Monday, April 30, 2012

Hero or Bonehead?

Heaven? No, but 3203 m closer than at sea level.

While the opinions were split among the spectators that came to talk to me afterwards ("are you the guy who skied that?"), I think the answer is definitely "bonehead". This was just too dangerous.

I need to go back to skiing safer slopes. And I will do that from now on.

My tracks on the top of the ridge, with two avalanches below

Don't get me wrong. I regularly ski places that demand mountaineering skills and ability to cope in a dangerous environment. I can deal with some dangers. But when I climbed Kitzsteinhorn (3203 meters) in Kaprun, there were just too many dangers. To begin with, I was alone. And skiing a steep 40-50 degree mountain face that ends in a 100 meter cliff adds an element of concern. And on top of all this, the newly arrived snow in the slope avalanched as I skied through, running for several hundred meters.

The train and Gletcherjet ski lift, a couple of kilometers outside Kaprun

But I made it back safely. I should note that while I was alone, I was still within a view of the ski area, and I have quite a bit of experience on skiing steeps. My climb to the top was aided by fixed cables ("via ferrata"), and when I skied back I skied on purpose on top of a rocky ridge, meaning that avalanches would be less likely and I would be less likely to be caught in an one if there was one. And the avalanches were surface avalanches of the new, light snow. They were not strong enough to carry a skier. Avalanche danger that day was predicted to be low. But the conditions might have been different under the snow, it could have been ice at some point even if I tried to climb the same route that I would ski. Or the avalanches could have been bigger.

Walking up

The Ascent

I started my ascent from the highest ski lift station at Kitzsteinhorn, 3029 meters. This is a multi-story station and observation platform. Complete with a movie theater at an altitude of three kilometers! In the beginning I was skinning under some avalanche protection nets. Some earlier work by the ski patrol had caused an avalanche here, and the snow was a little bit more packed than elsewhere.

Sun, wind, and snow

The going was otherwise easy, but my Dynafit bindings were releasing all the time, possibly due to me trying to use them on this quite steep face that required tricky switchbacks, and my inexperience in using this type of a binding before.

Avalanche protection nets

But the crux of the route was reaching a ridge and finding out what the conditions might be on the other side. Once I reached the ridge I realized that I was on an even steeper face, with a cliff underneath and potential for an icy slide down. The steel cables for the avalanche protection system provided some additional trouble, as crossing the slick cables with my skis on would have had even more danger of slipping. And the face just looked too nasty; I decided that the safest course of action is to retreat and try to see if I can re-enter from a different spot. The tricky part was turning around at this steep place the two times needed to make a switchback to a higher entrance. I finally managed to do this, while hanging from the avalanche protection cables.

When I got to the other side of the ridge, it seemed to be on the limit of skinning up. I decided to try, but the snow still seemed unreliable. I backtracked again and decided to take off my skins and attach my skis to my backback. By now I was close to the steel cable ("via ferrata") that I could use to climb the steeper sections more safely. If I would run into ice, I'd still be able to hold on to the cable.

Too steep. Ditching the skins and starting to climb on foot.

View from the climb. Note the steel cable I used to assist my climb.

The climbing became easier from there on. It was still physically challenging, having arrived from the sea level a couple of hours earlier and having to plow through 1+ meters of snow at over three kilometers of altitude. But I eventually made it to the top. The views were wonderful from this very steep ridge. I had approached the ridge from the less steep side, but the other side was basically a vertical drop. But now I had spent a lot of time, and I was in a hurry to get down.

The Descent

Unfortunately, by now my GoPro Hero 2 helmet camera had run out of battery, so there is no footage of my descent or the avalanches.

More seriously, I knew that the descent would have some dangers. I had no idea about the real stability of the snow pack, even though as I climbed it seemed at least consistent and did not have distinct weak layers. But there was a lot of soft snow.

View from the top

I decided to ski where I climbed up, so that I would know what is underneath, as well as to be as close as possible to the rocky ridge that lead to the top. And if there would be an avalanche, it would likely fall under me, and not drag me with it. In addition, the rocks here and there would probably provide some additional stability. Avalanche would be less like to start from there, and if it did, it would probably be a surface avalanche and not a full cut of the deep snowpack. The downside was, of course, that this would not be the optimal ski route. Among other things, I was going to hit many of those rocks, and I'd have to hope to not fall because of that.

The avalanches went this way

The strategy proved correct. As soon as I had left the top, two separate avalanches started from my first turns. These were surface avalanches of the loose snow on top, not particularly aggressive, but they still went all the way almost to the cliff edge. It was easy to ski through the snow that was moving around me at the top, and it didn't seem to be much more snow further down either, but the avalanches widened as they went down.

Under the avalanche tracks

Once I reached the avalanche protection nets, it was much easier to ski through them than to climb up. I took the easiest line and skied down. Phew. I was safe.

Skiing Kaprun

I have no idea. The few hundred meters of the ski area that was in sunshine was great. The rest was in thick fog, and I only skied it down once to get to the lifts as fast as I could with my still shaking legs. Maybe I should visit the place some day. After the dust has settled and shaking is over.

Top of the Kitzsteinhorn ski lift at 3029 meters

As a historical note, 155 people died here in November 2000, when the train designed to take skiers up to the mountain caught fire. Only 12 people survived as a series of design problems, missing equipment, and bad decisions left the others in the in the smoke and heat. (The 12 survivors managed to escape from a break-resistant window and move downwards.) The train has never been used since then, and the newer Gletcherjet 1 ski lift has replaced it. The old train track and tunnel is still in place, however, as an eerie memory of the accident.

Unused ghost train track

Gletscherjet lift system replaced the train after the tragic accident

Important Parameters

Kaprun city views

I stayed in Hotel Antonius, the first randomly selected accommodation in Kaprun that had vacancy. It turned out to be a nice place, though, with all the essentials of life: breakfast, garage, and sauna. Seriously though, it seemed like a good place to stay near the city center, a big hotel, a room with a separate bedroom for 80 €, and so on. They also had an innovation in the breakfast room that I'd love to see elsewhere: today's weather report printed on a sheet of paper in every table. Too bad the English version on the backside skipped mountain weather, however :-)

Weather report

I had no time for after ski, as I was bound to Ljubljana to give a talk about a very interesting networking technology in 36 hours. This would normally be plenty of time, but I had not prepared my presentation. Or gotten my prototype to work. I would eventually succeed in doing so, but at the time I was stressed to get to work. But in general, you can never fail with after ski in Austria. On my way to work I spotted the below after ski place in Kaprun.

WTF? I'd love to stop here during the season.

However, in late April the main season is over and most after ski places seemed empty, even in Austria.


Road to Kaprun

When I left Kaprun, I relied entirely on my GPS for taking me to Ljubljana. I drove for an hour, kept passing ski areas and climbing higher. I was in the mountains and in increasingly narrower valleys. Then my GPS says that I have to take a ferry! Obviously, there is no water in sight. I'm almost desperate, as going back would mean an hour's drive and even longer work night that evening. But I decide to ask the people on the nearby railway station, and it turns out that I'm at the beginning of the Tauern Railway Tunnel, an eight-kilometer section that can only be crossed by train. No problem. Drive the car to the train, and cross the mountain! I did not plan to use this route, but it turned out to be a good one. Recommended. The system works well and probably saves quite a bit of travel time.

GPS thinks there are ferries in the mountains

Drive car to a train, drive train to a tunnel, and cross a mountain

Photo and video credits (c) 2012 by Jari Arkko


  1. Good decision to go back to safer slopes. Even I guess you have lots of avalanche knowledge, it is still good to remember this wisdom: "bigger the difference between skiing skills and avalanche knowledge, bigger the risk to get in danger"

  2. wow, just reading this made my stomach clench in fear. Amazing views though and I'm impressed you had the presence of mind to take a photograph while removing your skins at a risiculous gradient!

    1. Very nice photos, guys, especially the mountain views are breath-taking :)

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