(Note, I’ve got a few more trip reports to file from the latest EU trip, but this is the last of the Silvretta posts. To step through the Silvretta trip reports, start here.)
Six days straight of nearly 100% bluebird in the Alps? You betcha. Today, as Ted Kerasote and I climb from the Wiesbadener Hut to an alternate egress route under the small but nonetheless elegant peak of the Rauher Kopf, the joyful smiles splitting our cheeks simply will not quit. The map reading is easy when you can see everything, with an occasional altimeter and GPS check just to keep us honest. Air temperature on the cool side, perfect for skin climbing and keeping avy danger on the good side of the red zone. Looking behind us, we can see the stunning alpine terrain where as a well oiled (and sunscreened) team we’d spent the last five days rambling through, up, over and down the legendary Silvretta mountains.
While the Silvretta has a few fairly high mountains, ski traversing the area is not about getting the biggest lines. Because the glaciers and their newly carved valleys provide such a bulk of easy skiing, and the proliferation of huts provides such luxury, as far as I could tell most ski mountaineers go Silvretta for the plush (and perhaps hit places like Chamonix for the extreme.) Yes, our trip over the past six days was of the former ilk. Sure, we did enough vertical to qualify as less than lazy, but that one-extra-lap seemed to end up as a hot shower at the hut, a tort with warmed vanilla sauce, or the ever essential “water of the Silvretta,” also known as Weißbier.
Thus, today’s tour seemed appropriate. We’d climb over a small glacier, tag the Rauher Kopf summit (3101 meters), then swing north for a beautiful drop of about a thousand meters to a large lake and dam in the valley below at an area called Silvrettadorf. An easy day? That depended on avalanche conditions. Once at Silvrettadorf we’d either slog a hot, flat and possibly dangerous seven additional kilometers down to our parked car in the village of Wirl, or avoid afternoon wet slides by taking a series of buses, cable cars and trains on a circuitous route back to to parking.
Our final run down a vast Alps valley was an emotional moment. I was still pinching myself, thinking how in the heck did we pull this off? Sure, fate brought us the weather, but fortune favors the prepared. We had the gear, the ski and glacier skills, the backup plan. Shoot, we even had a map! Most of all, as innocent Americans we still had enough wide eyed Euro-wonder to not let the crowded huts and peaks bother us. Indeed, quite the opposite. And back home, don’t let me hear you whine about the ‘crowds.’ Other than a few anomalous areas (Wasatch near the roads, Teton Pass) we’ve got it so good in the American West we should be on our knees thanking God for our vast regions of virtually untouched backcountry.
Sometimes, reentry to civilization from a backcountry trip can be like hitting yourself on the head with a club. You’re not used to the speed, the chatter — the smell. Today wasn’t too bad in that way. We ended the skiing at Silvrettadorf, a resort area near a large dam where many Silvretta groups finish their trips. The area is still somewhat isolated and alpine, which softens the blow.
We’d carefully located the car so we could ski out another seven kilometers down a long flat valley and finish the trip without trouble. But the mountains had the last word. Our egress valley holds about a zillion huge avalanche paths, all pleasantly baking in the hot sun so they’d be primed and ready just as we skied below. Adding to that, a big CLOSED sign is staked in the middle of the road where we’d start the ski out. Of course, closed signs in Europe are just guidelines and we can head down there if we really want to. But ending such a wonderful trip with a hot slog through the valley of death? We both agree, nope.
Only problem with eschewing our valley egress is that getting out of Silvrettadorf and back to our car involves a convoluted series of European transit options. Not just one or two train rides, but more than six mode changes including: Shuttle bus down from Silvrettadorf; cable car down to valley; ride to bus stop from a friendly local; bus to train station; train to another bus stop; then the endless two hour ride on a local ski bus that stopped at every tiny village and turnoff until the stop buzzer had me ready to jump out a window and walk. Ted applied his considerable adventure travel skills to this process, thanks to him we had not one glitch!
That’s it. In my life as an alpinist I didn’t visit the Alps during my younger years. Just too busy with North America, with distractions in Alaska and South America. So I’d always yearned for the blue sky and endless white summits one always pictures the European Alps as having (perhaps more as a result of marketing than reality, but whatever). Thanks to opportunities created by my work here on WildSnow, a few years ago I finally got the chance to start doing some Europe trips. While those trips were amazing and eye opening, most didn’t have the weather for doing much in the alpine — where I knew those bluebird days and white summits still waited.
Well, with our Silvretta trip the waiting was over. I got to see what Alps ski touring is at its finest. The best huts, the best weather, great people, incredible terrain. And aside from pure selfish gratification, I learned a few things.
First lesson, it was fascinating to see so many people enjoying themselves in the alpine, getting along with each other and just generally having a great time. I’d of course prefer to not always tour in such populated places, but with the growth of our sport that’s going to happen more and more, so it was enlightening to see how it could work. Second, I’ve always felt we need more Colorado backcountry skiing huts that are higher in elevation and closer to or actually in the alpine. We have some like that, but the more the better (with global warming raising the snow line and bringing the spring snowpack earlier, this becomes ever more important). Even locating a hut a few hundred feet higher often opens up the views and makes the place feel much more special, and I’d encourage all hut systems to consider this in their planning. Thirdly, it was super interesting to see how these huts were supported by the use of snowmobiles and snowcats, but totally oriented to human powered recreation — a nice melding and perhaps a lesson for hut systems that struggle with ethical issues of using snowmobiles during winter for support and maintenance. Lastly, I believe that some places in North America now have the population of mountain recreationists necessary to support the full-service European style alpine hut/lodge such as those on the Silvretta.
Would such lodges be a good thing? As a recreation advocate I believe they would be, both as centers for unbridled fun, but also as yet another way to promote the use of public land for low-impact recreation, thus leading to the land being valued for that, thus leading to conservation. Self service huts such as those we have so many of in the U.S. are fine, but a facility with meal service and staff is a whole different experience that I think has a place. Besides, (though it’s been done more than once), I’m not not one for hauling beer kegs up to the huts.
Thanks goes out to Ted for making this trip happen, as well as the Barthel family for their help with planning and before/after lodging, and my wife for her support. And thanks to all you WildSnowers for your comments and the inspiration to blog it all!
(Photos on all Silvretta blog posts by both Lou Dawson and Ted Kerasote).