Friday, October 17, 2014

New Trip! Powder Betty ~ Women's Backcountry Ski Camp

We are pleased to announce a new Women's Backcountry Ski Camp called Powder Betty that Olivia will be offering in the winter of 2014-15. This in a 3-day intensive backcountry ski course with all backcountry ski activities taking place in the mountains near Stevens Pass Ski Area and Leavenworth, WA and all lodging and food taken care of by Sleeping Lady Mountain Resort. The first course will run from January 23-25, 2015 and will cost $895 per participant.

Olivia wanted to address an observation she has made each winter that women seem to hold back a bit more than men when getting into ski touring. Many references (we hesitated to add to it) have been made recently to an article in Atlantic Magazine called The Confidence Gap.  As stated on Atlantic's website, "The problem, argue the broadcast journalists Katty Kay and Clair Shipman in the Atlantic's May 2014 cover story, is that women are less self-assured than men - and that this persistent disparity between the genders is what keeps women from achieving at the highest levels." 

When you start to look at backcountry skiing it immediately occurred to Olivia that while women may lack self-assurance the solution is not simply to bolster women's confidence as there are no shortage of examples of men using their confidence to find all sorts of hazard in the mountains. Her women's ski courses have the less lofty goal of simply providing a fun, educational environment for women to gain comfort with their touring skills and identify areas they can work on to become solid in the backcountry.

Included in the cost of the program are 2 nights lodging at Sleeping Lady Mountain Resort located at the mouth of Icicle Creek Canyon. This has long been a favorite place for our family to celebrate special occasions and provides a level of luxury that is hard to find on a ski touring trip. All meals are prepared on site in the kitchen that services the lovely Kingfisher Dining Room with many of the ingredients grown onsite, sourced locally, and reflecting their commitment to sustainable and organic food. Sleeping Lady may have the coolest outdoor hot tub in Central Washington and our lodging is a cosy, comfortable "bunk" cabin with its own bathrooms and showers. Participants will have the run of the place including use of the hot tub, dry sauna, Grotto Lounge, and other facilities. The entire resort has wi-fi.

During the three day course we will undertake increasingly significant tours beginning with some training at Stevens Pass Ski Area. Your lift ticket for the day is also included as we utilize the lifts to access the backcountry surrounding Stevens Pass. Each evening and morning we will review the weather and avalanche forecasts and tie it in with what we saw in the field and what we expect to see on upcoming tours. This review, combined with time in the field is at the core of developing a solid touring foundation.

The course is intended for women that already feel comfortable skiing inside the resort and have a decent fitness base. While it is not required that participants have taken an AIARE Level 1 Course Olivia thinks they will get more out of the ski camp if they take it after they have taken and AIARE Level 1.  Completion of another companies AIARE Level 1 is no issue, but if you decide to take the course with her company, the Northwest Mountain School, she can offer a 10% discount on the avalanche course. The Northwest Mountain School is offering courses on most weekends from early December through early March each season.

For more details, visit Powder Betty or call the office at 509-548-5823 to discuss the trip with Olivia. 

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Silvretta Ski Tour Trip Report ~ March 5-9, 2014

For as long as we have been running ski tours in Europe, Olivia and I have made a habit of trying to scout a new tour each season.  We started with La Grave, France about ten years ago and then went on to establish a Haute Route Ski Tour, Ortler Circuit Ski Tour, and Berner Oberland Ski Tour before Olivia blew her ACL, leaving me to run so many spring tours that year that I could not find time for a new tour. The year after ACL surgery Olivia became pregnant with our first child (referred to in our house as a blown womb) and I was once again so busy guiding that exploration fell by the wayside.

Hard to beat the Berner Oberland, Haute Route, and Ortler, but we aimed to try with the Silvretta Group
This past spring we were at a Super Bowl party when my friend and neighbor Robes Parrish cornered Olivia and convinced her that I could have a week long hall pass so that he and I could explore a new region. They came to me with this revelation and I jumped on the offer.  We considered Japan, but decided it was too late in the season, Norway, but considered it was too expensive and perhaps a bit early in the season, the Dolomites, but decided it was heavier ski areas and light on backcountry that could be connected for a remote week of ski touring and then settle on the Silvretta.

Silvretta Region of Austria - A moderate powder paradise
As I had other trips to run in Switzerland and Italy in the weeks following our Silvretta trip, we flew into Geneva, met in Chamonix and the drove a rental car to the town of Galtur, Austria which would serve as the base for the start and end of our trip. The drive there took us through much of Switzerland, through tiny Liechtenstein, and finally into Austria.  The drive took about 6 hours and was fine, but in the future we will likely avoid it by flying in and out of either Munich or Innsbruck, both with good connections to Galtur.

Chamonix - Early March 2014
We rolled into Galtur pretty late and ended up going down to Ishgl for dinner.  Ishgl is where many of the lifts terminate that run to the big ski area above Ishgl and and Galtur and it seemed busier and had a wider variety of restaurants.  As we wandered around town we quickly realized that it was not really a touring scene with inebriated Russians, Austrians, and Germans very much enjoying their vacation.  We had a nice place to stay in Galtur so we retreated there after dinner.

Ishgl, Austria, one potential starting point for a Silvretta Ski Tour
Up early the next morning we packed up for the week, ditched the rental car, and headed down valley to Ishgl where we would use the lifts to catapult us into the backcountry. We took a series of trams up from 1376 M (4514') to the Palinkopf 2864 M (9,396'). The scene was insane. Lifts and skiers ran in all directions, the snowpack looked really shallow, and a bit of a storm was rolling in reducing visibility to the point where would would be looking for the hut in a whiteout.

Me looking skeptical about the scene in Ishgl's main ski area.
Once on top we quickly ruled out our first plan, which was to ski the SE face of the Palinkopf, due to lack of snow and we sniffed our way down to the SW and the Zeblasjoch 2539 M (8330'). Since we were still close to the ski area the snow was a bit hammered, the visibility was really bad, and the terrain was confusing. We follow our route plan and eventually climbed to the Fourcla da Val Gronda 2812 M (9226').

Robes at the Fourcla da Val Gronda, Austria
From here we needed to start to drop into the terrain leading to the Heidelberger Hut 2264 M (7428') where we planned to spend the night. It also marked the fist time we would cross the Swiss border. The border scene here was really interesting. On most days we would pop back and forth between Switzerland and Austria multiple times. The hut we were headed to, the Heidelberger Hut is run by the German Alpine Club (DAV), located in Switzerland, and staffed by Austrians. For all intensive purposes it is an Austrian Hut, it is just located in a different country and is overseen by neither countries Alpine club.

Robes as we approach the Heidelberger Hut from the East.
The ski down was decent, albeit cautious due to the flat light.  The good news was that it was snowing consistently, the temps were low, and the wind was not moving things around too much. On a clear day there would be other nice objectives to hit along the way, but by this point we were simply wanting to get where we were going and have a look at the latest weather forecast.

Robes wrapping his head around the idea of drinking lager for the week - Heidelberger Hut, Austria
We dropped our skis in the ski room, changed into dry socks and quickly got down to the business of hut life, which involved a nice lunch, a draft beer, and route planning for the following day which looked like it would provide good weather. This was a nice place with private rooms, hot showers if you wanted them, and great food.  Fish was an option for dinner so I jumped on it as I had never had fish in a hut before. The hut is resupplied by snowcat, so the food was fresh and plentiful.

Robes Parrish below the Kronenjoch on the Silvretta Ski Tour, Austria
The next morning was clear, windless, and just the right amount of cold to preserve all of the snow that fallen over the past two days. We climbed to the Kronenjoch 2930 M (9613') and started to get a solid feel for how much magnificent terrain we were about to ski in the days ahead.  Our first really great run of the trip was the 765 meter (2500'+) run down to the Jamtal Hut 2165 M (7103'). We skipped climbing and skiing the Breite Krone 3079 M (10102') in favor of an afternoon tour on the opposite side of the valley.

Jamtal Hut, Silvretta Ski Tour in Austria
The Jamtal Hut turned out to be more backcountry hotel than hut and offered free soup for those staying there. We decided to have a good lunch, grab our rooms, and lighten our packs before we set out for and afternoon tour. We could see that folks were getting some good skiing in so we were chomping a bit to get out and make some more runs.

Great ski terrain above Jamtal Hut in the Silvretta Region
We set out after lunch and headed up Valley, to the south, taking us into a huge cirque of north facing terrain.  There is easily 3 or 4 days of touring in this valley without having to repeat to much during the approach and exit. Some of the key peaks include: Piz Blaisch Lunga (3230M), Chalauskopf (3118M), Vorder Jamspitze (3176M), Hinter Jamspitze (3156M), Dreilanderspitze (3197M), and Ochsenkopf (3057M) with many our options available from ridge lines, and in between the peaks.

Robes under the Dreilanderspitz in the Silvretta region
For our first objective in this valley we climbed up under the Dreilandespitz 3197 M (10489') and skied some rolling lines on the Jamtal Glacier.  We were impressed with how well the terrain seemed to absorb all of the people touring in the area with most of our time spent making new tracks.  The wind had stayed away and even though the total snow depth was not great, the next few days provided some of the best skiing of the season for both of us.

Great slope, but not great spacing given the sluffing that was going on. This was another group we watched
One thing that impressed us about the area was that any given tour provided the opportunity for people to ski more moderate lines and terrain that would be good in the avalanche hazard were significant that often sat right next to steeper, more committing terrain.  The area is known for holding powder long after storms, and being a good spot to tour if you are looking for more moderate terrain, but we were very happy to see that there was also lots to do if you want to crank big days or big lines.

Afternoon snack at the Jamtal Hut
Once back to the hut we opted for beer, strudel, and of course whipped cream before tucking into dinner. This hut has a mixture of smaller private rooms and small dorm spaces.  The hut warden was a very welcoming man.  The Lorenz family has run the hut for 4 generations and the hut has been in operation since 1882 - a whopping 132 years.  There was a small area dedicated to the memory of the warden's daughter and wife who were killed escaping to the valley in a snowcat during a very huge avalanche cycle where there was a concern that the hut was threatened. He has since remarried and his new wife was there and was very helpful.

Tiramisu - Silvretta Ski Tour - Jamtal Hut
I don't recall what we had for dinner, but it was good and we questioned our afternoon tart when the meal wrapped up with a big chunk of Tiramisu. It was clear that for the net few days we would need to pack in a lot of uphill to make up for the amount we were eating and drinking.

Skiers under the Gemspitz on the Silvretta Ski Tour
The next morning was again clear, cold, and almost windless.  There had been just enough wind overnight to salt the snow across the surface just enough to fill in tracks, but no so much as to make the skiing disagreeable in any way.  We essentially had a clean palate of runs when we stepped out of the hut.  This time we headed for the Gemspitz 3107 M (10194') first.  To do this we climbed another lobe of the Jamtal Glacier.  We were able to ski all the way to the summit, but in hindsight it may have been just as easy to walk the last hundred feet to the narrow summit.

Panoramic View from summit of Gemspitz, Silvretta Region, Austria
Robes was here to ski and I was here to scout, so he was generous to indulge me with a handful of summits, each spectacular, but each taking away a bit of our touring time.  I like the fact that this area can allow for a relaxed group to spend the day climbing and skiing from a summit, or just as easily be adapted to wear out those that need more vert to sleep well at night. The Gemspitz provided a good view of the valley to the south as well as nice vantages for looking at other objectives such as the Piz Blaisch Lunga (at least the first part of it), and our next objective the Hinter Jamspitz.

Skiing off the Gemspitz, down the Jamtal Glacier.
Coming of the summit we skied the fantastic lines below and then cut hard skiers left to begin the climb up to the Hinter Jamspitz.

JR on summit of Hinter Jamspitze - Silvretta Alps Ski Tour
From the summit of the Hinter Jamspitz we got good views of the terrain to the South and saw a bunch of lines that would make for a good trip out of the town of Scuol.  It is possible to drop down to the Tuoi Hut 2250 M (7382') but we opted not to on this trip as the south facing terrain all seemed to be getting very baked.  That said we could see down to some lines had a more favorable aspect that would be worth coming back for.

Good looking terrain to the South of the Hinter Jamspitz. 
From here we skied back to the Jamtal Hut for a second night.

JR skiing the Jamtal Glacier below Hinter Jamspitz - Silvretta, Austria
On this afternoon we opted to spend the afternoon sitting in the sun on the patio of the Jamtal Hut.  In the background you can see the snow coach that they use to shuttle people up from the valley below if the simply want to come up for the day and then ski out.  Often they have groomed cross country trails all the way to hut.  Knocking this out on cross country skis would seem to be a hell of an accomplishment, but folks were doing it and it is nice to know you have a bail option if the weather turns on you.  It is a good 12 k and 500 meters descent back to Galtur.

Awesome terrain above & SW of the Wiesbadner Hut as seen from Vermunt Glacier.
On our last morning at the Jamtal Hut we decided that we would Ochsenscharte 2913 M (9557') and ski down the Vermunt Glacier to get to the Wiesbadner Hut 2443 M (8015').  To do this we retraced our skin track from the first afternoon here and then climbed a bit higher before dropping in.  The snow was a bit wind affected at the this point, but still working for us.  We high tailed it to the hut as we wanted to get into steeper N facing terrain for the afternoon.

Robes in from of Wiesbadner Hut with Piz Buin, Signalhorn, and Silvrettahorn in background.
The Wiesbadner Hut is also a very old hut. It was old when Heminway visited and stayed there in the winters from 1924-1926. The terrain around the hut seems a bit more severe and serious than what surrounded the Jamtal, but there are still many very good moderate lines.  The Piz Buin 3312 M (10866') and its sister peaks dominate the view.  We rolled in an met a nice Russian woman that seemed to be single handedly taking care of the place.  It turned out to not be true as the others were simply on their mid-morning break. Just to keep the tradition going we wolfed down huge pieces of strudel with cream and skipped the beer course in favor of sugary soda and tea.

Ochsentaler Glacier above Wiesbadner Hut in Silvretta region.
Our objective for the afternoon was uncertain,. but we knew we wanted to get up on top of the Ochsentaler Glacier (seen above) and explore the various options above that.  After a late morning snack we set out to see what we could see.  We had to drop ever so slightly from the hut and then contoured around until under the climbers right side of the big icefall. We then climbed up this.  The whole thing went on skis, but was certainly a bit firm where the ice was exposed.

Robes climbing the Ochsentaler Glacier in Silvretta.
Once up on top we could see how we could hit the steeper line down the middle of the ice fall on the way out and we continued above.  Piz Buin looked like a fun climb, but would cut into touring time to much, so we left that for another day.  Most people drop their skis near the base and then scramble up and down in a few hours as the skiing above is too rocky to be great.

Piz Buin as seen from Ochsentaler Glacier.
We headed off to the SW and climbed to the Fourcla dal Cunfin 3040 M (10005') and looked down the Glacier toward the Silvretta Pass 2991 M (9813').  The tour can be extended from here to hit the Silvretta Hut 2341 M (7680') and the Saarbruckner Hut 2647 M (8684') if you want to give up the extra nights at the Jamtal and Wiesbadner Huts.

Looking down from Fourcla dal Cunfin
We then skied from the Fourcla dal Cunfin down to the entrance to the central route throughout eh nice icefall on the Ochsentaler Glacier. On the way there you get a good view up the Silvretta Horn 3244 M (10643'), also an option on this tour.  Overall it looks pretty straight forward with a ski depot up high and then a scramble to the summit.

Silvretta Horn
Getting into the entrance was not overly complicated.  There was a narrow entry with some exposed rock and ice and then a very nice pocket of protected snow that provided easily 300 meter of steeper powder followed by a good 500 meter run all the way into the valley below the hut.  This snow was remarkably well protected from heat even after 4 days of sunshine following the storm.

Robes dropping into the steep snow under the Ochsentaler icefall, Silvretta Ski Tour
It seemed like the majority of skiers avoided this little poke into the icefall, so we had the snow pretty much to ourselves and found some nicer, more direct, lines.

Looking back up at Robes skiing down below the Ochsentaler Icefall, Silvretta
Once we hit the valley bottom we skinned back up to the hut.  The skin back up took under a half and hour and the folks along the trail had all finished with similarly long, nice runs.  Spirits were high when we hit the hut.

The Wiesbadner hut would be over the left shoulder of the photographer as they look up valley.  
This would be last night in a hut as we were planning to beat feet to Zermatt the following evening.  We had a beer, enjoyed talking with a German family that we were paired with for dinner, and watched the sun set.

Robes and JR following a solid day in the mountains, Silvretta
There are two basic ways you can run this tour.  On this trip we concluded that the best option for maximizing total ski time was to spend 1 night at the Heidelberger hut, 2 nights at the Jamtal hut, and 2 nights at the Wiesbadner hut. Alternately you could go Heidelberger, Jamtal, Wiesbadner, Silvretta, and finally Saarbruckner.  In either case you are going to want to end at a place called Bielerhohe.  Getting there from the Wiesbadner is a bit more straight forward, but it is also possible from with the Silvretta or the Saarbruckner, but would require better overall stability. In the future we are planning to offer the trip in both formats depending on what the group is looking for.

Classic European Apres Ski Scene at Wiesbadner Hut in Silvretta Region
At the Wiesbadner we had a private room near the top of the building with stunning views back toward the area where we had skied that day. For dinner we were paired with a nice German family where a mother and her high school aged kids were out on a quick multi-day tour as they had been doing for as long as the kids new how to ski tour.  Nice way to grow up!

Robes climbing out of Ochsental Valley with Silvretta Horn in background. Above Wiesbadner Hut
In the morning we once again had clear skies and low wind, but the temps were starting to slowly creep up.  We got an early start in hopes of having great conditions as we skied up and over the Bieltaljoch 2772 M (9094') and then dropped into the Bieltal Valley for the ski down to Bielerhohe 1897 M (6224'). Climbing out was manageable, but firm and icy in spots as this slopes gets a lot of sun in the afternoon. 

The ski out was remarkable.  In the last valley we dropped close to 800 meters (2625') and found the snow relatively unaffected by both the sun and wind, allowing for a nice exit.  You can add some very here by climbing up onto the Rauhenkopf 3101 M (10174') for a quick cycle or Haagspitze 3029 M (10174') to add more vert directly down the final valley.  On the Haagspitze most will opt to ski from around 2850 so you are only adding 100 meters of skiing.  The summit can be reached by an additional scramble. It was also fun to realize that this is a run Hemmingway would have taken in the 1920's when he spent winters in the area.

Looking over to Bielerhohe as we work our way down to Wirl for the end of our Silvretta Ski Tour
Just before we got to Bielerhohe we cut off to the skiers right and joined a groomed nordic track that we followed for a good 7 km down to the ski area at Wirl 1622 M (5321').  From Wirl we caught a short bus ride back to Galtur where we had left our rental car.

Robes in front of his usual accommodation in Galtur, Austria.
Many thanks to Robes Parrish for joining me for the scouting mission. He was willing to indulge me as we scoped out various runs that would not have been on his "A" list just so I would know how they skied and was willing to do the whole trip on a pair of skis skinnier than he had been on since maybe 8th grade.

I am writing this in September of 2014 and we already have 7 weeks booked for trips to Austria, Switzerland, France, and Italy for spring of 2015. We never know which trips will become popular, but the Silvretta seemed like it should become one of our more popular tours.  The season is basically January, February and the first part of March.  This is because most of the skiing takes place between 7000 and 10,500 feet, which is much lower than most of our other tours. The terrain is fantastic, it holds powder well, the food was the best of the best, and outside of local Germans and Austrians the place seemed relatively unvisited by the usual suspects.  This trip can be set up to run strong skiers into the ground or to provide a very nice, relaxed experience for families or those newer to touring. The terrain is big, but there are always more moderate options, which is not always the case in some of these other areas. 

If you would like more information on the trip give us a call at 509-548-5823 or visit Silvretta Ski Tour.