Moving on to pin bindings

An issue that has becoming increasingly apparent in the last few years is that skiing with bindings that have not been manufactured for over two decades is asking a bit much. The metal components seem to be fine, but the plastic seems to be getting beyond its design lifetime and is becoming brittle. I have enough spares to keep my trusty Eméry touring bindings going for many years yet, but had already had enough minor breakages to be sure I would want to invest in new and modern kit before going on anything like a serious tour. So after two hours skiing in Val d’Isère today the inevitable happened – a fairly minor impact broke the plastic part of the toe piece of the bindings, and a skistrap broke. This left me with kit that still worked (I had no difficulty and no falls skiing back from Tignes to La Daille) but that was marginal on safety, both for myself and other slope users. Time to bite the bullet !

The broken toepiece

So a quick bit of internet to tell my bank that I was in France and about to use my card and off for some major retail therapy (as in, adding 150% to the cost of the holiday!). Chamonix is the favourite Christmas shopping venue, but Val d’Isère certainly proved up to the challenge, and the shop associated with the bureau des guides had both the equipment to sell and the advice to go with it. So I will be skiing the rest of the week in modern pin bindings and for almost the first time in boots which are not Dynafit. We’ll see how it goes… Well, one answer was “very well” – the Scarpa boots whilst no heavier than the Dynafit, do seem to be stiffer and with more of the feel of a downhill boot. However, sizing seems to be an issue – and even with thin silk socks, and a bit of padding to allow for the shorter left leg (from breaking my heel in 1981) the boots seem to be very narrow fit round the heel and were cutting off blood flow over the course of a few hours skiing, so that I would really not want to use these on a long tour. Pity, really. I don’t think a size bigger would help – it really is the tightness of fit round the heel, and not length for my toes which seems to be the problem. So now I’m in the market for some newer Dynafit Tourlites – ones which will fit the pin bindings. A pair off ebay for £8.99 (would you believe) are a perfect fit and in no worse nick that my old ones, but tragically didn’t actually have the fittings shown in the photo to work with pin bindings. But since I was also able to repair the Eméry bindings in about fifteen minutes at home, I’ll certainly be using these if any touring opportunities pop up in Scotland (although it’s been T-shirt and shorts weather as I write this in North Wales in February, so ski touring seems a little unlikely this season).

Alpine light

Our annual ski trip for 2015 was at New Year, and we returned to Mayrhofen. There were days of heavy snowfall, which was great, and one of arctic wind, which wasn’t. Poor weather often means good snow, but combined with piste skiing is often poor for photography, so not much inspiring produced from the days out. However, one day was notable for a power outage over a big chunk of the mountain. Links being what they are, this produced a very large number of skiers at the end of the day at the bottom of slopes which would normally be uncrowded. The resort responded with a lot of extra buses, but with the crowds overflowing onto the roads, getting these turned round was an issue, and being at the very top of the valley, narrow roads were also slowing things down. This would no doubt all have been fine with a bit of marshalling and crowd cooperation, but people were clearly tired, irritable and bored. The number of people behaving in a completely counterproductive and frankly inconsiderate manner eventually got to me, and I just set off to walk, carrying skis, in ski boots, seven miles down the road. Since I use ski touring boots which are designed for a certain amount of walking and climbing, this was not quite as epic as it might sound, though it did take a bit longer than I’d hoped, and the traffic was a bit of a problem with no provision made for pedestrians on most of the road. The light faded, and one good result of all this was a bit of sunset photography. Here’s my favourite:

Gösser and Mohr im Hemd

Apart from a few years (one when we had crap snow and a rather poor overall experience in St. Anton; one when we had an excellent ten days early season in Jackson Hole and a couple of weeks at Verbier and Zermatt) we’ve done all our downhill skiing in French resorts, mostly the big ones (Three Valleys, Val d’Isère/Tignes, etc). Austria had always been for caving.

Well this year, taking leaving it a bit late to a fine art (owing to a certain lack of enthusiasm) we ended up going to Mayrhofen, which we hadn’t even considered previously. What a revelation ! Of course, excellent snow always gives the best impression of a new place, but we really were impressed with the ski area, and it had the added benefits of being able to buy Gösser Bier in Billa, and eat Wiener Schnitzel, Gulaschsuppe and Mohr in Hemd (though not as good as Hilde’s) in the restaurants.

Other highlights included going to the bottom of the lift system in Kaltenbach and Zell-am-Ziller by warm comfy scheduled train service; avoiding the party-mad Neilson reps almost entirely; spotting two new (to us) European bird species whilst drinking kaffeeschokolade at a nice hostelry halfway down a ski itinerary and seeing a stoat in ermine running along the snow beneath our lift.

Starting off with some nice powder on the Hintertux glacier

Meanwhile … the skiing: I hadn’t thought there were any really big ski areas in Austria, and the claim of 671 km for Mayrhofen is not directly comparable with the big linked resorts like Three valleys, Avoriaz or Espace Killy, since it is split up into a number of unlinked areas. But all the areas can be reached fairly quickly by bus or train, and each of the main ones provides plenty of skiing for a full day without becoming repetitive. Owing to being given some useful, but slightly misleading, advice, we found ourselves bussed to Hintertux on the first day (the bus didn’t stop at Tux Lanersbach). This proved to be a fortuitous mistake, as there was still some excellent snow from the weekend’s fall, and with blue sky and good visibility this probably was the best day to visit the glacier.

Supposedly a black piste, but unpisted and unmarked, back of Hintertux glacier

We found some good runs just off the piste, and a fun itinerary which we did three times, by different variations, before skiing down to the valley floor, with a total queueing time for the day probably under thirty seconds and a vertical of 6315m.

One version of the itinerary, river left of the Hintertux glacier

We still hadn’t figured out how to get to Lanersbach on the second day, but managed to get to the big bottleneck (the Penkenbahn bubble) before the queues built up. The piste map is really useless for this area, with its confusing perspective view – a real map would have been much more useful and we did waste some time trying to work out how to get to various parts (finding that pistes ran the opposite way from what we’d imagined from the pistemap). However, we did find an excellent off-piste run down a big bowl (Hoarbergbach) behind the Tux seilbahn which got away from the crowds, as well as various runs not far from the pistes which were also quieter, even if they didn’t entirely avoid lift queues.

Skiing into the Hoarbergbach bowl (first of several times)

The only home runs are itineraries, one of which was below a black run we’d done which was definitely short of snow (so we didn’t even look to see if it was open) and one from Penken which was closed. Mary and Michael queued for the lift down, but I can’t abide doing that, so set off down the itinerary (expecting to walk some bits, maybe), finding snow conditions excellent most of the way, but there were some very icy stretches and one diabolical bare section near the end. This is not exactly different from the last descents of any ski tour, so didn’t give me any trouble in vibram-soled touring ski boots. It could have been scary if it had been crowded. There were a fair few other people using this route, but not enough to get in each other’s way, and all seemed competent on the terrain. The bus from the bottom took me right to my door, so definitely the right decision, netting me 6369m vertical – Mary and Michael ended up walking all the way from Penkenbahn to the hotel with only 5209m vertical.

The itinerary drops down right of the chalet

By the third day, we’d deciphered the bus timetable adequately to get to Lanersbach and took the Eggalmbahn (with virtually no queue) to open slopes above. The red runs had good snow, and one nice mogul field, as well as some decent off-piste down the side of one and under the lift. We were able to cross to the main Penken area by skiing down to Vordlanersbach, found more off-piste on that side, then took an itinerary to go back to Eggalm. This took us past the aforesaid stop for snacks where the bird feeders were full of tits close enough to take photos with a compact camera, and then down into the valley for a few more runs (some good bird’s nesting here) on Eggalm, before getting bus back from Vordlanersbach with a day’s total of 6673m.

Crested Tit

Willow Tit

Now we’d sussed the transport, we realised that we could get the train down to Kaltenbach, included in the lift pass, rather than being ripped off €16 by Neilson for a bus to the same place. We saw them at the top of the lift (as we skied off) doing some sort of warm-up/team-building exercise which made us cringe. Very much like your typical rafting clients getting ready to put on. Being perfectly capable of skiing without having our hands held, we made lots of mileage across the area, though poor visibility meant we were skiing a little more conservatively today. There were some very long runs available, down to a tributary valley (Finsingbach) in the Hochfügen zone quite a long way from the main valley, and an excellent black run which we did twice (off-piste was less attractive as the fog was quite thick by this time), though another which looked good was only escapable by a long T-bar which we preferred to avoid, or a fiddly blue connection which we couldn’t be bothered with. Despite being lower down Zillertal than Mayrhofen, skiing right to the valley proved no problem here (though a bit crowded, as everyone was doing it) and gave us our best day’s vertical of 8319m (skiing as a family never breaks records).

On the train to Kaltenbach, we’d sussed out the shuttle bus to Zell-am-Ziller so the fifth day was a day for the Zillertal Arena ski area, again with some poor visibility. Again we were well ahead of the queues, but after the third chair, Michael decided that his blister was making skiing too painful, so we skied back down to the top of the bubble for him to find his own way back to Mayrhofen. This meant we now had queues at all the chairs back up, and the pistes were busy as we made our way across the rather strung-out and low-gradient link to the main Zillertal Arena area. We had sunshine above a big thermal inversion on the first peak, but were in the cloud for a lot of the rest of the day.

Fantastic views over the clouds from our day’s sunniest point.

However, we did find powder only just off the side of the pistes – this looks like a good area if you know exactly where you are going or have good vis. Beyond the Arena, we got an old two-man chair (seems a bit minimalist for a critical link) then much bigger lifts higher up with a couple of good black runs. The off-piste proved rather poor, with inconsistent breakable crust and icy lumps – a bit tough in the flat light. The third mountain looked to be mainly blue/red stuff, so, being a bit later than ideal, we gave that a miss and made our way back via some bird’s nesting and a couple of long cold chairs before doing a few more runs above Zell itself, where we also found good powder among the trees. Unfortunately, from here, we could only ski down to the middle bubble station, then had to throw away our height by taking the bubble down to the valley floor – much resented and brought our vertical down to only 6248m for the day. The rest of the ski areas seem to have invested very heavily in snow-making machines – it seems a shame that Zell hasn’t bothered.

As Mary and Michael had hire skis and wanted to take them back asap on the last day, we decided to ski Penken again on Friday. This time a bus from right outside the door took us to the Penkenbahn early enough that there was no queueing at all, and we quickly made our way to the Tux seilbahn. Here we were put off being the first people of the day down the big off-piste as the visibility wasn’t 100% and there were avalanche warnings out. Another key lift seemed to have a problem and was running very slowly with no people on it, so we skied a couple of short runs just off the side of the piste before skiing down to the T-bar which gave access to an itinerary which we didn’t want to miss. This also stopped after I’d got off, but with Mary and Michael about 15m from the top, giving them a cold wait, but ensuring that all the people who were skiing the itinerary ahead of us were well out of sight, so we had the powder to ourselves all the way down. We could see that some skiers were going all the way to the valley bottom by an off-piste route, but as the mist was coming and going, we thought better of following, and anyway, we wanted another kaffeeschokolade at the stop with the bird feeders. From Vogelsnest, the long chair took us to some good deep snow off-piste, and on our second run down, we decided to brave the barbed-wire fence and get onto the steep bird’s nesting below the chair. This was quite challenging (especially as any wipeouts would be in full view of carnage-hungry skiers on the lift), but really good fun. Then on down to Vordlanersbach to get back to Penken, where a late lunch stop involved Michael with more spare ribs than he’d expected, and Mary with half a pint of gluhwein.

How many spare ribs ? Apfelstrudel and gluhwein for Mary.

Suitably emboldened (Mary wasn’t quite slurring her words…) we found yet more and increasingly steep (off to the side of the Harakiri black run, on a slope that it avoids to take a paltry 78% gradient) skiing in deep snow between trees.

Off the edge and into the trees.

Mary and Michael took the lift down to Mayrhofen centre to return their skis, whilst I grabbed an extra uplift, before setting off down the closed itinerary as the lifts closed. Rather more people on it today (no-one cares if their lift pass is confiscated after the lifts shut on their last day!) and perhaps icier than on Monday. The big bare patch had a little new snow on it, and many were skiing down it (but the sounds of ski-abuse were truly awful). I’d figured out that by walking just thirty metres uphill on the road, I could get to the top of a slope with plenty of snow, thanks, so it was an easier run down. The last couple of fields were again steep and icy with bare patches, this time with a lot of people stood precariously in various places looking desperately stuck, but it’s committing rather than difficult – just hit the jump button and aim to land on edges on the bits where the snow still lay. The extra runs netted me 7936m. Great fun ! Mary and Michael ended with 6578m for the day.

My six days’ total of 41860m vertical sounds pretty meagre compared to some of our trips, but a lot of this was off-piste, steep, through trees, in very poor visibility and so on, and almost all skiing as a group, which is inevitably a lot slower than solo, so the quality was generally very high and was among the best weeks’ skiing we’ve had.