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Tracing the Tracks of History

Photos by Martin Soderqvist

 

The flat valley bottom shimmered in the distance below, the March afternoon’s heat causing the boulder-strewn terrain and the microdots representing other skiers to shift and waver, kind of like those gunslingers in the old Spaghetti Westerns who ride across the desert for hours but never seem to draw any nearer. Well over a week since the last snowfall and with the temps ascending daily, it could and almost should have been terrible skiing. But for that quirk of the Alps’ climate, dry air that on north faces at night somewhat offsets the blazing sun’s effects on all other aspects, preserving the powder days longer than anyone has a right to expect.

No matter which direction you look, there is another lifetime worth of lines.

No matter which direction you look, there is another lifetime worth of lines.

My friend Sven Brunso and I were 1,500 vertical feet into a 3,000-foot descent. It wasn’t our longest, steepest, toughest or most dramatic run ever. But it was shin-deep settled powder on a virtually untracked slope that, in nearly any North American ski area – not to mention Verbier or Chamonix – would have been churned into bumps. More than that, we were skiing from one country to another, and not in one of those 200-lift multi-resort interconnected extravaganzas, but miles from any lifts or marked runs. A morning of relaxing corn snow laps near the lifts in Klosters, Switzerland had been followed by a comfortable 90-minute ascent by skins, and the afternoon’s prize: two-thirds of a vertical mile of 30-degree, mile-wide treeless slopes descending into Austria to launch our planned week of exploring one of that country’s classic skiing regions. The Montafon Valley.

 

The Alps are full of great touring, remote back-valleys, fearsome couloirs and formidable 6,000+ vertical foot multi-pitch technical descents. But this was a new one for us: approaching our skiing destination on skis from another country, with just enough stuff carefully placed in our avy packs to see us through a couple of nights. The rest of our belongings would be coming around the long – very long – way by train, via Liechtenstein. Trust the Swiss for perfect logistics, and pray the more laid-back Austrians held up their end of the bargain. But we were feeling as relaxed about it as the Austrians themselves, for we knew the Montafon is a fully developed resort region so that, in a pinch, we’d be able to pick up whatever we needed to survive.

 

Our big descent took us to the small ski area of Gargellen, at the top of one of the Montafon’s side-valleys. Gargellen holds some nice off-piste terrain accessible right off the lifts, as well as touring – including several routes back into Switzerland. It was very tempting to hop aboard the resort’s swank gondy. But we were aiming to get to our week’s lodgings in the valley’s main village of Schruns before dark. So instead we flipped our boots back into walk mode, clomped over to the bus stop across the road from the lift terminal and caught the shuttle bus to the village of St. Gallenkirch. It sits in the middle of the enormous by North American standards (and medium-sized by Alps standards) Silvretta Nova-Hochjoch interconnected lift system.

Sven Brunso soaking up the view before dropping into  an untouched 1000 vertical foot couloir between Hochjoch an Silvretta

Sven Brunso soaking up the view before dropping into an untouched 1000 vertical foot couloir between Hochjoch an Silvretta

The bus disgorged us in a bustling parking lot surrounding a bewildering array of old and new gondolas rising hither and yon, numerous signs in German signifying the destination mountain. One wrong move here and we’d climb onto a peak miles from where we wanted to go. Unfolding a trail map or “Pistenplan” like clueless tourists in Rome or Bangkok, we managed to stumble to the correct pick: the gleaming Grasjochbahn, a recently added gondola that had created the big skiable interconnect, which includes nearly 90 linear miles of marked runs.

 

Following a second gondola ride we blasted down well-manicured groomers that led us from the peak, still wearing a mantle of winter white, to the valley floor lush with the fresh grass of spring. The Alps, by fortune of huge vertical, often provide skiing from one season into the next in just one run. Going by the elevation of its peaks, the Montafon falls thousands of feet short of roof-of-the-Alps places like Zermatt. The numbers are downright unimpressive, in fact. Don’t be fooled: the Montafon’s valley bottoms are low, and an ordinary descent of the Hochjoch’s pistes from the highest lift-serviced point delivered an astounding 5,700 vertical feet of skiing.

As we made our way down the last bit of piste the air was warm and pungent with the smell of spring. The only white still visible was the narrowing strip of calf-deep slush between our ski tips as the piste came to an end in the village of Schruns. Towards the end we were quite literally surfing the moosh using the width of our big powder skis. An impressive church spire dominated the foreground, a spiritual companion to the rugged mountains vaulting out of the valley. As we passed the church, the bells came to life, signaling 5 o’clock. The village’s streets narrowed as we passed quaint shops and cafes.

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Walking in ski boots carrying backpacks and skis is usually a chore, but in the marvelous villages of the Alps it becomes a pleasure, a form of valley-bottom exploration to complement what we do up on the big peaks. Sven disappeared into a bakery and emerged with a handful of pastries, coffee and a satisfied grin. Wherever we travel together, he’s continually darting off into a shop or towards a street vendor in search of a sweet treat, or the region’s favorite dried meat, some jewelry for his wife or a souvenir. I roll my eyes but then dive into whatever he’s willing to share.

 

A further 10-minute stroll took us through the center of Schruns and into what passed for the village’s suburbs, a mix of typically Austrian chalet-style residential buildings and emerald-green miniature fields with sheep and cows grazing. There we found our accommodations, the Hotel Chesa Platina. From the outside, the Platina was simple and modest and looked much like the area’s other family-run establishments, called “pensions” in German. These are not-quite-hotels that, nonetheless, offer far more than North American bed-and-breakfasts. They often include in-house spas, games rooms, heated boot rooms and restaurants with full evening menus and liquor service.

 

Once we ditched our gear in the ski room and made our way to the front desk, it became obvious that the Platina reflected the individuality of the owners, as it felt more like walking into someone’s home. Verena, who owns the Chesa Platina with her family, immediately made us feel like part of the family. She led us on a quick tour and when, like true North Americans, we started pestering her about wi-fi, she took us to the family’s private dining room and said we could use the area during our stay as a personal workspace. We made our way up to our rooms to get our backpacks emptied and gear sorted to dry. I opened the balcony door and was blown away by the view. Looking from the valley floor back up at the looming mountain of Hochjoch gave me a newfound appreciation of the vastness of the terrain framing the Montafon.

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We had come to the Montafon to explore what was reportedly an almost endless selection of side-country and backcountry terrain radiating from the valley’s six ski areas (of which three make up the big interconnect mentioned earlier). They’re known as Hochjoch, Silvretta Nova (which itself consists of St. Gallenkirch and Gaschurn), Gargellen, Golm and Partenen. All of them have modern lifts and a variety of sidecountry and backcountry terrain. The smallest of them, Gargellen, has 3,000 feet of lift-serviced vertical, while two of them have 5,000 feet or greater. Two of the Montafon’s ski areas, in other words, exceed all but two North American ski areas (Whistler and Revelstoke, both in British Columbia) for vertical.

 

The Montafon lies on the southern edge of Austria’s western tip, with Switzerland curving around it to the south and west. Much more famous St. Anton in the Arlberg region, Austria’s largest interconnected skiing region, lies to the east, and one can tour quite easily between the two regions. But to most Americans, the Montafon and its surroundings are a blank, with the possible exception of the adjoining Silvretta Mountains. If so, that’s probably due to the alpine touring binding of the same name. The old Silvretta was a heavy and barely-functional design made popular 40 years ago when it was virtually the only game in town. Not exactly a ringing endorsement for one of the Alps’ finest zones.

 

The other dim level of awareness likely stems from fading memories among skiers “of a certain age” that the Nobel Prize winning author Ernest Hemingway, who’d been an enthusiastic powder skier in the 1920s, spent a winter in Schruns. He lived in the Hotel Taube while penning The Sun Also Rises, among his most magnificent works. He also wrote a number of short stories drawn from his winter spent in the Montafon and Silvretta regions (including one about how the locals would store the bodies of anyone who died in winter under the eaves, keeping the bodies frozen until the ground thawed sufficiently in spring for burial). The handful of U.S. magazine articles on the Montafon in the 1970s and early 1980s, in fact, devoted considerable ink to the famous-author angle – some of the ski writers even trying to sound like Hemingway. But like Hemingway himself, the Montafon has faded from America’s consciousness.

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The gale scouring the exposed surface of the mountain had swept the snow surface into a wind-board crust. Nick, waxing his skis in the baggage car, pushed his boots into the toe irons and shut the clamp tight. He jumped from the car sideways onto the hard wind-board, made a jump turn and crouching and trailing his sticks slipped in a rush down the slope.

– Ernest Hemingway, “Cross-Country Snow”

 

As skiers, Sven and I are inveterate explorers. Between trips, we’re always trying to sniff out some new place that’s off the radar but loaded with big-mountain peak-to-valley descents. Once there, we’re continually on the lookout for hidden, overlooked or rarely skied terrain. It’s one of the biggest things we have in common, and probably why we became such good friends. The Montafon fit all these criteria. Sven’s unafraid of putting in a big day (or 10) on the skins, but he’s more than willing to use various mechanized chariots to get near the goods. The Alps’ typically big verticals lend themselves to using the lifts for the morning’s main ascent, then remaining up high all day by mixing skin ascents, bootpacks, traverses and more lift rides.

 

The next morning we retraced our previous evening’s stroll. The access lifts out of Schruns are an aging gondola and an ancient aerial tram, so we opted for the tram, which is faster when not jammed with lined-up skiers. The morning was crisp and bright, and the forecast was for a very warm, sunny day. Hochjoch’s pistes were perfectly buffed and it was fun to arc fast carves down the near-empty corduroy between lifts. Two more lift rides, one on an ultra-modern gondola, the other on an ancient creeping double chairlift, brought us to the edge of the developed resort. With the exception of well-known freeride destinations such as St. Anton, Verbier, Chamonix and others, most skiers in the Alps still stick to or very near the groomed pistes. Despite the proliferation of skis that make nearly any kind of snow fun to ski, most Euros still just skid around on short, narrow carving skis – and some can be heard on the lifts fretting about the dangers of “off-piste” skiing. Whatever their reasons for sticking like ants to sugar trails, they leave massive amounts of terrain untracked for days or even weeks after a storm.

 

That’s probably one of the main reasons for how ski areas in the Alps, no matter how vast, simply end and once you take a few walking steps or skating strides past an outer lift, you’re abruptly in the backcountry. At the top of that creaky chairlift we strapped our skis to our backpacks and, 30 minutes of bootpacking later, we were standing atop a serrated ridge separating the Hochjoch area from a massive, north-facing backcountry arena, ripe for the plucking.

The peaks surrounding the village of Schruns, like the Sulzfluh, are a backcountry skiers dream providing better than 6000 feet of vertical for those willing to invest some sweat equity.

The peaks surrounding the village of Schruns, like the Sulzfluh, are a backcountry skiers dream providing better than 6000 feet of vertical for those willing to invest some sweat equity.

We paused to first drink in the view southward from our vantage point. We could see the entire Silvretta Nova area across the valley, spread beneath us like a diorama. Miles beyond it lay Gargellen and, past that, the mountains we had crossed coming from Klosters. To the east of the Gaschurn zone of Silvretta Nova rose the Bielerhöhe, a pass (closed in winter) separating the Montafon and Silvretta valleys. The lifts of Galtür in the Silvretta Valley would have been just a few hours’ touring from where we were now. Both Galtür and Silvretta Nova provide jumping-off points for hut-to-hut touring in the Silvretta Mountains proper.

 

Spilling away to the south from our spot was an incredible peak-to-valley corn snow descent dropping well over 4,000 vertical feet to St. Gallenkirch. A remote and largely hidden gem for decades, now the new gondola runs directly overhead. Surprisingly, it still hardly gets skied, partly owing to the challenging route-finding, with a number of bowls and gullies ending in cliffs, and partly to the need to swing wide of some avalanche fences that would be truly moronic to ski through. This would normally have been a prized descent for us, but last season’s meager snowfalls meant that the lovely corn would soon deteriorate into an isothermic trap-door at mid-mountain, before petering out altogether and requiring a muddy down climb of the last 1,500 or so vertical feet.

 

Casting our eyes back northward, we spied a half-dozen options leading into a broad bowl that benched out in a broad alpine plateau where we could regroup, put on skins and head onward for deeper exploration. A week since the last snowfall, the entire northerly-facing area remained boot-top or better settled powder, yet held just a few ski tracks on a distant apron and a couple of ascent tracks meandering into the higher alpine.

 

We each picked a line that piqued our interest and discussed how best to keep an eye on each other. Sven dropped first into a steep couloir that funneled into a narrow choke, which propelled him onto a powdery apron below. He quickly chewed up more than 1,000 vertical feet. I dropped in further down the ridge and traversed below a massive rock face to get in position to ski a remarkably consistent pitch that didn’t look to vary more than a degree or two in pitch over its more than 1,000 feet of vertical. It was great to have both lateral space and slope distance, allowing me to accelerate into broad, fast, vertical-consuming turns without feeling like the run would end in 10 seconds. As I continued to lay down nearly effortless arcs, I was reminded why I love earning my turns.

 

The plateau gave us multiple ascent options. We could also have continued into the trees and descended one of several avalanche paths leading into the Silbertal – the Silver Valley, an old mining region. We were kicking ourselves for not having arranged a taxi pick-up in one of the valley’s villages, and were also touch nervous about the soft closure discouraging any tree skiing. Had we pushed it, we could have shuttled to yet another valley cable car that would have taken us up and over into the Arlberg region, returning into the Silbertal via the lifts at Klösterle, the Sonnenkopf (Sun Peak). If this is starting to sound dizzying, just imagine the skier-ADHD that often afflicts Sven and me when pondering an infinite array of options.

 

So instead, we remained up in the alpine, enjoyed a few more half-length runs of nice powder, and eventually skinned back to the lifts and hurtled down the now-familiar pistes back to Schruns. Despite the Chesa Platina’s modest official status, it offered more ways to relax after skiing than we had time for. A drink or two, a sauna and shower, a rest or nap in the spa and a bit of time online all went by in a blur and suddenly it was time for dinner. Or rather, the evening’s feast prepared by Verena’s colleague. As the last bit of alpenglow faded from the towering peaks Verena delivered frothy schooners or “mass krug” of local Frastanzer beer on our table. The lovely, four-course, home-cooked meal centered on a main course of medallions of venison with a burgundy and peppercorn cream sauce over homemade noodles. Comfortably numb, we were then forced to enjoy a warm apple tart drizzled with vanilla sauce. Espresso and brandy completed the trifecta. That night’s sleep was more like complete unconsciousness.

 

The next morning: graybird. A slightly bleak beginning, but not hopeless. For one thing, our table was already set with a pot of strong coffee and steamed milk, a basket of homemade pastries and a selection of jams made from local fruit trees. And a buffet of muesli, fresh eggs and sausage just a few steps away. That lifted our spirits – as did the clear signs that we were in the beginnings of a stout spring storm.

 

Many of the Alps’ more famous ski areas, with their much higher terrain, glaciers and massive exposures, offer little to do during storms. Skiing “in the milk jug” isn’t just bewildering, it can be deadly. The Montafon, however, has some great tree skiing – although one has to be brazen to pass the numerous soft closures and learn to distinguish that signage from the far fewer genuine closures.

 

On my only other visit to the area over a decade ago, I’d had the great luck to ski with local legend Hubi Huber. In a pounding blizzard of inch-sized flakes, Hubi led me on successive descents through old-growth forests on the Hochjoch’s mid-elevations that seemed more like snowcat skiing in B.C.’s Selkirk Mountains than the Alps, “where there is no tree skiing”. Over our multiple excellent laps on the terrain flanking and dropping below the Panoramabahn Gondola, the snow deepened by the run. As the day wore on we ventured out into the huge, rocky and consequential cirque below the Kreuzjoch. Drawn irrevocably by the now waist-deep powder, we did do some of that moronic weaving among avalanche fences in order to get in position in the trees.

 

If you visit the Montafon, you’ll also find great tree skiing to either side of the lower gondola in Gargellen and amidst the mid-mountain lifts of Silvretta Nova. I suspect there’s also great tree skiing flanking the long, steep piste down into Gaschurn, but I’ve only glanced at this terrain while skidding down the piste during icy conditions.

 

Throughout my visit with Sven, there was one A-list descent I’d been lusting to try: the Madrisella Couloir. It’s a medium-width, banana-shaped, northwest-facing gully dropping between towering cliff walls for an amazing 2,500 vertical feet at 40+ degrees. It requires a solid two-plus hours or about 2,300 vertical feet of skinning and bootpacking up the long, rocky ridgeline that runs southward above the highest lift at Gaschurn. With typically just a small cornice at the top, the descent itself is straightforward and without exposures. Half-a-dozen lucky skiers had ripped it the day of our arrival. I stared slack-jawed at their beautiful tracks, and noticed it still held plenty of room for more. We kept saying, “Gotta hit that thing tomorrow”, but that skier-ADHD kept diverting us to other terrain. At this point, approaching this fabulous prize was ruled out by the abrupt weather shift. That was a tough lesson that one should never try to save the best for later if it’s an intelligent option right now.

 

Long ago over the course of my five decades of skiing, I realized that a turn earned can be the sweetest of nectars. But I’ve always appreciated balance in the mountains. I’m among the first to seek out a great ski tour, but I also enjoy coming “home” after a big day to a hot shower, a cold beer, a fabulous meal and a clean bed. Each morning, I’ll then have my pick of multiple big ski areas and the convenience of ultra-modern lifts to take me miles upward and outward, leaving behind spring and finding myself back on the doorstep of winter.

 

If the weather’s really bad, I’d still rather do laps on fog-bound groomers than not ski. Being hut-bound for days by bad weather seems far worse than having to spend a bit of time each day moving through the lift system and out past the mass of skiers – if the upside is being able to ski a full day, every day. I know that once I get to the top of whatever lift I choose, I’ll be able to put one foot in front of the other for a couple thousand steps before dropping onto an untracked slope on an undeveloped mountain, dropping into a distant valley and finding a quaint village where I can hop on a lift, bus or train and keep on adventuring.

 

And on that graybird morning, it was indeed the lifts that rescued our day. After breakfast we hopped aboard a shuttle bus for the Golm ski area, where we spent an easy, zero-pressure day cruising freshly groomed winter snow on empty pistes – and for once without avy packs. In my mind, great skiing and touring both depend on having choices, and the Montafon provides a lifetime’s worth of them.

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George Koch

George Koch

What's on your backcountry radar for this winter?
Having held off making firm plans going into this El Nino season, I'm allowing myself to be blown along by the winter storms, wherever they might be found. I'm helping out at a local snowcat skiing operation in southern Alberta working towards his professional avalanche certification and, with luck, will explore another obscure corner of the Alps with Sven Brunso.

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