Splitboard Tour Kloben from Fuschertörl 5. Mai 2016
with: Chris Hesselbach, Clemens Hiller, Philip Volker, Michi Riepl
I was actually pretty happy to hear that my buddies were thinking about arranging a splitboard tour, now that the winter snowboard season is technically over. We have had a trying winter which didn’t really begin until February. There were only a couple of great powder days, as either the winds or the elevated temperatures destroyed what could have been epic riding days. One of the best days of the season on my local glacier was just last week at the end of April. Feeling like the season never really took off, we all still have quite a bit of ambition left in us. After 2 days of snow followed by a pubic holiday, it seemed like a recipe for a good adventure!
The guys planned to arrive at my house on Wednesday night in order to leave super early on Thursday morning. Around 10pm or so they rolled into the driveway and the craziness began. With splitboards, poles, helmets, avalanche gear and what-not from 5 people spread out in my living room and hallway, my place resembled a base camp more than a residence. There were ski repairs going on outside on my balcony, new climbing skins getting sized, avalanche beacons getting new batteries, binding readjustments and snack preparation. We had the music going in the background and the atmosphere was that of excitement and anticipation. I was looking forward to finally taking my board for a test run. Around midnight we were slowly finishing up and then the discussions began about what time we should be getting up at. My heart sank to my stomach when I heard them utter the idea to leave my house at 5 a.m. That would mean less than 4 hours of sleep but was reasonable since the avalanche danger increases as the day progresses. We slipped off to bed with visions of powder turns dancing in our heads!
As the alarm clock sang its penetrating song at “WTF” o’clock, I didn’t actually have a hard time getting up. I had not been able to fall asleep at all; had a cozy and relaxing 4 hours of laying in my bed thinking “SLEEP! You’ll regret this tomorrow!” instead. My place sprang to life with everyone scurrying around to get some food, brush their teeth, get dressed, go to the bathroom and get out the door. We didn’t even actually know if the road up the Grossglockner would be open with the new snow. We packed up the cars and set off towards the mountain pass. At the bottom of the road there was a traffic light of sorts, signaling the pass was closed. Chris called the toll booth further up, to ask if the taxis were at least running. Indeed they were, so we continued up to the parking area at the tolls. There was a local van-taxi ready and waiting for the mad rush up the mountain. We were there about the same time as a group in a Fischer (ski) van who were unpacking their skinny, light touring skis and minimalistic high-end equipment. We parked the cars and reserved a spot in the taxi as we lugged our gear over to load the van and pay the 23€ per person for the service. Our driver took one look at our bulky-esque splitboard gear and mumbled something about snowboarders under his breath but just loud enough for us all to hear. You have to laugh at the fact that there are still skiers and resorts out there who have a problem with snowboarding. With big smiles we loaded into the van and began the journey up the pass to the Fuschertörl. There were still some obstinate clouds blocking our view of the sun, but about half way up the winding road we emerged from the soup and into the sunshine. Towering and imposing mountain walls arose out of the fog and took our breath away. The high def look of the majestic peaks covered in a thick white blanket and a bluebird sky provoked some Ohhs and Ahhs… I think most of us began to drool a little, I know I did.
Arriving at our drop off at the Fuschertörl, we unloaded and prepared ourselves for the hike. Our driver warned everyone to be safe especially at the start which required traversing straight across an exposed face which had not been ridden since the last snowfall yet. Overall I was quite wary of the conditions as I usually tend to be. It had been a horrible winter for snow and safety, 3 people I knew had been killed by avalanches this year and another good friend was buried but luckily dug out in time. The power of Mother Nature is something I do not want to underestimate. She doesn’t care how much experience someone had or how expensive and thorough your gear is… even if you respect her completely you might find yourself on the receiving end of her wrath. While I have begun to really make peace with the reality of risk taking and the finality of what could happen, it doesn’t mean I’m ready for “game over.” Finding the balance of risk and fun is the real challenge, I suppose.
The group of Fischer skiers hurried off to be the first into the face; we didn’t bother stressing and were fine with letting them test the conditions on the traverse. They stayed quite grouped together rather than leaving space between them which seemed odd for a face with new snow. Once there was a safe distance, Philip lead our group into the face as our only skier. He plugged along but it was clearly more difficult than it looked. The slope was pretty hard/icy with a bit of sugary snow on top making it hard to keep the skis from sliding down rather than across the face. Once he reached a safe spot we sent the first splitboarder, Michi. He tried the traverse set up as a snowboard rather than split into the hiking “ski” mode. He struggled with the skins on and ended up riding more down than across and had to hike back up. The rest of us waited for him to get back on track as it seemed potentially dangerous to traverse above him. If we would have set anything off he would have been a sitting duck. The next car load of people arrived and the stress began. Several older men raced to drop in in front of us, traversing across the face with skis flattering around, sending little crusty chunks of snow flying. It was quite annoying to see hordes of people following suit. In no time flat there were easily 25-30 people lined up along the mountain. It looked like a small exodus. There were a few egos or aggressively result-oriented hikers underway. Some clearly didn’t even have proper avalanche equiptment with them; likely to save weight but there is no excuse for not being able to help in case of an emergency. That’s irresponsible. We just let all go first to try to not have to deal with them. Michi made it back up to the trail and began plugging along as Chris entered the face next. It was especially suspenseful watching him go, knowing that he had never skied in his life. It’s not that splitboarding is the same as skiing, but I find its helpful to know how to ski when trying to control both feet independently in a forwards motion rather than secured onto one board and moving sideways. I think anyone who has tried skiing the first time can attest to the trickiness of day 1. He found a solution to the problems of the icy patches kind of sidestepping which worked out well. Once he reached the track he plugged on ahead like a locomotive. I dropped in next trying to ski the trail regardless of the skins. It worked out more or less, even though I may have looked like an idiot with no athletic prowess, over-steering the skis. I negotiated the hard spot with less difficulty than I expected and continued along the long stretch of tracks across the white face.
Each step during the initial traverse, required shifting weight up onto the left leg which was in a higher track than the right one due to the angle of the slope. After an imperceptible amount of time, my left butt cheek was getting sore from the overload and the right one felt oddly excluded from the ordeal. It really was a relief to reach a section which was more more evened out left to right, even though the steepness grew. It wasn’t too difficult to fall into a routine of taking steps and planting the poles. My new skins were holding the snow well and it was similar to ascending a staircase. The snow kind of crunched under the skins followed by a clicking noise the bindings make when you push one ski forward. It becomes something kind of meditative, once you hit a rhythm. Overlooking the trail in front us, speckled with little dots of people making their way up, really gives you a perspective on how massive this environment is. Nature is the champion of making you feel small and humble when you pause a minute to take it all in. A tenacious thin layer of fog was still nestled in the valley below us almost as if we were amid a sea of mountains. It was possible to see the contrast of the green valley below it and the bright white slopes surrounding us. It looked surreal.
The trail continued pretty much straight up the bowl then made a kind of right hand turn along the back wall, up to the ridge leading to the peak. I paused at a safe place to drink some water and recharge before beginning the final stretch traversing to the summit ridge. I was joined by Clemens and an older ski tourer who we chatted with for a few minutes before continuing on.
The ramp up to the ridge traversing the last section of the bowl proved to be less strenuous than expected, which was a pleasant surprise. Reaching the ridge leading up to the summit was exactly the opposite, however. The wind was howling up over the edge and the consistency of snow changed from almost sticky in the final traverse, to hard packed crust with a slippery sugar layer on top. The wind was refilling the ski track with snow, making each step torture as my skins slightly slipped sideways and/or downhill. It got cold fast and some clouds were rolling in blocking the sun. It was quite unenjoyable. I grew concerned with the weather, as the report said it would cloud over in the afternoon. Fighting for grip with every step while being battered by the wind was only exacerbated by some stupid guy who kept kicking the back of my ski impatiently, rather than just going around me. I was pretty slow on this last section as I didn’t have the ski crampons for these conditions but this guy was just a royal ass. I questioned whether or not it made sense to bother with the summit as the conditions were miserable. But we weren’t far off and it would make it much easier to convert the splitboard back, stow the climbing skins and tighten boots to ride etc., so we pushed on. After a short eternity, I reached the summit which was nice and flat: great for the gear changes we needed to make; but the wind was insane. It did look kind of cool blowing snow over the edge and into the sky… almost like it was on fire. But the reality of being up there and having to deal with the wind and snow while fiddling with the gear, led to frozen stiff fingers (and body!) as well as a fair amount of involuntary swearing. It was miserable in an adventurous way. In fact, just the presence of the guys I was with, made it feel fun rather than just crappy. Everyone struggled with making the changes as fast as possible while keeping things from blowing off the summit in the relentless nonstop gust. I was particularly impressed with those who managed to change from a sweaty t shirt into a dry one (which is actually the right thing to do but not necessarily a cake walk in that weather!). I just opted to just layer up as I was about a minute away from becoming a human popsicle whilst derobing. I fought with frozen stiff fingers and my hoodie blowing around in the way trying to get my goggles back on which Clemens ended up helping out with. Chris was the first one ready and began helping the rest of us with refitting the boards to “ride” mode which essentially means putting the “ski” halves we hiked on, together to make a snowboard, as well as repositioning and securing the bindings. I was thankful for that as it helped get us ready to descend sooner. It was yet another reinforcement of collective community spirit that these guys have which I love about them. It felt like a family rather than group of buddies with everyone truly watching out for each other. It might seem to be a small thing but surprisingly you often see people only looking out for themselves; such as in the mundane old adage “no friends on a powder day” mentality.
Ready to get the heck off that summit, we all began our descent over the rolling ridge down towards the col leading into a massive gully where our route went. As the top of the mountain was a convex roller, it was not possible to see more than a few feet in front of us which made choosing a line down to the col a bit more challenging. I opted for the middle which looked less cliff-like initially than the right-hand route. It turned out to be a bad decision as I found myself in the middle of a loose rocky section with a thin layer of sticky snow on top. It made traversing impossible because my brand new board got caught on sharp rocks which were getting pulled out and rolled down the long slope beneath me. Unstrapping and hiking would likely also not have worked with all that rubble. I tried to kind of hop up on all fours, to a bit of a path which was less rocky above me but I just uncovered even more rocks where it looked OK and was killing my edges so I tried further below. Leaning with hands and knees on the mountain trying to lift my board up and over the rocks then lower it, was beyond sketchy. There was another round of creative expletives coming out of my mouth in that section. I knew I couldn’t rush it because if I had started slipping down it would have likely ended up in tomahawking backwards. After what felt like another eternity, I reached a section with actual snow and quickly joined the guys at the col marking the entrance of the gully.
It was a lot more enjoyable here as it was fairly wind protected and offered a magnificent view down different aspects of the mountain. Towering rocky faces rose high above us on the left as we faced the wide, snow-filled gully opening up below us. It wasn’t particularly steep and offered a long view of the ride ahead. We dropped in one by one and hunted for the fresh snow and soft turns. There were hoots of Yuuhooooo and Waaaaahooo reaching my ears in stereo from the frontrunners and everyone had a big fat smile on their faces at each meet up spot. After the first section of the gully, the route took something of a right hand turn into the next section which was even wider and a bit flatter. There were already mad amounts of skinny ski tracks and unfortunately many traversing tracks in that gully. It seems that at least half of the ski tourers were ridiculously awkward on skis, focusing on the climb and making it down the mountain “somehow”. As a freerider, we like it backwards; the hiking is a means to an end and the descent is the prize. I found some fresh, better snow on the far right-hand side of the gully however riding it caused it to begin to slide. I kept my eye on it as it pretty much came to a stop once it hit the sun-baked snow further down. The snow was really sticky already and made riding cleanly or fast, an impossibility. Coming up to the start of the final section leading through a smaller gully; all bumped out from old avalanche debris, we paused at the top until skiers below us reached a safe spot. There were some wet snow avalanches triggered high above us on the opposite side of the gully as the sun baked against the rocky face. The rolling river of snowballs picked up speed in no time flat and was channeled by the terrain into a tight shoot where it then became airborne over a cliff and cascaded down in a thunderous roaring snowy waterfall. That picked up even more speed and snow as it approached the second rock cliff exploding over the edge and pouring over. It was as beautiful as it was terrifying knowing that we would have to ride below that face to the end of the snow. The final gully was essentially filled with avalanche snow, which meant it was anything but flat and ride-able. The snowballs created in an avalanche become rock hard chunks of bumpiness once they come to a rest. The older debris was hard as it froze overnight, but luckily the new debris was still squishy. That last portion of the gully was just a mess and extremely strenuous, fighting to stay balanced on these lumpy, jarring chunks while having the base of the board stick to the snow as if it were a carpet. Reaching the end in one piece, we decided to get further down, out of the gully and off the snow before taking a break to strip down into fewer layers and prepare for the short hike back out to the road where we could take the taxi back to the parking lot.
We found a little grassy knoll at the foot of the gully where we set up for a small pick-nick and round of relaxation. The guys cracked open their “summit beer” which likely would have been consumed at the summit had it not been howling gale forced winds up there. As we removed layers of clothing and unpacked our snacks, there were more thunderous roars of avalanches we could safely watch above us. It was hypnotizing to behold. As we began to pack up our belongings to hike the rest of the way out a helicopter made its way towards us. That wasn’t a good sign at all. It circled around and then crossed back to the open fields a little below us. The hooked a doctor or rescue worker up to the cable and flew back up into the lower section of the final gully to drop them off. We didn’t know if someone had been caught in an avalanche above us, if it was a training drill or just a precaution, but soon after 3 more helicopters flew in and several police and mountain rescue cars arrived. There wasn’t actually any kind of chaos or stress visible so we hoped that it was nothing serious. While the guys finished packing up, I started first down towards a small mountain stream over a grassy bumpy slope with a few poop landmines from various animals. I had seen earlier groups hike that way towards a small patch of trees leading ultimately to the dirt road leading out of the valley. After about only 10 meters I looked back and saw a tall waterslide-like waterfall over a smoothly rounded stoney slope. It made an interesting frame to a picture of our rest place which had the avalanche debris on the opposite side of the guys. I thought it worthy a picture and had to rely on my cell phone camera as I managed to leave the SD card for the GoPro at home. It definitely didn’t do it justice. I continued on to the small stream bustling on down the mountain, surely having originated from the melting snow we just enjoyed. With stepping only on one stone in the middle, I crossed onto the other side and waited for the guys to catch up, still drinking up the scene directly in front of me. We took a moment to swig a drink from the stream right after Chris socked Philip squarely in the kisser with a snowball from a small unmelted patch in a shady spot. Never a dull moment with us! We walked through some sparse woods without a clear trail but offering many ways to reach the dirt road leading along the fields where the helicopters were stationed. I managed to hook a boot lace around a stub stepping over a small fallen tree whilst ducking under some boughs. I hooked it when my foot was at the end of the step essentially, right before I was to move it forward to shift on to. Well, it caught me by surprise and I was only able to move my foot slightly forward before it was pulled back by the tricky little tree. Balancing awkwardly still on my left foot and waving the snowboard around in the air under my right arm, I tried to step again not really having registered what the problem was and made the same wiggly motion again. I think I may have actually tried that about 4 or 5 times before getting myself back under control, oddly enough without falling. I am pretty sure my dance resembled that of Burt from Sesame Street doing the “er er Pigeon.” Or maybe like that awkward dance move whose name I actually just googled and is literally called “The messed up 80’s dance.” After that poised display of grace, I joined the guys at the start of the main dirt road as more police drove past. The trail lead past a fun little bridge made of 2 logs and some crosswise panels of wood. There were some marshy/swampy sections with snapped off, dried-out trees which made me think of my Dad who loves that. Both sides of the valley offered various waterfalls and scenery to take in.
When we reached the taxi meeting point there were more police and mountain rescue so we inquired about the avalanche. They had been called believing potentially several people were buried, but luckily it turned out to be a precautionary search with only one guy partially buried and able to get out himself. I was doubly happy that we didnt spend much time on the summit as we might have been directly involved with the avalanches.
Ready to go was a trailer hitched to the taxi-van where we could sit with some others to ride back to the parking lot. It was more fun riding back that way and we had some laughs with the others hitching a ride. It stopped at the Tauernhaus where we opted to get a bite to eat and something to drink before heading back to the cars, parked just a few hundred meters away. The weather at the bottom was summer-like warm with only a gentle and refreshing breeze. We were able to strip down to t shirts again and lay our wet gear out on the grass to begin drying. We had fun on a teeter toter and swings before our drinks arrived. We enjoyed some sunshine, refreshing drinks and good food at the Tauernhaus, which had a very friendly staff, before beginning our trip home. After reloading the cars with gear we spent a few final minutes sitting on a blanket in the sun at the cars. I arrived home happy but really looking forward to a nap since I hadn’t actually slept the night before. All in all it was a great adventure with fantastic people. I knew I would appreciate the sore muscles which were certain to arrive as soon as I was rested enough to be aware of any feelings other than drowsy. I said farewell to the guys who piled back into the car and set off for Salzburg and fell onto my couch physically and mentally drained in a happy way. We’ve got to do this again!