Ski touring with Silas
Silas Wild and his daughter Jen were coming to Austria for weeks of skiing. I knew Silas from slide shows back in Seattle, and from reading John Roper’s entertaining story about the first ascent of the ``Wildhair Crack” in the Picket Range. He is a spare, powerful ball of energy, and it was awesome to have the chance to go skiing with two generations of Wilds.
They had been warming up in the Stubai and Karwendel Mountains around Innsbruck, where they stayed with a friend. I drove down Saturday morning, and after an enlightening talk with their friend ``Wolfi,” who has climbed every single thing in the Alps (seemingly!) we drove down to the Dolomites for the weekend. The forecast wasn’t great, but it promised more sun down south than north of the alpine crest.
Silas is thinking about bringing folks over here for ski tours when he retires, so Jen and I had to go along with his plan to stop at every tourist office along the way and paw excitedly through the full-color brochures showing the attractions of each area. We liked how in the paintings of the mountains around a town, showing the different ski lifts and trails, the town seemed to be the center of the universe. And there was never information about the next town 5 miles away.
We drove up the narrow road to the Platz Wiesen (Prato Piazza), which has an impressive view of the Hohe Gaisl across the valley. We put on our skis and started skinning up the Duerrenstein (2839 meters), at a steady pace that nonetheless allowed us to admire the Dolomite scenery, which is so varied and exciting. I got to ask Jen what it was like growing up with a mountain-goat for a Dad. Near the top, the wind really picked up and the clouds came down. Jen still doesn’t understand this peak-bagging motivation (or understands it too well!) so she thought about waiting for us, but it was just too cold to stand still! So we all went to the summit, enjoying a narrow ridge 5 minutes from the top. We wished the weather was better, but we did get to see the Drei Zinnen for a moment before the clouds lowered.
I kept the Wilds in front of me for most of the descent, trying to pick up tips by mimicking their expert turns. The snow was pretty icy, but the 950 meters down to the car went very quickly. We felt really good, but couldn’t see anything else to occupy us here for the afternoon, so we decided to drive down to Brunico and stay there for the night. It was great fun seeing Silas so excited at the cute little villages. He collected another 3 dozen pamphlets for light reading later. We stayed outside of town in a village called Sankt Martin, and though it was snowing heavy flakes, I felt energetic enough to go jogging for an hour up the forested peak behind the town. This was a great mini-adventure in itself. When the trail quit going up, I set off straight up the slope, with root and branch for hand-holds, then following game trails in the forest. It was kind of a magical forest, with soft heather underfoot, and evening light filtering through the trees, along with the occasional snowflake. Without time to reach the top, I practiced my route-finding skills by returning along ledges and ridges the way I came, at one point startling a deer.
We had a great dinner, though because it was Good Friday, they served no meat! The restaurant was right across the street from the town church, and we wondered if that played a role or not!
In the morning, we drove through St. Vigil then up the long Rautal valley to the end at Pederu. The cliffs on the north side of the road were amazing, and beautiful with their new dusting of snow which contrasted nicely with the brilliant blue sky. It would be a perfect day!
We skied up into the Fanes Valley (Valun de Fanes), with the views just knocking us out. We didn’t have a map or a guidebook (Silas had a lot of full-color pamphlets, but he didn’t get where he is by spending money needlessly!) so we were kind of surprised how long it took to get back in to the Lavarela Hut. But we had to take lots of pictures and look at more slopes to ski on future trips. At the Hut, Silas was so impressed that he planned to stay for a few days, while I took Jen back to Munich for her flight home the next day. Then he’d hitchhike home, or some other scheme which just made Jen roll her eyes. Sometimes Dads are embarrassing! But the hut was full, so Silas had to whip on his skis and go check the Fanes hut for a vacancy. Waiting in the sun, Jen got a tan and I got a sunburn. By the time he got back it was well after 11…pretty late to start a long ski tour! “Wolfi would kill us, don’t tell him!” implored Silas.
We were making for a peak called Zehner, across a long high plateau with little lakes. Jen decided to hang back, so it was just us old bergstormers. Silas kept telling me to go on ahead, living as he was in some alternate reality where I had the strength of 10. But soon we were occupied with a cloud of snow, dropping in on us from the west, and obscuring the impressive slabs of the Neunerspitze on our right. These slabs look out of place in the Dolomites, seemingly transplanted from Yosemite. They offer 6-7 pitches of excellent climbing, and I hope to come back for them.
The clouds dropped and lifted repeatedly, happily tracks and wide open slopes kept us on the right path. We slowed down a bit on the final slopes of the peak, entertaining ourselves by speaking only German, which would have sounded hilarious to real German speakers. But they had all left, we seemed to be the last people on the peak. At the ski depot, we looked up at the intimidating climb to the summit, which we’d call impossible without the iron cable to make it easier. With cloud on the left, and blue sky on the right, it beckoned us aboard. Swinging up the occasionally vertical ridge from cable to cable, we were breathing a little hard, now just above 3000 meters.
“Should we head down?” I said after 2 minutes in the biting wind. “Hell yes,” said Silas with a backward glance - he was already starting down! We had to be careful on the icy rock, but soon we were back at our skis, where Silas led the way to little powder stashes on the face. Unfortunately we were a bit late, and the snow had started to develop a crust. It was still a great ski down. At one point though, I hit a rock which sent me flying. My face hit the snow so hard, that it froze painfully. I fumbled in my pack for some dry clothes to wipe my face off, mewling piteously all the while. Then we went down to the plateau, and had to travel fast in the driving snow before tracks were obliterated. Back near the hut, Silas, the old wizard, led me over some small cliff jumps which took me by surprise. I cratered comically, having to laugh a little bit. We stumbled into the hut, semi-frozen, where Jen was worried about us.
“We’re fine!” we said. Well mostly! Silas had an old injury flare up and bother him. So when the hut owner offered him a ride down in his snow-cat, he couldn’t refuse. Jen and I wanted to ski, so we did, though rocks in the road near the bottom did some damage to our skis.
Sadly our weekend was over, but I enjoyed the company so much. It made me look forward to when my kids are Jen’s age. They can drag me up mountains and we’ll have many shared experiences to laugh about.
Thanks to Silas and Jen for a great time!