Friday, June 28, 2019

Sabbatical Ends with European Heatwave

We leave Innsbruck in less than 24 hours.  I finished my grades for my classes on Wednesday and we've been trying to enjoy our final couple of days in Innsbruck. 

Things have changed a lot during our stay.  We arrived in mid January after an incredible storm cycle that left the northern Alps buried.  The Inn Valley was a winter wonderland during the first few weeks of our visit.

In contrast, June will go down as the warmest on record in Austria and the last few days have been blisteringly hot.  All-time June temperature records were set two days in a row in the Tyrol with a 36.7ºC on Tuesday in Innsbruck and then a 37.5ºC in Imst on Wednesday.  The latter is 99.5˚F in US units and would qualify for a max of 100 with round up.  The previous June record was 36.6˚C.  A photo taken from the same spot as above shows a nearly snow-less scene, with hazy skies. 

We feel fortunate to be at about 600 meters above sea level and in a modest sized city.  Areas of France, Spain, Germany, and Italy have eclipsed 40˚C.  The BBC is reporting today that Carpentras recorded the highest temperature ever in France (44.3˚C).

Many cafes do not open here until 9am, but the Tomaselli Gelateria was open at 8:30 and already had a line. 

And the Tiroler Tageszeitung ran an article (translated below by Google Scholar) providing all important information that deodorants work and don't cost much. 

For most Tyroleans, relief isn't necessarily too far away.  One can go to a cool stream or lake or hop a ride on a cable car, as we did this morning to 2300 meters..

But more seriously, this is a very severe heat wave and it is the first of the year.  Air conditioning is relatively uncommon in much of Europe.  The only cool places in Innsbruck, for example, are grocery stores and drug stores.  Mortality and morbidity rates rates will likely be elevated in many areas.  Relief cannot come soon enough. 

Monday, June 24, 2019

A Visit with Frau Hitt

Frau Hitt is a prominent rock spire that sits on the Nordkette ridge above Innsbruck (photo below taken in February).

The rock spire bears the name Frau Hitt because it resembles a woman on a horse.  Legend suggests that Frau Hitt and her horse were petrified after offering a beggar only a stone to eat.  In addition, our apartment here is on Frau Hitt Strasse and I look at it every day when I walk home from work.  Thus, I've been hoping to pay Frau Hitt a visit.

I finally had the opportunity today.  Originally I planned on doing it from our apartment, but the heat is on here in Europe and it would have been a 5000+ vertical foot sufferfest, so I elected to utilize the Nordkettenbahn to save my self some pain and agony.

After riding the cable car to Seegrube, one does a long traverse westward below the crest of the Nordkette.  Today there were a few snow fields to cross, but they weren't difficult.

I did the hike solo, but found a few friends along the way.

After the traverse, one climbs about 1200 vertical feet to the Frau Hitt Saddle.  The route is rocky and steep, but easier and with better footing than ascending say Mt. Superior from Cardiff Pass.

Frau Hitt was friendly today and allowed me to pass.  She even posed for a selfie with me.

The saddle is a narrow ridge that is quite confined.  I was glad to have the place to myself as there weren't many rocks smooth enough to sit on.  Below is a view looking south showing Innsbruck, the Wipp Valley immediately behind it, the Tux Alps on the left, and the Stubai Alps on the right.  What a day!

To the west of Frau Hitt is the Vordere Brandjochspitze (left peak) and Hintere Brandjochspitze (right peak), with the latter at 2599 meters towering just over 2000 meters above the Inn River.

I harbored thoughts of trying to bag it, but the route looked difficult and I decided it was best to let it pass.

Speaking of the Inn River, there it is about 1600 meters below the saddle.

If your first thought when you looked at the picture above was "damn, that looks like a great ski line" then all I can say is great minds think alike.

Frau Hitt sits at the western terminus of the Innsbrucker Klettersteig (sign below).  This is a via ferrata route that follows the Nordkette Ridge from the top of the Hafelakar cable car above Seegrube.  Click here for more info.  You'll also notice a sign point pointing to the left and downhill, which marks the hiking trail that descends down the back side.  The first 50 feet or so of this hiking trail looked really sporty to me.  I was glad to turn around. 

After my time with Frau Hitt, I descended to the Höttinger Alm, which is a great spot for a refreshment.

I've become addicted to stopping at these places and enjoying a johannessbeere gespritzt, which is soda water with a little black current juice in it. Very refreshing.

To close out the hike, I ascended back to Seebrube for one last view of Innsbruck before riding the cable car down.

All-in-all a very nice hike, but if you are in Innsbruck and have time for only one hike, my recommendation would be to take the Goetheweg from Hafelekar at the top of the Nordkettenbahn eastward to the Pfeisshutte (info here).  That remains my favorite in the immediate vicinity.  

Sunday, June 23, 2019

The End Is Nigh

Our Austrian Adventure is quickly coming to an end with nearly six months gone by in the blink of an eye.  This weekend is our last in Innsbruck and I can no longer look at mountains and think "maybe we could hike that next weekend."

Things have changed a lot since we arrived.  We arrived in Austria to find a winter wonderland as Mother Nature was very good to the northern Alps prior to our arrival.  Sadly, Delta lost our ski bags (found eventually), so on one of our first days we took the train to Seefeld, site of the 2019 Nordic World Championships, just to look around and took the photo below.

Here's how things looked today, backhoe and all.  I'm not sure if this is related to the world championships, but a major restoration project is underway.

We weren't treated to bluebird skies this weekend.  Instead, it was mostly cloudy.  Today we hiked to the Nördlinger Hutte above Seefeld and it was veiled in clouds.

Fortunately, it was warm inside.  We liked the sign below, which was hanging on the wall.

Our translation was:

The mountains are my place of worship
The yodel my prayer
I hope that the lord god
Understands my prayer

It seemed like a nice, soulful thought.

We arrived at the hut earlier than expected and wanted to kill some time hoping the clouds would lift, so we split and order of kaiserschmarrn (a high density tirolean pancake) for brunch.  This one was quite good, with the sugar caramelized on the pancake and an apple and rhubarb sauce for dipping.

We exited the hut to find a slight lifting of the clouds, but also a light drizzle.  However, the former allowed us to see the materialseilbahn that services the hut.  These are small cable cars that are used to transport goods to huts that are not accessible by vehicle.  There are cable cars everywhere in Austria!

The drizzle dampened us a bit, but eventually things improved and we did get a few views of the Karwendal Alps.

And some iews of Seefeld.  In the photo below, Seefeld is slightly left of center, the Inn Valley west of Innsbruck in the far left. ad near the middle of the picture and in the clouds is Hohe Munde, a very picturesque and prominent peak.  Anyone who has been through the "Seefeld Saddle" or this part of the Inn Valley would recognize it.

We are savoring every moment now.  I am wondering if I might be able to ski tour after getting back to Utah?  Send me a report.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Some Perspectives on Austrian Society

Austrian society is very egalitarian, except in a lift line where it is survival of the fittest!
My time in Austria is nearing an end.  After just over five months here, there are a few things that are noticeably different from the United States.  In particular, poverty and homelessness are less apparent. At the same time, extreme wealth, at least in the form of trophy homes and the like, is also less evident.  Crime of all types, but especially violent crime, seems to be much lower. 

Although there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics, I thought it might be interesting to look at some statistics from the two countries to see if my impressions are reasonable.  You should be aware that I am wading deeply here into areas well outside my expertise, and that economic and social statistics are very dependent on the assumptions used to create them, but here goes anyway. 

Poverty and Wealth
According to the World Bank, the percentage of the population living below the national poverty line is 3% in Austria and 12.3% in the United States.    Crédit Suisse data indicates that median wealth per adult in Austria is $70,074, compared to $61,667 in the United States, whereas mean weather per adult in Austria is $231,368 compared to $403,974 in the United States.   Such numbers are consistent with my observation of less poverty and less extreme wealth.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, homelessness as a percentage of the total population is nearly the same in Austria (.17%) as in the United States (.18%).  There are differences in who are included as homeless in the statistics from the country, and in fact the Austrian statistics do not include people "living in the rough."  Here, perhaps my perspective is strongly skewed by my residence in a relatively small city, Innsbruck, where a 0.17% homeless rate would equate to less than 400 homeless individuals who may not be highly concentrated in the areas I travel through. 

It must be incredibly difficult to put together an index for crime.  There's everything from petty theft to homicide.  There's the issue of crimes sometimes going unreported.  Most crime rate indices that I could find suggest that crime rates are lower in Austria than the United States.  Regarding more serious crime, the UN Office on Drugs and Crimes reports a rate of 0.66 intentional murders per 100,000 people in Austria compared to 5.35 in the United States. 

Austria is a remarkably safe country with noticeably less poverty and income disparity than the United States.  Of course, Austria is not a panacea either and there are challenges like elsewhere.  The government here "crumbled" after the so-caled Ibiza-gate scandal that is such a mess that I'll simply provide a link to a BBC summary.   While imperfect, it is a country and a society to admire in many ways. 

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Dolomite Dreams

With our time in the Alps nearing and end, we took a long weekend in the Dolomites, which exceeded our high expectations in every way.

I'm no geologist, and I don't really know where the Dolomites start and where they end.  What I do know is that they are fundamentally different from the Alps of the Austrian Tirol, which deeply incised, broad valleys enable one to penetrate deeply into the mountains.  Instead, the Dolomites are more of a jumble of mountains, which means getting anywhere means traveling on some of the most unbelievable mountain highways you can imagine.

We're talking hairpin after hairpin.  Massive ascent followed by massive descent.  One pass we went over involved more than 30 hairpins on the climb and then another 30 or so on the descent.   Below is a very small sample from Passo Falzarego.

I don't think I've ever had more fun driving.  The underpowered Skoda we rented has no clutch or breaks left.  On the other hand, the driving is also terrifying because you share these sinewy roads with motorcycles, cyclists, busses, and Italian sports cars.  Below is the tail of a flock of Ferraris that was about 20 or 30 long, each car driven by someone with more money than brains. 

The Dolomites also feature some strong gradients in culture and run through the Italian provinces of Süd Tirol/Alto Adige, Belluno, and Trentino.  Depending on where you are, the majority might speak German, or Ladin, and many residents speak multiple languages.  The clerk at our pension told us "we speak five languages here."   Since we were speaking English, I can guess the fourth.  Perhaps the fifth is the Tirolean dialect of German.  Food covered the gamut and where we stayed in Badia offered a nice blend of Italian and Tirolean.  And of course there is wein/vino and bier/birra.

But we were mainly there to hike and gawk at the mountains.  We began with a cable-car ride above Ortesei in Val Gardena and a few hours hiking across the Seiser Alm/Alpe di Siusi (many geographic features in the region are known by German, Itailan, and in some cases Ladin names).   This is supposedly the largest high mountain plateau in the Alps.  It's a wide open expanse offering more gradual ascents and descents and long-distance views.

The area is crossed with roads and dotted with hotels, guesthouses, and restaurants.  You could elect to bike if you desired. 

The next day involved a couple of hikes near Cortina d'Ampezzo.  The first involved a ride up the Faloria cable car with short hike above.  Below is the view of Cortina and the Tofane Mountain Group to the west.  There is a three-section cableway ascent nearly to the top of Tofane, but it was closed.  

Looking north toward Monte Cristallo.  Incredibly, there is a ski lift that goes up the snow field to the left of the peak.  

Don't believe me?  Here's the map.  For better or worse, they have strung lifts all over the Dolomites to interconnect towns and resorts.  

After lunch in Cortina, we did an afternoon hike to Lago Sorapis.  It's a popular hike.  We left our car about 300 meters up the road from here.

The hike was far more interesting than we anticipated with some fun and games along the way and some great views. 

Lago Sorapis is a turquoise colored lake surrounded by towering mountains.  It's a beautiful spot (although it dries up some in the summer), but it was impossible to take a decent photo of it with a cell phone and the panoramas don't do it justice.  I leave you with the photo below and encourage you to go check it out for yourself. 

Our third day was one of misadventure.  We had planned to do a high-altitude hike starting from Passo Falzarego, but the forecast was for afternoon thunderstorms and there was quite a bit of cloud cover in the morning.  We decided to start lower with a valley ascent and then go into the high Alpine if the weather improved.

The initial route was industrial, following a ski trail, but eventually led to the Scotoni Hütte.

Skies were improving, so we attempted to ascend higher.  The route was a miniature version of Walter's Wiggles in Zion.  

However, after ascending further, we found the trail washed out with a torrent of ice-cold water roaring across it.  We decided to turn around.  Below is the view looking back toward the Scotoni Hutte on the grassy plateau below and then down the valley to our starting point.  There is a ski run here that begins on the top of the Lagazuoi Cable Car about 4 km away.  We couldn't figure out if someone skied down it, how the hell they would get back as there is no lift in the valley or around it.  We assumed bus.  Maybe you just keep skiing to Val Gardena.  

And finally, on our return home to Innsbruck, we stopped at Lago di Braies.  It is a very popular spot, which we confirmed with a Google maps satellite view of the parking lot.  As such, we got up early and got there first thing in the morning.  We were one of the first on the trail and the lake was like glass. 

By the time we got back to the trailhead, there were scores of people and long lines for the parking lot.  There are no secrets in the Dolomites, but the early bird still gets the worm.

Since this is supposed to be a meteorological blog, I leave you with the photo below, which provides an unusual perspective on cumulus clouds for contemplation.  


Wednesday, June 12, 2019

The Inn River at the Brim

Over the past couple of weeks, the combination of snowmelt and frequent rainfall, including recent thunderstorms, has transformed the Inn River from a beautiful river with a tint of green into a muddy torrent.

The  photos below were taken from the Inn Bridge near old town a few months ago and today, illustrating how the Inn River is filled nearly to the top of its human-made banks.

Photo: Andrea Steenburgh
Photo: Andrea Steenburgh

Another perspective is provided by the photo below, taken from my building at the University of Innsbruck and looking down on the University Bridge.

This morning, I noticed workers installing a temporary fence along the base of the building, presumably for protection.  On that lowest level is a library.  Gulp!

The hydrogram below covers the past few days and shows a rise of about 2 meters in th epast two days, putting it above a "one in 30 year level."  A better way to think about it is that the odds of such a river level are a bit longer than 30 to 1 in any given year, based on statistical analysis of historical river levels.

Source: Tirol Hydro Online
If my interpretation and translation are correct, the chart below shows the minimum, median, and maximum mean daily river flow of the Inn River at Innsbruck.  The lower cool season flows and greater warm season flows, especially from May to August, are apparent.  Currently we're well above the highest maximum during May and June and behind only a couple of events in July and August.

Source: Tirol Hydro Online
The August peaks are likely from late 2005 when there was severe flooding in parts of Bavaria, Switzerland, and Austria (see Heumader 2006).  The photo below was taken during that event and shows flooding along a tributary of the Inn River in the Paznaun Valley.

In Innsbruck a major concern in the August event was the collection of debris upstream of bridges and concern a bridge failure could result in damage of bridges downstream.  

The situation here is currently not that dire, although there is enough water in the Inn to push it unusually high and force the closure of some lower bridges. 

Hopefully we are at the high water mark.