Having spent most of last week working in the heart of Bavaria, the weekend just gone was the perfect opportunity to sneak in some extra days of alpine touring. Innsbruck was little more than an hour away from where I was based and with Tom, one of my German colleagues keen to get out we escaped to the Austrian Tyrol in search of the white stuff.
With relatively warm temperatures predicated, the avalanche risk at lower elevations was forecast to be high and so Thomas and myself decided to head over towards the Stubai region to allow us to get above 3000m and find the best conditions. All photos courtesy of Thomas Strobl.
Taking advantage of the uplifts at the Stubaigletchser resort we quickly found ourselves basking in the sun at nearly 3000 metres. It was 10 o’clock and already warm. Our desination that day was the highest peak in the region, the Zuckerhutl (the SugarLoaf) which stands proud, the highest peak in the Stubai region at 3505m.
From the hustle and crowds of the Stubaigletchser resort, we had gone within minutes, into a small and secluded valley. Greeted with silence, just a few other ski tourers could be seen on the glacier high above. With skins on we began the gradual ascent of 600 metres or so to the summit. It was a steady climb that took a couple of hours, first a steady climb up the Pfaffenferner glacier to a col at 3212m before a long easterly traverse took us alongside and under the north face of the Zuckerhutl. From it would be a relatively straightforward climb to its summit. But in the relative warmth (the freezing level was around 3000 metres) even in just a base-layer and light fleece it was hot work.
From the ski station it was ski’s off and short but relatively straightforward climb to the summit. And before we knew it, there Tom and I were, looking across to the Oztal Alps and further West towards the Wildspitze and onto Switzerland, to the South lay Italy and the distinct peaks of the Dolomites.
After a night spent in the Dresdner Hut, we were joined by two of Thomas’ friends Markus and Monica, who living in nearby Innsbruck knew these mountains like the back of their hand. Again the day was forecast to be relatively warm, so again we decided to stay as high as possible.
Whizzing up in the cable car, we were quickly taken to 3133m. A short descent down firm piste and we were off , skirting the edge of the Windacher Ferner glacier before dropping down into a large bowl at around 2800m. This is what alpine touring is all about, the mountains were deserted, skiing fresh tracks as we descended some thousand feet through firm but forgiving snow, surounded to our North by a cirque of craggy peaks.
From the shadowy bowl we looked upwards, the rising glacier above was steeper than it looked. We would now have to regain the 350 metres of height we had just lost and we hadnt gone very far before we realised that the long climb ahead was more avalanche prone that we had first suspected. A quick pit and tell-tale chalky snow revealed a less stable series of slab layers, not horrendous, but worrying enough to ascend with extreme caution. 30 metres apart and sticking high to the edge of the snow-field on the Warenkarferner glacier we made our way up.
As we neared the col the slope gradient increased. You did not need to be an expert to realise this was prime avalanche terrain. Thomas tried to avoid the normal line, hoping to find a safer way through the rock bands but it was not possible. And so Markus looked for a line up the remaining slope, skinning across an unforgiving surface that had been scoured ice hard, there was only one option and that was to take the ski’s off and climb the last 10 metres or so on foot.
Dropping off the west side of the col we descended an easy 200 metres across a sweeping glacier before climbing up once again and traversing around towards our one main summit of the day, the Hinterai Daunkopf.
After a series of short climbs and fantastic descents, with ski’s left at the col, Tom and I made quick work up the snowy scree slopes to 3255m whilst Markus and Monika opted to relax in the sun! From here it was some 1500 metres of descent, first through firm and fast snow, later as we dropped below the 2500m contour line, softer less forgiving conditions before a bone rattling traverse across avalanche debris brought us back to the security and hustle of the pistes.
With a less promising forecast for Sunday, we mulled over the options. Sat in Markus’ apartment overlooking Innsbruck we pondered the encroaching weather as Markus gave us a lesson in tropical fish, sat as we were next to his giant indoor aquarium brimming with exotic fish from Lake Tanganika. When Markus wasnt skiing or climbing, this was his other great passion.
The updated forecast was much more hopeful, the weather was coming in from the South and would not reach the central Alps until late afternoon. And with temperatures forecast to drop it was decision made, we headed up past the growing resort of Kuhtai and into a hugely popular touring area to the South-West. Other than some thousand metres of ascent, today was to be an easier, shorter day. One-way up onto the Mitteltalferner glacier and col at 2758m before reversing our tracks and skiing all the way back down, back in time for lunch.