(This post sponsored by our publishing partner Cripple Creek Backcountry.)
A few weeks ago, WildSnow asked if I would head to the Alps on a press trip with Black Diamond to check out BD skis, the Austrian ski scene, and Germknodel (think Austrian dinner donut). I had already been in Mexico to escape the subarctic darkness, back home in Alaska, then to Colorado, which turned out to have a snow pack not much different from Mexico. Needless to say, I couldn’t say no to my first Euro ski trip and was psyched to be heading to snow. I didn’t get a chance to try the Germknodel because I was too busy skiing. Guess I’ll have to go back soon.
Mittersill Austria sits in the Kitzbühel Alps of Austrian Tyrol. Beer is served liberally, most meals consist of the best bread and cheese I’ve ever had, and the mountains are absolutely gorgeous. I spent a week sight-skiing the greater Mittersill mountains. The area made me feel like somehow a piece of Alaska wound up in Vermont.
After arriving in town, I saw how BD skis are made and then acclimated to Austria on-piste—ripping groomers at Kitzski just out of town. The ski areas of the Alps are massive. Miles and miles across, you can actually ski town-to-town inbounds by zipping across valley after valley like migrating Pleistocene caribou (if there ever were such a thing in Austria). We spent a whole day skiing from one end of the resort and back. Chairlifts were involved, but such an alpine traverse felt more like a tour and less like a resort day. These ski areas also serve as tram-laden launch pads for many touring adventures.
I got my first taste of the touring culture in Austria after our second day in town. We hit the skin track at about 6pm for a weekly local tradition. A cat track, a bit of steep groomer switchbacks, and a quick dash through the woods put us at a mountain hut with at least twenty other folks out for a night tour. The hut, adjacent to the ski area, provides skiers with the motivation to uphill — with the Kaspressknöde soup being the end goal (cheese dumpling sorta things in broth).
Now when I think hut, I typically think four walls, a picnic table, and a wood stove. In Austria, a hut seems to be a full service establishment, many with beds, all with beer and really good food. I was skeptical at first — how could such creature comforts be part of a tour? They won me over with the soup.
If you think uphilling is big these days in the States, just know folks in the Alps figured it out some time ago.
I checked out the new Helio 76 for the first time skiing down a fresh groomer via headlamp, while tasting a bit of the on-piste touring vibe, and getting yelled at in German by a groomer who really didn’t like where I was. According to other non German speaking travelers, being yelled at in German, by someone Austrian, Swiss, or German, is an essential rite of passage to the first time Alps visitor.
While touring inbounds is not against the rules, apparently there is a light that warns tourers about grooming operations. The snow cats are attached via giant winch to a cable that can catch in the snow and snap across the slope, thus removing arms or legs, or heads. No one in our group saw the light. The groomer didn’t speak English and I don’t speak German, but when he grabbed me by the shoulder and pulled me over to the wire, pointed at it then pointed at my neck drawing his thumb from one side to the other, I got the idea. Somehow I was the only one in the group dumb enough to stop at the disgruntled cat driver, but it was a good reminder of universal linguistics. He eventually let me go free and the ski down was superb.
The next day a tram saved us a couple hours of skinning and let us start our tour to a small peak called Stienkogel from a ridge already high above the Mittersill valley. Cold pow from a week earlier still clung to the north facing lines. The views across the Austrian Alps were true mountain magnificence. Only a couple hundred feet above the gondola already felt like we were in the middle of nowhere.
Our group consisted of journalists, folks from BD, Blizzard, Pieps, and Fritschi. It was a big crew with three IFMGA guides in the mix. Each person on the tour corresponded nicely to the gear or organization they represented — this was reflected in ski choice, travel style, conversation, and lunch ordering. Julie from Powder Magazine was on Helio 105s with 4-buckle boots, Tyler from Backcountry Mag was on Helio 95s with hefty 2-buckle boots, and I was on Helio 76s with a lighter 2-buckle boot — this alone seemed a bit poetic (at least as far as group ski and boot choice stratification goes…). The BD ski designer, Pete, was fast and eager to ski — he also ordered a big lunch. The Pieps folks were quiet and deliberate — they ordered dessert. The guy from Fritschi was a bit slower, but enthusiastic and talkative all the way. The Blizzard folks were on their home turf, guiding the way with precision. With an absolutely incredible locale, stoke was high the whole day.
At the top of the tour our Austrian hosts taught us the phrase “Berg heil,” which literally translates to something like “salute to the mountain,” but roughly translates in meaning to “cheers to a good climb!”
Apparently the zone we toured in was just the early season offering before the big mountains across the valley get enough snow and safer avy conditions. I felt like I could have spent a week right there.
A pattern of arcs in the snow, both big and small depending on number of boot buckles, followed our group down from pow to slush. Eventually we were out of the alpine and zipping down an icy road in the trees. The tour obviously ended at a hut that served some killer game meat that the guy who ran the place had shot himself. The hunter also drove us back to town afterwards.
Austria gets an A+ in my book, but I am psyched to be back to AK so I can work off some of the weight I gained. Berg heil!
Dr. Alex Lee lives in Anchorage, Alaska. Alex is a professor at Alaska Pacific University, teaching philosophy and environmental studies. He also works as a sometimes guide, naturalist, writer, and photographer.