - going OMG at all the lines I'm goggling
Me – going OMG at all the lines I’m goggling

There is still so much to see and do right the hut. I’m looking forward to another month or more of touring up high – and I hope to meet some of you out now that the casual tourists have gone!

Have fun – and see you around!

Return to the Faneshütte – Skiing the Dolemites

Lots of days like this!
Lots of days like this!

So – Sorry about the long pause in blogging. I know you both were dying for the next update – and to be honest, I got really busy with work in December and I’m just crawling out from under it. I have been out skiing quite a bit though, just not blogging.

Couple weeks back, I went back to the Faneshütte, a place I loved last year, with a buddy and a new friend of his. I was hoping to enjoy not only the great skiing the area has to offer, but the great food and luxury of the Faneshütte again as well.

Da Spot!
Da Spot!

I can always recommend this place. It’s well-run, super-clean and cozy, with amenities not usually found at “huts”. The food is some of the best you are likely to have in ANY restaurant, let alone at a high mountain hut. Honestly – its worth a trip just for the food and the sun deck. (which quite a few Italians do…Sundays)

This year, the snow was sparse. It was a hit to the thalamus to see the really low snow, and more importantly, all the BIG rocks sticking out all over some of the runs I took last year with my wife that were pure silk from top to bottom. Skiing is what you make it though, and my buddy Tobi, and our new pal Sepp made the best of it and enjoyed the bluebird weather on the first day out.

Toby - finding the snowy bits
Toby – finding the snowy bits

Bad news was – Toby was already getting hit by a nasty cold at the end of day one. He bailed mid-afternoon, and wouldn’t be seen again on skis. A real shame….but there’s no point in pushing if its no fun – and it was really cool of him to just wait out three whole days in a hotel while Sepp and I made some runs.

We had some mornings with thick fog – but for the most part, sunny skies. The snowpack was a downer though – thin, with many lines unskiable and most only slightly better than that. Top it off – things were very unstable, with three fairly hard-core rain crusts in the pack – each one with an accompanying layer of depth hoar building up near them. Sepp and I played it safe, and moved around like scared bunnies, only once going above 25 degrees, and not making a single summit in four days.

You can ski on fifteen degrees
You can ski on fifteen degrees

We went up the Zehnerspitze – kind of the big hit in the area, but all the way up we were skittish. I dug a pit on a representative slope, and what I saw didn’t give me warm fuzzies, but it didn’t set off alarms either. I agreed to tentatively move up the hill using proper safety protocols and keep our eyes peeled.

A big-gaint group of ten to twelve came down the front face we were going up. A real dick-move as they were right over us in the path. Everybody’s smiling though – and Sepp and I weren’t looking for trouble, so we waved and thanked our luck for so many volunteer stability testers and were just glad that it hadn’t gone.

On the way up we crossed their tracks, and we could see that at every single turn the members of their group had caused a fair amount of shear in the snowpack – and there were shooting cracks at every curve.

RED FLAG! Shooting cracks are a no-go and they make my mouth go dry when I see ’em….so I rounded up the posse and Seppi and I took careful, separate buttery turns that I totally didn’t enjoy back to a safe spot. Oh well.

Beer. Waaay better than sports drinks.
Beer. Waaay better than sports drinks.

There was food, red wine and espresso back at the hut – and there’s nothing wrong with that.

We had a lot of that – and despite the poor snow, and Tobi’s sickness – we’ll be back next year for sure to enjoy this great place!

Maybe we’ll see you there? Wanna break trail?

Looking for Snow in the Sellrein

Sunshine!
Sunshine!

The word is…winter is coming.

No – this isn’t one of those Game of Thrones memes…..its just that from the looks of the weather report, we should be getting some snow soon. Which is good – cause I went out yesterday and got completely shut down in the Sellreintal.

For those who don’t know – the Sellrein is a geat place for touring. Just one valley over from the Stubai Valley, which is maxed out with infrastructure, this little place is one of my go-tos for unspoiled human-powered skiing and boarding. There is very little lodging, but whats there is quite good, and the spot holds onto snow very well. It’s a great choice for first-timers to Europe – but you’d better have your skills down. Some of the tours are quite long, and in some cases, you’ll be crossing glaciated terrain for the big stuff.

I thought I’d find snow back there – but I hadn’t really decided on the valley until I noticed a break in the dismal-looking weather back there. So I pointed my car to the bright spots in the sky and parked all the way at the back by the Gasthaus Lüsens.

There's the sun!
There’s the sun!

I took the route up towards the Schöntalspitze, because I thought that would have some snow in it, and its not steep enough to slide (at least at the top) so I thought it would be a good choice for me, on my own.

The start was snow-free. I mean completely.

The snow-covered Alps. Whatever.
The snow-covered Alps. Whatever.

I thought it would get better over the crest of the bottom part of the hill – but as I ascended, it looked worse and worse, so I followed the summer path around instead of going up through the woods as you normally would, into the next side-valley, by the Westfalenhaus. Back by that hut, you can usually count on some snow.

this is the opposite side of the valley. Should have been a clue.
this is the opposite side of the valley. Should have been a clue.

As I crested the round – I saw a lot of nothing. All the snow there was was deep in the back of the valley and was either glaciated, or steep – so it was clear I was not getting and turns.

Keep in mind that I was well above 2000 meters and this is December!

Groan!
Groan!

I trecked most of the way to the hut – but turned back because it was getting kinda dark. I really ought to get some friends together for a weekend to that hut. Its got a winter room, and there are four really nice tours that you can do from there. Its far enough away that its not super-busy, but not so far away that getting there is a battle.

Can you spot the fat Gams?
Can you spot the fat Gams?

On the plus side of a low-snow start to winter, I saw a bunch of chamois back there. They do well here, away from the disco-snow-bars, but these looked particularly plump and happy. I suppose the mild weather is letting them eat themselves silly. If the hunters don’t get them, they’ll die of a heart-attack or something.

Tomorrow's another day!
Tomorrow’s another day!

I got back to the car as night fell (early right now!) and was glad to get my boots off after a couple thousand meters up and down in them.

So – Here’s hoping for some snow soon! We need it.

Ski Touring in a weak November – Pfaffenbichl

This is what November looks like now
This is what November looks like now

Saturday I got myself motivated to get up the local hill near my hut, despite the temperatures in the middle teens (C). So – while my wife and kids and our visitors lounged about in the sunshine after breakfast, I gathered up my stuff and got my wife to give me a lift to the Pfaffenbichl.

Its a good choice for a ski tour in the early season because its in a ski resort, starts at a high elevation, and long before the ski season has actually begun, they are usually doing some kind of snow creation or rationing at the place, so you can often ski there even when its green to the left and right of the slopes.

Nutin'!
Nutin’!

Saturday was particularly daunting. The snow of three weeks prior had not had any significant refreshes and there was grass well down the mountain. A couple of guys who were finishing up told me that there was snow up higher – but it was for masochists only.

I figure that all ski-tourers are masochists.

I shouldered my sticks, and started up the green and succulent-looking pasture. After about 150 meters of vertical gain, in a shady spot, I was able to get on snow and start skinning – but there were patches with very little or no snow for another 150 meters of vertical, at least.

green green green
green green green

There was no shortage of optimists, however….I saw about 10 people or so on the way up. Again – continuing the trend of two weeks ago – all go-go racer-types in super-light gear and tight pants. While I have a lot of respect for them, these guys must be the real masochists – they take the best part of the sport (in my humble opinion) and reduce it to inelegant, poorly controlled survival skiing, in order to optimize the running-uphill-until-you-vomit part.

I remained – as is my style – vomit-free.

Stuck in a rut
Stuck in a rut

The snow up top was tracked and rutted. I stuck to the shiny bits to optimize my uphill sliding and soon made the ski depot. I started up the last climb to the peak and enjoyed the rock formations on the way up.

Lots of shapes like this around here
Lots of shapes like this around here

Up top – I drank the beer I had stashed in my pack. It was a .33 liter little beer….my wife bought these, and since she is one of my two readers I want to make use of the opportunity to say that .33 beer is acceptable only in foreign countries – like, you know, America, or Hessen or something like that. In Bavaria and the Alps, all beers are .5 Liter. After nearly 1000 meters of elevation gain, sitting on the top of the Pfaffenbichl – you want more than three sips of beer.

Me - yes - thats my face.
Me – yes – thats my face.

I started the route down after enjoying the last rays of the sun, and scoping out a few ideas for the coming weeks, when I hope the snow will be more plentiful. Several people had been down before, so there was a little track that I followed through the deeper snow on each side.

is a path always good?
is a path always good?

This wasn’t such a good idea. I slipped at one point, and began sliding. I was lucky enough that I had time to roll on my stomach and I was able to stick my arms into the deeper snow on the sides of the path. This stopped me – but if it had been at all steeper – things might have been very different. Ditto if there had been a drop off below me – which in some places, there are.

The moral for me: either take crampons – which is kind of a pain, or stick to deeper snow. The obvious paths are not always the best ones. I was able to continue down without further incident by getting off my little path when it got steeper.

The ride down was uneventful – as these kinds of marginal snow rides tend to be. I gave the off-piste a try, but there was a crust on it that was nasty – unsupportable – and the only way to ski that stuff is to go really fast….but the snowpack was not deep enough to give me confidence to do that. It was certainly only a few centimeters thick in places.

walking into night
walking into night

I had to walk down the last 200 vertical meters or so….and since my wife was buying grub at the supermarket in the valley – I continued walking down the road to the hut. It was a nice walk – with the day slowly fading into night and the sounds of the forest all around. Soon – the green woods I walked though will be still, and white with snow. I am looking forward to it – but I wouldn’t want to miss this time. Everyone’s getting ready for winter – here’s hoping you are too.

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!

How bad do you want it? – The story of my first day of ski touring…..

More than twenty years ago, I took my first turns out of the ski resort and into a new world. For those of you who know me, you know that touring, and skiing in general, is without doubt a central part of how I identify myself, a major factor in my lifestype and defines nearly every important relationship I have. (Thanks Sabine!) I suspect that for the kinds of people who read ski blogs – this is probably not that uncommon.

That first day was amazing – amazingly awful – but long before I got out there and tried to be a backcountry skier, something began to pull me deeper into the hills and I wanted to expirience the quiet of the snow so badly that no one day, however poor, could have ever stopped me from touring, and touring again.

windy

Sometimes I get asked, on a “bad” day, when the weather is howling, or the gear is futzing up, or the snow sucks, or whatever, exactly why I am still so happy….kind of cool. I wouldn’t say that this is generally a quality of mine – but in addition to the fact that a day skiing is always better than, well, anything – I can always look back to my first day on skins and make a favorable comparison. Its certainly a case of self-schadenfreude – no matter what I am experiencing at the moment in question – I still have it better than me – twenty years prior.

The story is pretty funny – so here goes:

not really very likely
not really very likely

I grew up in South Carolina. While offering a great climate for alligators and golf-courses, it is not, generally, considered a skiing state. I was extremely lucky to have a mother who, being a German immigrant, had grown up skiing and was a proficient skier. As soon as she recognized that my brother and I quite liked skiing on the little hills in the mountains of North Carolina, she made a great effort, and would drive us, nearly every weekend, all the way to West Virginia to ski on the somewhat larger hills there. It was a four hour trip one-way – so I have a lot to thank her for.

We’d also ski once or twice a year out west – all of which was expensive and even more unusual because my Dad did not ski – and refused to – but he went along, and so my brother and I became skilled skiers with a lot of time on snow, and a great coach in Mom as well. It wasn’t long before I began dreaming of a life in the big mountains and the adventures I would have there when I was grown.

winterplace
Skiing in West Virginia is rarely this good

School was the priority though, and although I had always wanted to go to school out west, the death of my mother when I was seventeen put me in a mood to stay closer to home. (I have always regretted this decision….) So high school and university both played out in the Carolinas, with the other kids going to spring break and me going skiing…often, alone.

I graduated in December (dismal student) and a week later I had packed my things into my car and set off for Colorado with plans to explore and live the dreams I’d been dreaming for so long. I’d wanted very much to take a friend – but he backed out at the last possible minute – so it was a lonely ride, and a lonely time in general as I drifted from ski-town to ski town.

1280px-Boulder_after_a_snowfall.
The Gateway – Boulder

I had been reading magazines, and at least in some of the hard-core prints, I had seen pictures of guys tracking up untouched powder far from the lifts. It wasn’t at all about testosterone-fueled adventure – back then, the lines were mellow, the people quiet, and one of the main draws was the lack of regulation and the cost of a day’s skiing – namely: zero. It seemed like a good idea to me – but I had none of the equipment, knew nobody who had ever done it, and didn’t have any idea where to start. I figured that in Boulder, Colorado – a town full of alternative, hippyish college kids in the mountains – I might be able to get a lead on this thing and make it happen. So that’s where I went.

I knew that at that time, almost everybody used some weird kind of equipment called “telemark gear” to access the backcountry. I had seen pictures of that stuff – but at the time I thought that learning how to use it was going to be like starting over, (it’s not) and I wasn’t really keen on being a greenhorn beginner again. I had read some articles on “randonee gear” which I had seen on occasion in Europe skiing with Mom and was super-exotic and arousing the interest of a few of the magazines I was reading. It was French for “touring gear” and for a long time, Americans used that word to describe it, because it was not the norm. I thought that once I got to Boulder, I’d be able to go into any ski shop on any street, and pick up this stuff – and away I would go. Not so….

Skitouring gear back then
Skitouring gear back then

I got to town and all the ski shops I went to had only alpine gear – I asked for “the kind of shop where people go to buy backcountry gear” and was told to go to Neptune Mountaineering. I had never heard of this place, of course, but I found it, and indeed, they did have all kinds of gear for real mountaineering. It was all very intimidating – ropes and sharp, pointy things all over the place. Its since changed ownership, and I can’t testify to its current qualities, but I learned later that, at the time, Neptune was probably one of the best, and most well-known alpinist’s shops in North America. I was very lucky to have bumped into it.

you could put an eye out in that place
you could put an eye out in that place

Neptune’s did indeed have telemark gear – but when I asked about “randonee” stuff – there were smiles all around. Yes – they informed me – Neptunes did in fact have a randonee set-up, and a nice one at that. I was given to understand that it was unique in the state of Colorado and possibly one of only four or five in the entire United States!

This did not dampen my enthusiasm. I was, after all, a young man, convinced of my invincibility and of the ineptitude of the general population. I bought it – despite the fact that the boots were a bit small and I didn’t know how it worked. At the time, there were no generally available transceivers, but you were expected to carry a probe and a shovel – so I did, and I knew that getting buried was a real concern so I asked if there was a course I could take.

It just so happened that there was! Very convenient as well, I thought – it was a one-day course, and it was the very next day! I could come to the shop at something like o-dark-thirty and hop on a bus, which would wisk us all into the hills above town and we’d get avalanche training skills and a day in the snow to boot. I signed up.

totally ready
totally ready

I was really nervous that morning. It was obvious the day before that I was the kid from South Carolina that was trying to become a backcountry skier, and I wanted to make a good impression on my fellow backcounty explorers. (BTW – I STILL get that to this day when people find out I’m from South Carolina….people will ask me why I ski….like why bother?….it’s fucking rude, it’s exclusive and I hate it. I mean – when all you monkeys come to the beach every summer we never were like….”Beach towels? Really? I thought you didn’t have beaches in Wyoming? Did you learn to swim on an exchange program or something?”….anyway…I digress) So I trundle up to the shop with all the gear I’ve got – and I’m wearing the boots, cause, they got soles on and all – and I’m trying to look….competent.

One by one – others start turning up – and what’s concerning, after a cursory kindness in my direction, they begin asking all the others present “how was your summer?” or “Heeeeyyy – great to see you! How are the kids? Is Shelly adjusting to life at Western State?” The point is – I was the odd man out in this group. They ALL knew each other – and worse – this was the one and only avalanche course because, in a world where people did not generally do avalanche courses – these were the hardest of the hard-core – the one’s serious enough about their hobby that they had set up this course, as they did every year, as a kind of kick-off for their season of shredding. They were fucking pros. All of them. Minus me.

I sat – alone, and drove to unfamiliar mountains for my first turns in a year, and my first time ever on backcountry gear. My stuff had caused a bit of commotion, as no one in the group had ever seen randonee gear before, and most were certain it was never going to be any good. (got that one right) I didn’t want the attention, as I was sure now everyone would be checking me out all day to see how good or bad that stuff was.

Piling out of the bus – I fiddled with my skins and gear. I had no idea how to get them on and using my new dynafit bindings was a special kind of hell in my self-conscious state. I finally got it all together, and just in time, because the group – with very little fanfare and less warning, took off up the hill in snow up to our knees.

I don’t remember it being very steep – but I knew immediately that I was in for a tough day. I was well above 3000 meters and only a week prior I had been at sea level, and although I don’t really remember, I probably wasn’t in great shape. I flagged from the first moment, and began to panic a little that I was not going to be able to keep up.

I tried to keep up appearances, of course, but my sweating, red face, and my huffing and puffing were a giveaway – and some of the passers hit me with “how’s it treatin’ ya” and other words of un-encouragement didn’t make it much better. I got left waaaay behind, but with no way to get home, or even knowing where I was going, I followed tracks as fast as I could, and reached the stopping point, thankfully below the peak, well after all the others and dead last.

My momentary elation at my triumph was cut short as I realized that the group, having long since arrived, had lounged in the sun while resting, chatting and eating their lunch. I don’t really know how long they had been there, but their easy banter and beaming faces were a sharp contrast to my lobster-hue and ragged breath. As I arrived – they began again – fresh and new, while I sopped the sweat from my brow and frantically pulled my lunch, my probe and my shovel from my pack. I ate as fast as I could in an effort to keep up. I don’t think I chewed well, and I drank way too much, too quickly, to lubricate my heavy beef sandwich into my already churning stomach.

bury yourself in snow to avoid same. Repeat.
bury yourself in snow to avoid same. Repeat.

At the time – the primary instrument in avalanche safety was the snow-pit. You’d dig one or two or three-thousand of these on every trip and examine the snow layers, afterwards performing standardized tests for stability. The same kind of stuff you do today, really, but at the time that was the only method taught to evaluate snowpack stability.

All this meant was that our course, as it was then, was basically a bunch of digging. All day long. Digging is hard work, and I was already wiped out when I got to the pits! Looking back over time, you can see that quite a lot of the gear we use has drastically improved, and shovels are no exception. Mine was new – and state of the art, but compared to today’s shovels it was heavy, performed poorly when slicing into the snow and it had a handle that was so short that even children in a sandbox wouldn’t have used it. I dug and dug – wheezing and sweating, and getting alternately dizzy and queasy.

no extension possible in 1990s
no extension possible in 1990s

I was alone, of course. No friends for me on this day – so while others chatted and took a breather I was digging digging digging. I tried the whole time to keep it together, and unfortunately for me – the other participants behaved as if everything was normal.

We dig the first pit, and look it over. I start to feel really badly and pass out in the bottom of my pit. I can’t say what happened or how long I was out, but when I came to – everybody was digging a second pit – and it appeared that I had gone completely unnoticed!

As I was a young man and painfully unaware of the state of tort law in the United States at the time, I did not immediately contact my lawyer and sue the pants off the organizing institution. I was proud – so I promptly began digging a second pit. Having the first pit beside me was a bit of a blessing now because it became convenient to take a few shovels of snow, then vomit into the old pit, and cover said sick with a few shovels of new snow. This continued for some time.

Skitouring equipement?
Skitouring equipement?

Shovel. Barf. Shovel. Barf. Shovel, barf, smile at neighbor.

I don’t know what the hell they taught us that day, obviously. As a matter of fact – years of study later – I don’t think they knew what they were teaching us then either, but my physical condition precluded any real learning.

At some point, we all put on our gear and the crew made graceful telemark turns through what must have been a lovely snowfield down to the bus. I couldn’t link two turns together, and was in bliss when they were all out of sight and I didn’t have to die the small death of embarrassment with every flop.

actual photo
actual photo

I got on the bus, last – sat in the back and fell asleep. The bus driver woke me when everybody else had already disembarked and collected their gear. I took a cab home as driving was impossible.

I took the next three days off – but on the fourth day. I went back. Alone. I have never stopped since – ever.

I am so thankful for that day. I got to see the alpine wilderness that I had always dreamed of, and it was better than I had imagined. I did the things I had dreamed of doing, and I knew more afterwards than before. I saw people – who could do this sport without suffering and were one-hundred times cooler than anybody at the ski-hill and they were the proof that you could be here, and do these things, and laugh and joke and have a great day. I wanted more than ever to do those things, to be one of them and to live that life.

Nothing we ever do in life that is worth doing is easy. The road to greatness is littered with stones and the way is rough. My day of suffering proved to me that this was indeed my way – and I knew from that day on that I would always be a skier. Forever.

So – help the new guys out. Some of them want it really bad.

Alpengasthof Praxmar – Ski Touring in the Sellrain Valley, Austria

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.

area map. Red dots show locations of hotel, restaurant and our approximate tour end-points.
area map. Red dots show locations of hotel, restaurant and our approximate tour end-points.

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….

its a loooong way up!
its a loooong way up!

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.

you'll only see this at the very end!
you’ll only see this at the very end!

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…

Great place - but mashed potatoes all around.
Great place – but mashed potatoes all around.

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!

alpengasthof-pension
Alpengasthof Praxmar – well worth a stay

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!

Backcountry Ski-Touring and Splitboarding in the Italian Dolomites – Faneshütte

Sunset at the Fanes Hütte, Italy

There are a lot of great places to ski in the world, and sometimes, skiing is only part of the appeal. The Italian Dolomites have long been known as a rock-climber’s paradise, and the steep, red-colored spires have drawn tourists from all over Europe and the world for many years. The Faneshütte – located in the middle of Italy’s largest national park, is a well-known and rightly lauded destination, both in summer and winter – and the mountains surrounding it are only part of the reason why.

More on that later – but what about those mountains? And what about that stuff we love so much lying on them in winter….pow?

Google Maps
Google Maps

The small shot above gives you an idea of the spot we’re talking about here. Googling “Faneshütte” will get you there as well and let you look around.

The hut itself is sitting in the Kleinfanes – a glacially formed closed-ended cirque with peaks around the edges at around 3000 meters, and a floor of more or less 2000 meters. The entire area is a national park – and the nearest lifts are about 18 km away as the crow flies. In Europe – that’s a rarity – and it means that your fellow travellers here will all be engaging in human-powered skiing and riding, with a fair number of snowshoers as well.

I kind of like that – it keeps things a little more low-key – and because everyone has got to earn their turns, it keeps powder fresh for days after a storm. I’ve got nothing against ski resorts or “freeriding” – but an all-touring location has a lot going for it.

We spent a week enjoying the fruits of one of the best winters the Dolomites had had in years. While most of Europe north of the main ridge of the Alps was dry as a bone during the winter 2013-2014, the Italians sitting just to the south of that ridge were getting dump after dump. This happens every once in a while – and with seven meters of snow on the ground at the Faneshütte, we were in great shape for our week at the end of February.

this is how seven meters of snow buries houses
this is how seven meters of snow buries houses

There are great day tours from the hut all around the rim of the cirque, as well as a couple behind the hut on both sides of the saddle separating it from the next high valley over. If you drop down into that high valley, there are even more tours, all of which are reachable and back for a day, with about 10-14 km of travel in all. (there and back)

zehner
zehner

Sabine and I didn’t waste any time on our first day out and bagged the Zehnerspitze right off the bat. There was a lot of sun, but the wind was high too – so after leaving the hut (refugio in Italian) and making the first rise to the northwest to the flat part of the floor of the cirque – it got kind of uncomfortable. Sabine hunkered down behind some rocks and I made like a European and sharpened my elbows past a bunch of other folks going up this, the tallest of the peaks around here.

The snow was good – but strangely sticky….a few days prior, there had been a huge sandstorm in the Sahara – and all that sand got blown over to Europe! A layer of fresh snow had covered it, but in places where the wind had scoured it off – the reddish color of the sand was impossible not to notice – and it was making trouble for my turns.

I got back to Sabine and we enjoyed a moment together in the land of la dolce vita.

I look like a teletubby
I look like a teletubby

The next couple of days were much the same, except that we learned to avoid the wind, and stay off the sun-soaked southern exposures, especially in the afternoon. We bagged a bunch of great peaks, and had fun jamming on some of the smaller sub-peaks as well. We never had to ski tracked – even though the hut had its fair share of guests. There’s plenty to go around.

On the way up the to the Neuner
On the way up the to the Neuner
Another day in the sun
Another day in the sun
Enjoying an evening run up  the Pareisspitze
Enjoying an evening run up the Pareisspitze

Overall – the hype we had heard regarding the amount of snow that had fallen in the Dolemites had not been overblown….there was tons…which was a nice change from the dry conditions we had north of the main ridge of the Alps back home.

I was also really happy with the character of the tours around the hut. While I am sure aspiring extreme skiers could find steep and committing routes if they wanted them – the majority of the tours I saw were moderate – if at times long. They were well suited to a week-long getaway with my wife – and I think that the area would well-suit any couples or groups with various skill levels or objectives. There are tours right from the door with 600 meters of elevation gain, and others that go beyond 1000….you can take your pick of sunny, bright slopes or shaded tree runs, you can see the sights, or bag some peaks….all in the same place.

The Faneshütte itself is worth the trip. Indeed – the Italians come up on the first Sunday of the month in designer shoes and toting cell phones, along with their mamma for a family meal and outing. The hut has a couple of ex-Swiss military tracked vehicles that will take you from the valley floor all the way to the hut, and people take advantage of that to make the place a lunch-stop. We used the tanks to carry up all our gear while we toured up the beautiful 8 km road in. This was great! On the way home – we sent everything down with the tanks – and snagged a couple of the huts own sleds that they offer guests – and had a whale of a time sledding all the way back to the valley!

the Faneshütte in Winter
the Faneshütte in Winter

The hut is really a hut in name only – even at almost exactly 2000 meters elevation – its character is more hotel-like than a hut. There are, of course, multi-person sleeping rooms if you want them, but most opt for 2 or 3 person private rooms – some with their own bathroom, some sharing one in the hall. The rooms themselves have a comfort level comparable to a three star hotel, with a big bed, all the accouterments, a TV and in many cases, a balcony.

The kitchen is well-known even in Germany – offering German, Italian and Ladinische (Ladin in English?) meals from morning until late in the night. Packages are offered with full and half board – and the food is so good – it would be a bit of a shame not to take the half board option. Every night – you return to your table and are greeted with a three course meal that you would not expect this high up in the hills. Delicious – and elegant!

a specialty of the house
a specialty of the house

Sabine and I also really enjoyed the large sun-deck – and due to the nice weather we made a point of prosecco and caffe in the afternoon. If we lived in the area – this would be a favorite restaurant – not just a great touring destination!

this is the place!
this is the place!

Sabine and I enjoyed our time very much…and are sure to return sometime soon. In fact – I have already booked a long weekend with some friends for the coming season and look forward to Italian sun, snow and food at the beginning of March! Maybe we’ll see  you there!

 

The world is a big place – get out and ski it!