Snow Queens
Snow Queens
Media: Snow / Climbing

Snow Queens

in Verwall

Verwall, Austria <

AUTHOR: Tine Huber

The name of this mountain range comes from the Romance language for VAL BEL, or beautiful valley; dominant peaks in an unspoiled loneliness stretching as far as the eye can see. Patteriol juts out in the middle of this range. If you drive from St. Anton/Austria to the Arlberg Pass, its characteristic north flank is unmistakable in the middle of the Verwall Valley on the south side of the road. It attracts your attention like a magnet.

Tine Huber has had her sights set on Patteriol for years. However, every time she asked about this mountain she only received answers that applied to climbing it during the snow-free months. It must also be possible to ski this beautifully-shaped mountain with its jagged rock formations, she reckoned. Looking for a companion she bumped into Angelika Kaufmann from Lech in Austria. "Fancy a little project in Verwall?" After Tine had let the cat out of the bag about climbing Patteriol in winter followed by a descent on skis, Angelika didn't wait a second to say she was in.

After an initial meeting and a look at the map, the project started to take shape. What was originally planned as a three-day tour shrunk to two days. Angelika immediately crossed out the overnight stop at the Darmstadt Hut:

"We will easily make it to the Konstanzer Hut in one day." We ought to be able to manage the 1,200 meters of elevation onto the ridge in six hours. One day less and we only need two good days — that means we need a shorter time window for fine weather." At last, weather and snow conditions are ideal and both members of the team have got time.

Motivated and packed with enough stuff for two days we head off early in the morning into Moostal and then past the reservoir towards Großer Küchlferner. It's unbelievable how quiet it is here and how fantastically the snow shimmers as the sunshine becomes more and more intense. Because the clocks have just gone back we've got an extra hour for the long ascent before the snow on the west-facing slope in front of us goes completely grainy. Only now can we see the Küchlferner and work out exactly how we are going to reach the other side.

On the map it looked fairly accessible, but will it turn out to be that easy when we get there? Shortly before the gradually retreating glacier we now have to decide. Should we take the route up to the Ferner via the steep and exposed snowfield on the south side, or turn right into the shadows and head directly through the east-facing glacial landscape with its crevasses?

We decide in favor of the route in the shade in the hope that there will still be some powder snow for rapid progress with kick-turns.

The snow is good apart from a few areas compacted by the wind. It's not until the last section where the snowfield narrows to an extremely steep bottleneck that we have to shoulder our skis. Once we have reached the plateau we can clearly make out the saddle above the Küchlferner, our destination.

However, it seems like half an eternity that we push one ski in front of the other to cross the plateau. I count my steps to the rhythm as I stride across the flat expanse in a dream. Gradually the saddle looms closer and closer until after another couple of kick-turns we shoulder our skis and reach the transition from the Großer Küchlferner to the Kuchaferner. All the strain of the ascent appears to be forgotten as soon as I spy over the saddle the southeast slopes of Patteriol and see the amazing descent that lies before us. From here we can make detailed plans of tomorrow's route for ascending Patteriol. We need to commit this to memory because much of the climb will be done during the hours of darkness.

Perfect! The finest powder snow in the first steep gulley on our descent. After about 300 meters of elevation and a short narrow passage this suddenly changes to grainy corn snow and we enjoy the cruise down mirror-smooth, wide slopes. You really only find such ideal conditions like this in places no other skier has been near. According to the map the wide slopes lead into several steep gullies. We select one of them and cruise past rugged rock formations in the best imaginable snow conditions down the gulley towards the valley floor. The short turns needed on the lower section of the run are brilliant fun.

After a final look at our route for the next day — the "Sommerweg" — we ski for several kilometers into the valley towards the winter shelter at the Konstanzer Hut. It's not until now that we can feel that our legs are actually really quite tired.

Having arrived at the hut we take advantage of the last rays of sunshine to dry the perspiration out of our damp clothes, fetch water from the nearby stream and chop wood for the oven, the summit of Patteriol omnipresent in the background. As Angelika starts to empty her backpack all sorts of surprises are revealed.

There's the inevitable proper Austrian mountaineer's picnic with bread, cheese and sausage, plus to "keep our energy balance in check" and maintain morale there's also pasta to top up our reserves for the climb to the summit tomorrow. Patteriol is still standing menacingly behind our winter shelter and from here it hardly looks like it's going to be an easy day's skiing.

Enveloped by the pleasant warmth of the oven, which thanks to its poor condition and missing door really pours out heat, by the light of our headlamps we go over the plan again for the next day before we can no longer keep our eyes open.

The alarm goes off the next morning at 02:20 am and, still half asleep, we start getting all our equipment together. While brushing my teeth outside I catch sight of the breathtaking starry sky that will accompany us along the valley on the next stage of our challenge.

Still not yet quite awake and not very communicative we put one ski in front of the other until we reach a rock that stands out at the eastern foot of Patteriol. From here we use kick-turns to progress uphill, as it gets steeper. We make amazingly good time without having to use ski crampons until we reach a very rocky stretch. Angelika takes off her skis and straps them to her backpack. I start the same maneuver.

Then suddenly, before I can react, when I plunge the ski into the snow, it contacts a rock and slides out of my hand. "Damn!" My ski is racing down the frozen slope. That's crap! In the dark, using what little light my headlight could muster, I tried to find my ski further down the slope. "But don't step into the gulley — there's ice!" Angelika shouts, and that's not all because below me is a series of cliffs. If the ski has gone past where I'm standing now, we can turn round — that's it then. Just before I start to despair Angelika comes to my aid.

And then we spot the ski just above me; the skin was still on and had stopped the ski! Overjoyed after having already imagined that our project had failed, we climb back up the slope again. We make good progress, as the snow crust is strong enough to bear our weight without breaking in.

Step by step we stamp our way uphill until it gradually gets lighter and the sun comes up behind the peaks of the mountains. Amidst indescribable quiet and sensational surroundings we climb along the rock face across a small cornice to a plateau.

With crampons our route takes us up another slope to a steep gulley and we manage to make steady headway with the additional help of our ice axes. The sun is shining brightly and warms the snow up more and more under our feet so we feel we have to hurry if we want to complete our plan of climbing to the summit of Patteriol and then skiing down the southeast slopes. The three quarters of an hour I wasted while searching for my ski now adds to the pressure.

Having arrived at the next small plateau we take the joint decision to head for the north-facing gulley shown on the map despite the quite acceptable snow conditions on the southeast slope we just ascended. Neither of us knows this gulley between the steep rock faces but the descent looks doable on the map — so we decide to head for the summit and the adventure.

Between the horn and the main summit, Angelika and I tackle the climb along the exposed rocky ridge on the final 50 m to the main summit armed with ice axe and crampons. We would have arrived at the summit in 15 minutes if we had crossed a snowfield to the summit gulley, but we reckoned this option was too risky due to the damp surface of the snow. Once we have climbed around the rock we discover another way of reaching the summit. Climbing down on the northwest side we climb around a rock face and then climb back up another steep gulley. On the lower summit rock we realize that we are going to have to climb back along the entire ridge to reach the right point to start our descent and decide to turn around on Patteriol just before reaching the main summit.

Despite the warm weather and bright sunshine, this north-facing 45-degree deep gulley remains hidden in the shadows and we discover unbelievably perfect powder snow conditions for the long descent. While the powder is so enticing, it also has its treacherous side. But that's why we are here, that is part of alpine skiing; assessing situations and taking the right decision.

It's not until we have covered the first half that we can see the lower section of the run and are rewarded with turns in the finest powder. Across wide, smooth corn-snow slopes the run continues to Schönverwall and back to the Konstanzer Hut. However, we don't want to dilly-dally in the Verwall Valley any longer than necessary because there is a risk of avalanches on both sides of the narrow valley leading out to the reservoir. Happy and tired we reach the Verwallhaus and then St. Anton am Arlberg.

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