North American skiing is very different from European skiing. Skiing in Europe took off after the war when Alpine towns installed ski lifts. As a result skiing is not dominated by resorts, but is centred on, often charming, Alpine villages. Lift prices are about 1/2 of North American prices, accommodation can be cheap since skiing is a sport for the people, not the rich, and accommodations are not dominated by the resort owner. The skiing is also quite different. The tree line in the Alps is quite low and most resorts lie above it. Combine that with the craggy Alpine peaks and one has spectacular skiing terrain.
All ski areas create wide roads that run down through the mountain terrain, either as blue or red runs. These are called 'pistes', are groomed, have snow making, and are filled with yetis. I regard the word 'groomed' as a vicious profanity and will avoid them at all costs. Fortunately, since one is above the tree line, it is easy to go off-piste. Merely point your skis somewhere else! Off-piste skiing in Europe after a dump of snow is the ultimate in skiing. There is a downside however: the Alps are never sure that it is winter. Specifically, the temperature regularly fluctuates around freezing. This means that if you go off-piste you will either be skiing in slush or slush that has subsequently frozen. Unless you are lucky enough to ski after a dump. Alternatively, North American resorts tend to be in the trees and one is obliged to stay on-piste, which means either sleepy groomed runs or moguls galore. As a result I tend to ski under chair lifts in Canada and the US.
For comparison with elevations given below, Aspen has a base elevation of 2400m and a summit at 3400m. Alta's base is 2600m and peak is at 3200m.
I felt old immediately after picking up my rental car (a brand new Mercedes A180). For one thing, it didn't have an actual key, but rather some sort of chip thing. And it had a fancy built-in GPS. I had never used one before and it took me several minutes of fiddling to get it working (with no maps, and a lot of driving ahead, I needed it). It couldn't find Hirschegg, but I remembered that Oberstdorf was nearby so I set that as my destination. A pleasant English lady safely guided me there ("turn right in 200 meters", "prepare to turn right", "turn right", "continue on the B19"). Thank you pleasant English Lady! But then things went awry. I still had to get to Hirschegg and finally realised that I needed to change country to Austria so that the unit could find the town. But I didn't know that there are actually two Hirschegg's in Austria and was very confused when Pleasant English Lady told me to turn around. But, absent a map and any other clues, I followed her advice. Then I noticed that she was telling me Hirschegg was 600 km away. That didn't sound right and I bailed out and bought a good old fashioned map at the next service station. Damn crazy English bitch trying to send me 600 km away!
I stayed at the Waldemar Petersen Haus in Hirschegg (1100m). This is an old ski lodge that is owned by the University of Darmstadt and has been converted to a conference facility. It was built in the 1920s by architecture students from the University. One stays in rooms with many bunk beds and uses shared toilet and shower facilities. Meals are included ... it is great to come back after a day in the mountain to struedel and coffee. Then a few hours of seminars, followed by a home-cooked German meal, all in the same place.
The biggest nearby ski area lies below the peak called Kanzelwand (1960m to the gondola, 2100 m at the peak).
After a fairly miserable day boarding in white-out conditions, the sight of socked-in peaks nearly kept me from going up-mountain. But it had snowed heavily over night and the thought of fresh powder drew me up. It was a good decision. The slopes were covered with a glorious layer of 6-8 inches of fresh dry powder. I decided to immediately climb the Kanzelwand before I got too tired. The climb was uneventful except that I had to carry my board, which made me regret leaving my back pack behind. Before long the visibility degenerated to a few feet. Heat and moisture rising from my torso was steaming my glasses as well, which didn't help. I lost my footing on a particularly steep traverse and slipped out of control until I stopped in deeper snow about 30m downhill. I thought of bailing out for a few minutes, but decided to press on. The climb back up was not actually not too bad since I could dig my boots into the soft crust that was exposed below the layer of powder.
route up (and down)
The run down was my first ever in 'steep and deep' snow with a board. It wasn't elegant, but it wasn't bad, and I was exhilarated. Unfortunately, it was very hard to exit to the piste since I could not see more than 10 feet and had to stop constantly in deep snow. I spent the rest of the afternoon skiing off-piste in a bowl near the gondola station and got much better with the board in deep snow.
cell phone self-portrait at the top
Drew dipping into the bowl four years earlier
I was due at Bormio in the Italian Alps, but had two days to get there. The idea was to get there via Switzerland and hit a few ski resorts. After perusing the map, I settled on St. Anton and St. Moritz, both very famous resorts.
on the way. Note single lane road.
The Crazy English Bitch guided me to St Anton over single lane and snowy mountain roads. She sure is ballsy! St Anton is a small and lovely mountain town surrounded by spectacular craggy mountains.
The gondola took me from 1300m to the Valluga at 2800m. The scenery was stunning. I had not been privileged to witness such scenery since Grindelwald in the 1970s and, more recently, Chamonix. It was so overwhelming I was nearly driven to tears at one point.
yeah, it was this nice
The Schindler Spitze (2700m) was a great place to ski since one could drop off-piste right from the top and there was a glorious steep run with deep snow that was cut up but not yet skied out. I found the route by following a ski instructor with his two (very advanced) students. He kindly consented to take a vid of a short run.
off-piste heaven at St. Anton
skiing, sort of
notes: (a) I almost lost it on the second turn (b) I was a bit rusty and did better on my second run (c) about an hour later I realised that I was skiing with my boots in 'walk' mode (sigh)
There was a beautiful and challenging run right under the Piz Nair gondola that attracted my attention. No one was skiing it at all. It was obvious why: the entire terrain was criss crossed with antitracks. [Antitracks are raised ski tracks that arise when snow is compressed beneath a skier's tracks and the wind subsequently scours surrounding snow away. This is a sure sign that the snow is a hard crust. Even worse, it could be a thin crust over powder, which is nearly impossible to ski in.] What looked like powder must be horrendous crust. After a day of intense off-piste skiing at St. Anton and exquisite off-piste boarding in fresh snow the day before that, I could not stand the idea of skiing on the pistes at St Moritz. I let my desires get the better of me and decided to go for it. [mistake 1]
The top part went well and I gained confidence going into the very steep and crusty second 100m. It was steep enough that I was doing jump turns to make sure that my speed stayed down [mistake 2]. On the fourth turn my skis slipped from under me and I was sliding down the slope. I had seriously underestimated how slippery the surface was, and jump turns only made things worse. I was not worried during the first second of sliding: I had landed on my side with both skis below me and digging into the slope. But I quickly realized that (i) I could not stop myself (ii) I was gaining speed fast. Another few seconds of this and I would be falling completely out of control. With 350m of breathtakingly steep slope below me this meant I would be crashing very fast into whatever laid below (rocks, possible cliff to one side). Fear gripped me hard, but fortunately I did not panic. I noticed that, although I could not control my speed, I could angle myself slightly to skier right by digging my downhill ski in. There was some chunky crust to the right and I hoped that once I hit it, I could slow down. To make a short story shorter, it worked, and I managed, Gott sei dank, to stop myself. It had been a hair raising few seconds, and as I stood there it occurred to me if I had fallen head down, or on a snowboard, or even facing the other way, it was very likely that I would have been unable to stop myself, with dire consequences. For all I knew, I was alive by blind luck.
my route down
The drive to Bormio took me over the Bernina Pass. The roads reminded me of the first time I had seen real mountains 33 years before (see Grindlewald below).
the Bernina Pass
Crazy English Bitch continued her ways. She directed me to turn left on a road that was 'seasonal'. Faithfully following her instructions, I was immediately faced by a 20 foot wall of snow in which I could discern a small obscured sign that said 'chiuso'. So much for that.
Eventually I made it Bormio. Bormio is a rarity in ski resorts -- most resorts were sleepy farming villages before the war and their architecture is quite new. Bormio, on the other hand, was a way station on the medieval trading route to the North and hence its core is classic Italian-quaint.
from the top
I went again two days later and found some decent off piste. Here is a 'dramatic' video.
attempting to snow board at Bormio
I also went into a rather hacked up half pipe and promptly wiped out. The subsequent damage to my mouth is shown here.
I whacked my head pretty hard and worried a bit about concussion. My boarding buddy Pedro told me not to worry: just don't change elevation rapidly or fly. So, yeah, great. I hadn't passed out but an insistent and incipient headache was worrying me.
This somewhat surreal early morning experience finally gave way to a conventionally scary mountain road that took me down the Inn Valley through Switzerland and to an autobahn in Austria, and finally to traffic jams in Germany. All the while my headache was slowly worsening. But Philadelphia was snowed in and my flight was cancelled. The only good news was that by the next day my headache was gone and all was well with my brain (maybe).
Some of the stunning scenery at Chamonix. The dominant peak in the photos is Mont Blanc.
The Aiguille du Midi is a peak near Mont Blanc that provides access to the Vallee Blanche. The gondola goes nearly straight up from 1000 to 3800m, and is scary as hell.
The Aiguille du Midi below Mont Blanc. (not my pic).
Once at the top you pass through a tunnel and clip onto a line to descend to the starting point:
The trip down is about 4 hours through glorious mountain scenery. A guide is strongly advised since the area is crossed with crevices and serracs.
Glaciers in the Vallee Blanche
There are many other areas to ski, including Grandes Montets:
Eric having fun
On my last trip to Chamonix, I was determined to get into the top of an untracked section near the peak of Grands Montets. This meant going off piste from the peak, traversing below a massive rock outcropping, and working my way around a rather threatening looking crevasse. After safely clearing the crevasse, I made my way about 100 feet further down hill, stopping to assess the situation.
Upon stopping I was alarmed to see a 4 foot wide hole right (as in about a foot) next to me -- apparently the crevasse was part of a small glacier and I was in the middle of it. In fact, I could see several more holes looming down hill. Going considerably slower now, I made my way past these to reach a huge ice sheet -- apparently the end of the glacier-- which was about 30 feet high, steep and stretched to the valley walls on either side. An attempt to the right lead to nothing and I climbed back up. Left revealed a narrow band of snow leading straight down and past the glacier. Apparently it was this way or a long hike up hill through deep snow. So down I went, despite being worried that the snow was a thin layer on ice that would give way as soon as I went into it. But it held and I emerged below onto a glorious 1/2 kilometer strech of untracked powder. Fantastic fun!
I spent a day at Courmayeur on the Italian side of the Mont Blanc massif. There was rumoured to be deep snow over here, but by the time I got there all the Torinos had skied it off. Fortunately the snow was colder and deeper off the back of the mountain up high.
I decided to try a poor man's helmet cam, namely I boarded while holding my little camera in my hand. The result is below.
attempting to snow board at Bormio
View of Lomnica Tatraski
After doing some climbing to get off-piste
View from my hotel room
on the pistes
The pic below shows Piz Gloria, the revolving restaurant at the peak of the Schilthorn (2970 m). This was Blofeld's lair in 'On Her Majesty's Secret Service'. The Schilthorn is near Muerren, a town down the valley (and up another) from Grindelwald. You get there via the famed Berner Oberland train. Once in Muerren you take a cable car up a 45 degree slope to the valley gondola station. Then up to an intermediate station called Birg, and from there another gondola to the peak. The top is so steep that you must carry your skis on a cat walk to a small platform, where you put your skis on and jump onto the hill. This takes you into a bowl; at the bottom of the bowl there is a t-bar that takes you back to Birg. Or you can continue down the mountain on the "Cannoninrohr", a narrow, steep, and icy trail with cliffs straight up one side and straight down the other. I think this was the run where Bond was being chased and ended up sending a bad guy into a snow blower.
Piz Gloria, Schilthorn. We called it the "Schreckhorn" (Fright Horn)
On our last day in Grindelwald my brother Norm and I decided that we had to ski the Schilthorn one last time. I was 17 and Norm was 13. By the time we got to Muerren in was snowing pretty heavily. By the time we got to Birg it was a full blown blizzard, but the die was cast and we doggedly continued to Piz Gloria. The gondola was swaying like a drunken sailor, and they shut everything down completely as soon as we got off (which we did not know). We descended the cat walk and lept onto the Schilthorn; visibility was a few feet, so we made our way slowly and carefully to the bottom of the bowl. There was not a soul around. The t-bar had stopped long ago. Our choices were to risk skiing the Cannoninrohr in a blizzard -- with commensurately large odds of going off a cliff, or climbing up to the intermediate gondola station, Birg, and take the gondola down.
We chose (wisely I think) the safe route, and decided to climb up. The blizzard was so dense that we could not see anything except, barely, the t-bars hanging from their line above our heads. The route up was very steep and we had to carry our skis. Then it got steeper. We made progress by stabbing our boot toes into the hard pack, then slamming the poles in our left hands into the snow, then the skis in our right hands. Progress was slow and exhausting. I could not see Norm behind me and took to yelling "Are you there?". The wind was so vicious I could barely hear his response. Norm in response would yell, "Are you ok?" periodically.
I was afraid to stop and rest because I feared we would fall asleep, which is the most dangerous thing you can do in a blizzard. But eventually, exhaustion overtook us and we had to stop. As we huddled I considered abandoning our equipment, but it was useful for slamming into the snow face, and we decided to keep them for now. We continued climbing and eventually a dark smear appeared in front of us. I told Norm that I thought it was Birg, but secretly I thought it was a large rock that was about half way to Birg. If so, this was a disaster, because we were very near the limits of our endurance, and we would soon have to stop, dig in, and hope to be discovered before it was too late. But as we struggled on, the smudge became clearer and clearer, and we eventually reached the top. I have no idea how long this took, my best guess was we spent two hours climbing. The very top was so steep that we had to throw our equipment over the edge and haul ourselves up. We staggered to the midstation and banged on the door. Everything was dark, there was nothing to see except whirling snow, and nothing to hear except a howling wind. I started to think about the best way to break in to spend the night when the door suddenly opened.
I will never forget the look of utter astonishment on the night guard's face when he opened that door. Besides the shock of seeing two people at 2500, hours after the mountain had been shut down, he was staring at ice men. We were completely white with snow and ice. Every opening in our clothes had long since filled with snow that had melted and then frozen into thick neck and wrist ice collars. Our faces were covered with ice. Unknown to us, even our googles had filled with snow, leaving only tiny pin holes through which we had been peering for the last few hours.
The night guard issued a "Mein Gott!", rushed us into the kitchen and prepared tea for us and gave us chocolate bars and whatever else he could find. He then called below and they restarted the gondola, and a few hours later we were at the bottom; an hour after that we were back in Grindelwald.
Norm and I did not dare to tell our parents about out little adventure in the Swiss Alps for a decade.
The famed run KT22 at Squaw Valley, which we did many times
The view from Heavenly at Lake Tahoe.
At the 'Wall', Kirkwood, Lake Tahoe