The establishment of a fast train connection from Berlin to Munich means that the Alps are now that much closer, and long weekend trips are easier than before. We have a friend with whom we often go on outdoor adventures, including those of the snowy variety, and she is a big fan of ski-touring, so last weekend the three of us headed down to Bavaria so that she could show us why she loves this sport. Ski-touring involves climbing up slopes with special skis that have “skins” on for grip, then removing the skins so that you can ski down off-piste on lovely, fluffy powder snow. The skins are usually made of nylon (cheaper), mohair (more expensive), or a combination of the two.
Unlike pistes, which are groomed so that the snow is flattened, and checked all around for safety, the terrain over which you travel while ski-touring is more wild. It’s really quite a different feeling skiing on soft masses of powder snow, and climbing up through forests, than it is dodging other skiiers on a sometimes icy piste. However, since ski touring is in a natural environment, you have to be much more aware of your surroundings and pay a lot of attention to the weather, the mountain and the slopes. Ungroomed snow means the potential for avalanches, depending on the snow conditions, the slopes and the weather, so it’s important to always wear an avalanche beeper under your clothes so that someone can find you if happen to get buried, and so that you can search for others in case they are the unlucky ones. The two other things you have to carry are a probe (for sticking into the snow to check where the person is) and a shovel (to dig them out).
Of course, not only should you wear the beeper, but you should know how to use it. Mountain clubs such as DAV in Germany typically offer avalanche classes (In German, the word for avalanche is Lawine). In these classes you not only learn how to search for buried people, but also how to judge the terrain and the risk of avalanches. You can also daily check the avalanche status online. There is a standard scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being very low risk and 5 the highest risk, meaning you should completely avoid all avalanche terrain. Here’s an American version of the scale, though it is the same everywhere. There is lots more information online and even videos on avalanche training, but nothing beats a face-to-face explanation and some practice runs.
When the rating is at 1 or 2 it’s pretty safe to go out ski touring, although of course you still have to pay attention to your surroundings and plan a safe route. When it’s 4 or 5 you shouldn’t really go out. Apparently most avalanche deaths actually occur at level 3, because there are still lots of people on the slopes at this level and the risk is higher than at 1 or 2. Level 3 is ok if you are experienced enough to plan your route carefully and stick to low risk areas, e.g shallow slopes. Typically avalanches occur at slopes of between 30 and 45 degrees. Part of avalanche training includes route planning. In the daily avalanche risk report, it tells you if some slopes are more dangerous than others under current conditions, for example east or west facing slopes. Things that increase the risk of avalanches are: lots of snow, steep slopes, wind, thawing of snow and rain.
Our friend had given us an introduction to avalanche training on a recent trip to Harz, and before we set out on our first day of ski touring, we had another go. She buried her beeper while we weren’t looking and we had to hunt it down. That meant turning our beepers from “Send” (the setting you normally leave it in while walking so that you transmit a signal” to “Receive” and following the arrows. Then we dashed off (as fast as you can dash in thick snow) to rescue her beeper. When it’s a person that’s buried, you only have about 10 minutes to find them and dig them out before their oxygen runs out, so the faster the better. Once we’d found the beeper, we were ready to set off on our ski-touring adventure.
Arriving in Spitzensee, where we would stay for three days, was an adventure in itself. There’d been strong winds the week of our trip and almost all trains from Berlin to Munich were cancelled – including hours. We had one foot through the exit door from the station when my husband spotted that one of the other trains was now going to Munich, and we ran to it and caught it just in time. This train wasn’t a sprinter like our original train, and took 4.5 hours to get to Munich. Then we had another hour to wait before our train to Neuhaus. A taxi met us in Neuhaus at 1 in the morning, and with snow swirling around us we finally arrived in Spitzensee.
We awoke to a beautiful view, and lots of snow. The avalanche level for the day was 2 below the tree-line and 3 above. Out of several routes, our friend chose a beginner’s route with little danger.
The first challenge was putting the skins on the skis, or rather, unsticking the skins from themselves. The back side of the skins is very sticky and the skins were rolled up so that each half of the skin was stuck to the other half. Once our skis were ready, we had our route and had refreshed our avalanche training, we headed off to the mountain. I was happy to find that the skins worked very well for stopping you sliding backwards when going uphill. On the other hand, climbing a hill in skis is very hard work. Did I mention that you have to travel with a big backpack, to store your helmet (for skiing down), the shovel, probe, water/tea and the layers of clothes you will shed while going up due to working up quite a sweat? And that walking with the heavy skis and ski shoes felt like walking with lead boots?
Nonetheless, it felt good to do some exercise. We walked up through the forest and up a snowy hill. However, pretty soon I started feeling the beginnings of blisters on my feet from the ski shoes. They were near the arch of my foot, which is not normally where I get blisters. After a while every step started to hurt. We stopped and I put tape on the blistering parts of both feet. This didn’t help the pain but it stopped me rubbing my feet raw, which would be much worse. Getting the boots and skis on and off was a challenge, since as soon as I stepped off the skis I sank into the deep snow. That’s when you realize how well skis hold you on the surface. Feet taped up, we continued on our way.
What beautiful views of the Bavarian Alps! After walking up, we traversed the mountain a bit, in the direct of Roßkopf.
Up, up, up and still not at the top. There were nice snowy slopes next to the black slope piste, and we pushed a bit harder to get most of the way up those.
Finally it was time to ski down. We took off our skis and flattened the snow around our feet to make a platform to stand on. Then we took the skins of our skis and put them back into our backpacks. We prepared ourselves for downhill skiing: on went the helmets, gloves and warmer clothes (walking up I’d even had my sleeves rolled up as you get quite hot). The first part of the slope was not steep, and it was fun to ski down on the soft snow.
Then we got to the a very scary looking downhill, which was apparently the way down. Well, scary for me, the others were of course fine with it, being better skiiers. Despite the steepness of the slope, it was very wide and the snow was deep and slow, so it wasn’t that hard to get down by travelling sideways and turning from one side to the other.
After going down for a bit we ended up on the piste (our route ran next to a black slope). That was ok until we got to a very steep and icy part of the hill – not my cup of tea. I headed to the forest next to the slope where the snow was better. My friend told me it’s rare to feel more comfortable off piste than on piste, but I really hate ice! Fluffy snow is nicer.
Finally we got down. There was a fun shallow part to slide down at the end, and then we had to get off our skis and walk. We stopped at a hut for some cake since we’d actually missed lunch. All of us went for the Mohnkäsekuchen (poppy seed cheesecake), which was delicious. Did any of us take a photo? No! We were all too busy stuffing our faces and thirstily downing our drinks. I had my favourite when I’m in the Alps: Johannisbeereschorle (blackcurrant juice mixed with sparkling water). We felt relaxed, but there was still a hard part to come: we had to walk back to our hotel in Spitzensee, uphill, carrying skis. This last part was not fun at all and both my blisters got worse. By the time we got back to the hotel I was finished. The other two went to the sauna before dinner, but I had a shower and relaxed for a bit instead – it was great to put my feet up and think back on the day.
We had dinner in the hotel restaurant (schnitzel, chicken and pork knuckle), then went to a cosy room downstairs where there were tables and chairs, and played a board game to finish off the day.
In the morning, I realized that my blisters were still too painful for me to squeeze my feet back into the ski boots, so I opted to take snowshoes instead while the others stuck to their skis. It had snowed a lot the night before, judging by the increase in the size of the snow layers on tables and chairs.
The avalanche level was now three because of the extra snow. In fact, in the morning it said two, which I expressed my doubts about, and I was right because later at 11am they raised it to three. However, the route our friend planned was on safer slopes, mostly shallow. Setting off, it was amazing how much easier it was to walk with snowshoes instead of skis and a lighter backpack. The uphill was definitely less work. On the other hand, they’d be laughing on the way down.
We hiked to the top of the hill, where there was a cosy hut to sit in, and had food and drinks, just as the weather got worse outside. I tried a local soup called Pfannkuchensuppe (pancake soup).
The weather improved while we were having lunch, and afterwards we got some nice views.
Now came the challenge: getting down. The others thought it would be easy for me on snowshoes, because we’d been on a snowshoeing trip previously where running down the hill on thick snow was easy. However, I had a feeling it wouldn’t be so easy, because on the way up whenever my feet had left the trail made by previous skiiers (harder ground), I sank in quite a bit. I was right. While the other two skiied off easily down the hill on great snow, I had to wade my way through deep snow, sinking deep with each step. The snow was so deep that despite the snowshoes I was sinking up to my knees and even higher. It took tremendous effort to lift the shoes up out of the snow each time. I read later that in some parts of the mountains there were up to 2m of snow – wonder what I was walking on! At any rate, it was a good workout.
The other two really enjoyed the fresh powder snow and skiing. Despite the effort expended snowshoeing, I was still glad I hadn’t had to walk in ski shoes with blisters. So all in all a good day in the snow. We tried another restaurant for dinner and I had spinach dumplings with strong cheese sauce – absolutely delicious. Then we went back and played our boardgame again before heading off to bed.
Rain was forecast for Monday, which meant the avalanche risk would increase as some of the snow thawed – and there was a lot of snow. In fact, the snowfall of 2 metres in some parts of the Alps bordering Austria was the highest since the 1980’s. Sure enough, when we woke up on Monday morning the avalanche risk was 4 in our area and had even gone up to 5 in Austria. The previous day, a ski tourer had been killed in another region of Bavaria in an avalanche (deeper into the mountains). The level 4 risk meant no ski touring or snowshoeing for the day – instead our only option was to go for a walk around nearby Spitzensee. It would be a short day anyway, as we had to catch the bus and then train back later. We finally located the bus stop, which we hadn’t been able to find the days before…
Having found the bus stop, we went for a walk around the lake and a further 45 minutes up to a hut for lunch. Our path was bordered by giant walls of snow on either side.
For lunch I tried another local specialty, Kaspressknödelsuppe (cheese dumpling soup), which had two big cheesy dumplings in a broth – delicious!
After lunch we walked back down the hill and followed the path back to Spitzensee. It was time to change and get ready to catch our bus and trains back to Munich and Berlin. Our snowy weekend had come to an end. I will leave you with some more photos of Spitzensee – hopefully we’ll be back sometime!