Skiing and Greek Mountain Tea

Allgäuer Alpen, Deutschland, Friday 25, February 2011

The plan was to get to the top of Nebelhorn with lift assist, traverse the ridgeline, and tour to the Großes Daumen, making some loops on it’s shoulder where the powder should still be deep and light enough to ride.  (Thursday had been a day of full out sunshine, and temperatures getting towards 5ºC, baking the surface in most places into a tricky, breakable crust, 3-6cm thick.)  The whiteout refused stubbornly to lift however, and owing to the two month draught, the passage was sure to be tricky.  We decided to err on the side of prudence.


Norbert had another plan, to ride in Tannenheimer Tal.  From the small Schattwald area we could begin with tour card lift assist, gaining the first 300 vertical painlessly, and follow it with a short 2 hour hike.  In the transition we had a two hundred meter elevation drop to negotiate and chose for the forest over the piste.  Awkward choice!  Heavy sludge, thinner than fresh poured concrete, heavier than stale rice pudding.  Our spirits were not dampened however, and we took it as an opportunity to find innovative ways to practice the untidyier sides of ski mountaineering.  Downhill kick turns, slurpy stem turns, huge gloppy hop turns, side slipping, and stepping gingerly over exposed rock and roots.  It was fun to see all the variations we could employ to get out of a bad situation. 


Then on to the hike.  Only moderately steep, and all around: wind crust (Bruchharsch).  We reluctantly conceded our optimism for anything better, and just took it as a hike, up and up into the haze and wind.  Nearing the last flank, Norbert spotted a nice couloirs (Rinne) that no one had tried.  His discovery was a nice kick of optimism and motivation for the last 300 vertical; hey we really might be able to ski something after all.  The Rinne was lying in a northerly exposure and lopping our poles into the flank, it felt smooth, consistent and altogether without a wind or sun crust. The only question was: would there be enough of it to cover the sharp rocks?  We averted our eyes and focused on staying positive while two figures appeared at the head of the run,,, and allowed ourselves a huge sigh of relief and inner grins as the pair pulled out of the trough and skirted back to the open, tracked out, bowl.  Norbert overheard one of them saying, “looks a bit scary” as the lead unenthusiastically pointed out an exit.


We topped out and enjoyed Tsai tou Vounou, the Greek mountain tea that Norbert had packed up, and a bite of our bread, delighting in being in one of those frosted, icy, foggy Winter scenes that are so present, so out of the ordinary, so absurd and fictitious, one can only be happy to be there, and not down comfortable, in an overheated house, making conversation or looking out at the bleak, steel-grey sky from underneath it.  Enjoying that fantastical scene, a cleft in the ridgeline dropping sheer off into a mist of roiling steam, craggy angles piercing the orifice at every angle, leafless gnarled branches plastered with hoar frost scoring the shifting illusion, tones of grey and white focusing and opening, grading in texture as the sun now and again threatens to burn through the percolating thermal.  We enjoyed easy conversation as we stripped the skins, stowed wet shirts, pulled out goggles and dry gloves. 


Slipping into the mouth of the crease, the snow felt good underfoot.  Mostly enough cover, feeling to be well-enough bonded.  We didn’t measure, but the angle felt like a safe 35º or so degrees.  The sides of the trough had exposed rock and we could feel occasional patches of an icy layer just under the surface.  Norbert, as friend, as guide, as gentleman, offered me the honor of taking the clean line.  I thanked him and stomping my feet a few times, looked down again, and dropped in. 


A beautiful channel.  Just wide enough to swing turns staying square down the hill, the icy patches a little exciting, and creating a temperament of challenge that the angle didn’t provide.  Not experienced in leading such a shot, I pulled up every 6 or 8 turns to see if I should pull into a safe zone while Norbert began.  He stayed at the entrance; watching over, good to the principle that only one should be at risk.  When I reached a terrain change where the slope angle decreased a bit, Norbert dropped in.  It was a huge pleasure to watch him devour the natural half pipe.  He dropped with a clean low stance, strong and ferocious, shredding the gulley in 4 or 5 wide, shallow arcs, knees beveled in, hips soft and folded forward, both hands drawing out in front of his trajectory.


As he somehow pulled out of this freefall and spraying wads of consolidating surface slid in above me, I could only wish I had had the forethought to pull out the camera!  In any case, I was charged to have seen this demonstration, and pointed my skis down the hill with a new degree of gusto and abandon.  Now, I like shorter turns, and I’m not a not a huge speed fan, but I did feel to be tuning into a new rhythm, accelerating into a swift dig and dig and dig while my arcs were punctuated by a yeoup!..yeoup!..yeeoow!!...digging and bouncing and spraying out through the middle third of the ravine.  Raucous, rapturous pleasure.  Innocent, seductive and wild!  We were both in heady laughter and high spirits at our fortune; discovering this unmined vein of precious crystal white.  One more rappel to the basin, “just watch out past those rocks, there might be a drop off”, Norbert apprised softly.  Hell, how I felt, I was ready to just huck whatever appeared as the lip folded over.  It was anyways, naught to be, only more sweet turns, the pow getting deeper and a bit heavier.  Norbert attacked the last third in another onslaught, though on his last carve out of the chute the deep heavy ripped one of his skis right out of tracking, while he sailed on like a wild swan, a careening ice dancer without music.  However, gravity had other ideas, sucking the one sliding support down towards the center of all things while I watched a persimmon streak horizontally transect the space above the fall line and dive tumbling into a huge snowball.  A great fearless acceptance of Newtonian physics.  If you aren’t falling sometimes, you’re not coming up against your limits.” 


Good riding; and we weren’t out.  We traversed the basin staying as high as we could up onto the Western flank, crossing to the second little chute.  More good stuff.  One last shot.  We took it with pleasure, and then I chased Norbert out through the scrub pine, as he sailed through the heavier density stuff, transcribing long swift open crescents, letting the skis run and seeking their own grace.


Norbert spoke of his love of contrasts, savoring the oppositions, and so it was we pulled into and rode out the easy, gradual piste sailing back into the clouds and along into the valley, enjoying the transition out of the altitude, back to the sounds of snow crunching underfoot and the thwonk of car doors.


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