January 11, 2006: Good morning, and Happy New Year.
I've skied in four different countries in the past two weeks. My friend Kam Leang and I seized a unique opportunity to see the Alps through the eyes of locals and joined our mutual friends Michael and Corinne in the heart of Europe just after Christmas. As I walked through the München Flughafen, I sent a mental note of thanks to my junior high German teacher, Herr Horst Göllnick, who had done his work well . . . my limited but seemingly perfectly understandable German worked like a charm with the oversized-baggage handlers and the Mietwagen (rent-a-car) guy. Kam had arrived on another flight minutes before, and we picked up a cool Euro SEAT Leon, a car that resembles a mini Nissan Murano.
Heading out into the wilds of southern Germany, we got slightly sidetracked in downtown München, abandoned our original plan of taking the A8 Autobahn out of town, and settled on the more direct A95 route going directly south. We cranked the SEAT up to around 130-140 KPH (and were still being passed like we were standing still) and enjoyed the scenery - the major problem was visibility due to the large quantities of salt mush on the roadway and the fact that the left side windshield squirter was frozen shut.
In a little less than two hours, we were roaming the streets of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a famous German ski resort, looking for a cash machine. After that, we blew through the pass into Austria, expecting a Hogan's Heroes sort of border check but finding nothing except a subtle change of script below the names of the hotels to indicate we were now in another country.
We followed Michael's sister Marion's directions along the A12 and took the Ötztal cutoff, heading for Umhausen. The streets became narrow and picturesque as we took the left turn toward Niederthai, the town that Michael's dad grew up in - Michael was right, it was like Leavenworth, only the real thing. Niederthai is quite a bit higher in elevation, and the road is the equivalent of one of our Forest Service routes to a remote trailhead, only paved. Several cars without winter tires were left spinning their wheels in frustration on the steep switchbacks, but the SEAT rocked and we made it up the hill without incident.
Niederthai itself is a beautiful town of about 280 people, set in a gorgeous valley and surrounded by 3,000 meter peaks. It has the requisite church, a small ski lift and ski school, and a few hotels and restaurants. Everyone skis, talks snow conditions, and follows the alpine World Cup racing circuit. We pulled into the driveway and met the rest of the Trommsdorff clan, including Michael's dad Peter, mom Gisela, aunt Gitta, sister Marion and her soon-to-be husband Arno, cousin Ulla and husband Stef and kids, as well as assorted cousins staying in the house next door.
Michael and Corinne had an agenda for us - as soon as we got our gear unpacked, they headed us out the door for a several kilometer "walk" over a neighboring hill. We entered an ancient stone and wood hut that appeared empty, and found a room full of people enjoying hot soup, beer and pastries, all of whom had walked the same route to get there. Pretty cool, and it gave us some insight into why the Austrians, who don't seem to practice any sort of low calorie or low fat dietary regimen, aren't fat. They exercise.
The next three days held to a predictable schedule with the Trommsdorffs - get up at dawn, eat bread-butter-jam-yogurt-müsli-fruit, put skins on skis, and head out. Twice we walked to the center of town, where Michael would whip out his cell phone. Soon thereafter a guy with a snowmobile and trailer would show up, we would pile in/on the contraption, and be pulled up the flat 6 km trail to another hut, where the steep skinning started. It seemed a little like cheating to us, but then we realized that everyone else, including the hard-core mountain rescue guys, did it as well. Save your energy for the real thing, I guess. After a full day of skiing, the family gathered on the porch to take in an hour or so of sun while drinking tea and schiwasser, cold water mixed with some sort of fruit syrup, and eating bread and cheese. Most nights we went out to eat, usually at restaurants specializing in wild game dishes like Hirshentrecote (a delicious and tender venison) and Springbok (wild Ibex) . . . if you wanted to know what you were eating, they had the mounted skulls of the animals on the walls!
Day one's objective was a peak called Hohe Wasserfalle (High Waterfall, though there is no waterfall anywhere near it), Day Two was der Schartenkopf, and Day Three was der Brand, the mountain just behind the Trommsdorff home. Each was special, either for the views, the avy danger, or the snow, and Kam and I were in heaven. It was especially inspiring to watch Florian, a neighbor and one of the local "mountain goats" catch us like we were standing still on the steep uphill skin, not to mention skiing with Michael's dad and aunt who are both still hitting it hard though they are pushing seventy. We missed the opportunity to ski with uncle Völkmar Trommsdorff, a local legend who put in something like 110 days of ski touring last year just before his death.
Like Michael had said, these are tough mountain people who think of a 2,000 meter day of skinning as an easy day, go out touring in softshell at -25° C, and live with avy danger and weather ambiguities like we choose between a tall and a grande at Starbucks. Watching fit people in their seventies and even older cruising the cross-country paths on skis and enjoying themselves immensely was a joy to watch and a goal to shoot for, to be sure.
Following a festive New Year's Eve complete with fireworks, during which the still jet-lagged Leang and Louie struggled to stay awake, we made a very special trip up to the mountain behind the house with a bottle of Champagne to both bring in the new year and pay tribute to Uncle Völkmar. The local mountain rescue team had recently placed a large stone and bench at the summit in his honor, and we toasted to his memory before enjoying some pretty fine powder on the way down.
The next day we loaded up the cars and headed out of Austria, though we were delayed for several hours when the "Americanized" Michael mistakenly filled his in-laws' TDI Passat with regular gas. It was an expensive mistake, which required throwing away a full tank of gas as well as paying a garage to siphon the tank and air out the system, but fortunately didn't damage the car permanently. If Corinne's parents are reading this, it's really true, we almost never see diesel here in Seattle!
Kam and I drove through most of Switzerland before stopping in Savigny, just outside of Lausanne, to stay the night with my brother-in-law Jeremy, his wife Teresa and their daughter Sophia. Michael and Corinne went straight through to the "other" family home in Grenoble, France, where we would meet up with them the next day.
We did a day of "resort" skiing at Chamrousse, site of the '68 Olympics and Michael's home area. It's roughly 15 minutes up the hill from the house, roughly the size of Crystal Mountain, and offers some great views of the surrounding mountains, especially La Grave and the Écrin Range to the south. With a reservation in Chamonix the next night, we reluctantly decided to pass on skiing La Grave for a day, as it would have involved 3 to 4 hours of extra driving. It was probably the right call, as I was completely beat driving up the curvy road to Chamonix and had to turn the wheel over to Kam, who wasn't much more awake . . . we pulled into our place of lodging, l'Ecole de Taconnaz, an old school that was home to our hosts Manu and Cécile Cauchy, in the small town of Les Houches, downloaded the car in a stupor, and hit the sack.
If you're passionate about skiing or mountaineering, Chamonix is a place you simply have to experience at least once in your lifetime. The mountains are huge, with descents of 7,000 to 9,000 vertical feet not uncommon, the lines are as steep as your skill and imagination will allow, and no one tells you what you can and can't ski or climb. You also, of course, can't sue anyone if you screw up.
We spent four days skiing in Chamonix and the surrounding area with Michael's brother Christian, a well-known UIAGM-certified guide and Himalayan climber. Christian seems to know everyone in the valley, from the lift operators to the waiters in the huts and of course the other guides. The image to the right is Christian's promo New Year card published by his sponsor Millet. It was quite a revelation to be introduced to friends like Valeri Babanov, one of the top Russian climbers and also a guide in Canada and Chamonix, while riding the tram. These guys talk about doing Shishapangma or Cho Oyu next season like we plan a trip to Whistler, and the glimmer in their eyes when they talk about an unclimbed 3,000 meter face at 7,000 meters of elevation is impossible to miss.
It turned out that Emmanuel "Manu" Cauchy, our host at the bed and breakfast in Taconnaz, is also a guide and author and famous in France as the man responsible for setting up the national emergency rescue system for climbers and skiers. He also maintains a medical practice in town and skis and climbs every chance he gets, and is a gracious and amusing host. The renovated school that serves as home for the Cauchys, their two children, and two cats has three bedrooms that they rent out on a weekly basis for what amounts to a very measly amount of money by Chamonix standards, and we were lucky to be the guests for the week. In addition to serving a great breakfast and after-ski snack, Cécile Cauchy was extremely patient with our meager French language skills and even dressed my Garmont-induced blisters with a professional ease. Staying with the Cauchys for a week was like being part of the family, a very different experience than staying at the luxurious Le Morgane last time I was in Chamonix, and a highly recommended experience if you ever get the chance.
The first two days were technically "lift-served" skiing - we drove through the tunnel from Chamonix to the Italian town of Courmayeur, where the weather was much nicer than in Cham and the south-facing slope picked up a bit of welcome warmth. No one in Europe seems to care if you have a passport or not anymore (except the Swiss, who are sticklers) . . . Christian said to just bring some photo ID and we'd be good to go. Lift skiing in the Chamonix area, assuming you stay out of the tourist resorts and their high-speed quads, is not exactly for the faint of heart. For starters, we did the "green" run off the top of the Courmayeur tram, which involves climbing through the safety fence at the top, putting your skis on a thin patch of icy snow, doing a butt-drop off a rocky ledge onto more icy/rocky stuff, and then downclimbing a rather large set of erector-set stairs for about 800 vertical feet before hanging off a fixed rope to put your skis on on another icy angled slope. Your typical US resort skier would have been in cardiac arrest by the butt-drop, not to mention the rope. Nevertheless, this was the easy way down, and sensing that Christian was putting us through a test of sorts, we followed like the sheep we are down the "classic" route. As with most of these ski routes from the big trams, the skiing varies a lot according to altitude (the vertical is something in excess of 7,000 ft.) - the top was icy with some windblown fresh, the middle had some good powder, the bottom was largely frozen avy debris with survival bushwhacking . . . We soon got the signals down; when Christian stopped and held his poles out to either side, it meant a crevasse was just past him and we should under no circumstances go past him (actually, the rule was never to go past him at all). When he said follow exactly in his tracks, he meant EXACTLY. When he hooted like an owl (WOO-HOO!) it meant he had found a powder stash and we should bust our butts to get over there. In the afternoon, we went back to the top and skied the Vallée Noir, a sister route to the famous Vallée Blanche, which also ends on the Mer de Glace. Kam and I hung in a local café drinking Coke and eating tartes de pomme until they basically urged us to leave while Michael and Christian hitched a ride back to Italy to retrieve the cars.
On the second day, Kam decided to take a break and re-evaluate his tele-commitment, so Michael and I went with Christian back to Courmayeur with more challenging objectives. First off, we headed to les Marbrées, another of the classic descents in the valley skier's left of the tram, then a very enjoyable powder run from the mid-station followed by a "real Italian" lunch with bread, wine, pommes frites, lamb, duck breast, raspberry tarte and cappucino. The hour-and-a-half dining experience left our legs a bit on the heavy side, so of course Christian decided to show us a "little couloir" for our afternoon session. This turned out to be the very cool line under the top tram called the Cesso Couloir that we had seen tracks on the previous day, though we skied directly off the top through an impressive maze of rocks rather than accessing the couloir from the closed refugio on the ridge. The snow was good and the descent quite fun, and we skied yet another route at the bottom to get out.
Day three in Chamonix was a touring day; Kam decided to try rando gear for the first time in years, and we headed up the valley towards Bel Oiseau, Switzerland. Just over the border, we veered off the main road and headed to a tiny town with no apparent name to find probably two dozen cars already parked at the trailhead. No problem, we skinned up the road three abreast until we reached the steeper portion, then cruised up a well-defined and sometimes slick skin track. Once in the main bowl, we were faced with a choice of two major routes and decided on the one to looker's left, which seemed more crowed but also had more ski options. After lunching on pâte de lapin and bread at the col, we decided to ascend the peak to our right and check out the ski options. This turned out to be quite an adventure, as the peak was not the one Christian had been looking at on the map, and the descent involved a rather sketchy sideslip and a good-sized slab release to regain the col . . . there were also some pivotal "relationship" moments between Christian and his girlfriend Karine during this episode, but that's another story altogether. The ski from the col involved some genuine powder moments, as well as some icy cat track fun.
Our final day in Chamonix was reserved for the classic descent from l'Aiguille du Midi through the Vallée Blanche and the Mer de Glace. The scenery is as spectacular as one could imagine, though the skiing leaves something to be desired. Still, skiing through a huge icefall that one would normally avoid at all costs is quite an experience, and gave our legs a good warm up for the off-piste bushwhacking excursion down to town.
As Kam blasted through Autobahn traffic at 165 KPH on the return to München, the feeling of spent exhilaration in our legs and minds was real. Europe IS all it's cooked up to be for skiers, and the opportunity to experience it with the Trommsdorffs and their friends was not to be missed.
We'll be back.
"Incoming" covers developments that have personal interest to me (ie. gear I covet, or events I feel may impact the sport of skiing) - it is by no means meant to be a comprehensive enumeration of gear or events in the ski world at large. Feel free to contact me via the randosaigai.com link below with news or images that may be of interest . . .
© 2006 Gregory C. Louie