Mountaineering :: Trekking :: Ski touring


This was the third leg of a multi-year project to travel from the Mediterranean to Vienna by ski. Last year's crossing of Switzerland ended on the steps of Bergün's Kurhaus Hotel on March 17th 2016 in bright sunshine with thawing snow on the surrounding fields. Despite reports of a poor start to the Alpine ski season the snow cover looked much better as we set out from the same spot on February 8th 2017. It soon became clear that while the recently fallen snow was adequate for touring there was little base leading to frequent encounters with lightly covered rocks that would give the skis many battle scars over the coming weeks.

Crossing the Engadin to Klosters via the Ketsch and Grialetsch huts provided a fairly gentle start to the trip with two days of 6.30hrs and one of 9.30hrs. We travelled 57km and climbed 3190m seeing no other tracks or skiers. Snow conditions were variable with a few excellent descents and a few suspect slopes with unstable snowpacks. The winter rooms were warm and comfortable once the wood stoves were lit. Previous visitors to the Ketsch hut on January 1st had left an almost full bottle of good malt whisky that we consumed as a toast to the journey ahead.

After collecting supplies in Klosters we headed east to traverse the Silvretta range. We were one week ahead of the official hut opening dates, but travelling during a weekend of good weather we saw a few other ski parties. In warm sunshine and good snow we travelled via the Silvretta and Jamtal Huts to Ramosch. We shared the winter room of the first with two young Germans who arrived late after getting lost, and the winter room of the second with a party of four Czechs based there for a few days. The snow was good and three 'regular' 6-7 hr days with no significant dramas enabled us to cover 60km with 3565m of climbing. We enjoyed a convivial meal at the Chalet Arina in Vnà (400m above Ramosch) and congratulated ourselves on six excellent days of ski touring. Sadly Andy had to leave for home at this point and we were reduced to team of two for the rest of the trip.

Finding a ski linkage between the Silvretta and the Otztal had been one of the planning challenges of the trip, but I found a route that could be achieved on skis crossing the upper valley of the Inn river and entering Austria above the resort of Nauders. We accomplished this on 14th Feb in a 9hr day with 1445m of climbing, ending at the Goldseehütte, a fully serviced hotel located on a ski piste 500m above the village. The next day was always going to be a challenge but ended up being even harder than expected. The route crossed three cols climbing 1882m to get into the Kaurnertal valley where the only accommodation was the closed Gepatsch Haus with no winter room. All went well for the first two cols and we thought that we had pulled it off when we reached the summit of the third (Glockturmjoch 3005m) at 16.30. However a difficult down climbing descent of 100m (rope, axes, crampons etc) took over two hours and resulted in us skiing by the light of headtorches to a closed ski lift station at Schneeflucht (2200m) where we endured a cold bivouac in a partially enclosed outbuilding at the end of an 11.47hr day.

Warm sunshine the following day enabled us to recover from the ordeal, but we travelled slowly as we pushed on through the Otztal range to the Taschach Haus via the Olgrulenjoch (3050m). Light snow fell steadily the next day and this enabled us to justify our first rest day since setting out ten days previously. We spent much of it was sleeping. 18th Feb was cold and clear with 10cm of fresh snow. We climbed over the Mittelberg Joch (3166m) and through the Pitztal ski area to the Braunschweiger Hut on one of our shorter days. An early start the following day saw us crossing the Rettenbachjoch (2993m) and arriving in Solden by 10.00 hrs. This gave time to collect supplies, repair equipment, wash clothes, and eat two large meals.

I had assumed that the section between Solden and Steinach, traversing the Stubai, would be straightforward. It proved to be one of the most difficult and hazardous parts of the entire 3 year project. The long valley ascent to the Hildesheimer Hütte was pleasant in warm sunshine, although the final 100m climb to the hut involved excavating a buried steel cable and negotiating a steep cliff. The nice hut was spoilt by a snow-blocked chimney that made the wood stove unless. Attempting to proceed we were forced to turn back after 4hrs in deteriorating weather, and spent a second night in the cold hut. The following day brought overcast conditions with strong winds but we managed to ascend the west ridge of the Wilder Pfaff (3456m) and descend the steep East Ridge with the help of partially buried ironwork. We should have stopped at the Müllerhütte or Becherhaus but foolishly tried to push through to the Bremer Hütte. It was a long way and we were never going to get there given the technical difficulties of the route. The Freigerscharte (3025m) was shown as a ski route on the OEV map, but was steep, loose and dangerous requiring over an hour to climb the final 50m. We were lucky to make it to the Nürnberberger Hütte a little after dark, ending a stressful 11.15hr day. Remarkably a 7 strong party from the UK were already in the small winter room and made us very welcome. A 07.15 start and a 19.30 arrival made the next day particularly tiring as we pushed through to Steinach covering 38km. In good weather the Nürnbergerscharte (2914m) was a complex pass to locate, but not technically difficult to cross. The descent from the Bremer Hütte to the valley involved steep wooded slopes with precipitous cliffs and poor snow. It was not a route that any sensible ski tourer would choose to follow. The Stubai Alps may offer good opportunities for day tours in the north-south valleys accessible from ski lift systems (and nearby serviced huts) but there are no easy longitudinal traverse routes.

The link from the Stubai to the Zillertal required 16km of road walking: 5km to enter Steinach (1049m) from the west and 11km to exit to the east. Once we reached 1345m in the valley of Vals we were able to ski again. The journey to the Ahrntal valley on the south of the range was planned in 4 stages, but took 7 days due to poor weather. In fine conditions we made good progress to the Geraer Hütte, and then to the Olperer Hütte via the Wildlahnerscharte (3254m) at the top of the Hintertux ski area. We descended to the shore of a large hydro lake (Schlegeisspeicher 1782m) and ascended the Zemmgrund valley to the Berliner Hütte. Here we were stormbound for a day and forced to consume a loaf of stale bread and a bottle of vodka left by previous visitors. Dangerous snow conditions prevented progress and we dropped down into the valley to purchase supplies. We spent a night in Ginzling, close to Mayrhofen, before climbing again the next day back to the Berliner Hütte. In very windy conditions we climbed to the summit of Felskopfl (3235m) and descended to St Johan in a 10.15hr day. In 7 days we had covered 109km and climbed 5354m. The diversion to Ginzling added an extra 28km with 900m of climbing.

We spent a day in Italy hiking 20km along the Ahrntal (Valle Aurina) to reach Kasern (1614m) and the start of the Venedigergruppe and Hohe Tauern. We were stormbound in Kasern at the comfortable Berghotel for a day before proceeding in less than ideal conditions. A long day in deep new snow took us over the Birnlücke (2665m) and up to the Warnsdorfer Hütte where we were surprised to meet four Austrians who had climbed from the valley. In bad weather we pushed on to the Kürsingerhütte via the Krimmler Torl (2789m) where we arrived to find an open window and the hut full of snow. Better weather the next day enabled us to make a straightforward crossing of the Zwischentorl (2917m) and Untersulzbachtorl (2863m) followed by an easy descent to Matreier Tauernhaus (1512m), completing 49km with 3031m climbing over 3 days.

Two days of heavy snowfall (9-10 March), plus a day for the new snow to consolidate, gave us a welcome rest and a chance to eat large meals and wash clothes. When conditions allowed we crossed the Granatspitzgruppe via the Sillingscharte (2784m) and Granatspitzscharte (2970m) to the large Rudolfshütte hotel in a pleasant day. We were then faced with a 20km long line of cliffs running north/south barring our way to Heiligenblut. There appeared be one weakness, the Obere Odenwinklescharte (3228m), which is more of a summer mountain trail than a route suitable for skis. In perfect conditions we crossed this on 13th March using crampons and axes for the final 200m climb. The beautifully situated Oberwalder Hütte should have provided a comfortable stay, but after several hours of digging we failed to find the entrance to the winter room and resorted to breaking a window to gain access. Strong winds the next day were an added complication to some tricky route finding en route to the Franz Joseph Haus (2370m) caused by the fact that the obvious summer road was not a viable route in winter. We then descended in wet afternoon snow to Heiligenblut. In three days, averaging 8 hrs, we had covered 58km and climbed 3610m.

Before exiting the Hohe Tauern we had to cross the massifs of the Sonnblick and Ankogel. The optimal route took in the first summit and passed close to the second, providing numerous logistical and route finding challenges. A 1930m climb up the Kleinfleisstal led to the highest accommodation of the trip, the Zittlehaus (3105m) on the summit of the Sonnblick. This was a small, pleasant winter room let down by the fact that there was no stove or heating. However there was electric lighting and cold beer. The next day we climbed 890m and descended 2900m on the way to Bockstein. This started with good skiing on the Goldbergkees before ascending the Niedere Scharte (2635m) and entering the Mölltaler ski area. We exited this via the summit of the Baumbachspitze (3105m) and a very difficult descent to Sportgastein involving complex navigation, steep cliffs, and frozen waterfalls. A period of poor weather delayed us in Bockstein for three days before we were able to climb 1900m up the Anlauftal valley to the Hannoverhaus at the top of the Mallnitz ski area. This was the only staffed DAV/OEAV hut used on the trip, and there were no other overnight guests on 20th March. The following day conditions were dangerously mild and we were forced to adopt a strategy of early starts and short days to avoid the afternoon wet snow slides pouring from the slopes. We travelled for 5hrs to the Osnabrücker Hütte on the 21st and on to the Albert Bivouac Hut in a difficult 12hr day with dangerous snow conditions on the 22nd. An early start and 8hrs of travel enabled us to reach Wald the next day without any dramas, but Spring conditions had arrived in the mountains with very warm daytime temperatures and night time freezing levels above 2000m.

Icy slopes at dawn and wet slush by mid morning characterised the final days of the journey. On 24th March we travelled for over 10hrs crossing the Taferlscharte (2236m) and passing the Sudwiener Hutte on the way to Obertauern. The journey was lengthened by 3hrs several km when the obvious summer hiking path along cliffs proved impossible to follow in snow necessitating backtracking and a long diversion onto the valley floor. The next day we skinned up the pistes of Obertauern entering the Schladminger Tauern. We crossed 3 straightforward passes, climbing 1122m, to reach the Ignaz Mattis Hütte in warm sunshine. The following day was the single 'downhill only' day of the trip as we dropped 1306m into the Obertal valley before a 10km valley walk to Schladming at 750m. This was the first time that the route had dropped significantly below 1000m since leaving the Mediterranean coast. We rested for a day before hiking in warm spring sunshine 35km east along the Enns river valley to the start of the Wolzer section of the Niedere Tauern. The 2017 leg of the journey ended at Grossolk after 49 days. We had travelled on 38 days with 11 bad weather or rest days, and covered 746km with 39,800m of ascent. We spent 25 nights in valley accommodation (hotel / B&B / YH), 22 nights in DAV/OAV hut winter rooms, one night in a staffed hut and one night in a partly sheltered bivouac.

This third leg of the project was considerably longer in time and distance than either the French or Swiss sections. It was also more difficult and hazardous for a number of complex reasons. Snow conditions were probably worse than in an average year, some of the mountain topography was savage and not ideal for ski touring, mapping was poorer quality than in France/Switzerland, information on the best ski routes (via maps or guidebooks) was harder to find, and there were more valley 'link' sections requiring walking, The fourth and final leg of the journey is planned for Feb/Mar 2018 and will continue the route eastwards to Vienna taking around three weeks.

Party: David Hamilton & Steve Kentish (plus Andy Helm for days 1-6). Thanks to Alex Miller (Innsbruck) for logistical support.

                                                                                          David Hamilton 01/04/2017

David Hamilton
High Adventure
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