Grinch may have attempted stealing Christmas, but it looks like it has his eyes on the entire winter-with-snow, too. Three characters set out to find now-endangered winter conditions and snow-covered mountain peaks. The road takes us ski touring Carinthia, Austria’s diverse mountain region. See what we found.
What does a naval officer, a polymath, and author of these lines have in common? One thing – the notion that the mountains are our church. More so as a theological position stripped away from all politics (as it happens with things in nature). Snow and ice-covered mountains are then the pinnacles of the mountain experience. Snow used to be a very practical thing when I was a kid – something you see and touch, but it is is proving to be something almost mythical today. Just like the polar bears that have to travel further to find ice for their seal hunting, so we have to travel further to find our element that we used to take for granted as kids.
Nockberge National Park
It is December 28th. You’re in the streets of Zagreb/Ljubljana/Graz/Vienna (pick a city). The postman, banker and accidental passer-by would likely be in their light jackets. An occasional tourist from Norway would walk around in their short-sleeve T-shirt. If you take your skis, poles, boots and ski gear and go for a walk in those streets you will grab the attention of most passers-by. A frown on their face would hint that you are out of place even though it is December. The first snowfalls only in January. Long gone is the White Christmas we hear from all the Christmas carols.
The journey begins in Innerkrems, high up at 1600m above water level. Here you are definitely not the only one with skis and you quickly blend in. Ski touring Carinthia is a thing you do if you live here.
Our route takes us through a snow-covered mountain road, past a large spaceship-looking tourism center with an indoor climbing Craig, a cinema, an exhibition. Dotted around the landscape are wooden huts that serve as stables and high-end private homes and everything in between.
At this time we are far from all roads and are working our way towards the peaks. We follow a touring trace by someone from earlier this morning. It takes us past one of the wooden huts. The kind that looks worn down but you can see that it was meticulously maintained and extra effort (and funds) was put in to give the impression of Hut is meticulously maintained but still has the weather-worn feel. A snowmobile is parked next to a barb wire fence nearby the house. Ski touring over the hills it feels that we are floating over the ground and the poles holding the barb wire are now buried under the snow with only inches of it sticking out of snow. We are already 20 meters past the snowmobile. We have another 5 meters to make it the second barb wire. A lady with a head full of hair curls walks out to us – ‘This is private’ – she says. We say we’re sorry. It is the first out of 30 houses we passed with someone inside. It’s also the last one. We show that we will disturb her less if we keep going, but she insists we turn back. That’s what we do – turn back, going around her private land. I was thinking of the ‘allemansretten‘ in Norway or ‘right to roam‘ in Scotland and many other places in Europe. It looks like science fiction in the Balkans.
We are skinning on snow that is hard-packed and frozen, yet not icy, also known as the crust. Temperature is minus 15 Celsius. Moving above the forest, we find ourselves on the ridge where the wind blows in gusts of 40km/h. We’re equipped as Buddhist monks, metaphorically speaking. We have just enough layers and gear to survive and advance in this terrain. Environment and position such as this naturally turns your focus inward. You feel the lungs filling up with air and feel how the weight of your body is pressing your boot. Your entire focus is on landing the ski under an angle that will carve the slope and lock the ski without sliding down or sideways. An uphill meditation. Bottom line is that you are on your own. Friends can help – make a joke, share some tea, have a spare battery – but you need to bring your ass up on that peak yourself. That’s the apex of the whole experience. There is also the downhill, but that comes later. 🙂
Peitlernock, 2.244m. One of the peaks in the middle of the Nockberge National Park on this ski touring Carinthia trip. Temperature is low but spirits are high.
From Peitlernock we see other peaks that make for ski touring targets in the Nockberge region. Note that fence poles lead all the way up to the mountain top. Most peaks are nicely rounded and resemble big hills really.
‘Let’s do that slope there!’
Skitouring Peitlernock is only a 750m altitude gain. Sun is still high – for winter standards ate leaste. We have time for another peak.
Still in Nockberge, just a peak nearby – we reach Barenaunock 2.292m and find another untouched slope for an epic ski down to Innerkrems. Excellent day one. Time for beer, food and hanging out with the rest of the Croatian ski touring posse.
Hohe Tauern: Haffner Grupe
Our second Carinthia ski tour is in the Haffner Massive that is a part of Ankogel group – the Hohe Tauern. The starting point for the trip is Sankt Peter – picturesque Alpine village. There is just enough snow to cover the grass field. We skin up the slope. Frano, who has a brand new pair of Black Crow skis, jokingly comments that we’ll get a ‘signature’ on our skis on the way down. That has to happen sooner or later.
The wind was strong already down in the village. Pine and fir trees make a shelter from the wind as we chit chat our way up on a forest trail.
On the ridge next to us, wind plays with the snow moving it in all directions as it whirls through the mountain massive.
We spread apart – each one of ous at his own tempo. Meditation time. Neven in his flow with slopes of Stubeck mountain towering behind his back.
As we skin up, our thoughts come and go. The mind becomes a white canvas much like the two fluffy clouds dancing above the saddle. The round clouds are called lenticular clouds and in reality, they aren’t sitting on the saddle but rather in the troposphere (17km above us). How are they made? In short, few things have to happen. First, the mountains create obstructions to airflow. Air creates eddies (same as it does in moving water) making the clouds stand in place. Moist stable air flows over a large eddie creating an air standing wave. Finally, temperatures on the crest of the airwave go below dew point creating the clouds. Natural sculpture.
Speaking of natural sculpture: wind and subzero temperatures decorate the cross and the bench on Sternspitze, 2.497m. Down jackets and windproof layers are some of our best friends here.
Some more lenticular clouds (in UFO shape) and rest of the Haffner Massive.
To the south, Stubeck mountain top and a perfect illustration of the winds high up. We were looking for winter and that is exactly what we found.
Frano making his signature on a combination of crust and snowdrift. It’s not only the meditation on the way up that makes one skin for hours. Delaying gratification may be one way to describe motivation. Unleashing the child in yourself is the other.
Neven gliding through the slopes with a view. It is what ski touring Carinthia in winter is all about.
Final downhill leg through the forest and the mountains.
For two hours I was looking at the cloud that persistently stood in place. As if talking back to all the ski tourers skinning up the mountains in the Alps. It was like an island you are paddling to to but it doesn’t get any bigger and then you miraculously just find yourself on the peak and you notice you’ve been climbing for hours. Sometimes a white gap is all it takes to keep you going. One little hommage to the cloud. Photo was taken just moments before another wind gust poured snow over me.
Ski touring Carinthia is about the snow-covered peaks, plenty of mountains off the beaten path and a lot of wind. The wind comes and goes, but the memory of the rest stays for a long time. What a way to start a ski touring season. We’ll be back here soon, and we’ve seen the peaks we’ll be climbing.
Complement this piece with a photo essay and video about ski touring supposedly one of the longest couloirs in the Julian Alps, which nicely connects to a ski mountaineering trip in Slovenia. reflections about adventure travel and art of slowing down.
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‘Moving your limits’ isn’t necessarily about the highest mountains, biggest caves, deepest canyons or oldest ruins. But it is about great adventures. It’s about that constant pursuit of the world’s secrets – cultural as well as natural. It’s about how we move in nature and raise our expectations about each and every place in the world, moving our mental and physical limits on the way.