Birnhorn, the main and highest summit in Leoganger Steinberge, has is secrets - among them is a very long and fantastic ski hike which is not very well known and a rather lonely trip even on beautiful weekends. Enough snow is required because of a long and complicated ascent / descent in dense woods in the lower parts of the mountain.
The ski route uses the undeveloped grand cirque of Ebersbergkar, an impressive, northern exposed karst feature. This is why this ski route is an interesting one for spring: you normally have excellent corn snow conditions and low avalanche danger during the whole day.
Birnhorn ski hike is a long day; 2000 m of altitude difference, 1000 m of altitude difference in sometimes dense woods, 5 to 6 hours of ascent (!) and about 1200 m of excellent ski slopes for downhill fun.
Birnhorn is described on the excellent SP Birnhorn page of cjaniesch. Starting point for this trip is not the south side of Leoganger Steinberge but its north side in the Saalach valley near Weißbach, adjacent to the little town of Lofer.
It is road number 311 between Lofer and Saalfelden which winds along river Saalach. Austrian road number 178 / 173 leads from Inntal valley (Wörgl or Kufstein) to Lofer; from Germany and Salzburg use German roads number 305 / 306 or 20 / 21 and Austrian road number 178 to reach Lofer.
About 500 m southeast of Weißbach in the Saalach valley (road number 311) a dirtroad branches off to the south; there is a signpost for Birnhorn, too. Follow the dirtroad and - if you dare it - cross the wood bridge over river Saalach (if you don´t want to, there is space for about three cars left of the bridge) and continue to the farmhaus "Hacker". A parking area is above Hacker to the right.
In front of the wood bridge on both (!) sides there are "passage forbidden" signs; I think this is because the bridge is a private one and the owner - the farmer of Hacker farmhouse - don´t want to be liable for any accident which might occur on or with the bridge .....
At the Hacker parking area there are some signposts. Don´t follow the direction "Passauer Hütte", this is the wrong one. There is a withered woos sign indicating "Ebersberg Abkürzung" (shortcut), leading into the woods. Follow this old and overgrown farmroad, its zigzags up to a forest road. Follow the forest road to the right; about 300 m after a switchback there is another wood sign, showing "Ebersberg" to the right. Leave the forest road and follow this path, zigzagging up dense woods.
Normally there will be no snow in spring because of the low altitude. You will have to carry your skies most time.
After a while you reach a trail junction. Another wood sign signalles "Ebersberg" to the right again; follow this trail not that one straight on (!). You will soon reach a spring and a holy sign fixed to a tree.
Follow the trail or - if there is now snow, the ski tracks up the dense overgrown slope. After a while the trail reaches and traverses a clearing with lower trees and bushes. The trail / ski track now traverses more to the left, winding around trees and avoiding / bypassing som rock steps and rock faces which are limiting the clearing to the south. Pay attention on this sometimes very step part of the ascent: you will have to follow the same way through the rock faces and rocksteps for your save descent (!)
Above the rockfaces there is the lonely hunting hut "Obere Ebersberg Alm" (1424 m) - normally the skitrack passes by in some distance. You might recognise the hut through dense woods.
The ski track now reaches lighter larch woods and the rockface of Dürrkarhorn, the eastern lower limitation of Ebersbergkar is in sight. Follow the thinning larch woods up to this eastern limitation and ascend the slopes near it until you reach the timber line and the top of a first step in Ebersbergkar with the height of 1800 m.
From there you will see a second step which can be ascended left near the Dürrnkarhorn rockface - this part will be in the morning shadows and the snow might be hard and icy - or right of a rocky part of this step - this part will be in the full morning sun and might be more pleasant as an ascent route.
Above the second step (2000 m) there is a third step which has to be ascended on its leftmost flank. You are now at a height of 2200 m and the western and eastern limitation of the huge Ebersbergkar is now visible. In the north there are the Berchtesgaden Alps with Großer Hundstod and Watzmann as main features.
Above the third step is towering Kuchelhorn, the neighbouring summit to Birnhorn. The track winds around the short and steep west arete of Kuchelhorn and climbs the west slope of Kuchelnieder, the col between Birnhorn and Kuchelhorn. At last, Birnhorn summit can be seen now for the first time.
Take a break at Kuchelnieder (2437 m) the col, higher than most summits of Leoganger Steinberge. Consequently you have an excellent view from this place.
The summit ascent to Birnhorn is done without skies. It uses the broad rock ledges of the west side. The foot track traverses the west side and climbes up some steep ledges which are partly secured with fixed steel ropes. The ascent can be icy, so watch out. It is somewhat exposed but not very difficult. Despite the impressive view of Birnhorn from Kuchelnieder, there is only some easy rock scramble involved.
On clear days the views from the summit are overwhelming!
Back to Kuchelnieder the downhill descent mainly follows the ascent track with possible variations in the upper parts due to snow quality and slope exposure.
Below the larch tree zone closely follow the ascent track to avoid falling down the rock faces in the woods.
Essential Gear & Mountain Conditions
You need full ski hike gear and avalanche gear.
For the Birnhorn summit ascent crampons are recommended because of the danger of iced rocks and ledges.
The ski ascent is mainly done in spring starting from end march to may, depending on the snow conditions and the snow heights. The days are longer, warmer and you often will find good corn snow conditions for you downhill fun. As there are many northern exposed slopes the snow is normally good even in the afternoon, though deep in the wood zone.
Maps & Links
As map I would recommend:
scale 1 : 25.000
Loferer und Leoganger Steinberge
Blatt Nr. 9
The Salzburg avalanche bulletin can be checked here.
Use the austrian weather forecast for Salzburg.
Reasons: Long and demanding ascent (2.000 m of altitude difference); rock scramble at the summit block; nice and narrow skiing through dense woods at the end of the downhill route
easy ski-hikes with moderate altitude difference, easy routes and simple downhill slopes
Ski hikes for the more experienced, due to higher altitude differences and/or longer and more demanding routes including steep or exposed parts and steeper downhill slopes
Only for experienced ski hikers and mountaineers; high altitude differences (> 1.500 m), long and demanding routes including steep and difficult route parts and/or rock scrambling and/or parts with crampons / ice axe to get on a summit; steep, exposed and / or narrow downhill slopes
The difficulty rating shall give you a first advice about how demanding the ski route is. It is my personal rating. The reasons for the rating are given in the description. They are effective for “normal conditions” like good weather, Normal snow conditions and a moderate avalanche danger. Due to bad conditions (weather, snow, avalanches) a lower grade can tend to be more difficult.