Friday, March 29, 2019

Skiing Kuhtai

Our tour of selected Innsbruck-area resorts is now nearly complete after we spent a few hours skiing at Kuhtai this morning. 

Kuhtai is west of Innsbruck and sits in a high pass between the Nedertal (Neder Valley) to the west and the Sellraintal (Sellrain) valley to the east.  The base elevation of just over 2000 meters (about 7000 feet) is the highest in Austria, although the lift-served vertical is only 500 meters, which is pretty small by Austrian standards.  Abundant options for ski touring exist throughout the region, with some tours highlighted with icons below.  In fact, our tour last week of the 3000 meter Zweiselbacher Rosskogel followed a route in the prominent valley between Kuhtai and Sankt Sigmund in Sellrain.  

At the base of the resort sits a small village consisting of a couple of clusters of hotels, evident on the right hand side of the photo below, which is taken looking toward the north or northwest.  Click and enlarge and you can probably make out some of the lifts and trails on the south facing slopes above the village.  These are the longer runs at the resort. 

The lift served terrain is a bit like what you would get if you took an iron to upper Little Cottonwood, flattened it out some, and removed some trees.  Basically lots of intermediate terrain with a few steeper off-piste pitches.  The view toward the south is stunning, consisting of many peaks near or just above 3000 meters.  The lift served terrain does not extend into these peaks, but goes to about 2400 meters, leaving abundant options for ski tourers at upper elevations.   

The last snow was a few days ago and it has been warm, but the north aspects are preserving powder and there was still room for turns in the mountains above the resort. 

With south facing and north facing lift-served terrain and mild weather, we worked the aspects.  The north facing terrain this morning was smooth and carveable and skied well.  At about 10:30, we hopped over to the south side as it softened and before it turned to mush.  We then returned to the north side for a few more laps before getting the bus back to Innsbruck to get some work done. 

The importance of the sun for snow hydrology is very apparent in the Alps right now.  The photo below, taken looking eastward down the Sellraintal, shows how the south aspects have been baked and are down to bare ground in areas where the snowpack was thin, even at elevations above 2000 meters. 

In contrast, the snowpack on the north aspects isn't even ripe yet (i.e., warmed up through depth to 0˚C) and is still sheltering dry powder at upper elevations.  Ski tourers today could ski settled powder and corn if they played their aspects and timing right. 

We have only one Innsbruck area resort left to ski on our list, Nordkette, which is right above our apartment.  Hopefully soon.  We can probably do it for a long lunch break some day. 

Thursday, March 28, 2019

There's No Silver Bullet for Congestion in the Cottonwoods

Although I'm in Europe, my social media feeds occasionally remind me of problems that continue to fester or worsen in the Wasatch Range, most notably the continued congestion episodes in the Cottonwoods, such as the one below from 2016.

I wish I could say we discovered a silver bullet for this congestion while in the Tirol, but we haven't.  The two regions are actually quite different and this really needs to be considered when making comparisons.  In addition, the Tirol, like any developed region, has its share of challenges too. 

In Utah, 2 million people live within 15 miles of the Wasatch Range.  Many tourists do not stay in villages near the ski resorts, but in Salt Lake City.  Alternatively, even if they do stay in Park City they sometimes drive to the Cottonwoods.  Utah skiers are very powder crazed and car oriented.  As a result, skiers converge on two narrow canyon roads that are strongly impacted by a variety of road-weather hazards, especially on powder days.

In contrast, the Tirol has a population of only 750,000 and, according to, 122 ski areas that vary in size from ropetowish to ginormous.  The situation here is much more distributed.  All of Innsbruck does not travel to St. Anton to ski on a powder day.  They have other options, including copious ski touring options in many valleys.  Further, the ski culture here is fundamentally different.  Many Tiroleans are happy skiing near home at the local hill or touring in a nearby valley.

Nevertheless, there are traffic issues in the Tirol as well.  Frequent stagnation occurs across the Brenner Pass with Italy and near the Arlberg tunnel, as well as into areas like the Zillertal which is very popular with weekend warriors from Germany.  A ginormous 34-mile-long tunnel is currently being built at great expense to take more commerce under the Brenner Pass and help alleviate traffic problems.

There are also conflicts here over resort expansion and planning, just like in Utah (click here for an example).  My conversations with people here about these issues are very similar to those I have with stakeholders in Utah. 

We should not fool ourselves that the current changes being planned by UDOT for the Cottonwoods will solve our problems.  They will make the canyon safer and they will help some, but the population of the Wasatch Front is growing and more tourists will come as the climate changes and more rapid decline of skiing in lower altitude, warmer climates further increases the competitive advantages of the high terrain surrounding the Cottonwoods.  Quoting James Earl Jones in Field of Dreams, "People will come, Ray....They will most definitely come."

The Cottonwoods (and probably Mill Creek) need to see huge cultural change and major investment in public transit done right so as to not spoil the Wasatch for future generations.  I'm not optimistic.  I expect to write this article again in five years with the situation worse than it is today.  Paradise was paved several years ago, and the trees are now being put in the tree museum.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Stau Storm

The "Stau" Storm has been a frequent visitor to the Alpine Region this winter.  Stau, if typed into Google translator, translates to "traffic jam" and I've seen the word on highway update signs from time to time while we've been in Europe.

Meteorologically, stau storms are storms that feature blocking.  A good example is provided by toe storm today.  Below is a 6-hour GFS forecast valid at 0UTC showing northwesterly flow impinging on the Alps.  This flow, however, does not move over the Alps, but instead around it.  If the Alps were very long, the flow would simply be deflected eastward, forming a barrier jet, as occurs for example upstream of the Sierra Nevada.  However, because the Alps are relatively short in length, the flow splits instead, leading to two branches of flow that circumnavigate the Alps to the east and the west. 

This often yields precipitation that is greatest in the along the northern Alpine rim rather than the higher Alps over the Alpine interior, as evident in the GFS forecast above.  In the satellite imagery, you can see clouds that are banked up on the northern Alps. 

Curiously, there is sometimes a cloud and precipitation band that forms over or near Slovenia in patterns like this, as is the case in the satellite image above.  This band forms in along an area of convergence between northerly or northwesterly flow that has traveled around the eastern end of the Alps and southerly flow generated by troughing to the south of the Alps over North Italy.  This convergence can be seen, for example, in the GFS analysis above directly along the border between Austria and Slovenia. 

Thus, in the Alpine region it is not as simple as windward or leeward based on the large-scale flow.  One needs to consider the regional scale circulations and their influence on the distribution of clouds and precipitation, before diving into local orographic effects. 

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Ascent and Ski of the Zwieselbacher Rosskogel

I have been told that prime ski touring season has arrived in the Alps, so we got up at O'dark thirty this morning for a long ascent of the Zwieselbacher Rosskogel, a 3000 meter peak that rises above the Sellrain Valley west of Innsbruck (red circle below). 

It turned out to be a great choice by my touring partner.  Not only was it a beautiful tour, but the route is nicely shaded by a ridge to the east and it was only at the very end of the nearly 1500 meter ascent that we were climbing in the sun.  Given that it is in the low 70s in Innsbruck today, anything to cut down on sweat is appreciated.

The route begins in a small village in the Sellrain Valley.  Several tourers were there already (many more were coming). 

The route follows a sinuous path to the summit that is relatively low angle with just a few short steep pitches.  The one steep pitch pictured center left below has a stream running under the snowpack that might make for a spicier ascent and descent later in the spring. 

The photos below are from further up the ascent.  Note how many tracks there are.  If you think the backcountry in the Wasatch is busy, you should come to the Alps.  The online guide I consulted prior to the trip said that the best time to ski this route is in the spring because it is too busy in the winter.

The summit is not visible until the very end.  Although there is some potential avalanche hazard, part of the popularity of the route is the lack of technical challenges.  Other than a short boot to the summit and a few steep turns at the top, it's a pretty straightforward tour to a 3000 meter peak. 

Indeed, there was an Austrian traffic jam at the top.  I wonder what it's like up here during "high" season?

Yours truly on the summit.

Great views in all directions.  I think the photo below looks down the Horlach Valley, which eventually reaches the Oetz Valley.  Big lines to be had here for sure.

So many mountains, so little time...

The snow was varied.  We did find some settled powder that with some adventuring off the beaten path allowed for a few untracked turns.  We also found settled powder with tracks, chalk, chalky moguls, hardpack, hardpack moguls, and corn.  My Austrian touring partner is pictured below.  He skied everything like Marcel Hirscher. 

Of course, at the trailhead, there's a restaurant serving beer and other Austrian delicacies. 

The day encapsulated my two key observations about Austria.  One is that the Alps never disappoint on a clear day.  The other is that Austrians know how to live. 

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Our "Run of Fame"

The Ski Arlberg region in western Austria contains several interconnected resorts and villages that comprise the 5th largest ski resort in the world.  It includes resorts and villages such as Rendl, St. Anton, St. Christoph, Stuben, Zurs, Zug, Lech, Warth, and Schröcken.  Most of the region is above timberline and the acreage of off-piste skiing is enormous.  From Rendl to Schröcken is nearly 23 km as the crow flies per Google Maps.  For comparison, it is about 25 km across the central Wasatch from Cottonwood Heights to Park City.

Ski Arlberg advertises a "Run of Fame" involving an all-day, self-guided tour that they claim covers 85 km and 18,000 vertical meters.  I think those numbers include lift and trail distance and up-and-down vertical, but even at 40+ km and 9,000 vertical meters of skiing, it is quite a trip.

Andrea and I decided that we wanted to see and ski Zurs, Zug, and Lech and that our best option was to do our own Run of Fame.  We added a descent to St. Christoph, but skipped Stuben and a descent to Warth.  Our day is summarized below, with red identifying outgoing lifts from St. Anton near the bottom right of the image and black the return lifts, including rides to Kapall and Rendl when we got back to St. Anton and had some time to kill.   

It was a great distance to cover, but the diverse mixture of valleys and mountain views made for a very enjoyable day.  If my old-school accounting is correct, we rode 21 lifts and skied about 8000 vertical meters (26,000 vertical feet), which is not an unreasonable day.  We started and ended at the St. Anton train station, a 5 minute walk from the lifts, which is super convenient from Innsbruck so we didn't have to stay a night (which is a plus given the high costs of lodging and dining in the Arlberg). 

Our day began with an ascent of the Galzigbahn tram and then a ski down to the lovely village of St. Christoph. 

I stayed in St. Christoph during the 2001 Alpine World Championships and loved it.  It is a beautiful little village perched on the Arlberg pass.  

After riding a couple of lifts and descending a couple of terrifying low-angle runs due to the army of people of varying abilities who had similarly left St. Anton at the same time as us, we descended to the Zurs in the upper Lechtal (Lech Valley).  

We then rode a short lift above Zurs, which allowed us to get over to the Zursersee chair, pictured just right of the village in the photo below.  

After that, we hit the Madlochbahn.  This is a major bottleneck where skiers from St. Anton who are attempting the Run of Fame and thus far have ridden high-speed cable cars and chairlifts hit a fixed-grip double.  Abandon hope all ye who enter here. 

Once at the top of the Madlochbahn, we got a great view back toward Zurs, hidden away in the deep valley below.

The descent from the Madlochjoch to Zug was the most interesting run of the day.  There are no lifts in this area and few skiers. 

There are also some very appealing off-piste options, although they were well worn and refrozen on this day.  Combined with our lack of knowledge of the area, we stuck to the groomers. 

Eventually we glimpsed the village of Zug below.  If you look carefully, you can see the line for our next chair ride, the Zugerberg, rising through the trees above Zug.

We also spied Lech again, with a pass in the mountains above and left of Lech, just to the right of the triangular, relatively snow-free peak, our turn-around target for the day.

Zug is a small, picturesque village. 

There is only one lift in Zug, a fixed-grip double that takes you up to the Lech ski area.  Due to the bottleneck earlier, the line was thankfully manageable.  Although I complain, the reality is that I'd be sad to see these lifts go.  This is a tranquil area compared to the rest of the Arlberg and that will change when the high-speed lifts come.

ln 2001, I skied a few runs in the fog at Lech and couldn't see a damn thing.  Well, we could see plenty on this day, including the very appealing terrain around the Steinmahderbahn.  I wish we had time to explore.

We needed nourishment.  Given my solar-exposure challenges, we ate inside a mountain hut somewhere along the trail above Lech.  Like all the mountain huts in Austria, this one had a very attractive interior.   However, like most in the Arlberg, it was also very expensive.  We had a minimal meal.

We then arrived at the "because it's there" part of the day.  Getting over to Warth–Schröcken involved skiing through one of the least appealing parts of the Lech ski area and then riding the Auenfeldjet gondola with no vertical gained.  The pass to Warth-Schröcken is center left below. 

At about 12:30, we arrived at the top of Warth–Schröcken at an elevation of about 2000 meters.  The view below is looking down the Bregenzer Valley.  This is one of the snowiest regions in the Alps due to the tendency for cold fronts to stall along the northern Alpine rim and exposure of the region to northwesterly to northerly post-frontal flow.  Ski Arlberg promotes Warth-Schröcken as the snowiest natural ski area in the Alps, with a mean annual snowfall of 11 meters (433 inches). 

Turning around we thought, "holy crap have we come a long ways."  The locations noted below are probably not perfect, but the Auenfeldjet gondola going back to Lech is right of center in the photo and the valleys containing Zurs, Lech, and Zug are evident, as well as the high-mountain area containing the Madlochjoch.  St. Anton is somewhere off in the far left of the photo, blocked by terrain, and more than 15 km away as the crow flies.

The return via the Auenfeldjet was a bit of a yawner, post lunch.  If I was a good napper, I would have been out like a light. 

However, the last leg was interesting.  Instead of having to switch to a chairlift, the gondola kept going and connected directly with the chairlift cable.  This was the craziest lift marriage I've ever seen.  We stayed on the gondola.  Two chairs slid out in front of us and joined the line between gondolas.  Then it was our turn.  Two chairs + one gondola = chondola. 

Lech itself is a lovely town (I could probably say that about anywhere in the Arlberg.  It was also the one place where we needed to walk between lifts, although it was only 200 meters to get to the Rufikopfbahn cable cars.  No biggie. 

Rufikopfbahn cable cars, plural, was not a typo.  There are two of them.  They run parallel up 3000 vertical feet from Lech to just below the summit of the 2363 meter Rufikopf.  If there is any doubt that this is an area of conspicuous consumption based on what I've written so far, I give you a Dom Perignon advertisement on the cable car.   

From the top, more views.  The valley at left in the photo below contains Zug.  Lech is below near center.  Oberlech on the mountain lower slopes at right. 

Below Oberlech at left with Warth–Schröcken in the distance.

We then skied back toward Zurs, which is deep in the valley below.  Our route was fairly straightforward, but involved riding a T-bar and one more chair before getting to Zurs.  I will add that I was also here in 2001, completely fogged in and with no idea where the hell I was.  It was absolutely terrifying skiing back to Zurs.  A clear day was way more fun!

We made our way to Zurs, and then St. Anton, and eventually to the top of the Kapall above St. Anton.  There, we decided the time had come for a germknödel, a dough dumpling filled with plum jam, and covered in vanilla cream sauce and poppy seeds.  This is a specialty in Austria, but sadly I didn't take a picture until it was half eaten, which is too bad as they are works of art.

It's rare for me to have a beer while skiing, but there are exceptions, and one was made on this day. 

After the snack, we had some time to kill before our train, so we took the Rendlbahn up to the Rendl ski area which is across the valley from St. Anton.  This is an easy area to overlook, but the resort is good sized and probably a great place to ski on a powder day.  It also provides a nice view back to St. Anton.   

This was probably a record post for the Wasatch Weather Weenies by length and if you are still reading, you deserve your own germknödel.