Friday, May 20, 2011

Dog Finds Slovenia's Last Snow

Summer has arrived to the Slovenian Alps

Noon, Saturday in the Kamnik-Savinja Alps of Slovenia. I am at the altitude of 1800 meters, above the Češka Koča hut and in the shadow of the highest mountain in the region, Grintovec.

Despite having dragged my skis through four countries and airports, I had already lost hope of finding any skiing on this trip. But to my surprise I now had snow under my skis. The thanks for this goes to my newly found Slovenian friends: Ana, Matjaž, Urban, and my old friend Jan.

And last but not least, Lana, the climbing dog. Lana has lead the way through the forest paths, rock walls and steep snow faces and brought us to this point.

And what a nice place this is. Not just this mountain, but the entire small country of Slovenia is beautiful. No matter where you are, the mountains are visible. And for the most part, the mountains are unspoiled, covered by thick forests and without scars left by civilization.

There are also pretty fields, castles and cities. I had not visited Slovenia before, and I was also surprised about the state of their their technology. Just one example: its the only country with IPv6 available in all mobile networks.

But getting here seemed to involve an endless number of roadblocks. First, my business took me to a few different countries on this same trip before Slovenia, which meant carrying a lot of equipment around and using luggage storage services while was in my meetings.

And unlike with my usual airline, the airlines on this trip all charged extra for the ski bag, costing all together almost two hundred Euros extra.

And then it turned out that the ski areas that I was planning to visit were closing just a few days before my trip. And finally, when we came up with the backup plan of climbing up on our own, the weather forecast center told us to stay away from the mountains.

But we decided to risk it anyway. We could always turn back if the weather become a real problem. And that was a good decision. With the exception of a three minute shower, we whole day was sunny. We parked our car at the end of a small road and started the climb through a thick forest at an altitude of 1000 meters. This was an easy walk along a well-marked path. A bit later the path reached a more rocky area, involving a few sections with ladders or safety wire handrails. (These posed a small challenge for Lana, as the young dog needed more climbing experience.)

The Češka Koča hut acted as our base of operations five hundred meters higher. A week ago, the snow reached the areas around the hut, but now we had to walk a bit further.

With Lana in the lead, we climbed through scree slopes, rock outcrops, and finally, a steep gully of soft snow. (By the way, it seemed far too easy to climb with four legs.) At an altitude of 1800 meters we reached a plateau. It made no sense to continue, as there was not really any snow in the rock faces above.

Skiing down the steep gully was fun, as the snow was just soft enough to get a good grip but not to create a wave of wet snow ahead of me. Further down I realized that I had to make slalom turns around the small rocks that lay on top of the quickly melting snow cover. It was not a complete success; I'm guessing that the guys at my ski maintenance shop will give me yet another lecture.

Even further down I found another gully that led past the hut, but the snow cover narrowed down so that I had to cross a few sections without any snow; more trouble for my skis. I stepped carefully over the stones and continued skiing. I finally arrived at the end of the snow and walked back to the hut.

As we walked down and started to leave, my friends had another surprise: we had an opportunity to meet Davo Karničar, the Slovenian climber and extreme skier. Davo lives near the start of the trail towards the Češka Koča hut, and his father actually owns the hut.

Davo's name is not too familiar in the western world, but this man might well be the greatest extreme skier alive today. His achievements include being the first skier to ski down from the summit of Everest and the first to ski down from the seven summits. He has also skied from the Eiger and Matterhorn, and made countless other descents. An amazing man!
The essential parameters for skiing at the hut are as follows. The hut is in Jezersko, just 30 kilometers from the Ljubljana airport. The hut is at 1542 meters in the slopes of Grintovec (2558 meters). I got 300 meters of vertical on my ski down the slopes above the hut; in the winter far bigger parts of the mountain are skiable.

The recommended climbing time to the hut is 1 hour 15 minutes, and that held pretty well even with large amount of equipment we were carrying (though Urban tooks turns to help carry the skis - thank you!). It took an additional hour to climb to the plateau, and five minutes to ski down.

There are also commercial ski areas in Slovenia. I had originally planned to ski in Sella Nevea - Bovec, a ski area that links Italy (Sella Nevea) and Slovenia (Bovec). They were still open on May 8th, a week before my trip. Sella Nevea would be excellent addition to any trip to the nearby Venice, by the way.

As I am finishing this blog entry, its already next week -- my first week this season that I am not skiing somewhere.

I did travel to Berlin and I would have tried their infinitely long indoor ski slope, but unfortunately it was not open the day that I was there. It certainly feels like summer is taking over.

Oh well, at least I booked a vacation in Norway for next month. Hopefully there will be some skiing in Stryn. With Slovenia being 19th country or state this season, Norway could be the 20th.

Green mountains of Slovenia
Dog waits for the slow human climbers

Photo Credits (c) 2011 by Jari Arkko, Urban Kunc, and Matjaz Stepancic

Sunday, May 8, 2011

90 Minute Ski Trip to Haarlem


   I stare at my flight tickets. If my flights are on Saturday, why does it say Friday on the tickets?
The slope

As a week of marathon meetings is now over, I was looking forward to some relaxation. This was supposed to be a two helmet trip where I could do both some skiing and biking. With very few exceptions, all my business trips are at least one helmet trips; if all else fails, in most places you can at least rent a bike for an evening tour around the city. Actually, for health reasons I need at least that amount of exercise every couple of days. In exceptional places and with trips lasting through weekends, I may be able to get a three helmet trip by going biking, skiing, and climbing.

But now I may have a dreaded zero helmet trip, as my flight is taking off in just three and half hours. I decide to
Riding in the taxi towards the ski area
try to squeeze the skiing in anyway, even at the risk of possibly missing my flight. I throw everything into my suitcase, pay my hotel bill and grab a taxi from the street.

I am about to ski in the Snow Planet, an indoor ski hall a few kilometers outside the city of Haarlem, Holland. Not Harlem, New York.

The Dutch and the Japanese are world leading builders of indoor ski halls. One of the Dutch halls, Snow World in Landgraaf, is the third biggest in the world. Snow Planet is not big, but its what I am trying to ski today.

Outside view
But first I have to get there. It takes a while to explain to the driver where I am going, and what is this concept of "skiing". And the Amsterdam city traffic is painfully slow. After a 40 minute drive we are finally there.

The entire facility seems modern and well equipped. There are three ski lifts, two exceptionally fast button lifts for indoors, and one moving
Ready to ski
carpet. The main slope is short. It is also not very steep, but unlike many other indoor ski runs, I find that its still steep enough to make actual turns. In addition to the main slope there is a short and almost level beginner's area.

A big part of the main slope is dedicated to jumps and rails. It is almost hard to find a passage through the slope without going through them. While I was there, much of the rest of the area was consumed by a kids training race track.

Lift ticket
At the top of the slope you can climb a few steps on top of a platform that drops a meter or two almost vertically at the beginning. Nice touch.

The essential parameters for the Snow Planet are as follows. One hour lift ticket is 19.50 € and a day ticket 26 €. The length of the slope is 230 meters. Soup of the week costs 4.50 € at The Lodge.

There is also a sports equipment shop and a rental facility. But if you accidentally forgot to pack ski clothing for your Netherlands trip, you are out of luck. They do not rent clothing.

View from the top
The ski area is 26 kilometers from the Schiphol airport and 30 kilometers from Amsterdam city center. My ski run down the hill took 20 seconds, but I made turns.

I stayed at the ski area for half an hour (including changing gear), and the ride back took 20 minutes, making us spend just 90 minutes on the entire excursion. I made it to my flight, too.

Photo credits (c) 2011 by Jari Arkko

Monday, May 2, 2011

Skiing Kauniainen at 3AM

Kauniainen, whopping 50 meters below
May, 2011. Its 3AM and I'm about to ski the local ski hill in Kauniainen. May will be my sixth month here, as the season started in December. That's quite a season for a ski area in the most southern part of Finland.

Strangely enough, the area was closed a month ago. But not due to lack of snow. Even now there's enough snow to ski down, though the night helps by making the snow a bit more firm. Still, as I climbed up I kept sinking to my knees and occasionally deeper.

The ski hill in Kauniainen is not big, its just 50 meters high. But its close, I could walk here from my home, and if the city didn't spread sand all over the walking paths, I could probably slide back home on my skis. Skiing here for an hour in the evening does
Sky colours
not waste time for travel. My kids learned to ski here. The local ski club, GRIFK Alpine, has a ski school that lasts for the whole winter and teaches 500 kids every year. Their training program is also highly acclaimed, one of the local kids is now a world cup racer. From this hill! Though one has to wonder how six year old trainees can ski the race track day in and day out, and then spend their evening watching video recordings to make sure their knees are at exactly the right angle in the turns. In any case, an impressively well organized club!

Climbing up in darkness
But back to this night. Why am I here? Its not much of a ski run, but I wanted to say that I skied here in May and photograph what the area looked like in the middle of night. Or you could say that I'm crazy. This seems like a good point to remind all the kids that skiing in a closed ski area is dangerous and incredibly stupid. Do NOT try this at home. As I climb up I keep watching for some of the dangers, as the melting snow has uncovered junk that I did not want crash into. The slope is almost entirely covered by snow, except for a few such spots. The lift track and flat area at the bottom are free of snow and full of mud, however.

The ski area
This is a historic site, actually. This ski hill was the site of the first ski lift in Finland, in 1934. The old wire lift was still used until a few years ago, literally a pain in the ass. The ski area is owned by the city, a tiny (pop 8,000) but self-sufficient Kauniainen. In addition to the ski hill, there's a lake, the city hall, a train station, one restaurant, one movie theater, a few shops, and a school that pioneers use of open source technology in learning. All you need, that is. In the winter a green, heated grass football field provides contrast to the to the ski hill that sits next to it.

And then there's the off-piste. Before you start laughing, let me point out that with all my skiing around the world, the most dangerous event that happened to me this season was falling to a bush well in Kauniainen. For a moment I thought I would be unable to move, but luckily was able to get myself free. I knew about tree wells, but I didn't realize that snow on top of bushes can collapse under the weight of a skier.

Football and skiing
First, it should be noted that top of the ski hill is easily accessible not just by the ski lift, but also by car from the end of Jalmarinpolku. If you come by this way, make sure you do not block the access to the local houses. There's space to park one car in front of the gate, however. The most interesting off-piste route is on the skier's right, straight down the steep side. This spot is icy and steep enough to be tricky at times. Alternatively, if you ski from the back of the lift and keep turning left towards the ski area, you'll find a number of different routes through the woods.

The essential parameters for Kauniainen are as follows: the price of adult day ticket is 17 Euros and a season ticket is 150 Euros.

They do not sell real food in the cafeteria so I don't know what the Goulash index would be. However, the cafeteria is a nice place for some hot chocolate and pulla! The closest "real" food is available in the Hölmölän Burger Grill (stupid's grill), near the Bemböle School, or alternatively in the one restaurant in the center of Kauniainen.

My nightly ski run took 27 seconds, but in the winter the slalom competitions winning times are usually around ten seconds.


Photo credits (c) 2010-2011 Jari Arkko