Sunday, February 17, 2019

"Welcome to the Tirol!"

After a day of rest, recovery, and a bit of work, the bluebird skies and the mountains called me out once again for a day of ski touring in the Tux Alps south of Innsbruck. 

It hasn't snowed much in these parts in some time due to the Steenburgh effect and thanks to a huge ridge that sits over Europe, temperatures are exceptionally warm as well.  Options are limited for powder, but the beautiful Alps help to make up for that.  Beautiful weather and level 1 (low) avalanche conditions have also encouraged the already avid tirolean ski-touring community to get after it.  It reminded me a bit of home today when we arrived at the trailhead.  My partner commented "welcome to the Tirol!"

It reminded me of how I often say "welcome to Wasangeles" in the Wasatch. 

We saw just a few people out while we were ski touring. 

It may have been busy, but like nearly everywhere else, ski tourers (and nordic skiers) are amongst the nicest, friendliest people you'll ever meet.  Smiles were a mile wide today and the level of happiness off the scale. 

As I mentioned, the avalanche conditions were rated as low, but low avalanche danger doesn't mean no avalanche danger.  I mentioned this in a previous post, but with sun and warm weather, one can see crowns and debris piles from glide avalanches all over the place on steep, grassy and rocky  surfaces.  Here's one on the south side of the ridge we ascended. 

My intrepid partner on the summit.  Below is the Wipptal (Wipp Valley) with the Stubai Alps beyond (and probably some of the Ötztal Alps).

And one of yours truly.  I'm pretty certain that smile is stuck on my face for the rest of the day. 

As I mentioned, it hasn't snowed in a while and the ski touring crowd here gets after it.  We ended up skiing a run that reminded me a bit of Coalpit, without as steep of a headwall and without the bottom choke.  This slide path runs nearly to the valley below, enabling a run of about 1150 vertical meters (3775 feet). 

Pristine untracked it wasn't, but given the age of the snow, some good turns were had between the tracks on the upper third to half of the slide path.

Not surprisingly, as things choked up, the path became tracked wall to wall.

And even moguls.  No ski lifts anywhere in this valley either. 

Welcome to the Tirol!  Busy, but a great tour and a fun run considering the lack of recent snow. 

Saturday, February 16, 2019

St. Anton, Revisited

Sometime in late 2000, the Salt Lake Olympic Committee asked me to go to St. Anton, Austria and learn about weather support and weather-related issues during the Alpine Skiing World Championships in February 2001.

This may surprise you, but I initially begged off of the trip.  I had attended the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano and didn't feel I'd learn much.  I suggested they send someone else.  They insisted.  So I got online to look up a bit more about St. Anton and found something that said it was a great expert ski area with a hedonistic night life.  I called them back and said that I would go.

It was a great trip.  I had never skied in Europe before and I learned a great deal interacting with venue managers for the Salt Lake Games and former ski team coaches.  Daron Rahlves won the Super-G and I clanked mugs with him at the bar that night (he wouldn't remember).  We stayed in an all-inclusive resort in St. Christoph on the Arlberg Pass that is otherwise beyond my financial abilities.  Skiing was done and fun was had.  I also gave a talk at the University of Innsbruck, which created the embryo for my current Austrian sabbatical.

So I've been chomping at the bit for a return and the opportunity to show Andrea the place, so we were excited for the opportunity to head up yesterday (Friday) under spectacular bluebird skies.

St. Anton is remarkably easy to get to from Innsbruck.  It lies on the main rail line between Innsbruck and Zurich and thus has regular service.  If you catch a railjet express, it's a 70 minute trip.

You just kick back, relax, and enjoy the views.  Then you pop out of the train station right at the resort, with about a 5-10 minute walk to the lifts.

Although I say St. Anton, St. Anton is one of several ski areas that are fully interconnected and form Ski Arlberg, which they market as one of the five largest ski areas in the world with 88 lifts and cable cars, 305 km of piste, 200 km of "other runs" (whatever that means) and huge amounts of off piste acreage.  Vertical drop is nearly 5,000 feet, although this includes about 500 feet for the summit tram that they don't allow you to take your skis up.  Thus, about 4500 vertical feet is continuously skiable, although most of the time, you're not doing the full drop.

One attraction is the run of fame, an 85-km long circuit with 18,000 vertical meters (60,000 ft) of skiing if you can make it from St. Anton at one end to Warth at the other and back in a day.

Our original plan, prior to leaving Salt Lake, was to cut that in half.  Ski from St. Anton to Warth, stay overnight, and return the next day.  That was a good plan, but naive for the Austrian winter high season.  If any lodging is available right now in the Arlberg region, especially for just one night, it's going to set you back a small fortune.

Following the advice of a friend and St. Anton native, we decided not to try and eat the whole elephant, but instead swallow a few small bites.  Thus, we ended up focusing on skiing the area very near St. Anton, including the Kapall, Galzig, Valluga,  St. Christoph, and Stuben area, leaving Lech and environs for another day.

The lift-served area around St. Anton has lots of great terrain, but a lot of south aspects.  As is common with the Steenburgh Effect, a large block has just setup over Europe and it has recently warmed considerably.  Spring conditions are now predominating on south slopes.  We found those runs hard and scratchy in the morning.  The best skiing was in the Stuben area where there are slopes on facing the north side of the compass.  Views, however, were spectacular everywhere.  Below are perhaps too many photos, but we found a hard time showing restraint.

The village of St. Christoph and the Arlberg Pass, which represents the border between the Tirol and Vorarlberg states of Austria.  The Arlberg region is one of the snowiest in Europe.
Looking westward down the Klostertal (Kloster Valley) toward Alpe Rauz and Stuben
Looking up piste 85 at the pass between the Valluga and the Schindler Spitze.  Look carefully for the Valluga I cable car in the blue sky.
St. Anton is known as the birthplace of Alpine skiing.  Hannes Schneider, a native of Stuben, developed the Arlberg Technique here in the early 20th century that takes skiers on a progression from snowplow to christie.
From lunch forward, knowing where the hell you are and where you are going is crucial. 
Looking north from above Stuben through the Flexen Pass that provides access to Zürs, Lech, and beyond.  The Flexen Pass served as our "wall" for the day.  We did not pass over, through, or around it.

The village of Stuben.  Stuben and St. Christoph are smaller and more picturesque to my eye than St. Anton.
Working out way back to St. Anton and doing some skiing along the way.  This is the view from the top of the Valfagehr chair with the Ulmer Hütte at left, the Schindler Spitze the high peak just above and to the right of the Hütte (accessed by the Schindlergrat chair, which is beyond view), and the Galzig the lower peak to center right with ski trails on it and the first summit above St. Anton which is in the valley beyond.
The Schindlergrat detatchable triple.  Some great terrain here, although with a poor (south) aspect.  The suns impacts are apparent if you have a discerning eye.
The Valluga I cable car.  Really, this doesn't buy you much that you can't ski from the Schindlergrat chair unless you are ski touring.  However, it is worth a ride.
At the top of the Valluga I, you can take the Valluga II, a 6-person tram that goes to the summit of the Valluga at 2811 m.  No skis allowed.  Purely a sightseeing trip.  Skip it on a powder day as it will take time while you wait in line.  Otherwise you may as well go the distance as we did on this spectacular day.  
Looking down and toward the south from the Valluga summit.  St. Anton is out of view in the deep valley with trees on the far left of the photo.
Blatant product placement on my part, but my Fulbright is supposed to encourage cultural exchange.
A quick look at the docking of Valluga I before beginning the ski back to town
We don't do much Après, but we had time to kill before our train.  Numerous spots for drinking and eating exist along trail 50 above town
Here are a few more.  I suspect the local paramedics keep themselves busy each evening below these places.
We've learned that living in Innsbruck without a car requires a good system for schlepping ski gear.  Getting to the train station from our apartment requires a 10 minute walk, ride on a tram (i.e., light rail train) or bus, walking through the train station, etc.  Getting on and off sometimes crowded buses and paying drivers, stamping tickets, or flashing electronic tickets requires speed and dexterity! 

By far, the most useful thing that we have are Voile and Black Diamond ski straps (shout out to both as I have a mixture of them).  These take up practically no space, but you can bind your skis and poles in a tight package that is a hell of at lot easier to lug around and load on and off buses and trains than if you have your skis and poles separate.  Put them on tight, and your poles provide a handle for carriage as well.  I've seen various contraptions for portering skis and poles here, but I think these straps work best.

When I'm touring, I just wear my AT boots, which are relatively easy to walk in, but if on Alpine gear, I throw a boot in my pack and strap one to the back as pictured above.  I find having a pack to be pretty useful for alpine skiing here as it's nice to have options to add or remove layers when covering distance and vertical.  We throw our shoes in it while skiing.   

I'm not a quiver of one type of guy.  I've never found that the equipment that works well for uphill works well for skiing hard groomers.  I still prefer alpine equipment for resort skiing.  However, if I lived here, I would probably look for a beef AT setup that skis well at resorts just for the convenience when traveling.  

Thursday, February 14, 2019

A Relaxing Commute to Work

We've now been in Austria for almost a month.  During that time, I have not driven a car, although I have ridden in one three times when going skiing with friends.  If I lived here permanently, I'd probably want one, mainly for accessing skiing, but it's pretty easy living without one in Innsbruck.  The public transit is quite good and unless the weather is bad, walking is a lot of fun given the beautiful mountains in all directions. 

My "commute" to work involves about a 10 minute walk, downhill to the office and uphill home, navigating four switchbacks (I throw that in just to make it sound like an adventure).  It probably took me 15 minutes today as I stoped to gape at the mountains frequently.  Below are a few photos I took, one just below our apartment, the others where I cross the Inn River. 

As you can tell from the blue skies, the Steenburgh effect is in full force right now.  It continues to snow in Utah, and a huge block is setting up over Europe.  Coincidence?  I think not.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Western Austria Snow and Avalanche Information

I've been in Austria for almost a month and thanks to a little help from my friends, especially Lukas Lehner here at the University of Innsbruck, I'm finally beginning to get a handle where to find weather, snow, and avalanche information.  I'm interested in a lot more than the avalanche report, but also mountain snow and weather observations, and there are multiple sources for those. 

In part, the complexity of finding all this information reflects the jurisdiction of European countries and Austrian States.  I will focus today on western Austria, which includes the Tirol and Voralberg. 

Source: WIkipedia
Tirol is the German spelling and I will use that here.  Curiously, the Tirol is divided into two pieces, despite it being one state.  As I understand it, this is an artifact of the World War I armistice, which ceded the Südtirol (South Tirol) immediately south of the Alpine divide to Italy. 

Multilingual avalanche forecasts and information for the Tirol, Südtirol, and Trentino are available at

I've found this to be an excellent source of information, and they provide access to high-resolution weather and snow analyses produced for the Tirol by ZAMG, the Austrian Weather Service.  These include analyses of snow height (sometimes called snow depth in the U.S.) and fresh snow.  Below is an analysis for this morning.  The contrast from north to south is apparent with the deepest snowpacks in the mountains north of the Inn Valley including immediately north of Innsbruck and in the Arlberg region in the northwestern part of the analysis.  One can also access observations from some observing sites. 

Further west, avalanche forecasts and information is also available for Voralberg, the westernmost Austrian state, at  This site focuses on risks other than avalanches, but does provide access to some snow and weather observations in the region.


Those sites are very useful, but other sites provide access to more data or analyses in alternative formats.  ZAMG provides analyses from their INCA model at  This allows one to get a broader perspective on the Austrian Alps and, at least this winter, the remarkable snowpack that exists throughout the northern Alps. 

Snow and weather observations are available from several sites.  I don't know if there is any one site that integrates this information like MesoWest does with weather data in the U.S.  For the Tirol, one option is Hydro Online (maybe start at  An example of a snow height graphic for the season, displayed relative to data from the period of record, is provided below.  This site is in near the German border at 1670 in the Lech Valley.  Snow depths are near the highest in the period of record, although there must have been a huge storm cycle there one year that pushed them to a full 5.5 meters in late February.  Click on the Schneehöhe Jahr tab if you go to the link to see the annual trend. 

Another option is Below is the seasons observations from the same site presented above.  They provide a very nice interface with detailed topographic maps.  The site is the red dot in the image below, so you can get some perspective on the characteristics of the site.  

One thing that I've found challenging is that the border between Tirol and Voralberg lies in Arlberg pass and the Arlberg region, which I like to look at because it is one of the snowiest regions in Austria.  As a result, I find myself switching from site to site quite a bit.  

By and large, there is a remarkable amount of data to play with, which is really great given the incredible spatial variability in weather and snow that exists in the Alps.  

Monday, February 11, 2019

Textbook Alpine Meteorology

For a synoptic and mesoscale meteorologist like myself, the past 24-hours have provided just what I have been looking for on sabbatical leave: An education in Alpine meteorology.  

We begin at 1200 UTC (1300 CET) yesterday when an Atlantic cold front was sweeping across northern Europe and beginning to impinge on the western Alps.  I have annotated a summary of the situation on the 850 mb (1500 m) wind and temperature analysis below.  With southwesterly flow ahead of the front and associated trough, locally warm conditions predominated in the northern Alps and adjoining lowlands.  This reflects the influence of the Foehn (see also the previous post), a warm, downslope flow that develops during periods of large-scale southerly and southeasterly flow. 

The situation began to change quickly by 1800 UTC (1900 CET) as the cold front pushing into the western Alps, bringing with it cooler air from the northwest and a cessation of the Foehn.  At this time, the warmest 850-mb air was confined to the northwest Alps and lowlands to the north where it had been transported to in the southwesterly flow.  Note also the deceleration and splitting of the flow as it impinged on the western Alps.  This is also very common and it reflects the stability of the low-level airmass, which is unable to move unimpeded over the formidable Alpine topography. 

By 0000 UTC (0100 ECT) 11 February, cold air has encircled the western and the northern Alps.  There is a sharp contrast in temperatures across the Alps, which reflects both the stagnation of low-level cold air to the north and the development of downslope flow into northern Italy, where temperatures have increased from the previous two analyses.  Essentially, northern Italy is now experiencing Foehn conditions.  In addition, note how rapidly the cold front has pushed eatward across Austria, Slovenia, and Hungary, which is a result of the blocking of the flow by the Alps, which rotates the flow to more westerly and allows the front to accelerate eastward. 

And finally, the forecast for noon today shows cold air encircling the eastern Alps, downsloping the Dinaric Alps, and flowing over the Adriatic Sea. 

The satellite image from this morning shows the sharp contrast in weather across the Alps.  Note in particular the clear skies in the western Po Valley of Italy and the clouds banked up over the northern Alps and east of the Dinaric Alps.  

European meteorologists have recognized these impacts of the Alps and other ranges for a long time.  Below is an analysis from the great Swedish meteorologist Tor Bergeron, published in 1928.  The flow is a bit more westerly, but you will see the similarities.  

That analysis has always been one of my old-school favorites. 

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Dodging the Foehn

After yesterdays splendid ski tour, I thought I would do a short day of alpine today (Sunday) and get a little work done in the afternoon.

There was, however, a challenge as today was forecast to be a Foehn day.  The Foehn is a strong downslope wind that affect the northern Alps during periods of southerly cross-barrier flow.  Think of it as the Alpine equivalent of Utah's "Canyon Winds", although they are more frequent.

Owing to the surrounding topography, Innsbruck is quite exposed to strong Foehn.  Innsbruck lies in the deep Inn Valley, which runs predominantly from west to east, with the Inn river flowing eastward.  Although surrounded by high mountains, the Wipp Valley lies due south of Innsbruck and represents a low-elevation corridor that connects with the Alpine Divide at Brenner Pass, where the border to Italy lies.

Map background source:
During Foehn, strong winds extend down the Wipp Valley to Innsbruck.  They also have a strong influence on the Patscherkofel, the easiest ski area to access from my apartment, as it is immediately adjacent to the Wipp Valley.

I'm not expert on the local meteorology around here, but enough people told me to avoid the Patscherkofel during Foehn that I never even considered going there this morning.  Instead, I went to Axamer Lizum, which is probably the best ski area I can access on a free bus anyway.

Turns out it was a good call.  Below is a seven-day time series of wind speed and gusts from the top of the Patscherkofel (these are provided by ZAMG, the Austrian Weather Service).   Southerly flow at this location began late yesterday (1800 LST) and ramped up overnight and today.  So far, the peak gust of just over 120 km/hour (75 mph) was at noon.

Source: ZAMG
The Patscherkofel gondola doesn't reach the summit where those observations are taken, but I noticed as soon as I got back to Innsbruck that the bus stop for the line going to the Patscherkofel ski area said the gondola was closed due to the weather.  Yes, they provide that information on electronic signs at the bus stops.

Meanwhile, in Innsbruck at the University of Innsbruck, winds really picked up after noon, with a peak gust of just over 75 km/hour (45 mph).  The local flow there is westerly, although the origin of the winds is the south.

Source: ZAMG
I had no problem skiing at Axamer Lizum this morning.  The timing was good (before the flow really ramped up) and it was less exposed than the Patscherkofel.  I was, however, able to observe some of the effects of the Foehn.  The Panorama below is taken looking toward the ENE.  Innsbruck lies in the deep valley at left and the flow is mainly from right to left.  To the right of the prominent peak just lef of center, one can see low clouds that have spilled across Brenner Pass into the Wipp Valley.  These clouds eventually dissipate as the flow descends into the Inn Valley, warms, and dries.  However, there is a band of clouds over the Nordkette range immediately north of Innsbruck.  These clouds persisted all morning and they were the only clouds along that entire range, including its extension further west, which can't be seen in the photo.  I suspect that the Foehn winds were riding abruptly on the south face of the Nordkette, leading to the cloud formation either due to that area seeing the strongest incident flow and/or the flow from the Wipp Valley being a bit cooler and moister since it traversed a lower portion of the Alpine Divide (i.e., Brenner Pass and the immediate surrounding area).  My colleagues can correct this hypothesis tomorrow if it is wrong :-).  

Getting back to skiing, I rode the chair today that ascends the Bergitzköpfl, which services ungroomed terrain on the east side of the valley and provides a view of most the terrain at Axamer Lizum.  One can see the funicular snaking to the top and several chairlifts.    

Although the light was terrible when I took those photos, the filtered sun provided good light for most of the morning, with no major impacts of the Foehn, although I did noticed that they cancelled their hot air balloon event.