Sunday, February 24, 2019

Skiing Stubai Gletscher

With slim pickings for powder this weekend in the Innsbruck Area mountains, we headed up to the Stubai Gletscher ski area at the upper end of the Stubaital to see what the Austrian Alps look like from 3000+ meters.

Stubai Gletsher is Austria's largest glacier skiing resort.  It's a 45 minute drive from Innsbruck, or 75 minutes if you do the 590 bus as we did from the Innsbruck Hauptbahnhof (main train station).   The bus drops you off 50 meters from the base of the Eisgratbahn, an incredible 24-seat, 32 person cable car that whisks you from 1695 meters to 2900 meters (4280 vertical feet), dropping you in the center of the upper ski area.

Walk outside and your basically at the glacier.  

Another gondola will take you higher to the self-proclaimed "Top of the Tirol" at 3210 meters.

Despite the altitude, the vast majority of the skiable terrain is of the low-angle variety, ideal for beginners and intermediates.  Think Albion Basin and Sugarloaf on steroids.  Lots of steroids. 

There are some pockets of good off piste that might be entertaining on a powder day, but I suspect wind exposure here is high.  It would need to be the right powder day.

It's worth talking a bit about the lift system.  The Eisgratbahn is the longest tri-cable cable car in the Alps with a length of 4.7 km and cost 64 million euro.  Cabins seat 24, hold 32 total, and move 3000 people per hour.

Most people download at the end of the day, as we did at about 2 PM when cabins were empty.  Plenty of room.  We were catching the 2:30 bus and were able to swap boots for shoes and drop some layers in comfort on the ride down.

If you are interested, BlogTirol can give you a tour below.

The Eisgratbahn appears to be on firm bedrock, but the lifts elsewhere have to deal with glacier issues.  I don't know how lifts are engineered onto glaciers, but it is clear that they are going to huge lengths to conserve the ice around the lift towers in many areas.  Here you can see white covers that have been placed around one of the towers and how this appears to have reduced ice melt.  This one needs to be replaced as they are looking quite dirty and thus are not reflecting as much sunlight as they could.

I've been amazed at the number of avalanches that I see on south aspects when traveling around.  Most of these have broken right to the grass or ground.  Here are a few more that ran into the base parking lots at some point in the past.

Pick your parking spot carefully.

We were on the bus.  We've generally avoided cramped spaces while riding the buses here, but we found the Stubaital to be full of enthusiastic bus riders.

Unlike the ski buses in the Cottonwoods, there are many non-skiers riding the bus as this is the main line through the villages of the Stubaital and I felt a little bad for them, especially the older riders, of which there were many.  On the other hand, it was only a short stretch with a near-full bus and there were no traffic snarls to slow us down.  I haven't missed the red snake one bit while here.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

World Championship Spectating

The 2019 Nordic World Championships are underway here in Austria with the skiing events in Seefeld and the jumping events here in Innsbruck.  Spectators from many countries are showing their colors in town.  It's sort of an mini Olympics.

Our original plan for Saturday was to attend the women's 15-km skiathalon, but I put off buying tickets for too long and all that was left when I checked online yesterday were the pricier ones.  That turned out to be fortunate as the race was won by Therese Johaug in a blowout, as she seems to be doing regularly this year, and there wasn't much back and forth even for the podiums.  Congrats to Rosie Brennan of the US on grabbing a 10th place finish. 

Instead, we went to the ski jumping world championships at the Bergisel ski jump right here in Innsbruck.  It was a great experience.  This is the third major ski jump competition I've attended (the others were at the 1998 and 2002 Olympic Winter Games) and they are great spectator sports.  Today's winner, Marcus Eisenbichler of Germany, won in grand fashion with a huge second jump, upsetting Ryoyu Kobayashi of Japan, who was a heavy favorite and ended up in fourth.  It was a windy day, and at times this played a role.  Ski jumping is a very weather sensitive winter sport and shifting winds can make or break any individuals jump. 

As a meteorologist, you would think I would have bought seats in the sun, but alas, we were in the shade, but got great views. 
Tirolean Luxury Boxes
An elated winner.  Great celebration at the end. 

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Frühlingsskifahren and Praying for Snow

Today (Thursday) I snuck off for my mid-week morning tour up one of the local ski areas for exercise and views.  This time, rather than Patscherkofel, I went to Mutterer Alm, mainly because it has a bit more of an eastern exposure and was likely to soften up earlier in the morning.  We haven't had snow here in some time and it has been unseasonably mild, so it is essential to adapt to the Frühlingsskifahren (spring skiing) conditions.  In addition, the ski area is relatively low angle, so skinning would not be too difficult if I found a frozen surface. 

The tour ended up being far more interesting than usual, if only to observe how these resorts encourage diverse user groups to enjoy their terrain.  For example, on the ascent, I passed many tourers. 

I am no ski-mo animal.  There were lots of tourers out, many of them not necessarily strong climbers, but taking advantage of the sun and the low-angle ski terrain.  Good for them. 

The resort maintains a rodeln (tobogganing) run that drops the full length of the gondola, which must cover about 2000 vertical feet.  People rodeln all over the place here and I am constantly seeing people get on and off the busses with their sleds, which are sort of like mini luges. 

I also saw fat bikes going down the rodeln run.  So, you have a resort that is encouraging alpine skiing, ski touring, rodeln, and mountain biking. 

Mutterer Alm is like a number of the local resorts here in Innsbruck with decent vertical and just a run or two covering it.  The route I took up covered about 830 vertical meters (2700 vertical feet), with a gondola covering all but the last 180 vertical meters.  The run that gondola accesses is low angle and solidly lower intermediate.  Talk about great for kids.  It's like Albion Basin on steroids.  Indeed, there were many kids on the hill. 

The other option is to ski to the town of Götzens.  Another gondola servicing about the same vertical with one trail.  Let's hope Vail doesn't find out about the expansion possibilities. 

Below is a panorama from the summit showing the Nordkette on the far left rising above the Inn Valley and Innsbruck on the left, and the Tux alps on the right.  Such a beautiful setting.  Some nice wave clouds as well. 

I mentioned multiuse.  Here's a road crossing near the bottom of the lone trail to the gondola base.

Transitioning to the weather, we've had winter interuptus here in the Alps.  It's been in the 50s for highs the past few days in Innsbruck.  We've basically had a ridge dominated pattern and this week a monster cyclone developed over the north Atlantic, reinforcing the ridge. 

Our main hope for snow comes late tonight and tomorrow when a short-wave trough dropping down the downstream side of the ridge crosses the Alps. 

The northern Alps east of Innsbruck will probably do best.  Hoping we will get something into the Innsbruck area mountains. 

The extended is ridgy, but what is interesting is it is a very short-wavelength, high amplitude ridge, so that the UK is exposed to Atlantic storms and the boot of Italy and southeast Europe are cold with unsettled weather. 

Sadly the Alps are in the dry sandwich.  Send some powder my way from Utah.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Cost of Skiing: Austria vs. Utah

It's quite remarkable the difference in the cost of a day or half day pass in Austria compared to the United States.

St. Anton is one of the five largest ski resorts in the world with more than 80 chairlifts and 300 km of groomed pistes.  A day pass there during the peak season is 54.50 euro ($61.80).  That is less than half the walk-up cost of a day pass at Snowbird ($125).  

Smaller resorts in Austria are also inexpensive.  Take a resort like Axamer Lizum near Innsbruck.  More vertical than Alta, but perhaps a little less acreage (but not by a lot).  A peak season day ticket is 39.50 euro ($44.80)!  I'm not making this up.  Here's a screen shot.  

Can't ski all day?  How about a half-day ticket for 33.00 euro or a 2-hour ticket for 24.00 euro.  Note that you can buy the half-day ticket for morning or afternoon and the 2-hour ticket for any period you want.  

OK you say, but the US has these amazing annual passes now like the Ikon and Epic.  Yup, those are somewhat competitive.  But let's say you only ski at Axamer Lizum.  A preseason pass purchase by 31 October gets you an unlimited season's pass for 353 euro ($400).  Want to ski a few other places, you can buy a Freizeit Ticket (my wife and I have them) good a a bunch of Tirolean resorts, with unlimited days at Stubai Glacier and Axamer Lizum and 3-days each at Ischgl and St. Anton, for 488 euro ($550).  There is a catch here as you have to be a resident of Tirol, although they let my wife and I buy them after showing our visas and address after we arrived (slightly more expensive since it wasn't an early season purchase).  The Freizeit Ticket is also good for riding lifts in the summer (great for hiking here) and for other recreational activities.  I have used it to swim in the pool by campus twice a week since arriving, saving me about 14 euro a week.  

Of course, not many people pay full price.  Tourists get discount passes.  People buy passes online.  Etc.  But this is a very large disparity.   Think about the implications for a family of non-skiers or casual skiers and how much lower the financial bar is to get into the sport in Austria compared to the U.S.  Or maybe your an avid skier.  Going to a resort not included with your pass is not a biggie.  

It is beyond my abilities as a scientist trained in the atmosphere to explain these differences.  I don't know if it is a result of competition, public subsidies, greater summer revenue, or whatever.  I do believe that affordable Alpine skiing is essential if the sport is to keep what is left of its heart and soul.  

Along those lines, I mentioned the T-bar in Navis in an earlier post.  It was just featured in a post on BlogTirol that is worth a read.  See Der Bürgermeisterlift von Navis.  There is an English version of this site, but I couldn't find the post on it, so use Google translator if you don't know German.  Video below.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

New SREF Snow Products and Diagrams

The National Centers for Environmental Prediction Short-Range Ensemble Forecast System (SREF) provides forecasts for the contiguous U.S. at 16-km grid spacing four times a day out to 87 hours.  The ensemble is comprised of 26 forecasts, with 13 from the Advanced Research version of the WRF model (ARW) and 13 from the Nonhydrostatic Mesoscale model on a B grid (NMB).  NOAA does not stand for the National Organization for the Advancement of Acronyms for nothing.

We have been downscaling the SREF forecasts to higher resolution for some time, but Mike Wessler, a student in my group, has recently upgraded our processing significantly.  Specifically, he's decreased the grid spacing of the downscaled forecasts to 800 meters, added estimates of snow-to-liquid ratio, and added the capability of converting the downscale precipitation forecasts into downscaled snowfall forecasts.  He has also improved the graphics considerably. 

We went "live" with these improvements yesterday.  Below is an example of the downscaled precipitation (i.e., water equivalent) forecast from the 0300 UTC 19 February initialized SREF.  Included is the ensemble mean, maximum (i.e., highest value of all 26 members at each location), minimum (i.e., lowest value of all 26 members at each location), and the percentage of members at each location producing 0.01, 1, and 2 inches of precipitation during the 87-hour forecast period.  I've chosen Colorado as it shows a great deal of structure in this forecast period. 

With snow-to-liquid ratio estimates, we can convert that water into snow.  Below is an example of the downscaled snowfall product that includes the ensemble mean precipitation (liquid equivalent) and snow, followed by the percentage of ensemble members producing 1, 6, 12, and 24 inches of snow during the forecast period.  Mammoth Mountain users can perhaps laugh at the 24" top category, at least this year. 

Finally, there are upgraded diagrams for specific locations.  Below is an example for Wolf Creek Pass.  Readers of this blog will be familiar with the plume diagrams at left, with water equivalent on top and snowfall on the bottom.  In addition to a line for all 26 members, colored by core, means for the ARW, NMB, and SREF as a whole are provided. 

On the right are "violin plots" of 3-hourly precipitation and snowfall.  These violin plots provide information about how many members lie within each 3-h precipitation or snowfall amount range.  Their width is proportional to the number of members.  Where they are fat, there are more members, and where they are skinny there are fewer.  This is sometimes referred to as a probability density.  Black bars denote the middle 50% of the forecasts and red lines the middle 90%. 

We are also plotting information on the snow-to-liquid ratio used.  We are currently using a very simple snow-to-liquid ratio algorithm for a variety of reasons.  I think by plotting the snow-to-liquid ratio we will see we need to improve it.  In this instance, all the members are using a snow-to-liquid ratio of 15:1 due to the cold temperatures that prevail.  However, a grey shade region will appear above and below the grey line during periods when we are estimating different snow-to-liquid ratios from the ensemble members.  That shade region will encompass about 68% of the ensemble members. 

This is an experimental product, available on  Look for "SREF-Downscaled" in the left hand navigation bar.  For each region, you will find a PQPF and PQSF product, the former for liquid equivalent and the latter for snow.  Here, PQPF stands for probabilistic quantitative precipitation forecast and PQSF for probabilistic quantitative snowfall forecast. 

We have a minor bug in the automated processing that we should be able to fix shortly, but there might be some delays in product production for another day or two.  Beyond that, the snow-to-liquid estimate is something that we will need to work on improving.  A challenge with using the ensemble data is that that it takes a great deal of time to download and process three-dimensional data, so we need to take shortcuts compared to the algorithms we use for the Little Cottonwood Guidance at

If you use this product and find it helpful, buy Mike a beer or send him a free lift ticket.

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.