Ski Mountaineering

Skiing in Tirol, Austria

Jan 28-Feb 6, 2006

Reiner Stenzel

This is a report of a private ski trip to the Alps, more precisely to Tyrolea in the heart of Austria where I first learned to ski. The occasion was a family gathering and once in a while it is good to go back to one's roots. Twelve of us stayed in a former farm house with comfortable guest rooms in the small town of Ladis high above the river Inn. It is off the beaten track and mostly visited by locals and Europeans. There is a highly developed ski area connecting three towns (Ladis-Fiss-Serfaus) with 53 ski lifts and 175km of ski runs.

Snow conditions were superb. A high pressure gave us six days of sunshine, something unheard of in the Alps. Luckily we missed the Siberian cold wave that had dominated the Alps with record low temperatures earlier this year.

Every type of winter activities was going on: Downhill skiing, nordic, touring, snow shoeing, sledding, ice scating, even hang gliding. Of course, we did mostly downhill skiing but after four days of yo-yoing I had the urge of climbing a peak. However, solo backcountry trips are a bit risky because of ever-present avalanche conditions in the steep terrain. Most peaks have a cross on the summit. Sometimes you may need a guardian angel on your way.

The lift-served ski area was so large that one could not cover all runs in one day. Thus we explored new terrain every day, working from easy to difficult runs. Lift tickets are all electronic, cost less than in the US and are valid for three connected ski terrains. Easy runs are marked blue, intermediates red, hard ones black and really steep, corresponding to our double black diamonds. Short carving skis and snowboards are the norm, and I was probably the only telemarker on the slopes. Any skiing ability can be seen. A most impressive sight is the large number of small kids on skis, some only three years old. By the age of 10 my grand-nephew is already a fearless racer who skis black diamond runs straight down the fall line. There are also quite a few white-haired skiers on the slopes. Thus, skiing seems a sport for life in Austria.

Skiing in the Alps is not necessarily a wilderness experience, because there you are not too far from towns and cities with so much culture and history. Innsbruck, the capital of Tirol, has wonderful churches, castles, a memorial for Habsburg emperor Maximilian, and a long history of music, art and literature. Many smaller towns have castles on top of rocks and picturesque churches which frequently ring their bells. The Svarovski crystal factory near Innsbruck delights all ladies. The river Inn has icy green water and is flanked by rimed trees in a white winter landscape. In the evening it is fun dine out and enjoy Tyrolean music, although it is not easy to understand the local dialect which approaches Swiss German spoken in the upper Inn valley, the Oberengadin.

Our travel to Austria via Munich brought us through the Bavarian Alps. We could not resist to stop by the fairytale castle of NeuSchwanstein. It is quite a sight in the middle of winter! The land was deeply snowed in, all trees were rimed from a freezing fog and the castle towers vanished in the clouds. The castle interior was strongly influenced by Richard Wagner's musical themes. But in spite of its splendor, at -10 deg C outside temperatures, our visit to King Ludwig's non-heated stone castle did not last too long.

The last spectacular sight of a winter landscape was from the plane flying over southern Greenland. There were few clouds so that one could clearly see mountains, glaciers and icebergs. In contrast to summertime the Atlantic Ocean was now partially frozen over. However, the concensus is that global warming causes the arctic ice to recede.

Although snow covered much of the mountains some glaciers appeared dry with open crevasses. The fractal shape of the snow-covered coast is not too different from the dry desert mountains near the Colorado River seen a few hours later. The dry spell also extended into Southern California where the only skiable slopes were man-made.

If you have the opportunity to ski in the Alps try Austria where the skiing is great, it is not overrun and overpriced, and you can combine skiing with great sightseeing.

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