Ötscher: A Life Changing Weekend

I had wanted to go on a ski tour for ages, so why didn’t I start sooner? Ok ok, I have to admit it… I don’t know how to ski in powder or deep snow!! Where would I have learned that? I grew up on America’s East Coast after all!! Give me an icy granular slope and its no problem, but deep powder?! Hmm…I guess I figured that tucking the entire stretch wouldn’t be difficult, but what if there happened to be a tree or a cliff or something…that would be game over for sure!! Since I was pretty well sure that there were no major mountains in lower Austria I figured it was about time to give it a shot! So I drove to Salzburg where I met up with a friend Georg. He had offered to continue driving from Salzburg on so I could leave my car there. We drove through the amazing mountain scenery surrounding Salzburg and slowly but surely, the mountains became smaller and somewhat rounder…we reached our first pit stop at nighttime in heavy snowfall…a friend of Georg’s offered to lend us some snowshoes, that is AFTER the obligatory beer and schnapps of course! So we settled in and chatted for a while until it was time to move on…our next stop was at his nephew’s house to pick up an avalanche beacon. Finally we headed towards the village Gaming to pick up a pair of touring skis that I would be borrowing from some more of Georg’s friends…the skis were in a family’s garage. He opened the garage door and there must have been at least 20 pairs of skis in there! Every imaginable kind of ski was there, from the newest Carving to the old tree beams which looked like they should be hanging up in an Aprés Ski Hut on the mountain side! As Georg reached for those exact skis, I knew that I was in for it…the next day kind of flashed before my eyes in a movie sequence…it wasn’t looking good for me! I was a little uncertain about the strength of the rusty old bindings and where once may have been a sharp metal edge was replaced by a rusty metal strip which looked like everything except an edge or sharp! “Oh God!” I thought! Tomorrow was going to be interesting, that was for sure! We loaded the loot into Georg’s car and set off to meet up with some more of his friends. In the village bar was a group of his acquaintances gathered together and we joined them. Considering what lay ahead for me the next day, I ordered a very large beer. The people at the table were really friendly and I bonded with them right away. We did end up drinking quite a large amount and laughed even more. One of the guys was celebrating his birthday and everyone was in a great mood. At some point it was time to go to the next location to continue the party. Only a small group of die-hards continued on to the next bar where we finally decided to go and get some sleep as 5:30am rolled around! I woke up sometime around noon and was overwhelmed with the feeling that I was going to miss out on the day. I sprang out of bed to get ready full of energy and excitement (don’t ask me how that was possible, I was also pretty perplexed!). Full of pep and wanting to get going, I woke Georg up who looked at me through a half-opened eye with a lot of mistrust and skepticism. But I was so excited to finally go on my first ski tour that I didn’t capitulate until he was fully awake. We grabbed a bite to eat for breakfast and headed out to find a climbing skin for my antique skis. We didn’t find anything at Intersport and tried the next sports store. Things didn’t look much better there either because the relics needed especially long skins which no one seemed to have. That meant that I (unfortunately 😉 had to rent a new pair of skis from the store…bummer 😉 So I rented a hot looking pair of carving touring skis and we finally headed towards the Ötscher Mountain. Since it was pretty late to be beginning the ski tour, we decided to take the ski lift up to the top of the ski resort where we would then skin up to the summit. The snow was a dream, light fluffy powder almost knee deep. My first steps with the touring skis felt pretty natural and I quickly settled into the hiking rhythm regardless of the major lack of sleep from the night before. Tracking (being the first person to track through the snow) was only slightly strenuous thanks to the soft loose powder snow. We made good time hiking up. We soon reached a mini-col in the mountain where we had to take a left to head up towards the summit. Georg took over with tracking from there on since I had no idea of where exactly we had to go. The ascent became substantially more difficult due to innumerable small mountain pine trees which only partially peeked out of the snow. It was necessary to try to kind of step up on top of the trees with the skis like a staircase. This was far more difficult than it looked because often I was only actually standing on a part of the tree which was not very strong and cost a great deal of strength and balance . It was a kind of side stepping up the mountain because it was rather steep at this point. The snow was too soft to provide a base for the ski poles to brace the acrobatic procedure which turned the whole thing into a total body balance act. The poles sunk into the deep snow all the way to the handles when I tried to put any amount of weight on them at all. Another complication was simply the fact that the bindings for touring skis allow a free movement of the heel of the boot, similar to a cross country or telemark ski, that meant when I lifted my knee up towards my chest, the ski did not stay parallel to the snow, but the tip came up and the back of the ski remained in the snow. This resulted in both the ski tip and the ski end somehow getting caught and tangled up in the tree’s branches with every “step.” Several times I managed to get the ski tip really jammed under a branch which was so covered with snow that it was practically cemented down. The only way to get the ski free was then to swing my whole leg backwards (really far backwards) oh boy oh boy…the whole thing was insanely precarious! After we finally made it past the mountain pines we followed the wide ridge of the mountain. There was an extremely strong wind blowing up the face of the mountain and over the ridge. The top layer of snow was blown high into the air and somehow froze into little ice crystals which the wind whipped hard against us, especially against any exposed skin. It felt like millions of tiny pieces of glass drilling into my face. I was totally convinced that my face was a bloody mess from the way it felt from the brutal icy wind. The strains of my hair which stuck out from under my cap froze solid and were coated with an armor of the tiny ice crystals. Thanks to the fact that I have long hair, the wind used my own hair as a weapon against me, blowing the frozen pieces hard against my face repeatedly, it was about the tempo of a hummingbird’s wing. It was pure horror. The wind didn’t blow from just one side either, but seemed to come from all directions at the same time. Strong gusts of wind challenged my equilibrium. All I wanted at that point was to get off of the ridge. It seemed like Georg wasn’t too ecstatic about our situation either because he finally make a small left turn and tried to find a more protected route for us to follow. The wind was somewhat weaker below the ridge but continued to blow the snow all around us. As we reached a kind of a wind sheltered dip in the path, it was like day and night and the joy of the ascent returned to me. There was a kind of a crossing where an extremely narrow track had already been made. The crossing was basically very steep snowdrifts where the right side climbed back up to the ridge and the left side shot down in a nearly direct vertical drop to the valley below. I was able to reach my right arm out towards the mountain and actually touch the snow, without even bending my body to the side!! Our little track was just barely wide enough for 2 skis, one slightly higher up than the other one, but not any wider than that. I felt like my left ski was balancing in thin air because the snow was so fluffy and light. I tried as much as possible to keep my weight on the right side as I inched along holding my breath the whole length of the traverse. I was immensely relieved to reach the other side and sincerely hoped to never see that crossing again. The ascent continued up a sloped rocky terrain where my skies did not often find a firm grip on top of the sugar coated rocks below. Then the wind started up again, or better said, we re-entered the wind-zone. It was as strong and unforgiving as it was earlier on the ridge. Everything became less than enjoyable again. We neared the ridge once again which was thankfully somewhat wider here. With an unbelievable force, the wind gusted hard against my left side blowing me to the right; naturally I positioned my entire weight onto my left side to counterbalance the force against me. It was clear that the wind suddenly stopped blowing and came with a gusty attack then from the right side which didn’t even take that much effort to blow me over onto my left side where all my weight was on my ski anyway. I was extremely relieved to have fallen to my left side which was the mountain side and not to the right which was the downhill side. Getting back up onto my skis in deep snow with a backpack on and ski poles which sunk down to the handles was not as easy as it sounds. This circus show took place 2 more times and little by little I was getting sick and tired of having to try to get back up onto the skis because it cost so much energy every time. Georg wasn’t aware of my difficulties as he was pretty far ahead of me, I was actually pretty glad about that because a spectator would have made it all more embarrassing. I followed Georg’s track further and further until finally the long sought-after summit cross came into view. It was absolutely breathtaking! It did actually kind of remind me of my freezer which I haven’t thawed out this century…it was completely covered in ice which was about 40cm long and sticking out horizontally! I was grinning inside (since my cheeks were too frozen to form a real smile) because I didn’t have to think hard to understand how the ice could have formed that way. We took some quick summit pictures because it was extremely cold there when we weren’t moving. My heart started racing faster as I realized that the dreaded descent was approaching. I took a better look around me and could not imagine for the life of me how on earth I was supposed to ski this. Little bushes and rocks peeked through the snow everywhere, not to mention the area where the slope dropped off rapidly into the north face…but I had to get down somehow. I locked the Fritschi binding firmly down into the ski position and got ready to try it. There is a German saying which goes “all beginnings are difficult” well in this case the snow was firmly pressed down thanks to that wind and the slope resembled a ski slope at a resort as far as quality went, so although I was still somewhat stiff and not relaxed since I hadn’t been on skis in ages, I made it to the death-traverse without a problem. I watched as Georg skied pretty fast over the traverse. I could imagine that my face mirrored pure terror at that moment…I realized that the traverse actually slightly slanted downhill which I did not at all realize on the way up. I was pretty panicked for a moment…how was I supposed to slow down when my entire weight was balanced on only one ski on a trail which was just wide enough for that one ski?!?! “Oh man oh man!!” I thought! Gathering up my entire reserve of leftover courage, I put my life in the hands of the fate of the traverse. It felt like a decade until I was in safety again. In the middle of the crossing, I had looked down the drop-off and tried to formulate an emergency plan of what to do should I some how find myself descending that particular gully…nothing came to mind except some pretty ugly images of how it could have looked. I felt relieved as I arrived at the other side. A short distance went pretty well, and then it began getting steep again. I started to curse myself for having had the bright idea that I could/should start doing ski tours at my age…I actually thought to my self, “Girl, it is time to start understanding that you aren’t 20 anymore!” I was very frustrated and doubted my skiing ability totally and finally capitulated. I told Georg that I couldn’t do it anymore and it was not meant for me. I took the skis off and was determined to hike back down the entire mountain. Georg was quite patient with me and helped me strap my skis up on my backpack. Then he took his skis off and hiked too out of solidarity. The sun hung low on the horizon and I estimated that we had only about 1 hour more of daylight, but we were still far away from our goal, we hadn’t even reached the mountain pine segment yet! The slope gradually lessened in degree and more importantly, it was no longer possible to look over the edge down into the north face of the mountain. Considering the late hour, I decided to strap the skies on again and give it another shot. I figured I could ski the small segment up to the entrance in the forest at the very least. So I painstakingly managed to get back onto the skis which was no easy matter in hip deep snow! I stood up and sailed down the mountain in the luscious powder snow. It was amazing! I had the feeling that I was just floating along! My skis sank about knee deep into the snow and the resistance that the snow provided slowed me down to an enjoyable speed. The snow flew up lightly in the air past me and all of a sudden, I understood entirely why people did this. I felt completely weightless. We approached the edge of the forest and as stopping was not yet on my repertoire of skills, I decided to brake by falling bottom first feather light into the snow. I discovered that falling was actually fun (at least here where it was extremely deep snow!). I looked around me in the forest and found some lanes where the trees were a good distance away from each other which made for a great line of attack. I decided to go for it. I made my way down the mountain in massive zigzag lines where I usually crashed at the end where I wanted to change directions since turning was also nearly impossible for me. The process of getting back up out of the snow was quite tiresome, but the fun I had crashing in the deep snow out weighed the efforts and I kept to my strategy. I started actually seeing the trees less as danger and death and more as a padded braking alternative since the branches were so heavily loaded with snow. I felt like I could have been somewhere in Lapland Finland because of the radiant blue sky and trees which were covered in brilliant white. We soon exited the forest and arrived at the col where our ascent had begun with the left hand turn several hours ago. I was at the top of a wide, knee deep snowy former ski trail which had not been groomed by the ski machines. I decided that the time had come to seriously give my best and try a few carving curves. Off I went! It was not the most aesthetic descent ever, but somehow I was able to make a few wobbly curves before the crash. Filled with excitement and joy, I got up and tried again, crashed again got up tried again, crashed again…it was pure enjoyment! This floating and feeling of being as light as a feather… a dream! As I reached the bottom of the former trail, I looked back up to evaluate my carving swings…hmm… they didn’t really look as swingy as they felt as I was making them, but as it was possible to recognize the beginning of some kind of change in direction, I was fully satisfied and proud of my progress!! Georg made it down in a somewhat more stylish fashion and we skied down the remainder of the mountain on the normal ski trail. By the time we arrived at the car, it was nearly too dark to really see. Thanks to the massive exertion of the tour, we were insanely hungry and started in on cooking some noodles right away. I had my portion finished and began to eat slowly as I turned my attention to what Georg was doing. He was involved in some kind of hand to hand combat with his gas stove. After filling the gas cartridge up, he somehow managed to spill about half of the really badly smelling fuel onto the ground, his pants, jacket and the rest onto his gloves. I figured that we had probably lost at least 5 years of our lives within the last 2 minutes because of the toxic fumes of the spilled fuel. I had finished eating and he had managed to ignite everything except the stove. I offered him my Jetboil stove to cook with and he stopped torturing himself with his stove and accepted. We cleaned up and climbed into the car half frozen, completely happy not only to have made it, but to have done it.

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