Silvretta ski tour

April 2013

Ski  mountaineering is definitely the best way to get around the hills in winter and an easy way to access Alpine summits - we ticked off 9 peaks in 6 days! Ski touring involves the fun and speed of downhill skiing, placing skins on the undersides of the skis for uphill skiing and swapping the skis altogether for crampons and ice axes for steeper sections. This year the Silvretta Alps on the Austrian/Swiss border was the Bowline ski touring destination. I had heard the mountain huts were luxurious but I wasn't quite expecting such comfort and so much food!

Four of us (Ed Procter, Zoe Procter, Max Cole and Will Wheale (LMC member and co-opted Bowline member) decided to plan the trip in an area with several mountain huts open from mid February so our initial itinerary was geared around the 5 nights booked in specific huts but we modified that slightly due to weather and snow conditions.

The team mugshots

The avalanche forecast was not good before we left after a fresh dump of snow and some high winds but our first day started off well with some great sunshine to stabilise the fresh snow. We started on the slopes of the Ischgl ski resort where we spent some time finding our ski legs and 3 hours was enough time to get fed up of the crowds and in need of mountain freedom and solitude and we eyed our route off to the horizon to the west of the slopes and soon were making fresh tracks and heading off on our adventure. As we had an easy first day, we headed off to bag two mountain tops on the way, both of which we could skin all the way up (and ski back down).

Max and Will staying clear of the cornices

We did two day tours overall, but we were all happiest when we were on the move hut-to-hutting and we always managed to squeeze in a few detours along ridges and up a few extra peaks and then we could brag about it later to the other teams who were mostly heading between the same huts. It was great to be a small group of 4 and stay close together and enjoy the tranquility of the mountains but on one day when we had been moving through mist and snow all day, approaching Grenzeck Kopf,  we heard some voices and ended up joining 27 Austrians perched around the summit cross singing Easter songs and being generally jolly. Of course Ed decided to do as the locals do and sample some of the local wine at over 3000m. Dreilländer spitze was a more technical scramble to the most knife edge alpine summit I had ever been up but we didn't hang around to enjoy the views as the visibility was about 10 ft!

 

Skiing down a glacier in white out conditions when you can't see more than 5 ft ahead is rather disconcerting but Max did a sterling job slow motion skiing at the front coming off Dreilländerspitze while Will shouted out directions for the correct bearing and Ed and I created some features to focus on in between. Poor Max ended up with a splitting headache from focussing on various shades of white - another ski touring ailment to add to the back strain both he and Ed sustained from a yoga session we did in the hut on the second day- well, he refused to fall while skiing, so he had to have some weaknesses!

Amazing downhills made the uphills well worthwhile

Our German meteorology and snowpack vocabulary increased significantly throughout the week and Max took every opportunity to teach us more about the snowpack and talk us through the types of snow and point out any signs of avalanche risks on any of the slopes. We even tried to look after the locals as a team following us down one poor visibility day took a detour that brought them out onto the top of a small feature with a massive cornice on it that we could see below them from our vantage point and they couldn't. Three of us wildly gesticulating to get them to continue to contour from their stationary position rather than head straight on went to no avail as their leader headed straight off the cornice, dropping about 5 metres into deep snow with the cornice collapsing on top of him in a big pile. We watched the impressive drop, saw he was OK and then hoped to laugh about it with him afterwards but they gave us a wide berth that evening out of embarrassment. Listening to the English in the Alps can be useful for your safety!

The good weather couldn't last but two days of snow brought us some nice powder

Our German meteorology and snowpack vocabulary increased significantly throughout the week and Max took every opportunity to teach us more about the snowpack and talk us through the types of snow and point out any signs of avalanche risks on any of the slopes. We even tried to look after the locals as a team following us down one poor visibility day took a detour that brought them out onto the top of a small feature with a massive cornice on it that we could see below them from our vantage point and they couldn't. Three of us wildly gesticulating to get them to continue to contour from their stationary position rather than head straight on went to no avail as their leader headed straight off the cornice, dropping about 5 metres into deep snow with the cornice collapsing on top of him in a big pile. We watched the impressive drop, saw he was OK and then hoped to laugh about it with him afterwards but they gave us a wide berth that evening out of embarrassment. Listening to the English in the Alps can be useful for your safety!

The Ascent of Piz Buin

Our final day was the absolute icing on the cake- my best ever skiing day! We saved Piz Buin for a good forecast day after all the snow, so with a brisk start at 6.30 we soon warmed up, breaking trail through soft fluffy snow. The route from the hut took us onto the impressive Oschentaler glacier and we passed by some really impressive seracs and started rotating the lead as we reached the flat and serene route up to the col between the Klein and Grosse Piz Buin. Of course, we went for the big one and were actually up and down the 250 m summit climb before the next teams had started up it- even with a Uli Steck summit run from Ed and Max, 1000m elevation gain from hut to summit in under 3 hours. It was an amazing peak with two snow fields and a short gulley that we abseiled down on the return and there were amazing views of our route across the glacier and to peaks as far as the eye could see. What a great way to end a great tour- but it wasn't over yet, we had the powder of the ski down all to ourselves too!! We couldn't help but laugh out loud with pleasure as we traced our tracks in the thigh-high powder! The descent from 3400 m to the village of Galtür at 1400 m in the valley 15 km away brought us gradually back to civilisation. The Silvretta Alps were amazing but I've got the skiing touring bug and I need to try a new destination every year- any ideas and any takers?

Piz Buin summit final snow field. You can make out the ski tracks we made on the glacier below us

Itinerary

Day 1: Ischgl ski slopes, Paulinkopf, Piz da Val Gronda, Piz Davo Sasse to Heidelberger Hütte

Day 2: Day tour to Piz Montana

Day 3: Heidelberger Hütte to Breite Krone, Grenzeck Kopf to Jamtal Hütte

Day 4: Jamtal Hütte up Jamtal glacier, Ht Jamspitze, Dreiländerspitze down Vermunt glacier to Wiesbadener Hütte

Day 5: Day tour up Rauhkopf glacier to RauherKopf

Day 6: Wiesbadener Hütte up Oschentaler glacier to Grosse Piz Buin and back via Silvretta lake to Galtür.

Annotated Map taken from Alpine Ski Mountaineering Volume 2: Bill O'Connor

Photos Zoe Fleming and Ed Procter

Originally written for the Bowline climbing club web page

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