April 2008 was a very interesting experience for me, not only in terms of the new places visited and the demands of the poor weather, but also the necessity to navigate to a high degree of accuracy in little or no visibility on a frequent basis. Thanks to Adam Wainwright for the photo from yet another white out day in the Silvretta!
The map came out every day, just to work out which col to go over, even when we could see.
The compass was out almost every day as we were frequently in white out. I often found myself snowploughing on a bearing for 50 to 100 meters, stopping, taking a back bearing on the vague outlines of the group in the mist behind, and then having them ski directly to me before repeating the process. It's slow and tedious, but keeps me on the bearing and gives the group a visual frame of reference to ski with.
The altimeter on my watch was used most days too, as it's difficult to keep track of distance otherwise, particularly when skiing downhill. With frequent recalibration at known points such as cols or buildings, we were kept on track and when necessary I could pinpoint our position to within 50 meters at any time.
I used the GPS as a validation of that technique rather than as a first line of attack. I think it's an important distinction, as there can be a temptation to rely on the electronic box of tricks, and forget traditional navigation. This is a dangerous attitude for 2 reasons:
- What happens if the GPS batteries run out and you've not been keeping an eye on your position on the map?
- There's a tendency to ski along with your eyes on the screen instead of looking around for landmarks, crevasses, avalanche slopes etc.
On one quite bad day, I was asked by another team of ski tourers if I thought it was safe to cross over to the next valley. I replied that it would be, providing they had the physical strength to trail break in the deep snow, and could navigate accurately. Their reply was "oh, it's OK - we have a GPS". That's NOT what I said, I thought to myself, but restrained myself from making a comment.
In the words of Martin Epp, a legendary Swiss guide:
"We use GPS to get out of ze bullshit, not to get into ze bullshit"
......now the rain has gone. I can see all obstacles in my way
Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind
It's gonna be a bright, bright sunshinin' day.
Anyone ski touring during the month of April may recognise a certain degree of irony in this blog post header, and anyone apart from the team skiing with me last week in the Silvretta may wonder what a Jimmy Cliff song is doing there. To answer this latter point first, on the 1 good day last week, we were skiing off piste and caught a few tracks of main man Jimmy, playing live next to the piste in Samnaun.
Jimmy clearly has NOT been skiing with me for the last month. The weather for April has been fairly challenging - cloud, snow, rain have been a constant feature. Navigation with altimeter and compass has been an almost daily ritual, and the GPS has made a few appearances too. with all the fresh snow, some fine judgements on the avalanche front have been called for as well. It's almost as if the mountain gods are making us pay for April 2007, when every day was bright blue sky, frozen hard in the morning, spring snow at 11, slush by midday and beers on the terrace in the sun by 1.
April 2008 couldn't have been a greater contrast. It started for me with a traverse from Simplon to St Gotthard, south of the more popular Tour de Soleil, with a strong group from the Eagle Ski Club. Just a few hours into the trip, we were in a cairngorm blizzard on a col which showed nothing special on the map but turned out to steep terrain with chains and ladders, followed by a ski down in zero visibility on horrendous breakable crust, with poles stowed, a compass in one hand and the GPS in the other. That kind of set the tone for the rest of the week: exploring new areas is one of the great delights of guiding, but when you can see nothing but grey, it can pall a bit. One of the days we had to drop right down to 1200m to avoid an avalanche prone col, so had to walk up a road for 400m to the hut, fortunately with a great welcome and one of the best hut meals I've ever had. I think the guardian could see we needed physical and moral support as well as a thorough drying out!
Click here for a photo gallery of this great adventure with a fine team of ski mountaineers.
A tour around the Otztal followed, again the first time in this area for me, and with some very interesting navigation, especially over the col where Ötzi the Ice Man was found. It's no surprise he got lost up there and froze to death. No GPS technolgy in 3300BC to help you out... Once again, the welcome in the huts more than made up for the intermedaite weather and difficult snow conditions. Huts with private rooms, some of the best pasta and tiramisu in existence, free showers....even a sauna! Marvellous.
The second half of April was spent in Silvretta, trying to repeat the success of last years trip, and get up Piz Buin as well. Both teams managed that, but both times in terrible weather, a testament to their determination and fortitude! The first trip started and finshed in the vilage of Scuol to the south of the massif in the Engadine, with a mellow finish from the Tuoi hut. Quite a bit of poor weather but some quality snow which deserved (and got) some quality skiing from the team.
A final week started well with Jimmy, but after the first day, the weather was unremittingly poor - trail breaking in calf to knee deep snow and snowploughing on a compass bearing can lose its charm after a while! Once again, the quality of the team, put together by John Stafford, made the whole experience a great adventure, and climbing Piz Buin in Scottish rime conditions was a great buzz. The gnomes in the Montafon where we finished this 4 week stint were top notch too.
Auf wiedersehen, aund bis dem nächsten Mal in Österreich!