Monday, April 30, 2012

Hero or Bonehead?

Heaven? No, but 3203 m closer than at sea level.

While the opinions were split among the spectators that came to talk to me afterwards ("are you the guy who skied that?"), I think the answer is definitely "bonehead". This was just too dangerous.

I need to go back to skiing safer slopes. And I will do that from now on.

My tracks on the top of the ridge, with two avalanches below

Don't get me wrong. I regularly ski places that demand mountaineering skills and ability to cope in a dangerous environment. I can deal with some dangers. But when I climbed Kitzsteinhorn (3203 meters) in Kaprun, there were just too many dangers. To begin with, I was alone. And skiing a steep 40-50 degree mountain face that ends in a 100 meter cliff adds an element of concern. And on top of all this, the newly arrived snow in the slope avalanched as I skied through, running for several hundred meters.

The train and Gletcherjet ski lift, a couple of kilometers outside Kaprun

But I made it back safely. I should note that while I was alone, I was still within a view of the ski area, and I have quite a bit of experience on skiing steeps. My climb to the top was aided by fixed cables ("via ferrata"), and when I skied back I skied on purpose on top of a rocky ridge, meaning that avalanches would be less likely and I would be less likely to be caught in an one if there was one. And the avalanches were surface avalanches of the new, light snow. They were not strong enough to carry a skier. Avalanche danger that day was predicted to be low. But the conditions might have been different under the snow, it could have been ice at some point even if I tried to climb the same route that I would ski. Or the avalanches could have been bigger.

Walking up

The Ascent

I started my ascent from the highest ski lift station at Kitzsteinhorn, 3029 meters. This is a multi-story station and observation platform. Complete with a movie theater at an altitude of three kilometers! In the beginning I was skinning under some avalanche protection nets. Some earlier work by the ski patrol had caused an avalanche here, and the snow was a little bit more packed than elsewhere.

Sun, wind, and snow

The going was otherwise easy, but my Dynafit bindings were releasing all the time, possibly due to me trying to use them on this quite steep face that required tricky switchbacks, and my inexperience in using this type of a binding before.

Avalanche protection nets

But the crux of the route was reaching a ridge and finding out what the conditions might be on the other side. Once I reached the ridge I realized that I was on an even steeper face, with a cliff underneath and potential for an icy slide down. The steel cables for the avalanche protection system provided some additional trouble, as crossing the slick cables with my skis on would have had even more danger of slipping. And the face just looked too nasty; I decided that the safest course of action is to retreat and try to see if I can re-enter from a different spot. The tricky part was turning around at this steep place the two times needed to make a switchback to a higher entrance. I finally managed to do this, while hanging from the avalanche protection cables.

When I got to the other side of the ridge, it seemed to be on the limit of skinning up. I decided to try, but the snow still seemed unreliable. I backtracked again and decided to take off my skins and attach my skis to my backback. By now I was close to the steel cable ("via ferrata") that I could use to climb the steeper sections more safely. If I would run into ice, I'd still be able to hold on to the cable.

Too steep. Ditching the skins and starting to climb on foot.

View from the climb. Note the steel cable I used to assist my climb.

The climbing became easier from there on. It was still physically challenging, having arrived from the sea level a couple of hours earlier and having to plow through 1+ meters of snow at over three kilometers of altitude. But I eventually made it to the top. The views were wonderful from this very steep ridge. I had approached the ridge from the less steep side, but the other side was basically a vertical drop. But now I had spent a lot of time, and I was in a hurry to get down.

The Descent

Unfortunately, by now my GoPro Hero 2 helmet camera had run out of battery, so there is no footage of my descent or the avalanches.

More seriously, I knew that the descent would have some dangers. I had no idea about the real stability of the snow pack, even though as I climbed it seemed at least consistent and did not have distinct weak layers. But there was a lot of soft snow.

View from the top

I decided to ski where I climbed up, so that I would know what is underneath, as well as to be as close as possible to the rocky ridge that lead to the top. And if there would be an avalanche, it would likely fall under me, and not drag me with it. In addition, the rocks here and there would probably provide some additional stability. Avalanche would be less like to start from there, and if it did, it would probably be a surface avalanche and not a full cut of the deep snowpack. The downside was, of course, that this would not be the optimal ski route. Among other things, I was going to hit many of those rocks, and I'd have to hope to not fall because of that.

The avalanches went this way

The strategy proved correct. As soon as I had left the top, two separate avalanches started from my first turns. These were surface avalanches of the loose snow on top, not particularly aggressive, but they still went all the way almost to the cliff edge. It was easy to ski through the snow that was moving around me at the top, and it didn't seem to be much more snow further down either, but the avalanches widened as they went down.

Under the avalanche tracks

Once I reached the avalanche protection nets, it was much easier to ski through them than to climb up. I took the easiest line and skied down. Phew. I was safe.

Skiing Kaprun

I have no idea. The few hundred meters of the ski area that was in sunshine was great. The rest was in thick fog, and I only skied it down once to get to the lifts as fast as I could with my still shaking legs. Maybe I should visit the place some day. After the dust has settled and shaking is over.

Top of the Kitzsteinhorn ski lift at 3029 meters

As a historical note, 155 people died here in November 2000, when the train designed to take skiers up to the mountain caught fire. Only 12 people survived as a series of design problems, missing equipment, and bad decisions left the others in the in the smoke and heat. (The 12 survivors managed to escape from a break-resistant window and move downwards.) The train has never been used since then, and the newer Gletcherjet 1 ski lift has replaced it. The old train track and tunnel is still in place, however, as an eerie memory of the accident.

Unused ghost train track

Gletscherjet lift system replaced the train after the tragic accident

Important Parameters

Kaprun city views

I stayed in Hotel Antonius, the first randomly selected accommodation in Kaprun that had vacancy. It turned out to be a nice place, though, with all the essentials of life: breakfast, garage, and sauna. Seriously though, it seemed like a good place to stay near the city center, a big hotel, a room with a separate bedroom for 80 €, and so on. They also had an innovation in the breakfast room that I'd love to see elsewhere: today's weather report printed on a sheet of paper in every table. Too bad the English version on the backside skipped mountain weather, however :-)

Weather report

I had no time for after ski, as I was bound to Ljubljana to give a talk about a very interesting networking technology in 36 hours. This would normally be plenty of time, but I had not prepared my presentation. Or gotten my prototype to work. I would eventually succeed in doing so, but at the time I was stressed to get to work. But in general, you can never fail with after ski in Austria. On my way to work I spotted the below after ski place in Kaprun.

WTF? I'd love to stop here during the season.

However, in late April the main season is over and most after ski places seemed empty, even in Austria.


Road to Kaprun

When I left Kaprun, I relied entirely on my GPS for taking me to Ljubljana. I drove for an hour, kept passing ski areas and climbing higher. I was in the mountains and in increasingly narrower valleys. Then my GPS says that I have to take a ferry! Obviously, there is no water in sight. I'm almost desperate, as going back would mean an hour's drive and even longer work night that evening. But I decide to ask the people on the nearby railway station, and it turns out that I'm at the beginning of the Tauern Railway Tunnel, an eight-kilometer section that can only be crossed by train. No problem. Drive the car to the train, and cross the mountain! I did not plan to use this route, but it turned out to be a good one. Recommended. The system works well and probably saves quite a bit of travel time.

GPS thinks there are ferries in the mountains

Drive car to a train, drive train to a tunnel, and cross a mountain

Photo and video credits (c) 2012 by Jari Arkko

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Sukset paskana

On my way up on the north face of Kitzsteinhorn

Both of my skis went to the repair shop today, in anticipation of the shop closing after this week. I need my skis in good shape as - obviously - the season continues. The guys at the shop gave their expert opinion about my skis: they are in shit condition. Or "paskana" in Finnish. Oh well, maybe they are fixable.

I had my skis repaired last time in January, but since then I've skied many powder fields with sharp rocks underneath, crossed rocky sections, and (gasp!) transported them via airlines. They have been on my feet for thirty days since the previous repairs. Probably for as long as some people keep the same skis to begin with.

Newer and shorter Atomic skis, but IMO with too much carving form

And my Atomics have been with me in total for several hundred ski days. They have served well, but it might be time to get new skis. I have really liked them, but for some reason now I like my lightweight K2s better. I have more fun skiing with them, whereas I previously preferred the extremely heavy, stiff, and long Atomic GS skis. At Åre a couple of weeks ago I tested my son's newer and shorter Atomics, and they were pretty good. But I also found out that I didn't like their extreme carving form; it made it harder to get them to stick on ice. Could it be that I'm an old fart who prefers straight plank skis, like my K2 lightweights? At the very least, I need shorter skis. The 175 cm Atomics are as long as I am, whereas the 160 cm K2s work much better in narrow chutes. And they work surprisingly well on ice.

Heading towards the avalanche protections

The shop will also look at my Dynafit bindings, which mysteriously sometimes seem to open a little bit with very little force. I've never had them release while skiing, but I'd hate to blow my knee due to an unnecessary release or too tightly cranked binding, so even the risk of this happening is something to be taken seriously. Anybody who has experience with Dynafit touring bindings who could provide some advice? I'm not even sure I know how to use them correctly.

The Dynafit trouble started in Andorra, where my ski departed in the ski lift without me even noticing. I only noticed when my friend Zach was shouting to me from the following lift. And recently in Kaprun, my bindings released at least fifty times on my way the Kitzsteinhorn (3203 m). Granted, it was a very steep ascent, but still. On the way down they stayed on perfectly. Go figure.

Unexplained binding releases

Photo and video credits (c) 2012 by Jari Arkko

Monday, April 23, 2012

Planetskier, The Next Generation

Skis pointing down

My 9-year old son was the first to ski the local hill at Kauniainen this winter. And now he announced that he wants to be the last one as well. So we went to the closed ski slope on Sunday.

Enough clothing for +15 degrees?

Going up

Reaching the top

And what a day it was! The sun was shining, it was +15 degrees, and the snow was in wonderful condition. The entire slope was still covered in snow. It was soft enough for us to have fun skiing, but not soft enough to make us wade through deep slush. Even when walking up the snow held firm under our boots. I do not understand why the area was closed three weeks ago, it still seemed completely skiable. And compared to my last year's nightly visit to this slope a week later, it was still safe to ski. Back then the entire slope was no longer covered by snow, and I was afraid I'd collide with some of the garbage being uncovered from under the snow. Maybe the week makes a difference, or maybe this year has been a better snow year. I have to make a comparison in the first days of May!

Sunny day, feeling good!

Interestingly, we were not alone in the ski slope. There were no other skiers, but at the top some local youngsters were practicing throwing their cell phones down the slope. It is amazing how far a cell phone flies when you throw it downhill. Apparently, calls stayed online through all this throwing. Secondly, there's a green-even-in-the-winter heated football field next to the ski slope. Some of the players seemed to prefer the white ski field as a practice ground instead.

The proper football field

Extension of the football field 

Phone throwing championships

Photo credits (c) by Jari Arkko and Janne Arkko

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Two countries in eight hours

The main building at Kakiskalns ski area, Latvia

The eight-hour challenge was successful! I left in the morning to fly to Riga, Latvia. Eight hours after landing I boarded the evening flight back home from Tartu, Estonia. I skied in two new countries, Latvia and Estonia. The ski areas that I visited were Kakiskalns and Kuutsamäe.

My first view of the ski area in Latvia

The primary challenge with my trip was time. I could only burn one day on this and I had only one choice of flights in and out. But there was quite a bit of driving, not a lot of room for making navigation errors, and frankly too little time for the actual skiing. But in the end I was able to ski for one hour in the first place and a bit more than an hour in the second.

"Kakitis"? No shit...

I also attempted to find Suurmunamägi (big egg hill) from Estonia as I was driving towards the airport, but conflicting instructions from my guidebook, GPS, and the lady at the ticket office caused me to not find it in time; I had to abandon the search and go for my flight home. It would have been nice to find this hill as well, as it is the highest mountain in the Baltic states at a whopping 318 meters. (If you click on the Wikipedia link, you can see a picture where the hill is an almost visible bump in the horizon.) There is a road that leads to the top, and my plan was to stop a few meters short of the top, climb, and ski down. Oh well. Something to do next winter, perhaps.

Spring is coming?

Kakisklans, Latvia

I had some trouble finding this place, but once I did find it, the first view was appropriately depressing: a melting tiny ski slope in the middle of a big pool of brown water. The slope was maybe ten meters high. I thought this would be a fitting place to ski on a spring tour of the baltic ski states on a rainy Sunday. However, it turned out that this slope was the children's ski hill, and the real ski hill was on the backside of the main building.

The entrance to the Kakiskalns main building and bar

And what a main building that was! I like empire style architecture, and this old (Soviet era?) yellow building in the middle of nowhere was just wonderful. It also housed the excellent restaurant and bar.

Ski lifts and empire style architecture. Like.

But back to skiing. I was surprised by the existence of the main slope, but even more surprised about how good it was. It was short, but steep. Kind of reminiscent of my home ski hill in Kauniainen. I think there needs to be a little bit of steepness on the ski slopes that I ski; otherwise making turns will not be fun. An added bonus was that the ski hill was facing a river flowing underneath. The views were better than in most small ski hills. Of course, I was here late compared to how long winter lasts in the Baltic countries. The signs of spring were clearly visible.

Spring is coming

Hi-tech token booth at Kakiskalns

The ski area also had an interesting system for lift tickets. You do not buy a daily or hourly ticket, you buy individual lift runs on the ski lift. You'll receive an electronic token that counts how many runs you have left. I had time for ten runs, which cost couple of Lats (one Lat = 0.66 €).

I was quite afraid of getting stuck at the bottom of the ski area, however. The ticket sales are at the top, so if you run out of runs you'll have to climb up. Or beg for mercy from the lift operators.

Kakiskalns has only one ski run but it is steep

Kuutsamäe, Estonia

I took off from Kakisklans a little bit reluctantly, as the skiing was good.  I drove towards Estonia and the Kuutsamäe ski area. On the way I saw yet another flash of the speed cameras, but no speed ticket has been posted to me yet. (Speaking of speeding tickets, I never received any from my trip through Germany. Maybe they realized that seven kilometers above the speed limit would not be worth the trouble to track some foreigner down through the rental car agency.)

Views at the Kuutsamäe ski area

Once I arrived at the ski area, it was all covered in fog. The ski area had a number of T-bar lifts and runs. All the runs were pretty long but not that steep. Overall, the area felt like a relaxed place with enough space and not too many crowds. A good place to take your kids to learn to ski. And also potentially a good place to snowboard, practice some jumps, ski through forest routes, and enjoy sunshine. Except not today... visibility was far too bad.


The main ski lift at Kuutsameä

The restaurant and bar at Kuutsamäe

Important Parameters

The bar in Kakisklans offered food and drinks. Soups started from 2 Lats. Goulash soup was 2.90 Lat or about 4.40 €.

Kakiskalns bar

Kakiskalns menu

Lift tickets in Kuutsameä cost 20 € per day. For transport, I used FlyBe (Finnair low-cost airline), though one of the flights was operated by Czech Airlines. Both flights used ATR-72 aircraft. I can recommend booking the front seats, as most people try to book seats towards the back and near the exit that is at the back on this aircraft. There's usually a four seat configuration at the front which is a very nice place to sit by yourself. If you are on the first row facing backwards, you'll also get a nice view of the propellers. The only downside of this spot is that you'll be close to the stewardesses who may try to cut down on your camera use during turn-off-all-electronics period.

Travel in style. Reserve the front row on an ATR-72 and you get this. Alone.

The restaurant at the Kuutsamäe ski area was not as nice as the one in Kakiskalns. They did not offer soups, but Stroganov, for instance, was 1.70 €, so the prices were very reasonable.

Kuutsamäe menu


Both ski areas are nice local hills, well worth visiting by the locals. But you'd have to be insane to travel from another country to go to these places.

Arrival at the Tartu airport in Estonia

In particular, I liked the old architecture of the main building in Kakisklans, the view over the river, and the steep slope. Kuutsamäe has many more slopes, but they are not steep enough for me. I'd rather spend a day in the the former than the latter.

Traditional colored bathroom picture

I used ATR-72 flights by FlyBe and Czech Airlines

Photo and video credits (c) 2012 by Jari Arkko