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An Off-Piste Day In St Christoph - January 2013

Reporter: Andrew Walker

It can be tempting to smile smugly when your guide/instructor falls over, but not when he’s a consummate pro and you have around 3,000 feet of off-piste descent ahead of you in white- out conditions.

Six of us hired a guide for the day on the club’s January holiday in St Anton, renowned for its off-piste opportunities. You always take a risk with the weather if you book in advance, and Tuesday dawned overcast with low cloud. There was fresh snow and the promise of laying down some fresh tracks. However, the conditions were somewhat adverse, but with the (to be unfulfilled) promise of sunshine in the afternoon we headed for Sonnenkopf by taxi, took the lifts to the top and headed down the other side of the mountain, beyond the left hand edge of the piste map.

We were in the clouds. The snow was about three shades of grey, almost indistinguishable from each other. Sometimes we could just about make out the line between snow and sky, or the edge of a drop, but mostly it may as well have been dark for all we could see. It wasn’t long before our guide fell, as he tried to find a line down slopes of indeterminable gradient. On occasion he took to throwing a pole a few metres ahead of him to see the level of the snow by where it landed. We did find some very nice pitches of fresh powder and made our own new tracks, especially lower down when we were out of the cloud, but progress was slow. Once we made it to the trees the visibility improved, but as we descended the conditions underfoot deteriorated, with crusty and then icy conditions under a veneer of fresh snow. There were no open glades and we had to negotiate a winding route down to a forest path. The final part of descent was tortuous, down what seemed a precipitous drop paved with ice, out of which trees and rocks grew. After that the several hundred metres of poling along the path to the road and the waiting taxi was a breeze.

After an excellent lunch in Stuben at a traditional restaurant served by dirndl-wearing waitresses we walked over the road and headed up the Albona I and II lifts and down the other side of the mountain for more of the same, and got on the Post bus which was just about to leave, at the tiny hamlet of Verwall. The driver, evidently closely-related to fellow Austrian Niki Lauda, didn’t waste time getting us back skiing again, and at one point beautifully demonstrated the benefits of ABS as we came round a bend at the same time as a pickup truck coming the other way. We were dropped off a few hundred metres above St Anton for a last blast down the main piste.

Our guide did say that the conditions were particularly difficult, which was some consolation for our determined but largely unsuccessful attempts to negotiate the descents with panache and style. Even when the conditions are awful you learn a lot on an off-piste day. But when the sun comes out you forget the bad days.

Would I do it again? .... Of course.

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