Sunday, March 24, 2013

Denmark


Sunshine, snow, skislope, grill, loud Schlager music... Clearly, I must be in ... Denmark. This is a yet another one of my quick Sunday trips, this time to collect my 35th country.


I am at the Hedeland Skibakken, a small club-owned ski slope near Roskilde and 30 kilometers from the Copenhagen airport. It seemed like the entire village had come to the ski hill, as so many volunteers were helping to let a crowd of small kids enjoy their day on the slope. The community participation reminds me of my own local hill in Kauniainen, or Mad River Glen in Vermont.


Hedeland Skibakken

This is the largest ski area in Denmark. Yet the ski hill is only 45 meters high. The hill is not natural, it was constructed in the 1980s. Today it has three aging ski lifts, a cafeteria and ski rental shop.



The numbers are not impressive. But still, the area is impressive. My visit was on the probably their last open day of the season, and the slope was full of small kids wanting to learn skiing or snowboarding. A large number of volunteer workers had joined to operate the lifts, run the grill, and work on the snow cover. Tickets and food were cheap. None of the facilities was all that modern, but everyone seemed very happy to try to help the kids have a great day. And me.

Although I must have been the only adult on the slope, or at least the only adult without my own kid with me. And definitely the only person who took an international flight to come here. Possibly ever.

Here are some pictures of the snowmaking activities on the slope:



Freeskiing

Interestingly, on both sides of the hill there were some possibilities for freeskiing on off-piste routes. On the skier's right, a forest descends to the south towards the parking lot. Had there been more snow, this could have been a great route, as the start is somewhat steep, pretty open, and there's a clear path towards the parking lot. Now, late in the spring I had to walk the first part as it was grass, and ski in a very dense forest where there was still some snow left. Nevertheless, this is an interesting area.

Here's the route from the south side. You will ski through the forest, and end up on the parking lot, lower right in the picture.


To enter, exit at the top of the lifts, and go right and forward until you can go around the last lift pylon. The choose the proper path to descend. Most of the forest is very dense, and full of bushes. Be very careful here. This is the start:


On the skier's left, a open area descends towards the access road heading up to the top. There is only maybe 20 meters of skiing here, but it all seemed excellent, even on my visit there was plenty of snow. Once you reach the access road, ski along it and exit back to the slope by going above the hut that houses the upper end of the beginner's ski lift.

Here's the entrance to the north side off-piste:


Important Parameters

Day ticket costs 100 DKK or about 10 €. Tickets are stamped on your hand, or, if you do not wish to remove your gloves too often, on your cheek.


I can recommend the very big sausages and hot dogs from the grill. They were tasty, and cost only 30 DKK (3 €). A day of skiing here, including lunch can there take as little as 15 €. That is almost unparalleled, in the western world at least.


Here's the route to take you from the airport to the ski area.

Flights to HEL

Incidentally, I originally wanted to stay the whole day here. But then I saw the flight number for the earlier flight, and just had to take it instead. I have been on many fights from and to HEL, the official designation for the Helsinki-Vantaa airport. This flight was AY 666, destination HEL. And I really tried to get a seat on row 13, but unfortunately they were all taken.


Someone suggested that this route proves the airlines have someone with a sense of humour, but I think it just that we in Finland do not really even notice superstitious beliefs. The thought of removing flight number 666 or row 13 does not even occur to anyone.

From earlier explorations, the flight from SIN to HEL is also interesting.


Photo and video credits (c) 2013 by Jari Arkko

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Nobody Expects the Spanish Off-piste



Who would have thought there is incredible off-piste skiing in Spain? Let alone at La Molina, a beginner's ski area that we thought we had already scouted last year. It turns that that the second lift takes you to some interesting terrain. Including some hairy routes where falling is not a good idea.



This is a report from my mostly failed trip to Andorra and Spain two weeks ago. I did eventually get to some good skiing, but I almost bailed out from going, even if I had already paid for the tickets. First, my friend Zach had to bail out form the trip. Then I got a new job and was very busy preparing for a big meeting. But I ended up going on the trip anyway, even if I spent two days inside my hotel, working. I did get another two days of skiing in the weekend. And it turned out great.

The dangerous area


Spanish Off-Piste

Last year, La Molina looked so lame. But we only had an hour on the slopes, and ended up selecting the closest lift. It turned out that the second lift, TCB Alp 2500, has far more interesting terrain. Some of the areas are closed due to avalanche danger and cliffs, so please be careful if you go here.

The dangerous couloir from down below


Peeking over the edge


Routes. These are both not recommended, and on closed areas.


Over the edge


The edge


Andorra, Again

Last year I visited Andorra but had no time to write blog entries about the actual skiing (I did write one about after ski, however). This time I visited the Vallnord and Grandvalira ski areas. Both are excellent areas, with Grandvalira being the largest ski center in this small country. I did not have a lot of time on my hands, or a partner for those off-piste excursions, but I did manage to ski many steep runs next to the slopes. There are plenty of interesting terrain here as well! I liked the steep black runs above the village of Soldeu, and the cliffs under the TSF4 Assaladors chair.

Soldeau steeps


Grau Roig steeps


In the Grau Roig part of Grandvalira there is a "Snow Food" area and an igloo village. You can stay here overnight, in igloos decorated in interesting ways.

Decoration. Feels like home!



Igloo bar


In the top station of TC 8 Soldeau, there was also a test track where you could see how well you can drive 4WD vehicles on steep snow.

Start of the track


Barcelona. Fail.

When coming back from my trip, my avalanche airbag caused trouble at the Barcelona airport. The security check personnel claimed that Spain does not respect the ICAO guidelines that allow transport of these backpacks in aircraft. I almost ended up losing my back and missing my flight because of this. In the end, Air Berlin came to rescue by putting the gas container bottle into luggage. With five minutes to last call, I bought a souvenier backpack, put the container inside, and left it to the check-in counter. I run through security and the airport, made it to my flight, and the airline delivered all three pieces of luggage intact in Helsinki.

This is great. But beware of the Spanish Inquisition at BCN!

AB flight

Packaging for my CO canister


Vallnord weather


Photo and video credits (c) 2013 by Jari Arkko

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Riders of the Lost Ash


Sunshine. Waves. Jungle. +35C. Weekend alone on a tropical island, with nothing else to do than to listen to the wind and sea. And walk on black sand, or tease the two-meter lizards away from my tent.

Wait. Black sand? Giant lizards? What kind of story is this?

Black beach


I am on Anak Krakatau ("Son of Krakatau"), a small volcanic island in Indonesia, between Java and Sumatra. A new island that rose above the sea in 1927. It grows steadily in the place of its father, Krakatau which disappeared from the face of earth in an explosion in 1883. That explosion killed 36,000 people in the region, sent tsunamis that were measured as far as the British Channel, and cooled the entire planet for a couple of years.

The view from the top




The Mission

And I am here to make the first snowboard descent of the volcano. Yes, on a tropical island. And even when the 300-meter peak is, if possible, even hotter than the beach, has never seen snow and never will. But the rumors have told me that it has decent ash slopes... And yes, on snowboard, not skis. It felt more natural to attempt ash/sand on a board than on skis.

Six-feet lizard roaming around the campsite


Anak Krakatau, Indonesia

Krakatau is coming back. The crater.


Although the board thing could prove tricky. I have only done three hours of snowboarding in my life. This will be my second day of snowboarding. I think I'm ready for the "black slope", however. In style or not, I'm going to try.


Smoke and sunrise

More smoke and sunrise

On the volcano


Climb

Tourists hike regularly to the old crater at an altitude of 140 meters on the east side of the volcano. This is a mere stroll, even with the soft sand and ash on the last parts.

What a morning view!


The next leg of the climb is a scramble among large volcanic rocks. You have to be careful to not slip or cut yourself in the sharp rock edges, but otherwise it is easy.

But then the going gets tough. New stones thrown out of the volcano form a thick, loose layer. I'm in danger of causing a rock avalanche on every step. Ordinarily I'd be wary of climbing alone, but now I'm glad that I left my guides to follow my ascent from safe point. I do not want to send stones towards my climbing partners.

Looming mountaintop with smoke


But it is still difficult. My first attempt fails, as I can not make progress, every step up brings me down more. The next day we make a second attempt, starting in the darkness at 4:30am. I choose a different, more rocky route. Now I can make progress, and after an almost hour on the upper face I reach the top at sunrise. The crater wall goes up steeply, and then falls vertically into the crater. The entire mountain looks shaky. And what is more, the fumes coming from the ground and now the crater itself are starting to get to me. I have a breathing mask, but it is time to get out, and fast.

Lonely beetle at the top of the volcano

Smokey mountain


Steep

At the crater


Riders of the Lost Ash

I blame the November 2012 eruption. Before this the entire mountain face was sand and ash. Now it is boulders, with some occasional patches of sand and smaller pebbles. Lets just say that the conditions are not all that perfect for boarding.

But I have to make an attempt. At the top the loose gravel and "only" foot-size boulders make it possible to slide down the top section. I make it down for about fifteen meters, then it is time to walk. A little further down, a gravel field makes longer descent possible. I'm doing OK for a moment, but then catch an edge and tumble. Minor scratches. I'm wearing protective clothing, which helps.

Slope


And there is a funny thing. You know when snowboarders tend to sit around in snow in the slopes, and getting their bottoms cold? Not going to happen here. I can only sit for a minute in one place until my bottom starts to burn from the heat coming from the mountain's insides.

Untouched sand and ash. Never touched before!


Next I need to walk again, to cross a flat patch. After that begins the most interesting part, a longer section of sand and ash in a burned-out forest east from the old crater. This part is not that steep, however, so the sliding goes slow.

Even on this sand slope, there are scattered lava bombs everywhere. Impact craters from hot lava fragments thrown out in the November eruption. Big craters, some three meters across, with the splattered piece of now cold lava still sitting in the middle. About.Com states about the risks, "sunburn and unpredictable death by gas or lava bomb". I am glad the mountain is not erupting now. But there have been earthquakes in the last couple of days, so there is a chance that an eruption could begin.

Burned forest


Snowboarding on ash and sand


Reaching the not-burned-out forest

Finally, back to the beach.

Night


Practical Information

The recommended base for visiting Anak Krakatau is Carita, on the western shores of Java. Carita is about four hours from Jakarta, the capital city and the location of the international airport. You will need a guide company to arrange everything. I had a good experience with Iman, the guide from Krakatau Tour at Carita.

Boat ride. What a ride!


The trip to the island is 60 kilometers across the Sunda Strait, and is quite challenging. We ended up waiting for a day on the island for the weather to improve. Even so, the waves in the rainy season's unpredictable weather were higher than our boat. And when the boat goes at speed, it slams into every wave with a kidney-separating force. I do not recommend this trip unless you have the stomach for rough seas.

Volcano in sight, Sir!


A little more relaxed option to get to the island are slow boats. These boats take off primarily from the Sumatra side of the Sunda Strait.

However, I very much liked the experience of camping out on the island. There is a ranger station - although empty at the time we were there - and a couple of places for tents. But as the slow boats carry 20-30 people, they will house those people in nearby islands instead, with better facilities.

Kitchen

Unloading supplies


But the visit does not have to involve camping or climbing. Dozens of tourists visit Anak Krakatau on a weekend day for a day trip, just make the stroll to the old crater. This is an experience itself, and also recommended.

Those lizards? The one we had in the campsite seemed rather tame. They are vegetarians, but this one has probably gotten used to food given by humans.

Prologue

You might ask why. I could give you the standard climber's answer: because it is there. But really, visiting Krakatau has been a dream on my mind for probably ten years, ever since having started reading about it. By the way, I recommend "Krakatao: The Day the World Exploded", a book by Simon Winchester.

And the snowboarding was merely a recent addition, a way to increase the challenge level. Had there been ash, it could have been epic. As it was, it was a difficult, clumsy slide down. What sliding I was able to do was very slow. But I made it. I hope someone makes a proper top-to-bottom descent after the next "epic ash dump", and gets some nice turns in there!

The lizard


This article has been dedicated to the "Absurdly Crappy Ski Conditions" -thread at the Epic Ski forum, which inspired this trip.

Surgeon General's Warning

Kids, do not try this at home or on your neighborhood volcano. It would be just stupid.

My room


Motorcycle with a luggage cart

Mask

Near the old crater


Iman, my guide and sherpa

Evening


On the way up

Photo and video credits (c) 2013 by Jari Arkko