I’m sitting here on a 30°C day dreaming of next winter and thinking about the one that has just passed. The summer will be great too, no doubt, but I miss the unique sensation of gliding over snow. So I thought I’d tide myself over with a season recap from here in Euroland.
The season got off to a (relatively) early start in mid November. A northerly weather pattern brought rain to Berlin and snow to the Harz Mountains. A spontaneous decision was made to get up at 5:30 and make the three hour train ride to Schierke. About a meter has fallen over the week, but on the Sunday we were there the temperature had risen above freezing and the melt was on. This limited things a bit, but it was a fairly gentle start to the season below northern Germany’s highest mountain (all 1100 m of it). Unfortunately, the region would not see that much snow again for five months.
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Things warmed up in late November and remained so throughout most of December. Crucially, the Alps were getting snow, however. So December passed by without any skiing until we headed off to France for the holidays. One week in La Clusaz offered amazing conditions on the most beautifully kept trail system I’ve seen (my girlfriend rates Seefeld, AT a little high, though). The snow was plentiful enough (although the downhill skiing could have used a bit more) and in great condition.
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From there we continued on to Chamonix for a few days over New Years. The downhill skiing held my full attention, but my girlfriend enjoyed the cross country, even if it was a little limited. With tracks leading directly out of the town centre, it certainly does well for convenience. The 30 cm of new snow we got on 30 December made for memorable downhill skiing, but she was not pleased with what it did to the cross country tracks, and the maintenance was generally not as good as that in La Clusaz.
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January stayed quite warm in Berlin, and still no local skiing was possible. I’ve spent six winters in Berlin. In the first four, a period of several weeks in the deep freeze occurred, causing the river and all the local lakes to completely ice over. While it never snows a lot, 10-15 cm is all you need for some park skiing, and just a little more for the local forests. In the past two winters, though, we have had no deep freeze and almost no snow.
At the end of January my birthday rolled around and we headed down to the Garmisch-Partenkirchen for the weekend. The valley at about 800 m was mostly bare, but above 1500 m the snowpack was good. This meant that I enjoyed great alpine skiing on the off-piste route Dammkar in Mittenwald and in Lermoos, AT. My girlfriend, meanwhile, was forced to take the train to Seefeld, where snowmaking and a slightly higher elevation meant plenty of open cross country trails. It was good for a day, she reported, but not for more. So the other day she spent on the limited trails at the top of a cable car at about 1500 m in Ehrwald, AT. She hit is on the freeze end of a freeze-thaw cycle, and described the snow as “rock hard”. Not a good weekend for cross country skiing, then.
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Three weeks later and it was my girlfriend’s birthday, and another weekend trip was planned. Originally we had planned to do a tour on the German-Czech border, skiing from one village to the next and staying overnight wherever we ended up. An attractive plan, but unfortunately not one that works out well when there is no snow. The week after World Cup races were held nearby, and on TV we could see they were being run on a white stripe of snow trucked in from elsewhere. So we made a last minute change of plans and headed to Oslo.
What can I say about Oslo? There is an incredible network of trails reachable by the city’s public transport network. It was also a humbling experience, seeing as every single Norwegian, no matter what age, is a far better cross country skier than I. It hadn’t snowed for a couple weeks, so the snow was hard but plentiful. I spent a lot of time of the ground, to be honest, so that hard snow was consequential. Being a brilliantly sunny weekend, it was also very crowded. And Norway is just stupidly expensive. $14 for a beer, expensive. I look forward to coming back, but I’ll wait until I’m a better skier and have a little more money to burn.
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Back in Berlin, the warm January became a warm February, but March started off much the same. Even in the Alps, the great early season snow was beginning to give way. With an Easter four day weekend booked for Engelberg, CH, things would need to change fast. And oh how they did.
The storm cycle changed about ten days before we left, and impressive snow totals were being wracked up. With the snow level around 1000 m, the downhill skiing would be great, as would the cross country skiing at the plateaus at 1300 m and 1800 m. Exactly how well the valley trails, at about 1000 m, would hold up was a question mark. With four days to ski, we planned to cross country ski together on the first and last days, while I downhill skied on the middle two.
This turned out to be a good plan, because a storm closed all the lifts on Day 1. Unfortunately, this also closed access to the cross country skiing on the plateaus. And now the irony: while too much snow had closed the ski area, in the valley there was actually not enough snow to open the cross country trails. In the village we were right on the line between rain and snow. Faced with a day of doing nothing, and the realisation that the bars do not even open until 3:00, immediate action was needed. We boarded a bus with our skis to the end of the valley, gaining maybe 150 m. The extra elevation made a world of difference, and we stepped out into a driving blizzard with snow piling up fast. We skied around on some open pastures for a while before deciding to ski as far back towards the village (maybe 15 km) as we could and then hitch the rest of the way once the snow got too thin. As it turned out, while we had to cross the road a couple times; traverse a river at one point; climb a fence onto a golf course; negotiate a narrow path through a campground; and quickly, quietly ski directly below an avalanche chute during a major storm; we eventually managed to make it all the way back to town thanks to the temperature dropping a couple of degrees. I was beat, totally worn out. My girlfriend was ready for another round. That means that either I’m more out of shape than I thought or breaking trail is a lot more work that skiing in someone else’s fresh tracks.
The next day we woke to blue skied and a ton of fresh snow, and it was good. The next two nights it also snowed heavily before clearing up by morning. It really was perfect. The downhill skiing was exceptional, and the cross country at 1300 m was also very good romp on fast trails through a forest. The trail at 1800 m was too short, and to be honest the ones at 1300 m only amounted to enough for about half a day.
So I left Engelberg totally enamoured of the place. I experienced fantastic downhill skiing and just enough cross country not to get bored, and the village is a great ski bum town lacking the poshness elsewhere in the Alps. My girlfriend was less enthusiastic having reached the limits of the cross country skiing.
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The storm cycle that was blanketing the Alps also left a lot of snow in the Harz Mountains over Easter, so with a little luck one last outing would be possible. Having just returned from Engleberg, a trip the next weekend would not be possible. Instead, we nervously watched the weather and webcams before making a last minute decision to head to the Wurmberg above Braunlage the first weekend of April. In the town, it was spring, and we got plenty of odd looks as we carried our skis to the gondola. More worryingly, we also got odd looks from the people operating the gondola and the sightseers heading up it. But we were not deterred, and up at 950 m there was still enough snow, sort of, so ski on. The trails had last been laid a week before, and the snow was rock hard at the top and slush after dropping to about 800 m. Below 750 m no skiing was possible. It was not a great day, with the limited amount that was skiable and the poor snow, but it was skiing in northern Germany in April, so we did not complain.
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So the season started early and ended late, but was a little thin in between. It seems that we can no longer rely on winter in these parts, and that we just have to take advantage of it when it comes. That’s a shame, because the smaller mountains in Germany are actually better suited for cross country skiing that the Alps, and they also have a tradition and culture of cross country skiing that is lacking in Austria and Switzerland. These are also communities struggling economically, and the decline of a winter sports season will not be kind to them. But there it is: a reliable season in Europe now requires booking flights and accommodation and jetting off to the Alps. That’s hard on the wallet, hard on the environment, and hard on the nerves. We packed a lot in this winter, but I’m afraid that was pretty much the limit of what we can manage if skiing locally is not longer possible.
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