Terrible weather forecast (but good weather!)
The weather forecast was not good, but when we drove away in the morning, the sky was amazingly clear. "This might turn out better than expected!" I said. My comrade was Dan P., an American living in London who is thinking about moving to this area of the alps. "It's an amazing place," was my constant refrain.
We decided to ski the Luesener Fernerkogel, a peak that I'd noticed two years before on trips with Josef, or by myself to the Praxmar side-valley off the Sellrain. It rises dramatically from the valley floor, a full 1700 meters above. I felt like I had enough ski-tours under my belt to deal with the steeper terrain (that is, I know how to make the occasional kick-turn :-)). I was only worried that we'd never see the mountain due to weather.
Not to worry! The blue sky of "Kaiserwetter" greeted us at the parking lot. I applied sunscreen to my face (that will be important later :)), and we skied away. It was frigid cold, with several inches of fresh snow on the ground. As we crossed the flat valley floor, we realized we had company. Lots of it! Little dots made their way up the steep moraines that eventually reach the glacier. We climbed quickly, and my half-frozen fingers warmed up after 20 minutes of uphill travel.
Dan has done some pretty sensational high-mountain climbs, and I was worried if I could keep up with him. He must be out of shape, because I could, if only just barely! :-). We talked about politics, music and climbing. We wondered if we were selfish b*$(#ards to be out enjoying this amazing weather? I finally decided, yes, but there is nothing to be done about it now! We were pretty eager, and lunged past a few parties to get a sense of space. But the heaving and wheezing I had to do after breaking trail made me gradually quit that. Dan was about to pass another party and I called out, "no more!"
Avalanches started coming off the northeast face of the Luesener Fernerkogel. It's an intimidating rock and snow face that makes you wonder where you could find security on it. We stopped to watch now and again. Once up on the glacial plateau, we had a choice of several peaks. The great mass of people was going for the Luesener Fernerkogel, with a smaller set headed for the Luesener Spitze. It was already the largest crowd I've ever seen in the mountains, so we wanted to move away from them all. A single lonely track set out south across the main glacier for the Hintere Brunnenkogel. My guidebook doesn't even mention it, but the lack of crowds and information whetted our sense of adventure. "Let's go for it!" said Dan.
The best part about skiing slowly across a vast empty glacier, with a cirque of peaks all around and blue sky above is that you get time to think about how lucky you are to be in that place at that moment. "This is the best place to be in the world, right now," I mused. Dan agreed, and we looked around in wonder in the warm sun.
As we started switchbacking up a wall to gain access to the southeast ridge, we saw people on the summit. They came down as we reached the ski depot, a little shelf of snow below the crest, stomped out beneath a protective rock. "How was the final climb?" I asked. "Not so good!" was the ominous answer. Dan and I had ice axes, but no rope or crampons. We figured to head up and see if anything stopped us.
Dan traversing a summit tower.
The fresh snow made it easier and harder. At least there was no ice to deal with, but on the other hand we had to excavate for rock handholds, and carefully test the snow. The first crux was a shallow gully with nothing good for hands, and a somewhat worrisome foothold ("will the rock break?"). Then we dropped down below a tower on a narrow, disintegrating ledge of snow, climbing back up to another crux: fairly steep, snowy rock climbing. "This is real climbing!" I said. "Yeah! I noticed!"
Finally we were on top, our only obstacle to relaxation was knowing we had to get back down safely! I guess it was similar to the kind of snowy rock climbing you need to do on Dreilaenderspitze or Piz Buin. But anyway, we looked down on the Laengentaler-Weisser Kogel, which I'd skied two years ago on a fun solo trip. The Schrankogel dominated the view to the south. We saw that lower peaks were often covered by cloud, making our choice doubly good for the day.
Reversing the climb carefully, we spoke with a man coming up. "Could you wait below and see that I make it back down?" he asked. "Sure thing." Later we talked with him about skiing. This peak isn't that far away from the others, but somehow the lack of other people makes it friendlier.
It was time to go down. A rewarding schuss across the glacial plateau, then lots of turns to get down the broad face, so visible from the parking lot. I had to rest fairly often, but it gave me a chance to look around at the view, and see the increasing avalanches on cliffy faces left and right. What an amazing day! Eventually Dan went down a gully that cliffed out. I was coming down and he said "don't come down here, I have to climb back up." I escaped off to the left, and made my way down, skirting some recent avalanche debris. Waiting below, I saw Dan having a frustrating time on rotten snow over rotten rock. He had to give up and try to get out a different way. Somehow though, I lost him, I think the distracting growl of avalanches combined with the panoramic views distracted me. He skied off to the right, then on the valley floor he couldn't see me anymore. Finally I realized that must be what happened, so I headed down, waiting some more, then skated out to the car to find Dan waiting. "Glad to see you!"
We celebrated with Kaesekuchen, Apfelshoerle and Spetzi, then had a sunny drive home over the Achensee. Spring is finally here!
Thanks to Dan for a great day in the snow. Oh yeah, about that sunscreen. I completely forgot about my neck, so it is as red as a boiled lobster. Ouch. Don't follow my example kids!