Monday, October 21, 2019

Innsbruck Winter Itinerary

Since returning from a nearly 6-month stay in Innsbruck in July, hardly a day goes by when I don't wish I could teleport back to enjoy the mountains and culture of the Tirol.  I get occasional e-mails for travel tips, so below is a one-week itinerary, written with just enough detail to give you ideas.  While written as an itinerary, any trip would involve adjustment for weather and snow conditions.  Thus, it is mean to be sampled rather than followed. 

I'll begin with some general tips.  Although a car could be convenient for getting to resorts and trailheads, it a liability in town where you are usually better off walking.  If you rent one, you want to be sure you have options for parking wherever you are staying.  Additionally, some ultra cheap rental car deals look great, until you show up to pick up the car and find out you need to pay extra for cross-border travel, insurance, tolls (yes, there are many and you should check out what is and isn't covered with your rental car and be specific). 

If you decide to go to Innsbruck, you should realize that its primary advantages are variety, centrality, and culture.  There is no destination ski area next to Innsbruck.  You're going to spend some time traveling.  If you want a destination ski resort experience, especially one that maximizes the potential for a powder dump, you're probably better of staying in the Arlberg (e.g., St. Anton, Stuben, Zurs, Lech, Warth). 

Finally, "know before you go".  In addition to the need for avalanche safety in the backcountry, off-piste resort skiing in Europe is largely uncontrolled and should be treated as such. 

Day 1: Intro to Innsbruck

You've probably arrived after a long trip from the States.  Chances are your jet lagged and beat whether you've come in via plane, train, or shuttle.  Enjoy an easy day walking around old town.  See the Golden Roof and check out some of the well stocked but expensive adventure sports stores like The Sportler (stores closed on Sundays).  If you want some history, find your way to Schloss Ambras.  If you need rental gear, find Die Borse, which rents alpine skiing and alpine touring gear.   For dinner, find Gasthaus Anich and get the gröstl, a Tirolean meat, egg, and potato hash, with a weisbier hell (light) or dunkel (dark). 

Day 2: Stretch the legs

Catch the J-line bus to Patscherkofel, the ski area south of Innsbruck.  Your skis are your bus pass as skiers are free.  It's a picturesque 30-minute trip.  Bring your AT skis and skip the line for passes.  Skin up the resort, which is AT friendly.  Start to the west of the lower rope tow and head up.  There is a steep stretch above the rope tow that will require you to traverse to the east side of the run.  It can be difficult if icy.  Follow the locals (you'll usually have uphill company).  It's a bit over 3000 vertical feet to the top of the resort.  Enjoy lunch at the Patscherkofelhaus, the old stone building east of the cablecar building.  Or, if you are up for it and the route is open, skin and have an espresso, coffee, or tea at the Patscherkofel Gipfelstube on the summit first.  After lunch, descend via the downhill route made famous by Franz Klammer in the 1976 Olympics.  Practice your edging skills.  This is a north facing resort in Austria.  If it is in the afternoon and it hasn't snowed in a while, you're going to need them.

The Patscherkofelhaus (left), Innsbruck (right), and the Inn Valley
Day 3: Alpine ski like a local

Catch the L1 bus to Axamer Lizum, an alpine resort southwest of Innsbruck.  If it's a weekend, get it at one of the stops before the University.  It's about a 45 minute trip to the ski area, which is modest in size, but good for a day of skiing.  When you need a break, stop at the summit Hoadl House at the top of the Olympiabahn funicular and check out their pastry bar. 

Axamer Lizum
Day 4: Skate ski Seefeld

Catch the train (30 minutes) from Innsbruck to Seefeld and skate ski at the site of the 2019 Nordic World Championships.  There are something like 400-km of cross country trails on the plateau on which Seefeld sits, so there's more here than you can ski ina week.  Find a hutte or stube to stop at for lunch.  One option is the Möserer Seestubin.  After returning to Innsbruck, catch a cab to Gasthaus Planötzenhof for dinner.  

Seefeld area ski trails
Day 5: Run of Fame

Double down on the train travel and ride the rails to St. Anton.  Make sure it's an early one.  After exiting the St. Anton train station, walk 5 minutes to the Galzigbahn and ski the Run of Fame from St. Anton to Warth and back.  It will take you all day.  Make sure it's a sunny one.  Bring your wallet and be prepared for crowds if it is high season.  Nothing is cheap in the Arlberg.  

Above Zurs on the return to St. Anton
Day 6: Nordkette

Chance are you need a recovery day.  Ride the Nordkettebahn to the top of the Nordkette, the "northern chain" of mountains above Innsbruck.  This involves taking the funicular from old town and then two trams.  Have a coffee or beer at Seegrube.  Enjoy the views.  By now you're getting tired of Tirolean food, so dine at a Nepalese restaurant like the Everest Inn and drink some craft beer at Tribaun.

Looking down towards Innsbruck from near the top of the Haflekar tram in April
Day 7: Ski tour

Find a local guide or rent a car and make your own plans via and do a ski tour in the Sellraintal or the side valleys off the Wipptal.  As usual, know before you go.  

Ski touring in the Alps south of Innsbruck

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Morning Storm Update

The Alta High Rustler cam is looking quite wintery this morning.

Source: Alta Ski Area
This is technically, based on my 10 inch minimum requirement, the first deep powder day of the 2019/20 ski season.  As of 0800 MDT, Automated snow sensors at Alta-Collins show an increase of about 13 inches since yesterday afternoon, bringing the total snow depth to 18 inches (note that the snow depth sensor is reading 4 inches too high).

Source: MesoWest
Sadly, that's below my tolerance levels, so my plan is to sit this one out assuming something really exciting doesn't happen this morning.

Much of the water and snow came with the frontal system – the same one that created a deluge at Rice-Eccles Stadium.  If my math is right, Alta got about 0.92" of water and 9 inches of snow through 9 pm.  After that, post-frontal snow showers added some additional low density snow.  

Although there was some evidence of lake enhancement at times, a strong lake band never really got going.  The dominant signature overnight was one of orographic snow showers, not only over the Wasatch, but also over the Bear River Range near Logan.  This pattern continues this morning, as can be seen in the radar image below, although snowfall rates are tapering.  

Source: NCAR/RAL
All of this puts us into purgatory.  Upper elevation hiking is difficult due to the snow depth, but the snowpack is still fairly shallow for skiing.  I'm sure some people will get out on this, and the higher density snow received last week and during the frontal passage late yesterday and last night will at least be supportable.

Another major storm would be a came changer.  However, the NAEFS ensemble shows, after last night storms, just a couple of quick hitter small events over the next seven days.  

Let's hope one of those storms comes through bigger than advertised or that in the aggregate, the inches add up.  

A quick note that early snow can still pose an avalanche risk.  See the PSA below from the UAC.  A concern in the coming weeks, should we not continue to build a snowpack, would be that the snow facets, and we put new snow on top of it, leading to a monsters in the basemen scenario (just in time for Halloween).

Friday, October 18, 2019

Assessing the Likelihood of Weekend Skiing

The likelihood of skiing this weekend is dependent on several factors, including how much snow the next storm produces, your willingness to sacrifice p-tex, and your tolerance of bodily harm. 

I'll focus on the former, beginning with where we are right now. 

Prior to last nights storm, snow cover in the Wasatch was scant.  The Alta web cam at the top of Collins shows just a few patches of snow left over from last season.

Last nights storm, however, produced near the top of expectations at upper elevations.  Radar imagery below shows the passage of the frontal system across the area with initially scattered showers followed by a well organized precipitation band. 

As a result, Alta is covered by a blanket of white. 

Automated observations from the Alta-Collins site show a total of 0.62 inches of water.  I suspect that the initial snow depth yesterday wasn't actually 4 inches and that this reflects a calibration error.  However, overnight, the total snow depth increases 8 inches and the interval snow depth (measured on a board) goes up 6 or 7, the latter being the peak right at the end of the storm before settlement.  Based on the mean, we'll call it 7 new with 9% water content.

Source: MesoWest
Other than perhaps a flake or two this morning, it should be dry through tomorrow (Saturday) morning.  Then the next upper-level trough and frontal system approach, with the chance of precipitation with a snow level near 6500 feet increasing in the afternoon.  The NAM forecast valid 0000 UTC 20 October (1800 MDT Saturday) shows precipitation from the previous 3 hours down to roughly the Cottonwoods.  

Passage of the trough will result in a lowering of snow levels to the valley floor Saturday night.  The models are producing both orographic and lake effect snow in the post-frontal northwesterly flow late Sunday night and Sunday morning.  The example below is from the NAM at 1200 UTC (0600 MDT) Sunday morning.  

Models like the NAM don't adequately resolve the influence of the lake or mountains, but this is a scenario where the likelihood of lake effect is higher due to the relatively warm lake (about 11.5˚C) and forecast for a relatively cold and moist post-frontal flow.  

Our downscaled forecasts based on the SREF are generating 0.25 to nearly 2.2 inches of water and about 4 to 35 inches of snow at Alta Collins through 1800 UTC 20 October (1200 MDT Sunday).  For snow, most of the members lie between 10 and 20 inches.  

Ultimately, the forecast distribution is one that I would describe as "heavily skewed."  There is a high likelihood of something in the 6-10 inch range, but a long skinny tail of lower probability outcomes with greater amounts.  Something on that long skinny tail verifying above 12 inches will require Alta to be in the cross hairs of well organized post-frontal convection or lake-effect.  

The bottom line is that this is an event worth watching.  A likely outcome is that the snow from this storm, combined with that from last night, will push the total snow depth to something like 10 to 16 inches by 1200 MDT Sunday.  Given that's all relatively fresh, unsettled snow with a limited water content, it's certainly below my threshold for skiing, and it should be below yours too.  

On the other hand, if all the ingredients came together — the trough track is right, the post-frontal and lake-effect convection goes big, and the central Wasatch are in the cross hairs — this could be a more significant storm.  

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

How Budget Cuts and Political Shenanigans Destroy a University

If you work in higher education or value its importance for innovation, economic development, knowledge, arts, and culture, what is happening in Alaska should cause you great concern.

Here's the short story.  The Alaskan state budget is being slashed to the bone, with significant cuts in many areas, including to the University of Alaska.  Initially, the cut was to be a draconian $135 million (about 40%), leading to a declaration of financial exigency by the University of Alaska Board of Regents in July.  Fiscal exigency is an emergency declaration rarely used by universities to enable rapid cuts that include the closure of programs and campuses and the dismissal of tenured faculty.  Such a declaration is a massive blow to the reputation of a university.

Subsequently, $110 million in state funding was restored, yielding a cut of $25 million, which represents about 8% of the state funding for the University of Alaska system (see University of Alaska regents cancel declaration of 'financial exigency').  This led the Board of Regents to cancel their declaration of financial exigency, although cuts are still needed to deal with the current budget cut and to prepare for cuts that continue to be proposed for future years.

Regardless of where the budget goes in those future years, the uncertainty, instability, and political shenanigans are already having a large, measurable effect on the University of Alaska.  The Anchorage Press reported on October 8 that fall semester enrollment in the University of Alaska system is down 9.3 percent.

Quoting the article, "This is a direct result mainly of publicity and anxiety among students over huge, 42 percent budget cuts proposed last spring by Gov. Mike Dunleavy.  Dunleavy later backed away from this, agreeing to more modest reductions, but by then a lot of the University's students, faculty, and staff had decided to look elsewhere." On the plus side, the freshman class at the University of Alaska Anchorage was actually the largest ever, but this increase is not sufficient to overcome the losses of continuing students.  Thus, the University of Alaska faces the triple whammy of declines in both state funding and tuition, as well as the specter of future budget cuts.

And so the rubber meets the road.  Brian Brettschneider, a climate scientist at the International Arctic Research Center of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, tweeted a list today programs with "low enrollment or high costs" at the University of Fairbanks that are undergoing expedited review. 

This is a mind-boggling list. Imagine the University of Alaska-Fairbanks without mining engineering, geological engineering, petroleum engineering, electrical and computer engineering, or computer science.  Imagine dealing with a rapidly changing Arctic (and Alaska is on the front-line of climate change) without expertise in atmospheric science, oceanography, and fisheries.  Imagine a state with a rich cultural heritage of Alaska abandoning logistics, Alaska native languages, Alaska native studies, and anthropology. 

Some of these departments and areas of expertise are also at the University of Alaska Anchorage, but that's along ways from Fairbanks.  To provide some perspective, imagine if Southern Utah University were to close their Computer Science and Information Systems, Engineering and Technology, and Physical Science departments. 

Further, these departments are being reviewed because of their low enrollment or high costs.  Typically this means the ratio of state support per student credit hour or per degree.  This is a very common metric used by university bean counters.  However, it does not really quantify the value of the department.  Specialized fields are important for innovation, economic development, or culture.

The University of Alaska system has already suffered damage through declined enrollment and a tarnished reputation.  Faculty departures and declines in funding will take more time to emerge, but will likely come if they haven't begun already.  It will take years, possibly decades to recover from this, with implications for the Alaskan economy, arts, and cultural heritage. 

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Swiss Glaciers Continue Their Retreat

The Pizol Glacier in the Glarus Alps of northeastern Switzerland is one of 500 small Swiss glaciers that have disappeared since 1900.  Photo: Matthias Huss/Swiss Academy of Sciences
It was an exceptionally good snow year in the northern Alps this year, and May was quite cool.  I was wondering if this might lead to a net positive mass balance for Alpine glaciers this year, but at least in Switzerland (and I suspect elsewhere), it wasn't to be. 

As reported today by the Swiss Academy of Sciences, glacier melt levels during this summer's heat waves reached record levels and in the net, glacier mass loss for the year exceeded accumulation, yielding a net mass loss of 2% of Switzerland's total glacier volume.  Over the past five years, the rate of mass loss exceeds anything previously observed in records that go back for more than a century.  

Perhaps most disheartening is that eastern Switzerland saw exceptional snows during the winter, yet losses were higher than average for the past ten years.  I haven't seen the latest from Austria yet, but it experienced a similar winter and summer compared to eastern Switzerland and I suspect the story will be similar.  Below is a tweet from @robbieshone on October 13 showing scientists taking field observations to determine the annual mass balance of the Hintereisferner, which is Austria's best studied glacier.

Below are photos of the Hintereisferner (from in mid June and early August, illustrating the loss of the remarkable snowfall from the 2018/19 winter. 

Monday, October 14, 2019

Fall Break Recap

Meteorologically speaking, it was an eventful Fall Break thanks to the mid-week cold surge that brought record low minimum temperatures to many stations in Utah.  Some people asked me how cold it got in Peter Sinks.  The Utah Climate Center site observed a minimum of 1˚F on the morning of the 11th. 

Source: MesoWest
A sampling of additional record low minimums or low maximums from that period is provided below.  The Salt Lake City record low maximum on October 10th broke a record that stood since 1880 (the observation then was collected in "town").  Impressive.

Source: NWS
I was happy to chase the upstream ridge and travel to Seattle to do some hiking and visit family.  The weather there was sublime on Thursday and Friday after cool starts.  The photo below is of sunrise from the Bainbridge Island Ferry.

I hadn't been in the Olympic Mountains in over 20 years, so to get a bluebird day in October was really a treat. 

We also did some hiking near Snoqualmie Pass.

The skiff of snow that fell earlier in the week made for surprisingly difficult and treacherous conditions on packed trails.  On both hikes, we eventually had to turn around when we encountered steeper and slicker areas.  Just another impact of the great cold surge of October 2019!