Off the Beaten Path: The Silvretta Ski Tour-Austria

For the last 5 years or so, I have had the good opportunity to ski guide in Europe with John and Olivia  Race for the spring season in Europe. They operate the Northwest Mountain School, and are very active in the spring ski guiding scene over there. In 2015, we had the opportunity to put together a group to do something a little less ordinary in Austria- The Silvretta Ski Tour.

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This tour is a big horseshoe loop, and in this way, there is little to worry about in terms of logistics. It starts above the town of Ischgl, and finishes in Galtur. The route zig-zags along the border with Switzerland, and crosses in and out of both countries- although, you would never know it! The huts are cozy, with home-cooked meals, and friendly people. The valley is well connected by public transportation to either Innsbruck, Munich, or Zurich.

We decided to start our 2015 tour by snowcat, instead of spending most of the day riding lifts from the ski area and skiing down to the hut. This swift method of approach allowed us to get to the hut at about 10:30 am, and we ended up skiing some really nice north facing open terrain with great weather!

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After a great first day skiing, we spent the night at the Heidelberger Hutte. Most of the people their were surprised that we would come all the way to their mountains to go skiing. “Don’t you have mountains at home?”, they would say. I would reply, “Yes, we do, but we don’t have huts like this in our mountains.” When I told them we had to carry our tents, sleeping bags, stoves and foods in the mountains, they would just shake their head in disbelief. After you travel on skis between the huts, you really do realize how fun it is to ski with a relatively light pack!

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On day two, we went up and over a pass, and then skied down to the Jamtal Hutte. This hut served free soup and bread for lunch, and hosted an ice climbing tower for those who are inclined for such things. Part of the group decided to rest and relax at the hut for the afternoon, while part of the group headed out in search of good snow to ski. We ended up finding a really good North facing run for the afternoon that entertained us.

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On this tour, we spend 2 nights at the Jamtal Hutte, so we have time to do some exploring. On day 3, we woke to murky skies, so we decided to focus on a more ski-mountaineering objective and climb the Gemspitze (3114m), with a ski down. We did climb it, and ski it, with some flat light, but the snow was pretty good. After this, part of the group peeled off and headed back down to hut. The folks who stayed on decided to climb the Hinter Jamspitze (3156m) and take a long run down the glacier back to the hut.

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Day 4 started cloudy, but we were still able to get up and over another pass, and arrive at the Weisbadener Hutte. The skies cleared enough for a good run down to the hut, off of the shoulder of the Drielanderspitze.

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Again, we planned for the 2 nights in this amazing place to explore. That afternoon, we headed up a side valley, hoping for cold snow, but got a mixed bag. When the clouds came back in, we used our GPS to get back to the hut!

In the morning, the storm was brewing! We skied up to a small emergency hut on the border with Switzerland. It was nuking up there! We struggled back to the hut in bad visibility, and took stock of the situation. This is most normally done by eating some treats, and enjoying the mountain ambience at the hut.

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After indulging in some sweets, and caffeinated drinks, we struck out in search of good snow, in one of the many valleys that were more wind protected. We made one attempt, got thwarted by visibility, bailed, and headed to another one that was lower. Despite the group getting a little frustrated with the weather, this time we hit pay dirt! We did 3 laps on a low angle glacier, where the snow was completely blower! So much for big mountaineering objectives, we just had to take what mother nature gave us, and it was good. In the evening, the skies began to clear for our final day. My co-guide John Race and I were prepared for a stormy exit via IFR, and we were very excited to see the clouds parting in the late afternoon.

On the final exit day, we awoke to find bluebird skies, light winds, and about a foot on new cold smoke that was stable! What happened next was one of the best ski days I have had anywhere! We worked 3 successive valleys on the way over to our exit valley to the town of Galtur. This was some of the most amazing powder skiing we had done. High in the mountains of the Austria, it was out of sight! Fresh lines available everywhere, smiles on everyone’s faces, and the views that couldn’t be beat. The team was ecstatic!

The final run of the day was mind blowing…some of the best turns for me for the whole season!

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The Silvretta really produced! This tour is a great option for folks of all abilities. The transit times between huts are relatively short, allowing folks who want to take it easy a relaxing time. For skiers who want to get after it, it provides plenty of time for climbing peaks and afternoon sessions to make sure you get enough! We will be offering Silvretta Ski Tour every season now through the Northwest Mountain School. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me if you have any questions!

 

Avalanche Course, Backcountry Skiing Course or Guided Skiing?

As a program coordinator for Oregon Ski Guides, I answer a lot of phone calls and emails about our ski programs and avalanche courses. Many folks call in and assume that our Avalanche Courses teach people how to backcountry ski, and others assume our backcountry ski courses teach people avalanche safety skills. Neither perception is accurate, and I thought it might be worth talking about the differences between the two types of courses so that our clients can sign up for the most appropriate program.

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There seems to be a consistent theme out there that every backcountry skier should start with taking a Level I Avalanche Course. I don’t entirely agree with this philosophy, although it won’t necessarily hurt. However, a better approach to taking an avalanche course would be to get some experience out in the field going backcountry skiing with friends or more experienced people to learn some of the basics of backcountry travel. A basic understanding of gear, clothing layering and reading terrain will go a long way towards creating some sort of framework to apply the learned skills in an avalanche course. Even if you are unable to to go backcountry skiing, it is worth spending some time getting to know your own gear set by skinning at your local ski area before they open for instance. If you are able to get out before your avalanche course, you’ll get a lot more out of the course and be able to take more skills away for use later. In an avalanche course, you will do very little skiing, and spend a lot of time learning new skills. It is critical that this is understood before signing up for any avalanche course.

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Backcountry Ski Courses are designed for people who want to learn how to skin, uphill trackset, and use their gear. An emphasis is placed on getting out, learning how to you use your equipment and finding the best snow conditions in the area. Sound fun? It is! This is actually what most people want out of day or two with a guide. Secondary to these skills, you will have some basic instruction on how to use your beacon, shovel and probe. This will be a cursory instruction on these skills, just enough to get started.Your guide will typically be happy to discuss the terrain with you, so you may be able to pick up a few tidbits on terrain selection and what is going on in the snowpack. Compared to an avalanche course, you’ll get a lot more ski time and be able to get into terrain that you wouldn’t necessarily feel comfortable in on your own.

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Guided Skiing- just the thought of it makes some people bristle! I have heard the phrase “there isn’t enough room in the American ego for a ski guide”. While this makes me chuckle, I can definitely understand where people are coming from. However, I would counter, that a day going out with a guide is well spent. It will allow you to brush up on some skills, learn a few new ones, and find the best snow in the area. This can be great if you don’t have time to plan a full tour, or if you are wondering about difficult avalanche conditions. On a private basis, you can cover a lot of material in one day, much more so than in a structured class with many people in it. Guided skiing will help you get the most out of the day, and you can leave the planning to the guide! Just go out, have fun, and learn a few new things!

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In summary, there are a lot of programs to choose from. Hopefully, I have illuminated some of the differences between different types of instructional experiences. If you contact us, feel free to share your goals with us and tell us what you want to do. We’ll be able to steer you in the right direction and get you into a program that meets your needs.

Spring into Summer Solstice

I always really enjoy the spring in Central Oregon. The months of April through June have a great variety of good climbing and skiing options in our area.  There are very  few areas in the US with as much diversity of great stuff to do as we have here.

My late April and May skiing had a few great trips on the docket. The great ski guide Martin Volken once said that this is the time of year when Cascades skiing turns from Good to Great. This is really the truth!

One of my favorite trips to do at this time of year in the Ski Circumnavigation of Mt Hood. Crossing as many as 7 glaciers, and with a vertical component of 4000 feet and 12 miles of skiing, this tour is great sample of the many faces of Mt Hood. This is Oregon classic, and not to be missed by any diehard volcano skier!

Zig Zag Glacier Mt Hood

Above, Christopher starting the tour at daybreak.

Some real ski mountaineering! Climbing up from the Reid Glacier to gain the Sandy Glacier.

Mike enjoying some of the more glaciated terrain on the north side of Mt Hood.

The reward for skiing halfway around the mountain? An excellent soft snow run down the Snow Dome to the Eliot Glacier.

The tour ends with a fantastic 3500 foot run down the White River Glacier to Timberline Lodge.

In May, the Central Oregon Peaks really show their best side, as this is when skiing around Broken Top and the Three Sisters is in it’s prime. One of my favorite tours in the area is Broken Top Bowl. There are many great open runs that grace the area. Some are steep, and others are pretty reasonable.

Here Joe and Caroline are looking forward to a great day skiing. The SE Shoulder of Broken Top is immediately behind.

On the ridge leading to the SE Summit, and the first run of the day– The East Ramp!

The East Ramp is a sweet shot, starting steep, and with cliff’s below, it feels like it has a lot of exposure. The turns were exhilarating.

Joe and Caroline skiing down the lower bowl with the ramp system behind.

Our next objective for the day, was Pucker Up, a steep SE facing run on the SW Ridge of Broken Top. We threw in a little ski mountaineering practice on the way, did some rope climbing and some great cramponing. This allowed us to check the conditions on the way up, instead of just jumping in from the top.

The view down below my ski tips.

Here is Caroline styling it on free – heel gear. What a great run.

Looking back at our last descent, what a great tour!

Skiing is beginning to wrap up around here now. But for the die-hards, there will be snow for a while yet. We don’t have any ski trips left on our calendar now, so it will be great to look forward to next season!

The Haute Route Ski Tour

This year, I had the pleasure of spending almost 1 month ski touring in France and Switzerland. I received a fantastic offer from John and Olivia Cussen to work with them at the Northwest Mountain School for their spring ski tour programs. I had a blast doing 3 Haute Route Ski tours back to back! John and Olivia have their Europe Programs dialed for logistics, and in this case logistics are more than half the battle!

Somewhat iconic as a ski tour, this route through the Alps was first done on foot in 1861. Sometime after that, and I’m not sure when, skiers picked it up as a great trip between two very famous alpine destinations: Chamonix and Zermatt. Now, there are a few variations of the tour and we had the Verbier Variation planned as our main goal. This variation suits skiers well, has some great downhill sections and good options for bail-outs if the weather turns bad.

At times, the use of mechanized transport such as trams, buses and trains are used to help move through the mountains. Some may look at this as some sort of cheating, but I would argue that it actually adds to the experience and allows skiers to see some great spots along the way.

At any rate, the tour typically begins by taking a bus from the town of Chamonix to the Grand Montet tram to get a great boost into the mountains. Here is a picture of our first group waiting at the bus stop.

After a quick bus ride, the Grand Montet tram wisks us up into the mountains to begin the tour with a huge downhill run to the Argentiere Glacier. Looking across the valley, you can see the Col du Chardonney, our first big climb of the tour.

Some of the biggest climbs and more technical type climbing and descending occurs the very first day! The descent from the Col du Chardonney is 80 meter roped descent, and the bonus is that you get to enter Switzerland on a rope! Below John says goodbye to France and hello to Switzerland as the weather fogs in on our second trip.

A bit later in the day, over the Feinetre de Saleina, we had some fairly serious belayed climbing and even had to make a few rock moves with crampons on! This was exciting ski mountaineering!

After overcoming these obstacles, our first night in the Trient Hut was a welcome relief! For our first group, we had an amazing glide in the sun to the hut. On the second trip, it was a bit of a fog fest, and I was glad I had the huts coordinates in my GPS!

Here Christopher and Gillian enjoy some front porch time at the Trient Hut with a beer. Now this is living it up!

Hut living is a great way to go in the Alps. There are many aspects of the huts that take some getting used to such as shared bathrooms, tight (but comfortable) sleeping arrangements and the many rigid Swiss rules at each hut. But the trade-offs that include great food, beer and wine and light packs really allow moving through the mountains to be a joy. No sleeping bags, tents or stoves needed! What a great way to travel!

Each hut dinner begins with a soup, then comes a salad, and then a main course. The main courses are usually some type of beef with rice or pasta and don’t worry, you can get as much as you want. There is also a small but tasty dessert too! Breakfasts are a little spartan, in my opinion, but I got used to the bread, jam, and muesli and made it work. A couple of the huts had crepes, and even a hard boiled egg later in the trip.

The morning of the second day begins with an exciting ski down the Trient Glacier icefall. An icefall typically forms where the glacial ice is stretched out over a convex rollover or steep section. This causes large crevasses to form, and great care must be taken on the descent. Slow careful negotiation is required to safely descend. Here Jennifer, Sarah, John and Erik pause on the descent.

Exciting the icefall itself below. Real glacial skiing, that’s for sure!

After this descent, come a technical climb over the Col des Ecandies. Again, some crampons on rock and a bit of steep snow get us up and over this technical crux.

Below Sarah, John, Jennifer and Erik enjoy the first rays of sun on top of the Col des Ecandies.

Next comes a long ski down the Val d’Arpette- a 1400 meter run down to the little quaint town of Champex.

Looking back up to the Col after a long descent. This was a fun ski descent. Arriving in the town of Champex on foot, both groups had a little time to hit the grocery store for some junkfood and wait for the bus.

This afternoon, our group will take a bus to the train and then a tram up to the famous ski town of Verbier. Here are a few pictures of our various groups enjoying a bit of mechanized transport.

And finally…at the Mt Fort Hut after skiing an icefall, climbing to a technical Col, taking a bus, taking a train, and then a tram! Let’s have a beer!

Starting out of day 3, we leave the Verbier ski area and head for the backcountry. The sunrise was fantastic on the first trip, with great views and lots of color.

This is one of my favorite days of the trip, because we typically include some skiing on Rosablanche, a peak climb that is along the way.

Here is Gillian, Christopher and Mike heading up the final pitch on Rosablanche. A great climb with nice views (if the weather is nice).

Team Oregon up on top! One of best things about climbing up a mountain is skiing down it, and this was no exception!

Dropping the additional 2000 feet down to the Praflueri Hut, the first group enjoyed a sunny afternoon lounging on the deck.

Day 4 begins with a climb on skis to Col de la Roux, followed by a long ski traverse above Lac du Dix. This part of the trip has some fun gliding above the lake, but eventually everyone’s left leg was tired from using the same muscle group! The views more than made up for the pain!

After the long climb out of Lac du Dix, lunch at the Dix hut was fantastic!

Its not a bad lace to grab a bite! After lunch it is possible to go for a tour on La Luette, but quite a few people take a nap instead.

These turns were a lot of fun! A nice little 670 meter run after lunch.

Day 5 started with a crazy mass exodus from the Dix Hut. Good weather and a good forecast had everyone scrambling to leave after breakfast. Here is a look up some of the terrain that is covered on the way up to the Pigne de Arolla. This is some big glacial terrain!

On the way up this huge climb, we were rewarded by amazing views of Mt Blanc de Chelion, an amazing peak opposite us.

After about 700 meters of climbing we emerged onto the ice cap at the top of the massif and made a quick climb up to the top of the Pigne de Arolla- the highest point on the Haute Route at approximately 3800 meters. Here is a picture of our second week’s group.

During the first trip, we had excellent visibility on the descent from the Pigne to the Vignettes Hut. With all sides dropping off into space, we skied a glacier perched in the sky down towards the hut.

Approaching the Vignettes Hut is really something out of movie. The hut is perched out on a cliff and the views are really something else if the weather is good. Below is the final approach to the hut.

The Vignettes Hut has some of the best Rosti on the whole Haute Route. Here are a couple hungry ski dudes waiting for me to take the picture so they can slay these potatoes!

The last day of the tour is a long one! Comprised of almost 25 km of skiing with close to 1200 meters of climbing, its a pretty solid push into Zermatt with unreal view of the mountains. On my 3 tours, I only made it once on this final day! Weather and poor visibility stopped us on the other attempts. Oh well, sometimes mother nature has her way with things. Below is a shot of our team climbing up the Col du Mont Brule, one of the only boot crampon climbs on the route.

Here is one of the biggest climbs on the whole route to the Col de Vallpeline. Its a long climb on skins, but none of it is too steep, its just really long.

Here is picture of our group on the Col de Valpelline enjoying the view of the Matterhorn before our descent down the Stockji Glacier.

Some of the views on the way down:

And finally….in Zermatt! Here Christopher and Michael in the center of town enjoying the ambience.

The Haute Route is an amazing trip! For folks who enjoy traveling through the mountains on skiis with a light pack, this trip is just  the thing! After doing this a few times, here are 5 tidbits to think about if you are interested in the tour:

1. Bring plenty of Swiss Francs for the huts, they don’t like credit cards.

2. Bring Starbucks Via instant coffee to add to your hut coffee if you are from the Northwest.

3. Always obey the hut warden’s rules at every hut or your life will be hell.

4. Before the trip make sure you practice side stepping and traversing efficiently.

5. Count on spending extra francs at the huts for wine and lunches, you will enjoy it! And…don’t make the conversion in your head to US Dollars.

Ice Climbing in Ouray, Colorado

I just returned from a fantastic week of ice climbing in Ouray. Some people would argue that Ouray is a mecca for the ice experience. The typically quick approaches and reliable conditions each season make the place a destination for the sport. One of the coolest things that I have ever seen is the Ouray Ice Park. Here, and old irrigation water pipe has been modified with modern plumbing to have water drip out at night into a canyon to “farm” ice climbs. Its simply spectacular!

Above is a picture of Kevin leading a steep man-made ice climb in the park. Many of the flows are created with the use of shower heads that are plumbed into the irrigation pipe.

Climbers typically begin by rappelling into the gorge and then climbing back out. This is a novel way to climb, as most climbs are approached by hiking up to them. It makes things fun and easy because there are so many different choices for climbs, and the access is quick. Did I mention that the park is a 10 minute walk from town? Now that is convenient.

Jane and Dan came for a couple of days, and we were able to pick up where we left off last year swinging the tools!

Our day began by rappelling into the gorge, in an area called the “New Funteer”. Above is a picture of Jane rapping in to our climbing area.

We were able to find some great climbs in this area and worked various techniques such as pick placements, footwork, and also using the natural handholds in the ice for upward progression. Below Dan, works on climbing up an over a small overhang in the ice.

On our second day, we did a few cool climbs in the “Scottish Gullies” area. Some of the climbs were in gullies and other were out on the faces which made for a lot of variety.

Below is picture of Pat O., topping out on one of the difficult mixed climbing test pieces called “Mighty Aphrodite”.

All in all, Ouray is hard to beat for ice climbing. The access, qualities of the climbs, the weather and hot springs make for a great trip to the San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado. Its really quite a place!


Acker Rock- Southern Oregon Adventure Climbing

This week Iain and I headed south from Bend to explore Acker Rock. For years both of us had heard of this spot, and we finally arranged a day to go. Acker is placed squarely between Highway 138 and 62, west of Crater Lake National Park. Geologically speaking it is composed of Quartz Latite, but for climbers like us, it just meant that it climbed like well featured granite.

Looking towards the Peregrine Traverse from the SW Wall.

At its tallest, Acker Rock is about 500 feet. Not bad for our neck of the woods. The longest route is the “Peregrine Traverse”, 5.7, and it is about 10 pitches long. We had other plans and decided to try “Where Eagles Dare”, 5.9, which is about 8 pitches long and climbs the center of the SW wall of the formation. One of the coolest features of the route is that in order to start, you must rappel down 5 or 6 rappels off to the side of the climbing. This heightens the sense of commitment, as there is really no good way up and out other than climbing up the route.

Iain in the mist

After a week of really hot weather in Central Oregon, we arrived at the trailhead in a light mist. We couldn’t believe it! The trees were dripping and the weather caught us off guard. This was an inauspicious start. We hoped things would get better as it looked like morning clouds that were going to burn off.

At the top of the rock, there is a really cool lookout that you can rent by the night. Its perched right up on top of Acker Rock and has some cool amenitites.

Iain on the final stairs to the lookout.

Here is a view of the lookout.

The lookout.

The lookout.

An interior view of the lookout. Seems like a great place to spend the night.

Inside of the lookout.

After checking around a bit. We decided to start looking for the top rappel station for “Where Eagles Dare”. Unfortunately, the weather looked like the photo below and it was tough to figure things out. We didn’t want to rap into the void!

Is there a rappel around here somewhere?

After consulting the guide and scrambling about, we thought we had located the rappel route.

Hopefully, this is the right way to go.

Above, Iain on the what turned out to be the right rappel! With the fog and light breeze, the whole area had a fairly austere feeling to it. Some would argue that it was Gothic! After 4 rappels, we still couldn’t see the ground!

Still rappelling into the fog. Its gotta be down here somewhere!

Finally, we found the base of the route, and some really wet, slippery grass. We found the start and began heading up the first pitch. We hoped it didn’t get any wetter! The sense of commitment was in the air! Below is Iain on the first pitch.

Pitch one featured a little moss.

It was good to be climbing and the weather wasn’t getting any worse. Pitch 2 began with some vertical face climbing and a tricky step across move.

Looking down to the top of Pitch 1.

Approaching the top of Pitch 2. A little tree thrashing, but hey, we are in Western Oregon.

After the first two pitches, the route really began to open up and steepen up. We climbed a really sweet 5.7 arete, that had some excellent exposure.

Ever increasing exposure and steep climbing in the middle of the route.

One of the highlights of the climb was the “terrible traverse” as indicated in the guidebook. It really wasn’t bad, it just required a bit of footwork and balance. For some reason, traversing is always seem tougher than it should be. Below is a short sequence of Iain coming across.

Starting the "terrible traverse".

Delicate side stepping.

Almost to the belay.

At this point, we starting to see some nice breaks in the weather. At least we weren’t going to get wet. We climbed up a really long, nice face and arete as the sun came out.

Some sun on the Peregrine.

Coming up to the belay at the top of Pitch 6.

The last 2 pitches were excellent, exposed face and arete climbing with great holds.

Exposed!

The final arete moves high above the valley floor!

Stepping across to the summit.

Another cool thing about the exit back to the lookout, is that we had to rappel off of the tower, down to a notch and climb out the other side.

Rapping off the last tower. This is feeling like alpine climbing!

At least the top! What a great route!

Iain on the top.

We took a short lunch break and then decided to climb another route on the SE wall called Black Magic. But that’s a whole ‘nother story……

Acker Rock was awesome. If you’d like to see more pictures of this exciting area, click this link:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/petekeane/sets/

Switzerland Climbing- Zermatt and Saas Fee Valleys

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of spending a week climbing with Jane and Dan in Switzerland along with John Race from the Northwest Mountain School as another guide. After a great year of climbing and preparing, we were ready to go experience some of the classic climbing that Europe has to offer. We did the trip as a 1:1 climber to guide ratio to give us great flexibility in some of the climbs that we choose. I think we all agreed it was a great way to go.

The first day in Zermatt, we awoke to clear skies and stellar views. We settled on an ascent of the Rifflehorn for our warm up day. This climb would provide a bit of acclimatization and some great rock climbing in an amazing setting. Below Jane, Dan, and John are hiking out with the Breithorn in the background. The approach included a train ride up to a short hike. Now that is mountaineering.

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