Otztal Day 3 – To the Similaun Hut

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | April 19, 2012      
Reaching Similaun Hut as the storm gathered.

Reaching Similaun Hut as the storm gathered.

Bummer. Using excellent weather reports from the hut keepers at Martin Busch, we knew that Day 3 of our Otztal (Austria) ski tour would begin with semi-visibility, but soon devolve to a foehn wind and whiteout. With GPS in hand and guided parties to follow, we knew we could make it to the next hut in our chain, the Similaun. But after that?

One of the things you dread on these trips is having to just sit at a hut all day, or else climb some peak during a full day of one-meter visibility, staring at your GPS like some meth-head watching rerun cartoons for the tenth time.

Similaun is nice hut, however, and the tour burned enough calories to allow enjoyment of the victuals even if the ‘hut hanging’ got a bit old compared to the beautiful alpine touring we’d had yesterday. Our time at Similaun Hutte, in photos:

Leaving Martin Busch Hutte we faced a gathering storm

Leaving Martin Busch Hutte for Similaun we faced a gathering storm. Normally, with such a short ski to the next hut (a couple miles and minimal vertical) we'd also do a peak that day. Unfortunately, by the time we reached Similaun Hut it was time to go indoors and play checkers.

Similaun Hutte door sign.

Similaun Hutte door sign. When you reach these huts during bad weather they sometimes look deserted, then you push open the big thick door and enter a bustling civilization of backcountry skiers in the warm interior. The contrast is striking.

Myself and Ted strategize, knowing the weather may be ok tomorrow but then deteriorate again.

Myself and Ted strategize, knowing the weather may be ok tomorrow but then deteriorate again. As we sit in the stube, a steady gale scours the front of the hut and deposits a large drift outside the window behind us. Rather discouraging, but not the first time we've been stuck in a hutte during a storm. Better than a tent.

Being slightly more remote yet served by a freight cable, Similaun

Being slightly more remote yet served by a freight cable, Similaun is a nice mix of quality with a mellow spirit, different than some of the larger more run-down lodges.

Huts during this trip had a lot of excellent artwork hanging.

Huts during this trip had a lot of excellent artwork hanging.

Lou in Similaun stube, contemplating something, waiting out the storm.

Your friendly blogger in Similaun stube, contemplating something, waiting out the storm. I did bring my Acer netbook on this trip, and found it quite useful for setting routes in our GPS, but with only a 1-hour battery I had trouble getting much else done since most of these huts only have a few electrical plugs, and they're frequently not in convenient locations. Next trip I may change the whole computer system, as this rig is getting rather archaic (same stuff used on Silvretta traverse several years ago with Ted, and after that on Denali). At this point, I feel like I might be able to figure out something smaller and lighter, with better battery life. On the other hand, the Acer Aspire One with a solid state hard drive has simply been amazing. It's still cooking along after being most of the way up Denali, and traveling for years to everything from huts to vacation jaunts. Highly recommended.

The Kerasote Solution.

The Kerasote Solution.

This is embarrassing, but worth sharing.

This is embarrassing, but worth sharing. One of the only electrical plugs available in the building is in the first floor ski and boot room, with this set of stairs leading to the basement. Other hut guests kept using the plug for their smartphones, so I figured I'd get up in the middle of the night when they were done and give my computer a charge. In the dark, while fiddling around plugging the Acer in, I stepped with my left foot an inch to far and ended up taking a header down these dozen concrete steps. On the way down, I thought, 'this is going to hurt, or, I might not even live...' Bruised and battered from head to foot, I lay at the bottom of the stairs thinking, 'wow, I lived, now can I get up?' Amazingly, I was still functional (and continued the ski tour). Let me tell you, prayers of thanks were uttered and I got the stuffing scared out of me. Stupid maneuver, for sure. I was shocky for hours after, and finally got a few hours sleep towards morning with an ice pack on my hip where it had bounced over about six of those twelve steps (the others were missed while I was in midair).

Ted in the kitchen stube, the hut has two other dining areas for times when it's crowded.

Ted in the kitchen stube, the hut has two other dining areas for times when it's crowded. As many of you have alluded to, this hut is a mere killometer or so from where they found the 5,000 year old Otzi Iceman mummy. We'll pass by that spot tomorrow. I'd seen the Iceman museum in Bosen (Italy) a few years ago, so was enjoying seeing all the references to him, including several books at the Similaun hut, one in English I ended up reading from cover to cover.

Myself and my bride. She's an ace and I'm a hacker.

Myself and my bride. She's an ace and I'm a hacker, but it's all fun.

Otzi the Iceman.

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17 Responses to “Otztal Day 3 – To the Similaun Hut”

  1. Forest April 19th, 2012 9:44 am

    “Better than a tent.” indeed! The understatement of a lifetime. Happy travels!

  2. Tom Gos April 19th, 2012 9:47 am

    Lou, really enjoying the trip reports. It might be interesting to hear your thougths on doing the trip on your own versus with a guide. I did the Haute Route last month with a terrific guide, my first time skiing with a guide, and found it to be a real pleasure to not have to concern myself with route planning and navigation in a foreign area. We don’t have much of a tradition of using mountain guides here in the USA (and it seems particularly so here in Colorado) so I had always done all of my BC skiing without one, but after spending a week with a real mountain guide I have an appreciation for what they offer. Thoughts?

    Also on the computer, I recently got an Android tablet, and you might want to consider one in place of your netbook. My Motorola one has a mini USB port that allows connecting cameras and such, and the battery life is excellent.

  3. Richard April 19th, 2012 2:46 pm

    So Lew, would you rather be hanging out in a wood and stone mountain fortress with good food and the smell of old socks (and no handrail on the basement stairs!) or in a brightly colored fiberglass tube with perfect avatar ergonomics ?

  4. Lou April 19th, 2012 11:19 pm

    Richard, in my view, having easily been to more than a hundred huts both here and in the US, all different types of designs have their place. The more traditional hut done with modern building techniques is indeed nice, especially in places with a lot of use as it wears well and has tons of room, but the bivouac hut is also a valid need and provided for by things like fiberglass tubes. The worst are the old rodent and mildew infested huts that can still be encountered here and there. They might look cool, but that’s about it. While I do enjoy the “old” feeling architecture and interior design, I see no reason for the “faux antique” hut in every situation. I firmly believe that modern designs such as LEAP and the new Monte Rosa have their place. Just my opinion, of course, not something I have a big agenda about… Lou

  5. Lou April 19th, 2012 11:33 pm

    Tom, guide vs unguided: Ted and I of course have guide level skills, so that’s not the issue. What we’d use a guide for is mostly logistics, as well as them perhaps having the GPS tracks for bad weather, and some familiarity with the routes for traveling in bad weather. But neither Ted nor I prefer doing these trips guided, here are some of the reasons:

    – We enjoy a bit more adventure of the self guided trip. The map reading, planning, GPS, decision making about weather, all that stuff. We were raised up on the adventure ethic in our careers in outdoor education, and have found that most of the European hut touring can easily be done self-guided with a small dose of confidence and of course the requisite skills.

    – We prefer to set our own agenda for the day, what time we leave the hut, changes in route or hut nights due to weather or simply finding a hut we like and staying there longer (or leaving sooner if it’s not that terrific).

    – We’re not interested in joining a group of people we’re not familiar with in terms of mountaineering. Don’t mind making new friends at the huts, but not interested in throwing in with a somewhat random group. Thus, if we did go guided, it would be with a group of friends rather than joining a pre-arranged group.

    – The cost of guided trips can easily exceed our budgets.

    – Guides are not all the penultimate perfect individuals we like to think of them as being. Thus, sometimes you can end up with one who is really not that good. So if we did hire, it would be based on recommendations and networking, and the guide’s work schedule. That’s all stuff we don’t feel the need to hassle with for these sorts of trips.

    – Trip duration can be cast in concrete with a guide. While you’re self guided, if the weather gets bad or you’re not feeling well, you can exit without any issues.

    – All that said, I’d hire a guide in a minute if I thought it to be necessary for mine or my wife’s safety, or necessary for a complex trip. Also, one of the toughest parts of planning these trips is making sure you have hut reservations, a bilingual guide can easily take care of that. If you’re totally new to the situation and not that into adventure travel emotional risk taking, a guide can also make you immediately comfortable with cultural issues, such as how and when to order certain foods without getting scolded, where the bathrooms are, whether you can drink the tap water or not, and so forth.

    I’m not unaware of the advantages of a guide, and encourage anyone to always consider going that route if at all in doubt, or if you don’t have the skill set.

  6. David Gerrard April 20th, 2012 6:00 am

    Hi Lou,
    I spent some time admiring the huts in the same area some weeks ago (Martin Busch, Hochjoch and Vernagt) and was most relieved with how charming they are, as after a visit to the Silvretta last year, I’d begun to wonder whether all Austrian huts had reverted to the “Holiday Inn” model (Heidelberger, Jamtal, Wiesbadner). The only hut with charm was the Silvretta Hut (Swiss), with its carved woodwork and 100 years of history.
    Hope you make it over to the Hochjoch Hospiz, stunning descent from the Hauslabjoch. The one regret of the tour was not to include the Fineilspitze on the way over, but there was too much forward momentum in the group (beer could be smelled) and we’d already been up Similaun.

  7. Richard April 20th, 2012 6:57 am

    Re: Guide vs. no guide. I’ve done guided trips for 30 years in the alps and Lou’s comments are on the money. Through many years of experience, my skill level is quite high and I am certainly competent to navigate hut to hut in good weather and stable conditions. However, I learned long ago that my wife would kill me if I did something stupid and came back dead, so I’ve opted to go with a guide. Working with a guide I know and trust and skiing with people I know and trust makes it the best of all worlds for me. I’m on total vacation. I don’t have to make a lot of decisions, just keep up, enjoy the summits and the ride down. One of the big pluses for having a guide is getting the most out of the run down. They can usually find good snow even when condtions are marginal. I’ve seen non-guided groups skiing in bad snow or piste-like conditions, while I’m enjoying powder or perfect corn on the same descent.
    Love the reports. I’ve spent a few weeks touring in the Oetztal so it’s nice to see and hear about familiar spots.

  8. Richard April 20th, 2012 1:52 pm

    Hi Lou,
    Once I dismount from my esthetic high horse I have to agree entirely with your comments about classic vs.Italian modern hut styles. Just for giggles pull down your copy of Krakauer’s “Eiger Dreams” and read the section about the ice cave on the McKinley West Buttress inhabited by Dick and the Members to put everything into perspective!

  9. Florian April 20th, 2012 4:26 pm


    You brought a netbook up there?? Did you see anyone else with that? Just being curious, I know those huts from summer glacier touring, but never even thought of the possibility to bring such a thing along – but I’m not a blogger of course:). Even smartphones are rather unpractical because of short battery life.

    Very nice reports, thanks!

  10. SedgeSprite April 20th, 2012 5:03 pm

    More Guide vs No Guide: On a self guided trip there is the issue of liability in the event of injury, evacuation, and or fatality. Agreements between tripmates may not hold water if there is some indication of mis-judgement or negligence on the part of more experienced travelers and less experienced. A hired guide may offer clarity in terms of legal liability, especially if this is a mixed group with different skill levels and nationalities. Insurance is cheap, but lawsuits are not. (You did buy Rescue Insurance, didn’t you?;)

  11. Dan April 20th, 2012 6:20 pm

    Guided vs Unguided: Another consideration in addition to Lou’s comments on this matter: I found that with a guided group (I am talking about European Hut trips) we pretty much kept to ourselves. However, when on two unguided trips of 10 days each with two long time, competent ski mountaineers/friends for partners, we interacted a LOT more with other skiers/groups of skiers than when part of a guided group. Lou is right on about the logistics. We three are right at home moving around in the mountains. But getting to and from the “tour”, making hut reservations, the language issues, insurance, figuring out the hut systems, etc. is as interesting as the skiing. Hint for those considering an “unguided” trip to Europe…join the British sub-section of the Austrian Alpine Club. You get a substantial discount at the huts, sometimes get discounts at lift areas, and you get first class rescue insurance. Plus you get a neat little Austrian Alpine Club card. Also, on both trips (Ortler and Silvretta), we exchanged info with other skiers, guides, hut guardians, etc. No problem. Remember, you are not alone…just get in the trench and go! Lastly, do not let the language issue deter you. At the minimum there will be Germans. Those folks always seem to speak english, many better than me. Certainly, being resuced like that will cost you a beer, and you may actually make some more friends. Note that navigating the Silvretta and the Ortler is pretty straight forward. While dealing with the Western Alps is a notch or two more serious (IMHO anyway).

  12. Andreas April 20th, 2012 8:35 pm

    Hi Lou,
    Thank you very much for this trip report it brings back great memories to me. In 2009, I was able to spend three days with friends at this great hut in the Italian (Suedtirol) part of the Oetztaler Alpen.
    Have a safe trip home to the States.

  13. Lou April 20th, 2012 10:18 pm

    Ted and I are both, at the core, introverts. But from what I’ve seen of us both we’ve learned over the years through much adventure travel to aggressively seek out advice from folks present. Ted is really good at this, I tend to defer to him when he’s around, but do fine myself when necessary. Lisa is more of a natural extro, but not as experienced so the trip daily planning was done by Ted and I. As for the overall trip, Tirol local Manfred Barthel gave us quite a bit of advice on how to link up the huts, and also helped us with reservations. Thanks to him we spent a lot less time on preparations than we would have otherwise. Ted is finishing up a big deadline book project, so he really needed the help, and I’m always too busy with WildSnow, so I equally appreciated Manfred’s assistance.

    You could do all the prelim planning on your own as well, but the key to that is probably to do the “classic” ski traverse, and troll the web for the schedule other people have used. For example, you can find itineraries on guide service websites, and of course a few EU traverses here on WildSnow.com. Without a guide along, you can adjust your trip once you get up in the mountains. Most of the hut “reservations” you make are quite casual, no deposit, just holding a room. Other than on holidays and weekends, from what I’ve seen you need not bother with reservations. You might end up in the communal sleeping room sometimes, but you actually will anyway, even if you play around with reservations. The hang-out spot at the huts is the dining rooms, anyway, as the “rooms” are usually tiny and cramped, not exactly a place to sit and relax. They’re just for sleeping.

    The language issue is not a big deal. When you call the various huts on the phone, some will have someone who speaks English, some not. My advice would be to relax about that and just play it as it goes.

    For driving to the trailhead, parking, that sort of thing, I’ve found our Tomtom GPS to be incredibly effective during this trip. It is finding virtually everything and leading us directly to it. The Tomtom Euro maps I’m using were about $80, and totally worth it. The rental car company wanted around $100 to rent a GPS, of unknown quality. Once you’re at trailhead/parking, just wander around asking people about how to pay, where to park overnight, that sort of thing. Ask in nearby hotels and restaurants. You’ll easily get the answers. At the same time, ask where the trail to your first hut starts if it’s not obvious.

    You can of course use public transport to/from nearly anywhere, and if all else fails call a taxi to connect you up with the bus or train system. For a group of people, it’s much easier to just rent a car, and similar in cost as the public transport is not cheap once you multiply by a group.

  14. Lou April 20th, 2012 10:28 pm

    Florien, sure, I bring a computer nearly everywhere. Nope, didn’t see anyone else with a computer, nor did I see anyone else running a backcountry skiing website blog business (grin). I did see tons of people with smartphones, and yeah, they were charging those things at every opportunity.

    In terms of batteries, my Garmin GPS goes for about 3 days on a set of lithium AAs, which is nice. We bring cell phones and satphone as well, but that all stays turned off most of the time so no battery issues. We bring the phones since without a guide along we’re never certain about communication issues. The satphone is not essential, seems like there is cell service nearly everywhere. But if you’re unguided you need to have your phone numbers figured out before you leave, and know how to dial the EU numbers on your chosen phone rig.

  15. Scott Nelson April 21st, 2012 7:05 pm

    Glad you survived the header down the stairs. That must have been freaky.

  16. AJ April 22nd, 2012 3:52 am

    the bedrooms are pure Snow White, did you see any dwarves? 🙂

  17. Lou April 22nd, 2012 4:41 am

    I saw some strange things after I banged my head.

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