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Der Schartenkopf, Central Tirol, Austria, December 31, 2005

Weather came in on the night of the 30th of December, and hit Niederthai with around 15 centimeters of fresh snow. Given the last three days of sub-zero weather and the distinct surface hoar layer we had seen the day before, we were skeptical about the snow stability, and sure enough, the avalanche report had levels of 3 (equivalent to our "considerable") in the valley and 4 (high) at higher elevations.

We walked to town and called for the snowmobile express again, then booked up the trail. It was a smaller group this time, just Michael, Corinne, their brother-in-law to be Arno, and Kam and myself. No problem this time with the cold; the temperature had risen to a Northwest-like -3 C. As we cruised up the road, riding backward in the trailer, we saw natural releases everywhere along the valley - not really a good sign.

Arriving at the hut and again feeling a little guilty, we were met with four members of the local mountain rescue group, including Florian, who had taken another snowmobile up. We figured that if these aerobic monsters weren't ashamed of getting a tow up the road, we shouldn't be either. Fortunately, they were a bit more organized than we were, and they started breaking trail in a foot plus of wind-affected fresh at an astounding pace. Knowing when to let the locals show us our place, we waited about five minutes and set out in a perfectly laid skin track . . .

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There were natural slides all over the place, mostly point releases that had gathered steam but a few small slabs as well. The mountain rescue guys, several of whom had ABS packs on, picked a safe route up a mellow ridge line without wasting any time. One guy in particular was so fast that even when breaking trail, the rest of the group could barely hang with him.

About 2,000 ft. up we reached a large flat valley where the local guys decided to head for a peak looker's right that seemed to offer no rock-free descent from the top. After talking it over, we decided to head looker's left toward a peak called der Schartenkopf, which looked to offer better snow coverage. The skin to the top was uneventful except for the final few meters up a rocky ridge, which offered scant grip for the skins and a large drop to the right. After a few precarious tele-kick turns, Kam wisely decided to take off his skis and boot this section.

We had a quick bite to eat and got ready to ski. On the first steepish pitch, Arno's ski cut set off a fairly large slab with about a 14" crown that went down about 500 ft., then set off another much larger slide in an adjacent chute. Pretty exciting. That convinced us to stick to really low angle terrain as much as possible on the descent. We meandered around, sticking to ridges and flats, necessitating poling much of the time to make any headway. The picture of me in the above row at left was probably the top speed we attained during the ski . . . maybe 15 mph!

At any rate, we made it safely to the hut, where Michael, Kam and I stopped for an after-ski snack. Without asking, the owner's son brought three shots of schnapps (the real stuff, not the wimpy flavored variety) to our table. Doing the polite thing, we downed the strong liquor in one gulp, which caused the normally non-imbibing Kam to break into an immediate sweat! We finished off the meal with frittatensuppe, a broth and pasta soup and cookies on the house, while Michael caught up on old times with the owner's wife, an old friend who was a former national team XC skier.

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