Archiv für den Monat: März 2011

A winter fairy tale

I hate the 23rd district! Swearing to myself, I was driving through the outskirts of town trying to find my way to Meteo’s apartment. It was thursday night, around 9 PM, and we still had a long drive south ahead of us. Fortunately, at some point I reached familiar ground and arrived shortly after, where my mood was lightened with some delicious tuna salad.
The south had been hit by what the avalanche bulletin claimed to be 40cm of fresh snow, so the decision was clear: our trip to Switzerland would start with a detour to the Slovenian border.
Arriving in Carinthia we found a place to park the car near some farms and went to sleep. The next morning greeted us with clear skies. Although the snow had been severely wind affected, we managed to put down a couple of nice runs. Flat sections demanded back-seat straightlining, while the steeper tree-lined sections allowed for some good lines beneath the blue winter sky. At the end of an exhausting but rewarding day, we got back on the road to head to Switzerland.

Arriving at Harry’s place in Susch, we met up with a large part of the Naturfreunde kayak group and were quick to join them in their consumption of quality Bavarian beer. The next day, we got up early to take the train to Bergün where we went race sledding on the ice and snow covered summer road going down from Albula pass. We did seven runs in total, two of them at night. It’s a thrill to skid through the turns and see the stationary velocimeter gauge you at more than 50km/h, but as usual, I felt relieved to be on the train home without any major injuries. The next day, we had a long breakfast to discuss some team events, and finished the day off with some relaxed alpine touring at Zuoz.

An old friend.

In the meantime, Herr Latz had arrived at Xaver’s place, and we all joined up to bring some Verfechter style to the upper Inn valley. First off, we visited an old friend, Piz Daint on Ofenpass, which offers a variety of smooth to steep lines on different expositions. After sessioning a natural kicker on the way up, we had a short break in a wind-sheltered spot on the peak. As soon as the clouds opened up for some minutes, we chose a sweet line down the north face straight from the peak. Snow was of perfect quality, a sizzling noise as our skis surfed through the white crystals. We met up halfway down, everyone smiling, and proceeded to score turn after turn of white gold back down to the pass where our car was parked. Yes, yes, Piz Daint. Always worth a visit.

He wanted professional models.
Preparing to skin back up after sessioning a small jump
Xaver free-heeling a jump
Xaver scouting the line down Piz Daint.

For Tuesday, our very own metereologist promised clear skies and no clouds, so it was an easy decision to drive up past St.Moritz to the Diavolezza and Lagalb cable cars. Due to the high costs of staying in the area, the place was almost empty – no families, no football teams, and no bars with cheap party music. We boarded the Lagalb gondola along with some elderly tourists and excitedly tried to assess the snow conditions below. Our first run took us down the front face for warming up. Next, we scouted an untracked couloir on the north-west side of the mountain, accessible by climbing for about a minute to get on the backside of the west ridge. Snow conditions looked safe so Herr Latz started putting some tracks into the 45 degree entry chute. Once descended, the couloir opened up, allowing bigger and bigger turns until our legs couldn’t take it any more. After another ride, we went over to Diavolezza to go down Val d’Arlas from Sass Queder, which is the big valley next to the ski area. It offers a variety of wide open slopes and can be recommended for most levels of skiers. The only downside is that you have to push out for a while along the railroad tracks to get back to the gondola. A descent of the Morteratsch ski route offered some fantastic views of Piz Palü and the other glacier mountains. Luckily, we caught a train right away and ten minutes later we were back at the lift station. After a short break, we decided to venture into a new area and start from the top of Lagalb.

Herr Latz going first on Lagalb NW.
Meteo anticipating the next turns.
Crevasses on Morteratsch glacier.

Following a climb with skis on our packs, we found an entry to the north-facing couloirs, which was about to mark the turning point of our day. The wind had increased; we faced a very steep entry, and I released a small slab just skiing to the rollover. Nevertheless, we made it down the first part, and crossed left above some rocks to get to our destination, making sure to ski one by one and only stop in places with minimal exposition. Reaching the main couloir, Meteo went first, putting smooth tracks into the flat base part of the chute. As soon as I saw him reach a safe meeting point behind a rocky outcropping, I followed.

Starting off the peak of Lagalb towards the northern couloirs.

The turns were easy and fast, I moved further to the flat right part as the snow there had seen no wind at all. Closer to Meteo, I started hitting the icy surface beneath the powder, forcing me to slow down, and finally I joined him at the safe spot. Seconds later, we hear a hissing sound and turn around. Snow is flowing by, accelerating, more snow, a cloud of dust – avalanche! Adrenaline pumping, we scan the snow racing by for traces of Herr Latz, but luckily, at some point the snow stops and we haven’t seen him. After a few anxious seconds of waiting, we are relieved to see him ski down the couloir towards us. Latz skied further left at the start of the couloir – since we had already tracked the base – towards its wind-affected shoulder. Luckily, he noticed the change in snow quality and cut back immediately, just before the avalanche broke away on a length of about 40 meters.
In the meantime, visibility had decreased considerably due to clouds moving into the valley. Still kind of shaken, we slowly proceeded down the mountain, stopping at the 5m cliff the avalanche had swept over. If we hadn’t adhered to skiing one by one and chosen a safe meeting point, someone could have gotten hurt pretty badly. So if you are out in the backcountry, stick to safe travel rituals, and keep your eyes open. A lot of situations are manageable, but only if you are 100% focused and know what you are doing.

The following day, our attempt to reach the summit of Piz Nuna was spoiled by the wind effects on the steep top slopes before the actual climbing part is reached. The way the snow conditions had turned, it was better to be safe than sorry especially in wide open terrain. Nevertheless, it was a sunny day, and we enjoyed the sun and the powder.

Herr Latz dusting snow off Piz Nuna.
Full speed ahead on Nuna

On Thursday, Meteo had to leave us to put his forecasting skills into the service of the Vienna airport. Latz and me made an attempt at Piz Minor, close to Lagalb, but it would be another day without reaching a summit. Since we were alone in the valley, we had to break trail all the way by ourselves. Visibility was low, making it extremely hard to judge the steepness of the slopes we were crossing. Since everything was wind-loaded, choosing a safe route was very time-consuming (and we had some laughs during the descent when we could see the zig-zagging of our trail). In the end, we got stuck about 50m vertical below the peak with either a hairy rock climb or a steep, loaded slope to negotiate. Luckily, our focus isn’t on the peaks but on the descent, so we enjoyed skiing as the vision got better.

After a day of cross-cpuntry skiing and partying with Xaver we took the cable car up to Scoul for a final bluebird day of skiing. Lots of untracked bowls and ridges, wide open terrain and warm sunshine made for a perfect last day of the trip. We found a small rocky playground with limited exposure for picking steep lines, and raced our way through the sun-softened slopes below. Much too soon, our legs were tired and the sun disappeared behind the mountains. Time to go. A last coffee at the Austrian border, and we were on our way back home – back to traffic, cellphones, computers, work, and all that background noise of civilisation we had been able to escape for the week.

PS: a big thanks to all our hosts!

Relaxing on a last ride down the front of Lagalb. Last cable car leaves at 5 pm, giving enough time to enjoy the sundown.