We are at a parking spot in Seewis, Prättigau in Switzerland. It’s a cold and early morning in January 2016. The sun still had to rise above the mountains.
December had been terrible snow wise. The Alps suffered under the lack of a proper snow base for weeks. But now, at end of January, we could finally go on a proper ski tour. My first one.
As a former ski instructor I’d spent my hours in the backcountry, but a proper tour was a different story. Today’s ‘guide’: Ruedi, the father of my girlfriend, grew up in this area and knows every tree and rock on the mountain. Today’s tour would bring us up to the Vilan, a peak overlooking the Rheintal in Graubünden.
We did a last safety check before we left. We decided to pick the slightly longer ascent, to avoid a riskier part. Last spring a group of experienced skiers ended up in a tragic accident near the top when an avalanche came down. Even though the snow pack should be stable, Ruedi didn’t want to risk anything nor get in an argument with his wife afterwards.
What Ruedi forgot to tell me was that he would take me on a tour with 1424 meters of altitude difference. For trained and skilled ski tourers, that’s quite a doable and enjoyable trip. For someone that knew he spent too much time in the office the months before and with a complete lack of ascending skills, it was a bit more challenging. Anyhow, it would show Ruedi very well what kind of meat his daughter picked out.
The first hour was great. The snow as still quite hard, the sky was clear, the sun slowly popped up behind the mountains. Not having the perfect outfit for a ski tour, I slightly started to sweat as soon as the intensity of the sun and my breathing got a bit stronger. But besides the sweat dripping off my back I immediately knew this was what I wanted to do more often. The panorama was magnificent. We were basically alone.
After a good ninety minutes and about half-way up the ascent, we sat down for a little tea break. Met some other locals. Had the usual ‘it’s such a great morning’-chat. Quickly ate some chocolate and an energy bar and then continued the climb.
Another hour of pure joy passed by. The peak was in sight, but my energy levels were also slowly dropping. Just another 45 minutes should do, Ruedi confirmed. Best not to stop and to stay in the rhythm. Of course.
The big problem of fading energy levels is that the lack of technique can no longer easily be compensated by brutal force; the typical guy thing to do. We were approaching an icy and technical section. The wind was picking up, but I was still sweating like crazy.
Just continue, I told myself. Just another 45 minutes. Well, if you stay on your feet. I was at my first ‘Bogen Treten’ part of the climb; the 180 degree turns you do while climbing. Looks kind of simple. On the flat. No one told me it would be more difficult on a steep part, icy as hell, with tired legs. Anyway, just continue. No problem. We’ll take care of this.
The technical execution of the first turn was far below par, but who cares, I made it. Slightly more confident I approached the second turn while noticing the gap between me and Ruedi that all of a sudden grew like crazy. I approached the second turn, made the ski flip and then realized I did not have a proper grip on my other ski. So, I lost my stability, fell down awkwardly and was now trying to get back up.
Getting back up was tiring. The last energy was now starting to slip away. From a distance, Ruedi asked if everything was okay. While putting on the best smile I had, I said there was no problem at all. Just a lack of technique. So I continued. Feeling the instability in my legs with every step. The wind didn’t drop. The snow pack felt like a slippery ice field.
The following twenty minutes were a real pain. As I was struggling to stay on my feet, the peak felt further away with every step I took. In the meanwhile, Ruedi quickly stopped to take a sip of tea and wait for me. He politely asked if I was okay and still wanted to continue.
Realizing how I must look by now I should have seen this question coming. My face was wet from sweat and my legs were shaking. Being too proud to admit that my stamina wasn’t the best ever, I started to blame my – way too warm – outerwear for my terrible performance.
I promised to make it to the top and that I would go to a shop to buy new stuff as soon as we were back in the valley. By now Ruedi must have started to ask himself what on earth his daughter was seeing in me. A guy that can’t even make it to the top of a mountain he himself has climbed more times than he can remember.
The little break allowed me to get some energy back into my legs and with a renewed confidence I started the last part of the ascent to the top. Ruedi adjusted his pace and we slowly but steadily moved towards the top of the Vilan.
It’s funny to notice how quickly the pain of the climb leaves and your energy levels return as soon as you are on the top, enjoying the breathtaking views. This was my first ski tour. It was a good lesson. I was determined to go soon again. And I knew one thing for sure; I had to buy proper outerwear. Well, and maybe work a bit on my technique. And stamina.
But first, let’s enjoy the view. Eat a sandwich and get ready for the ultimate reward. Just a bit below the top, there was a perfect snow field, with hardly any lines. The snow was still soft like powder, untouched by the wind and the beams of the sun.
It only took two turns into the powder to realize that I was hooked. The tired feeling was gone, it felt like ages ago. The only thing that counted was the smile on my face, earned by hiking up and riding down.
The same afternoon I visited a local ski shop. I came back to reality. Realizing that a proper set of outerwear would set me back 2000 USD. It was at that moment when an idea struck me.
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