Friday, September 5, 2014

Ski Touring -- A Swiss National Sport

By looking at the following photo, what do you think?

No, this is not a ski resort parking lot. These cars are parked at the trailhead to a ski touring area.

For our non-skier readers -- ski touring (commonly known as backcountry skiing in the States) means to ski without utilizing ski lifts. Ski tourers climb the mountain using their own power in order and "earn their turns" on the way down away from the crowds. Although one may not get as much riding time, the quality of snow is typically much better than at resorts.

This form of skiing nearly went the way of the dinosaur when ski resorts became popular. In more recent years, the sport has been strongly trending up again in the United States. But in Switzerland, ski touring has never gone out of fashion. For one thing, it has always been a part of Swiss military for patrolling the Alps.

What is not so common in Switzerland is for people to do this with splitboards, which are snowboards for ski touring. That is how Laure and I spent much of this past winter.

Warming up our legs near Flumserberg

Coming from the California Sierras, we were apprehensive about the Alps' notoriously fickle weather and snowpack. Since this mountain range is very different from the one in our former home, we were careful to start easy and take our time to learn to read the local snow and weather conditions.

We started by doing a very mellow tour behind Flumserberg, which is a ski resort just an hour south of Zürich by train.

We ate lunch at a small hut along the way.

Some real skiing near Andermatt

The following weekend, we stepped up our game and took the opportunity of the relatively safe conditions to go to the Andermatt region, which had been recently blessed with some nice powder.

Traveling by train allowed us to start at end at different towns. We started at Oberalpass and skied over the mountains and down to Andermatt. We only climbed 650 meters and skied down 1,250 meters over a distance of 10 kilometers. To put things into perspective, this is more than twice as long as the longest run at our home ski resort Kirkwood in California -- both in vertical and horizontal distance.

Awesome weather at the first ridge from the train station.
The sketchiest traverse of our tour under Pazolastock.
Everything was going well until we had to travel over a skinny rocky ridge with about 40 degree angle slopes on both sides. This psyched Laure out a bit but we slowly made our way through. What really amazed me is how fearless she became once she strapped the snowboard on her feet to go down. Everything felt familiar again.
Coming down the Martschallücke NW face.
We came across a recent avalanche.
Definitely a warning sign about the area.
Andermatt welcomed us with the sights of its beautiful village.
We stopped for an Après Ski drink of Glühwein.
The leis were a nice touch, but it was not quite Hawaiian weather.

Breaking 1,000 meters at the Mattjisch Horn

The following weekend, we tackled Mattjisch Horn. The weather was cold and gray, and the snow was wind scoured. But it was Laure's first climb over a thousand meters in a single tour (1,183 to be exact). This was a good enough reason to celebrate!

Pirigin, the last town at the tree line.
Much of the tour above the tree line is a boring monotonous slope.
The tiny white sign at the bottom says "Mattjisch Horn 2461 m".
The yellow signs show the distance to nearby towns and huts in number of hiking hours.

Our first European hut experience at Lötschental

On the following weekend, we joined a trip with a Meetup group called Swiss Alpine Adventure. They set up tours led by professional mountain guides that knows the area well. Unfortunately, the visibility was terrible on the first day. The howling winds quickly stripped the heat off our bodies near the ridges. Even so, we were able to get some nice runs before heading over to the hut.

Some snowboarders from one of the other groups were struggling badly while touring in low visibility on wind scoured snow. Our guide decided to have us accompany the other group in case they needed help in an emergency -- a solid prudent decision. We were very glad when we arrived at the warm hut, which was the first one Laure and I visited for an overnight stay in Europe!

Our arrival at the hut during the not so pleasant conditions.
Up until this point, the only alpine hut Laure and I had stayed was Refugio Frey in Argentina, where they provided basic services including a restroom without running water located in a separate building. Other than that, we had only snow camped.

This was way more comfortable. As we learned, the Alps contain hundreds of huts, many of which are as comfortable and clean as a nice hostel in a regular city. The standard half-board price includes a delicious family style dinner plus a basic breakfast. You will not find a better deal in Switzerland!

Well-heated dormitory style bedrooms.
Sharing a well-earned meal with our new friends.
Delicious pasta and pork to fuel us for the next day.
Next day, we made our way down to a nearby village. Luckily, the wind came down a bit and the visibility improved. My favorite part was crossing a tiny image perfect Swiss alpine village on our way to pick up a bus back to the original ski area.

Notice the little village near the horizon.
We sighted a few of these tiny villages scattered on the mountains.
At the end of the run, we crossed through this tiny quaint village with smell of farm animals.
After getting back to the original ski area, we waited out the bad weather and practiced avalanche rescue drills. Eventually the clouds cleared and we spent the last few hours skiing off-piste with the aid of ski lifts -- this is what Europeans call "free riding".

Hard to beat the views.

Skiing over to Italy -- Rifugio Maria Luisa

Our next adventure started in the southern region of the Swiss alps named Ticino, which received record high snowfall this season. We started at the little Swiss town of All'Acqua and toured across the border to Italy to stay overnight at Rifugio Maria Luisa.

Snow levels reminded us of the West Coast.
Beautiful weather, although the skin track felt like a hiking trail.
We came across several other groups; although most people stayed in the Swiss side of the border.
Since most people stayed in the Swiss side, Laure and I ended up breaking our own trail after a certain point. As we had low resolution topography maps, we ended up taking a very non-direct 12 kilometer route through the undulating terrain. Fortunately, the weather was amazing.

Our destination was a hut built to house construction workers of the nearby dam many years ago. In recent times, the hut has become a lodge for ski tourers in the winter and hikers in the summer.
The dam at Lago Toggia.
The peak in the back is Kastelhorn. The pass on the left is Kastellücke.
Finally in sight of the hut!
Even a remote Italian hut provides good espresso.
Another awesome meal among new friends.
At the hut, we got a lot of tips from the locals. Many of them had detailed maps with all the nearby ski touring routes including descriptions and difficulty ratings. The map even shows which routes are snowboard-friendly. This is when I realized how much time we would have saved by studying this map earlier. Although Laure and I already had some of these ski touring maps for other regions, this experience convinced us to get them for every new region we explored.
Detailed ski touring map with route descriptions and difficulty levels.
I made notes of the recommended routes from others' maps.
What did the fox say?
Many people in the hut decided to wake up at around 5am to summit the tallest peak in the region -- Basòdino. Laure and I were not so ambitious and decided to slowly make our way back to All'Acqua. Unfortunately the terrain was very undulating, which made traveling a bit of a slog for us snowboarders. Although it would have been possible to summit a small nearby peak, Laure and I decided instead to get a tiramisu at a nearby restaurant that our friend Ralf recommended.
Shadows show the jaggedness of Swiss Alp peaks
Laure's Rooster Tail.
We were well rewarded for ending our tour early.
In hindsight our tour would have been more enjoyable if done in three days instead of two days. That would have given us a full day to play around the surrounding peaks without stress. Since we traveled slowly between the town and the hut, we did not get enough time to enjoy much actual skiing. We'll keep this in mind for next time.

Visiting the "local" peak Mutteristock

Mutteristock is the peak where many people from Zürich visit for a quick climb, since the trailhead is only an hour away by car. We hooked up with our friend Eleanor, whom we had met from the Swiss Alpine Adventure club. Frankly, we had planned to climb a neighboring peak, Redertenstock, but we missed the fork on the trail since most people were going to Mutteristock. Oops.
Getting ready at the trailhead.
The lower parts were tree covered.
We had to walk our stuff in sections with too little snow.
Eleanor writing our story in the "guestbook" at the top of the mountain.
Many mountains in the Alps have crosses at the peaks.
Since the visibility and snow were pretty terrible near the peak, we decided to take the safest way down, which was invariably the way we had climbed. In the lower parts, we came down some open fields, some of which seemed to have more rocks than snow.
Are we skiing or mountain biking?
I look forward to going back on a season with more snow.

Joining James Bonds at the Schilthorn

We joined another trip with the Swiss Alpine Adventure to explore the Bernese Oberland area. We started by a few trams up to the top of Schilthorn, which is where part of the James Bond movie "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" was shot. From there, we hiked on a formidable ridge westward in search of some nice north-facing powder.
My name is Bond. James Bond.
Setting out westward from the Schilthorn.
One of several rock scrambles on the ridge.
Coming down the top section was not the most pleasant thing in the world.
After we got through some wind scoured snow at the top, we made our way north and found some amazing conditions at lower elevations. The beautiful sights combined with blissful powder made this experience one of the highlights of our winter.
Our friend Esty ripping some turns.
That's my wife.
Upon reaching the valley floor, we toured back to civilization. We moved slowly as it was someone's first tour, but we made it back alright. Towards the end of the day, we hit some terrible breakable crust snow like I had never experienced before. It is crazy to think about how drastically the conditions can change at different elevations and times of day in the Alps.


The actual GPS tracks can be found here.

The culture of ski touring

One of the benefits of ski touring in Switzerland has been the ubiquity of the transportation system even in remote mountainous regions.
Trains have a special section for storing skis and snowboards.
Notice these are all touring skis -- most of them with super lightweight Dynafit bindings.
The two lonely snowboards on the right are Laure's and mine.
Ski touring truly seems like a national sport in Switzerland. It is popular among both genders from ages 20 and up, whereas in most other places it is primarily popular among 25 to 35 year old males. We come across women in their 50s climbing mountains to earn their turns. And if you talk to any Swiss people about ski touring, you can assume they know exactly what you are talking about.
Laure was excited to finally tour with other spiltboarding ladies in Bernese Oberland.

Stay tuned: Ortler

In some ways, much of our ski touring this winter was in preparation for a big trip with our friend Peter in Ortler, which is in the Italian region of South Tyrol. That deserves a blog post of its own.

Shot out to Ralf

Finally, danke schön to our friend Ralf, who selflessly helped us plan most of our ski touring trips.

Ralf puts up a mean façade but he's really a teddy bear.

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