WildSnow.com Goes Euro – Day 4 Backcountry Skiing Trip Report

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | January 7, 2007      

Backcountry skiing in 
Fritz, watching out for blueberry bushes and looking quite stylish. He paid me not to publish this, but I had to do it. The Dynafit jacket is too nice not to share.

Contrary to rumor, it actually has been snowing in the Alps, though snow line in the Tyrol is high and the snowpack quite thin. So we headed out today for our second ski tour on a nice peak above the historical village of Alpbach. This area is famous for a rapidly vanishing tradition of mountain farming done in steep terrain, where human power was (and still is in some areas) the only way to do much of the work. I’ve been looking at a book about this. Such farming entails amazing heroics, such as moving gigantic balls of hay down a mountain by basically glissading in front of the hay with your heels dug in to the slope, I guess hoping for the best and thinking of that big bowl of dumplings (knödel) waiting down at your farmhouse, (provided the hay doesn’t roll over your head and make a human dumpling out of you.) As Manfred Barthel told me, the cuisine in this area is derived from farmers needing to live of the land and their crops, trying to work in creative ways with a fairly simple variety of goods. The results are something we get a bit of in the states when eating at German/Bavarian restaurants, but of course the real thing is better and more interesting (and believe me, I’m getting plenty.)

At any rate, we begin our tour near some ski resorts, and do a long slog up a snow covered road that reminds me of Colorado style access, only snowmobiles are not allowed here so everyone walks. And these guys walk fast. Nearly everyone on Dynafits, with tiny backpacks and trim clothing. It’s like the whole world has turned into one big rando race. I’ve always felt that trimmer backpacks and lighter gear are the way to go, and feel out-of-place with my bulky BD Covert Avalung pack, though later I’d be thanking God that I had it.

The jet lag really hit me today — I woke up with a strange achy feeling in my legs that I’d never experienced. I mixed up some Cytomax, took a double dose of vitamins and figured I’d just gut it out. After a few thousand vertical I did feel better, but made the mistake of not drinking from a special healing spring I’d seen on the way up, as I didn’t find our about its special powers till passing it on the way back down.

So, I’m a bit slower today but Fritz is nice and hangs back with me while I’m warming up, and gives me more of his excellent overview of local history. It’s obvious Fritz has developed a deep love of the Tyrol, and has an immense appreciate of his heritage. I get a thrill out of listening to his talk about the farmers, then knowing I’ll go back and sleep in the very farmhouse his father was born in. Mountain culture and history is one of my favorite things in the world, so this is heaven.

I start feeling better about half way up the 5,000 vertical foot climb. The snowpack is thicker than I expect, though my ski pole tests reveal a scary layer of depth hoar under a pretty obvious slab. I laugh to myself when I realize I still don’t know how to ask in German where the bathroom is, but do know the German word for depth hoar: schwimmschnee. I also chuckle because despite my feelings about having my big unstylish Avalung pack, I reach for the breathing tube, bend it up close to my mouth and figure carrying such a thing might be a good idea after all. But the really “funny” thing was that the schwimmschnee isn’t what caused the avalanche.

Manfred and Fritz do know their backcountry skiing avalanche safety, and they’d told me yesterday that the biggest problem with current snowpack was wind loading on slick sliding surfaces, frequently on more southerly exposures. As we climbed we were winding around the mountain into just such a situation. Up ahead of us a strong young guy had been breaking trail on a solo tour. Fritz and Ricki (a family friend who was skiing with us) had caught up with the guy. Ricki started following as the solo tourer headed up a steep rib, trying to make a more direct line to the summit ridge. Fritz told her to hang back, as a better more avalanche safe line existed and there was no reason to follow. Just then, the solo tourer stepped into wind deposited snow and triggered a fairly large avalanche, which carried him down a few hundred feet. I was a few hundred feet below Fritz and Ricki, and Fritz called down to me, “Lou, avalanche.” I knew immediately what had happened, as I could see Ricki and Fritz, but no solo skier. “Is he buried?” I yelled. “No,” Fritz answered. Looking at the situation, I could see there was another possible tributary avalanche above the scene, so I yelled up to Fritz that I’d stay to the side and watch for another avalanche as they skied down and check the guy out, who was partly buried and having trouble extricating himself. I skied a bit closer, and after more assessment realized that additional avy danger was nil and headed over the scene. Luckily the guy wasn’t hurt. Fritz helped him dig out, they found his skis, and off the avy rider went, back up the slope headed for the summit. If it had been me I would have headed down for a beer and a trip to church (not necessarily in that order), but each to his own.

Austrian backcountry skiing.
The solo backcountry skier who got caught in the avy heads back up, he’s on the avalanche bed surface, fracture visible just under the ridgeline. The avy moved quite a bit of snow but only fell perhaps 400 vertical feet. Still, it piled up quite deep and could have killed or maimed.

Austrian backcountry skiing.
At the summit, good the guy survived his avalanche so he could take our picture.

After berg heils and hot tea at the summit, my legs felt fairly good. While the snow was quite difficult to ski well, we did make some fun turns and only hit a few rocks and some blueberry bushes. The whole time Fritz was worrying about falling in a blueberry bush and staining his perfectly white Dynafit jacket — luckily I got the photo of him shown above before that happened (just joking). Today I got closer to figuring out the Dynafit Seven Summits skis, realizing that since they’re soft I had to be a bit more careful about levering back on the tails, and try to stand a bit more square. People say shorter softer skis have a “smaller sweet spot,” and in difficult snow I’ve always found that to be true. You get slightly too far back or a bit forward and a nice powder turn can quickly turn into a recovery. Longer skis are heavier and not always the best, but they do have their advantages. Even so, I’ll stick with shorter/lighter planks and deal with the ocasional downside.

After the main descent we cruised down the access road. Coming upon the spring I notice on the way up, I stopped and flagged down Manfred so he could translate the sign, then I drank, but I was careful to not drink to much since my wife is back in Colorado. See caption below to find out why, or read the rhyme on the sign if you know German. (The translation is not literal.)

Tyrolean spring sign
If your arthritis makes you limp
Take a small drink.
If your liver, heart or kidneys are not correct
Take a sip.
If it’s bad nerves or blood/blut
The water is good/gut.
But if you can’t do IT to your wife,
then drink a lot!

Tyrolean spring sign
Your intrepid traveler dares sip from the beloved waters.

After skiing we headed to an Alpbach gasthaus for beers, but first a brief tourist soujourne. Fritz showed me an amazing Catholic church that was built in the 12 century, then remodeled in the 18th century. The interior of the church is heavily decorated in the baroque style and nearly otherworldly with much gold and beautiful frescos. Next to the church is a small cemetery where it’s desirable to be buried, only there is not enough room to stay. Solution is you get buried for ten years, then they move your bones to an ossuary below the church where you skull is painted with your name and given its final resting place.

Tyrol wood carving.
16th century wood carving in Alpbach.

After pondering the possibility of painted skulls we walk over to one of the older hotels, the building has parts preserved from the middle ages, including blacksmithed steel doors and shutters that looked like something out of Lord of the Rings. The beers were of course excellent. I had a new type of beer drink Fritz called a “sour cyclist,” which is half beer and half mineral water. Of course only good German or Austrian beer could work for such a thing — doing this with something like Coors or PBR would be nauseating! They also make a drink for athletes called a “cyclist,” which is half beer and half lemonade. I’ll try one of those next time.


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11 Responses to “WildSnow.com Goes Euro – Day 4 Backcountry Skiing Trip Report”

  1. Pete Anzalone January 7th, 2007 8:50 am


    Great, fun and interesting trip report. Tyrol is terrific. I hope – aside from that magic wasser – you’re enjoying plenty of Kaiser bier!

    Cheers and keep the stories coming.

  2. Eric T. January 7th, 2007 11:24 am

    The first thing that I noticed was the small pack Fritz was wearing in the ski photo. I am a firm believer in light is right (that is why I ski with dynafits), but to a point. Do they not have shovels, first aid, snow study gear, food, water, extra gloves and clothes… Etc? Or is these sort of things not necessary in Austria due to close proximity to villages? In wyoming I wouldn’t dare leave without some of these necessities. But, if something happens in my area, who knows how long until help may arrive, if at all? Thanks for the reports from over there, really interesting stuff.

  3. Greg Louie January 7th, 2007 12:19 pm

    “Wo ist die Toilette?”

    Yeah, the “cyclist” or “panache” is the drink of choice. Heisse Citrone (hot lemonade) is great, too.

  4. Lou January 7th, 2007 3:59 pm

    Greg, thanks for the phrase! About time I started learning more German then snow names!

  5. Lou January 7th, 2007 4:02 pm

    Fritz had a cool shovel that uses the avy probe as the handle. Around here the culture is to somewhat depend on professional rescue, and the cell phone coverage is good, so the packs tend to be smaller. People seem to have good gear however: extra layers, thermos of tea, etc., and yes they do have shovels.

  6. Lewis January 7th, 2007 8:28 pm

    I love that each region has it’s beers. One of my favorites was Gösser but I think that’s from the Steiermark (Graz) region. If you get a chance, give it a try.
    As to avy gear: I think I’d rather climb w/ a friend who has a shovel in case I got buried; I just think a “professional rescue” might seem a long time coming from under the snow! Interesting.
    Glad you’re having fun.

  7. steve romeo January 7th, 2007 8:50 pm

    Big avy season…WORLD-WIDE!!

    except for the east coast of course.

  8. Damian January 8th, 2007 3:08 am

    Nice report. Its clear that you are feeling the richness and spirt of the place, the deep alpine culture and the history. Keep the updates coming, its exciting just reading about it. Sounds like you have already had one of those enormous bread-ball knoodles with your roast pork and gravy. And the beer! Such a satisfying place to be.

    I was touring in a valley or two north of you in the last days and also found the expected loading on crust on southern aspects. In fact, we found it on the northerly slopes as well but not as wind loaded as the southerly slopes. We planned a lower altitude and angle tour in anticipation but still ended up in one or two hot spots. For once, although ever so temporarily, its nice to have an trip report blog addressing this part of the world that’s written in English! Not speaking the local language means missing out on a lot of information exchange on snow pack conditions and avy incidents.

  9. Damian January 8th, 2007 3:10 am

    ps – whilst touring really late last spring we collected some of those mountain blueberries and made pretty good jam with them.

  10. Andy January 8th, 2007 9:25 am

    Now that’s a blog post!

  11. ham January 8th, 2007 10:50 am

    Truly enjoyable reading. You’re dredging up some fond memories of European touring. Keep it up!

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