01 Jan 2011

New Year's Stubai Skiing

Zwieselbacher Rosskogel

Eight o’clock on New Year’s morning, I was alone in the parking lot, getting ready. A man shoveled snow at a nearby inn and watched me from across a snowbank. I had 2 pairs of gloves, a wind jacket, two fleece layers, and the warm hat Kris made for me. I had a shovel, an avalanche beacon with fresh batteries, and an avalanche probe. A map, a cell phone, some goggles, a camera, a hot thermos of tea, some cookies and an iPod with the riveting audiobook “Unbroken.”

Skins on skis, then I left, into a cold blue valley. It hadn’t snowed in a while, and this was “the most popular ski tour in Tyrol,” according to my guidebook, so there was a good track to follow. I’d been here two years before with Daniel A., but we turned around because of unstable snow slabs that made us nervous. There shouldn’t be any problem today.

For a long time I was lost in thought with the story I was listening to. Louie Zamperini competed in the 1936 Olympics, survived deadly bombing missions in the Pacific, survived for more than 30 days in an inflatable raft with no food, drifting over 2000 miles, only to become a Japanese prisoner of war. I couldn’t believe the hardships endured or the determination to overcome.

Conditions were much better than when Daniel and I were here before. I entered an exciting upland plateau, with a frozen lake below on my right. One more plateau lay above the Kraspesferner Glacier, which I dutifully switchbacked up. Finally I was in the sun! It was time to take pictures, but to my sadness I realized that both batteries were nearly dead, partially because of the cold. I managed to snap a few. For the summit my trusty iPod Nano’s video camera came into service. It’s not a great shot, but it conveys some of the wild winter in the Stubai. It was a rare pleasure to be complately alone.

I started down, skiing cautiously as it’s the first time since last year. That always bugs me that the first time I ski in a year is high on a wilderness mountain, when the consequences of an accident are highly unpleasant! Maybe I should become mature and visit a ski area once first!

But the skiing wasn’t hard, and before I knew it I was sliding down the Kraspes Glacier, and seeing people. 4 or 5 late risers were coming up. One man decided not to go to the summit, and started down, skiing very well. Where the slope flattened he lost his bearing in the deep snow and crashed spectacularly! He was laughing so I, the single member of the audience, whooped and clapped.

Later, I think I crashed in the same place.

I skied further, resorting to “side-slipping” a steep slope above a raging creek because I didn’t like the possibility of falling there. It looked like others had done the same, as the fresh powder snow was mostly scrubbed away, leaving hard snow with a few twigs sticking out. Faint humps showed where a few brave souls made turns.

“That was fun!” I said to no one in particular, back at the car. I drove a few minutes down to Gries im Sellrain and found a room plus breakfast. I spent some time making the room homey, took a nap, then went out to dinner. I had two non-alcoholic beers (weird, I know), and the menu of the night, which was a pork steak with pasta and cheese. All I’d eaten during the day was a few cookies, so I planned to order a big dessert but I was too full. I’d been to this restaurant before, with Josef who is a vegetarian. I remember he had a terrible time trying to cobble together a meatless dinner. Looking at the menu now though, I noticed there was an actually vegetarian section…so next time would be easier!

After dinner I walked through the cemetary, which was lit up with little red lamps on most of the graves. The hulking mountains around were only sensed by the absence of stars in blackened regions of the sky. After some more walking, I turned in.

Sunday dawned rather grey. I’d awakened a few times at night to make notes on a horrific story idea called “Tea Party Nation.” :D. I had all these archetypes, like The Judge, the Welfare Queen, the Pundit, and how they would fare under a massive political change in the U.S.. Often not how you’d expect.

At breakfast I talked with a couple, and they recognized me from my car! The husband had seen my car parked in the Munich climbing gym several times. So we started talking about climbing. He told me two stories of the great Hermann Buhl, widely considered the greatest climber of all time in Tyrol. One, that he worked at the big Schuschter outdoor store in Munich during the 1950s, occasionally swiping gear. But everyone loved him so they didn’t mind. Herr Schuschter used his considerable funds to make sure Hermann got on the Nanga Parbat expedition that would make him famous. He threatened to withhold funds and gear, making the expedition pay full price for it all if Hermann didn’t go. Of course, we know it was the first ascent of an 8000’er without oxygen. Solo, and with an exposed bivouac above 8000 meters.

I told the man that my favorite Buhl story was when he rode his bike from Innsbruck to Piz Badille, soloed the North Face (a 5.10 rock route in modern terms, but much snowier/icier in the past), then rode home. We talked more about climbing and said goodbye.

A few minutes later I was in Luesens, getting ready to ski amid a bevy of ice climbers. I headed up, alone again, to the slopes west of the small cluster of buildings that make up town. One short but steep slope seemed to take forever because the skin track had been blasted into oblivion by descending skiers. There was a lot of traversing and trying to ascend here or there.

Despite the great weather forecast, I entered a thick, dark cloud, and was soon covered in snowflakes. I put on a jacket and kept going in the flat light and pea soup that made it hard to see more than a few feet. This would be “fun” coming down! A couple of guys caught up to me while I drank some tea. They were from Bolzano. I asked if they knew Daniel B., but they didn’t. We exchanged notes on good Dolomiti climbs. They had done the Comici on the Grosse Zinne in September. The crux pitch had very, very small handholds, they said. I told them about how Jesse and I sat below it for an hour, with a queue of people above us not moving, and abseiled off. Next time then!

I continued in the lead, aiming for a patch of blue sky. Visibility improved and I reveled in the beauty of the area. Higher, many tracks diverged to a subsidiary summit on the right. I looked at the map and was sure the Schoentalspitze was on the left. Snow there was sparser, and it looked like you’d just have to stop skiing halfway up a broad slope because too many rocks were sticking out. I cared more about the summit than skiing, so I headed that way, along with the others.

We skinned halfway up the slope and left the skis, then continued in boots to the summit. This time we were barely above a boiling array of clouds, swirling in rough congress with the nearby peaks. The sun felt nice. It seems to be typical for January skiing that you only see the sun at the summit, because southern slopes often don’t have enough snow to make skiing fun. So you sneak up the mountain by wind-protected northerly slopes. A quick peek over a ridge gives you a bit of warm sun, then it’s back to the shadow.

I coaxed a few pictures out of the camera, thanks to keeping the batteries warm by my chest. Skiing down, I soon entered the cloud. Two guys were ahead of me and I used them to orient myself. By keeping one of them just visible, I could ski better because I could recognize the approximate angle of the slope. Had I been alone I would have gone very slowly indeed! There was no indicator of the angle ahead of you, and it was even hard to see cut up tracks in the snow left by those ahead. The best sense was feel. I could feel the undulating layers of compact and fresh snow beneath me, and that way I knew I was on track. The whoosh of gravity was a warning to turn!

Finally they skiied off to the north, a different way than the way I’d come. But I was stranded on a slope that dropped off into scraggly trees. I’d missed my turn off. Rather than climb up, I tried to ski the slope. It worked, mostly. Some scraping along and grabbing of little branches, then I was on a road. I went northeast, to follow the two helpful skiers. A combination of road and skied-out slopes got me back to the village.

Another great skiing day! It was snowing heavily down here, and I decided not to go “ice bouldering,” though I did see some people on Gasthausfall as I drove away. I saw terrible traffic jams between Innsbruck and Woergl, and was happy to go the opposite way. That is, until I entered one. It took about an hour to get to Kufstein, where I decided to get off and eat dinner.

I hiked up to the fortress to get a few of the mountains around, mostly hidden in cloud. My mission now was to explore Kufstein to it’s limit! I found a bunch of historical plaques and read them all! I discovered that until the 19th century riverine travel was the way to go. It took half a day to raft from Innsbruck to Kufstein, but 5 days to go the opposite direction! They had a team of draft horses on the bank to pull the boat upstream. Whew. Kufstein was a border town for a long time. Germans would come, show their papers, and go drinking in the bars. Apparently musical competitions were a specialty. It seemed like the town spent the 18th century rebuilding from rubble when the Bavarians attacked in 1703. Just as they finished, the Bavarians (as part of Napoleons Army) attacked again. Ey yi yi…

The oldest record of human habitation in Tyrol was found in caves nearby. Tools and spears, 30,000 years old. The town was a Roman garrison, and later an important strategic location in the Middle Ages. It earned the right to build protective walls.

Oh, the sewing machine was invented here.

So it went on like that for hours. I found a restaruant with wi-fi, and watched the enormous traffic jam slowly unlock. Finally around 7:30 the roads were pretty clear, and I drove home.

Stats: The peaks had 1450, and 1400 meters elevation gain. I climbed them each in something under 4 hours, and the ski down was always quick (like an hour or less).