Just back from a ski touring trip in North Sweden and Norway. It was a fantastic, I went downhill skiing for the fifth time in my life, and realised that getting OK at piste skiing and thinking you can handle the downhill part of ski touring is like getting good at indoor/gym climbing and thinking that transfers to rock climbing (it doesn’t).
On the first day I was unlucky/stupid/inept enough to ram into a tree at speed, and felt/heard a pop from the ligament on the right side of my left knee. Both of my knees have had torn ligaments in the past from BJJ competitions (nothing like adrenaline to keep you from tapping out due to a foot lock, with painful consequences), and the feeling of instability and weakness was a familiar and dispiriting blow. I almost cancelled the planned ski-tours, but decided to give it a go and see how it went. Happily it turns out nothing helps your knee regain its strength and confidence like climbing a mountain or two.
Before the trip I read Bruce Temper’s excellent “Staying alive in avalanche country” (Amazon, or Adlibris for we Scandinavians), determined to know as much as possible about the number one killer of backcountry skiers. Getting out in the mountains with the book fresh in my mind was delightful, every crag a homework lesson in avalanche spotting. Was the angle dangerous? How was the wind here? Could the slope be cross loaded? Was there evidence of an old runout path? On the first big tour (Spanstinden, 1457 m) one particular slope set all the danger signals off at once. I even paused and took a few pictures of it.
Our excellent guide Oscar (above, breaking trail like a trooper) stopped when he saw a crack run out ahead of him, and motioned me to back up. I had been snapping pictures because I thought the slope looked loaded and the cornice above shows it was on the lee side, but I hadn’t really thought that it seriously could be a real, actual avalanche. I’d seen avalanches before in Norway, on distant slopes, booming theatrically as they swan-dived out over cliffs to turn into long drifting tendrils of silver, shimmering their way to the valley floor. Avalanches like that are as impotent and abstract as they are on TV. To think that I could have a real one happen just metres in front of me seemed as remote a possibility as having a lion wander into my bedroom (which reminds me dear readers, my lioness is pregnant!). So I hadn’t even thought to voice a warning. When he spotted the danger too it made everything feel much more real, and I fumbled my phone into a pocket and backed up.
A moment later, as he kick-turned to head away from the loaded slope, the avalanche ran out as violently, rapidly and silently as a thousand ninjas attacking an army of mimes. In Space.
This was a moderately small avalanche, but also a perfect example of what to look for. Around a metre of fresh and wet snow, on a hoar-frost base, with a coastal pack, on the lee side of the slope. It was fascinating to see all those details come together. And it served as stark warning. Small as it was, this must have been at least (and very conservatively at that) 80 tonnes of snow, in seconds, and absolutely silently, flowing like water to then set like concrete at the bottom of the slope. Sobering stuff.
I crashed on the floor a couple of times, but happily spent one night in an amazingly well-crafted snow cave, made by one of our group who had spent a night in it before his hotel room became available. I fell for that classic igloo/snow cave trick, carelessly sipping on tea and reading a book in the hushed morning calm, reasoning I had plenty of time before needing to pack up and head back to civilisation to meet up with everyone for the days skiing. When I eventually dug my way out of the snowed up entrance, I was punished with a roaring blizzard in the face, near zero visibility, and that peculiar nausea-inducing optical illusion when featureless snowy ground melts into featureless snowy sky.
Black lines floating in front of me would as often turn out to be twigs in the foreground, as they would turn out to be trees miles distant. I would throw on my skins to ascend what looked like a long slope rising before me, and then walk confidently into what turned out to be a vertical wall of snow instead. It took almost an hour of careful compass reading to navigate back to the marked winter-trail.
One thing was obvious this time, I finally have a gear setup that works like clockwork. There were a few flies in the ointment, the Petzl Myo died so I had to use the backup E+lite which worked great. And in order to test that “the best camera is the one you have with you”, I left my D80 at home and relied on the iPhone 4S camera instead. However the iPhone 4S is a near total disappointment, and the camera in it is no exception. If any of the pics from this trip don’t look like dirty grainy blurry stinky pus, they were probably taken with the GoPro Hero2, which was fun, if a little tricky to manage. It is true that the best camera is the one you have with you, but if it’s a 4S, you might be better off trying to draw what you’re seeing by pissing in the snow, instead of taking pictures with this overhyped piece of shit. At least the battery life is so terrible it will put the phone out of your misery in no time.
The rest of the gear has been well used by now, I know all their ins and outs, and almost everything worked perfectly. I was so enthused by this that I made an almost proper gear-list for the first time ever.
This was the gear that was worn (3.1 kg, but the Dynafit TLT5 boots (2.5 kg with liners) should be in here and bring it up to 5.6 kg). The ColdAvenger will be praised and bitched about in a future post. It’s a flawed masterpiece, like the English dubbed version of Das Boot. The Finisterre boxers I impulse bought after reading Hendriks great review were comfy and lightweight. The Houdini Airborn base layer is just fantastic, silk and merino were made for each other. The Alpina Grap helmet was the only helmet to pass the latest stringent German safety tests, and warm/comfortable was it too. And the Klättermusen Brokk trousers were superb, perfect for use with the Dynafit boots. Dynafit boots have a latch that has to be open to have the boots in walk-mode, so that sticks out a few centimetres from the top outside of each boot. The Brokk trousers seemed almost made for that, with a zip that could open around the boot cuff, while being held closed at the base by buttons and an elastic line.
This was the gear being carried (12.1 kg, mostly the skis). There is some first aid in the cooking pot, and there was also a Laufbursche pack sack with some dehydrated food. The comfortable and warm Exped downmat was as easy to pack away as ever, even with frozen fingers. The Gipron 797 poles were superb, they are easily adjusted to suit crossing steep slopes, running downhill or doing crosscountry. The Klättermusen Irving was the envy of others touring when we took food breaks, it’s a bitch to pack away though. Apparently it can be packed into one of the pockets but I tried that once and almost got killed. The Huckepack has a MYOG quick ski-holster attached, part of which is the Petzl Caritool you can see lying on top.
The Huckepack just blew me away this trip. It’s been on a ton of trips now, hiking, kayaking, climbing and skiing. I thought this trip would be too much for it and had planned to bring the Klättermusen Mjölner, almost three times the weight but much more sturdy. However I just kept thinking how nice it would be if the Huckepack managed to take all the abuse. And it did, it was amazing, carried everything like a champ, and made me really appreciate just how much thought and effort has gone into every detail of this rucksack. The day before the trip I jerry-rigged together a ski-holster which worked incredibly well, and will now redo it a little better and neater and then write up how to make it. Ripping the skis off and stashing them in the holster could be done easily within 30 seconds (without removing the Huckepack), and then they were held vice-tight during the long, bumpy hill climbs.
All in all, this was one of the most fun experiences I’ve ever had. Hurray for mountains, skis and lightweight gear! And three cheers for Norway and Sweden.