across the alps ON SKIS
I was listening to Elvis instead of Mattias’ new road computer and accidentally took the wrong exit outside Turino in Italy. I am now heading towards the Aosta valley instead of Milano on our way to Austria. I can hear the guys back in the car - Mats, Jonatan and Mattias - thinking this is quite funny and at the same time a bit worrying - wondering what the next seven weeks are really going to be like, when we will do our first part traversing the Alpine Arc on skis with a guide who can’t even follow the right directions from a road computer.
Well, we are finally back on track again towards Austria where this whole adventure is starting. According to our original plan we are three days late. Good start… We are delayed because of a never-ending dump in my hometown La Grave. The road was blocked for two of the days and on the third day we just could not leave the powder mountain in La Grave without putting some tracks on parts of it after a four day long storm. This whole trip is about good skiing and life quality, so leaving La Grave and the mighty Meije in perfect powder conditions had not been possible. With a slightly delayed start our ski tour begins in the middle of “Week 1” so that we can stick to the rest of our original plan, as different groups will show up every week and join us for parts of our journey through the Alps. We – the core team – are Jonatan Hultén and I, mountain guides in profession, and Mattias Johansson, a skiing and climbing enthusiast who has taken a long break from his normal job to ski through the Alps. We are going to traverse the Alpine Arc during two winters seeking the best way to ski it, and plan to reach the famous Cote d’Azur at the Mediterranean Sea, April 8, 2007. Every week eight to ten skiers join us to experience a part of this long ski adventure taking us all the way to the glamorous beaches off Nice.
Soar; after 10 hours in the car, we take the lift to RudolfhütteAlpinzentrum, the starting point of our tour. Austria rules already the first evening when we enjoy a great dinner buffet along with the appropriate ‘weisbier’. We all agree that we have to get back to Rudolfshütte to ski some more in the area. Although, apparently, this is something we will agree on in almost every valley, hut or ski resort we pass during this amazing journey on skis through the
Alps. Very inspiring actually to realise that there are so many great places throughout the entire Alps!
Two more kick-turns and we are in Hinteres Umbaltörl, the second pass today, at 2845m. The last leg is a bit slow. We have climbed just over 1200 vertical metres today. Once at the pass we can see down into the other side, perfect snow and big open bowls that will take us down into Italy and the Ahrntal valley. This is the first border we cross on skis. After a short break with a hot drink from the thermos and a PowerBar, the much-needed energy comes back to us so we can truly enjoy the run. A few careful turns to check the snow before we all let our skis go and cruise down these great bowls in big, open turns. Everyone gets really inspired from the energy in the group on the last fields down into Italy. The scene looks more like full-on freeriding than traditional ski touring. When crossing the stream over frozen slippery rocks to get into a cross country track that takes us the last kilometre down to Kasern, there is almost an religious spirit in the little ”Alp traversing” team. This is what it is all about. We stop at the first bar we see, with big grins on our faces we order a ”birra” and start talking about where to sleep tonight…
The first weeks of this skiing adventure through the Alps are even better than expected. We are spending the nights in unguarded huts, we do not see a single ski track and the skiing is just as good as it gets. We meet a lot of great, nice and helpful people and whenever we get to civilisation the food is outstanding. We learn that both Austria and South-Tyrol (North Italy) are easy and friendly places to be in. The lodging is cheap. In the valleys we stay in “Zimmer-frei”-places and get a huge breakfast served by the landlady in the family kitchen. Beautiful. It is easy to get back east to pick up the van after each week, thanks to the wellorganised ”Postbus” bus system that seems to go even to the deepest and most forgotten valleys. We are touring from Sunday morning to Friday night linking the different valleys and more or less well known ski resorts, keeping an average of 1000m climbing a day, and thereafter well deserved, long, exciting runs down. Every Saturday there is a new group of enthusiastic skiers or
snowboarders showing up to join the tour and the “old” group goes back home with a lot of memories and sometimes pain in their legs.
To arrive in an unguarded hut is an adventure in itself. We share the work that has to be done to be able to enjoy the evening and to be in good shape and mood for tomorrow. Quite often you have to start the hut visit with shovelling, to clear the front door from snow. Every hut in Austria seems to have a wood stove, so one person has to start working on getting the fire going. Then the water, either to find the stream that almost always is in the close surroundings of a hut, or to start melting snow. It takes a serious amount of water to feed a group of tired ski tourers for the night and the following day. In February and March the daylight goes quite fast, so most of the time this is done by the light of headlamps. Days become weeks and we pass valley after valley on our ski journey westwards. When we once again put the skins on one morning, I realise that we will leave Austria behind for this time and ski into Switzerland. Quite amazing, we have already crossed two countries, Austria and South-Tyrol, on our trip towards the Mediterranean Sea. Well, South-Tyrol is part of Italy but after spending some time here I believe the South-Tyroleans consider their land to be its own country; a mish-mash between Italian and Germanic – with the great Italian food and culture, the Germanic order and most people speaking German. Anyway, the tour has so far zigzagged over these two borders. Today we will cross the Swiss border to do another two weeks on this winter’s part of our Alp traverse. Another Saturday, a new group of keen skiers with a lot of expectations show up. We are in a parking area outside a hotel in the Romanic speaking part of Switzerland, handing out the safety equipment. Batteries are being checked in the avalanche transceivers. A shovel, probe, harness and headlamp are handed out to each and everyone. Climbing skins, ski crampons and skis are adjusted to fit the skis. Well, then it is time for the guide’s opinion on the weight of every pack. On a full week of ski touring you cannot bring too much. Basically you climb, ski, eat and sleep in the same clothes for a week! We have seen quite a lot of bad weather so far on this tour. Intense navigation and tough decisions are significant, especially when
travelling in new terrain every day. This week, the second-last on the tour, is going to be like the previous week considering the weather. Plan A turns into plan B which quite quickly moves on to C and D before it is Friday. Despite quite difficult weather it turns out to be another great week with unforgettable powder runs. Not to mention the last day’s climb of Oberalpstock with excellent conditions and great snow.
A week later we are relaxing in some deck chairs in a forgotten valley in Switzerland, a side valley of Binntal, which in itself probably is quite unknown. It is late in the afternoon and the place is more than unique. It is some kind of camp that is run by a family that brings out a picture in my head of a quite famous motorcycle club with roots in the early 70’s in San Francisco. Anyway, they are very nice people and there we are, having a cold beer looking at the setting sun on Easter Friday, just one day away from the end of this first stage of the Alp Traverse. I sleep like a baby despite the paper walls and squeaking beds. After an excellent breakfast boosted with painted eggs to salute the day, we are off again. The skins are back under the skis and we start to climb through a dense forest. After a couple of hundred metres we are finally getting onto my map, that particular map I could just not get hold of. Good thing I got the rest of the last day on the map, at midday the clouds move in and the visibility closes in. The last part of the run down to Col de Simplon is quite steep and the terrain is complicated. Finally we are at the side of the road and can take the skis off. Half an hour later we catch a bus to Brig where we jump on a train back to Andermatt, just in time for a slow, late season after-ski and a beer to celebrate a nice seven week long ski tour. It is raining and I am truly enjoying not worrying about the weather forecast for tomorrow. Per Ås is a certified UIAGM mountain guide, a Swede living with his family in the legendary off-piste resort La Grave in France. Per is a true disciple of life quality – good food, good skiing and good times. He has been dreaming of traversing the Alps for a long time – and is now making this dream come true together with friends and clients. Why? To see and experience more beautiful places in the Alps, especially enjoying all the great runs there are to be discovered.