Learning the Ropes without a Rope

by

Robi Brendon in Zürs backcountry, Austria

A Ski Mountaineering Adventure
By Randall Richards

Mountaineering, and ski mountaineering mishaps that don’t kill you are chalked up to experience – a learning experience. I had one such experience in Lech and Zürs Austria when working for Strolz Boots G.m.B.H. I was still a greenhorn in the Alps. The Alps was a whole other ball game than the mountains of the western U.S. This was my first year in the Alps

I was just graduated from the University of Utah where I’d spent three years getting a basic, but great  mountaineering education through the U of U recreation department with such climbers and teachers as Harold Goodro and Dennis Turville.  It’s here where I cut my teeth, the Wasatch Range, in beginning rock climbing and mountaineering, snow shelter building and backcountry emergency medicine classes. Harold was the consummate old mountain man.

The author getting "mountain experience", Austria

In the late seventies, he was involved in teaching all the classes, and would observe other instructors manage the top rope sites. But he was always hands-on.  On another day in my education there,  I remember ascending Stairs Gulch with other Utah students under the tutilage of Dennis Turville. Our little group of neophytes were wide-eyed at one point on the ascent, when a few auto-sized blocks of snow and ice came tumbling down the slabs, bowling for students. Two in the group, by running this way and that, managed to avoid being mowed over. Dennis seemed somewhat nonplussed by the event, but that might have just been my perception at the time. Later on the narrow ridge which divides Big and Little Cottonwood, we carefully picked our way up to the summit of Dromedary Peak. Our eyes were still bugging out of our heads for the rest of the day due to exposed terrain and our lack of experience.  We were quickly getting our mountain legs.

Fast forward to the Lectaler Alps in Western Austria. I usually had most of the day to explore the wild mountains above and around Zürs, St. Christophe and Lech on skis and out of bounds, having to report at the Strolz ski boot shop in Lech around 3pm.  It was my first experience where the ski area trails and the high backcountry merged into one big ski experience. I went nuts, cutting it up, and exploring every nook and cranny of the place, from the back bowls of Zurs to a descent off the backside of the Valuga, plus the long runs on the far side of St. Christophe. I managed to avoid mishaps such as avalanches and cliffs despite my lack of real mountain experience. While I figured that I had a pretty good mountain sense, it was in Lech and Zurs where first felt a part of the Alps. But it didn’t come overnight. I still hadn’t gained the common mountain sense that’s required in the mountians. For example, I didn’t have the sense that an approaching, ever-increasing slope angle could lead to a cliff. It sounds stupid here in print, but I remember then I just didn’t think that would happen. I thought the slope would ease up again for a safe descent to the bottom and tea.

"Wise Guy" tries a new way

There was this one time, during my first year there, mid-season, that I thought I’d try a “different route” back to Lech instead of  the Madloch chair.  The normal ski route back to Lech from Zurs was to take the lifts west and high up on the Madloch’s southwestern flanks, and then take a long corkscrew ski route, well marked and groomed, but above treeline,  eventually skiing a long descending traverse around the mountain’s north side back to Lech’s main street. It was a solid three mile trail, if I remember correctly.

This however was becoming “routine”,  and even though there was a second alternative down the mountain’s southeastern slopes on dramatic terrain, it involved climbing up to the road and catching a bus to Lech.  One day I thought I’d try a completely new route by climbing up a snow laden shelf  up high on the mountain’s northeast face, with cliffs below. It seemed like a grand adventure, and a new way to get to work.

All went relatively well, or so it seemed. The sun was out, the snow was blowing, and it was all exciting. I traversed onto the large ramp, unaware of the potential calamity that could befall me if the slope released its snow carrying me over the cliff below. I did have a feeling though, that I was in a little over my head, or at least, headed for an adventure.

A new descent of the Omeshorn, Not.

As I traversed up and to the north, the slope steepened and dropped off below. Here, I decided to ski a increasingly steep line, a line of which I could not see the bottom runout. I couldn’t see where it ended up.  “Oh well”, I thought, “Let’s give this a go, and see what comes of it.”  The upper slopes were dreamlike powder. I was the only one there, fresh tracks as far as I could see. As I descended, the slope gradually turned into a couloir  that got narrower and steeper. I slowed, and before I knew it, found myself standing across the hill on my skis but on  just the tips and tails of them, trying not to bounce on the midsections of my skis. The mid part of my skis were spanning the couloir,  with air beneath my feet.  Below me, the couloir dropped off to a rocky cliff, albeit with a snow slope below the narrow rocky couloir.   I delicately stood there, balancing on my skis, digging into the icy and rocky couloir, deciding whether to jump up, turn the skis downhill and ride them out, or somehow attempt to step out of my skis without carreening down the face or losing my skis, then make an attempt to kick steps back up the slope.

I decided to head back up the slope. I managed to get out of my skis, dig some good steps, shoulder my skis and head back up the slope.  Retracing my steps, I got to a point where I could put my skis on and traverse back to the route that lead to the bus stop below.

An hour later I was on main street, showing my good friend Robbi Brendon for South Africa, the tracks that told the story of my adventure by pointing up to the Omeshorne’s face that dominates the village view to the west.

The Omeshorn from Lech's Main Street

You! You were the one!” he exclaimed. “All the guides in town have gathered and wondered who the idiot was up there, trying to kill himself.” My tracks, for which I’d been so proud moments earlier, now shown like a billboard of mountain ignorance for the whole town to see. I felt like such an idiot.   Within the hour, I was asked to have a short meeting with my boss and mentor Martin Strolz. I was given a kind but stern warning that if I kept up that kind of skiing,  I’d most likely have to forfeit my employee pass for the season.  Fortunately, I’m a quick study, and with courses from the Austrian Mountain Club on Glacier Ski Touring, and Mountaineering, plus heading out into the backcountry and the famous Haute Route with my workmates at Strolz, I was quickly gaining the needed mountain sense and experience to climb safely in the Alps.

Image #3 by JHStrass,
All other Images, © R. Richards

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