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.

3225-717949

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!

16463965183_6c9bffe404_z

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!

17083424691_fe2599ac7c_z

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.

17058180056_fceb995e29_z

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.

17087140115_f82b5f0cef_z

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.

16466986713_f3da944f58_z

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.

16900928249_f51d6d162f_z

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!

16900970019_8fb2ab7fe9_z

16899634460_26982a3f8f_z-2

16899421138_19803aeba2_z

16900983449_9467389194_z

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.

IMG_3499

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.

IMG_6427

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.

IMG_6196

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!

IMG_6371

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.

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/