Snow whips sideways as our party crests over the col exiting the Stubaier Gletscher resort. Wind gusts greet our transition point above the Sulztal Glacier, flinging our skins around like some cruel ribbon gymnastics demonstration. My first foray into the wilderness of Austria's Eastern Alps has a visible range of about six to eight metres. But we're playing the long game in these mountains, and by "long," I mean about four to five days.
Navigating unfamiliar terrain halfway across the world in the current storm weather would normally have me retreating into the culinary comfort of a Tyrolean alpine lodge. Luckily, though, we have a professional directing our group of Whistler skiers. Jesse de Montigny is the lead guide at Yamnuska Mountain Adventures (based in Canmore, Alta.) and while he's guided many trips in the Tyrol region, it's also his first time skiing the Stubaital Valley. That's probably why he was diligently studying the route for hazards the previous evening while the rest of us were busy knocking back bottles of helles lager.
After roping up (to guard against crevasse falls) and descending gently for about 10 minutes, we're out of the worst of the fog and can see further down the valley. Some meadow skipping and a not-so-short skate along the valley floor follow before we arrive at our first backcountry shelter at 2,135 metres, the Amberger Hut.
While not luxurious by any means, the Amberger Hut is an oasis among the jagged peaks of the Stubaital. Sleeping about 60 people in beds and bunks with a kitchen to feed twice as many, the stone and wood panelled structure has had multiple renovations and extensions since it was built in 1888, when it slept just eight people. Servers file out of the kitchen at dinner time with enormous plates of Austrian cuisine making sure everyone's beer glasses are full and schnapps is poured for those inclined. I sleep that night with the fullest belly I've ever had in the backcountry.
The next day, the weather has softened but the peaks are still shrouded in heavy, vertigo-inducing clouds. After a few hours our group splits in two, half retreating back to Amberger Hut while the rest of us soldier on up the branching valley. Patience pays off when a brief respite in the storm lets us scramble to the summit of Kuhscheibe (3,189m). Powder turns reward us for the descent, albeit at low speed to counter the flat light and poor visibility.
The third day is our transit day to the Franz Senn Hut in the Upper Oberbergtal valley. The storm has cleared, revealing the Stubai Alps in all their glory as we set off from the Amberger. Groups of skiers hailing from a dozen different countries are out to take advantage of the weather window. Our plan was to climb, summit and possibly ski Schrankogel (3,497m) today, but as we round the corner of the Schwarzenberg glacier we notice our intended route would entail crossing an exposed, steep face. Fresh storm snow and solar warming seal the deal and we diligently back away from the objective.
Crossing over to the Alpeiner glacier proves a technical task in itself with a steep bootpack requiring us to don crampons and ice axes before rappelling down the other side. Ditching our earlier objective has left us hungry for a high point of the day, so we begin the slow trudge up the glacier as the afternoon wind forms sastrugi under our skis.
Gaining the ridge gives our first look back into the Stubaier Gletscher resort, one of our party pointing out what looks like fresh slide in the distance before realizing it's actually a groomed run. The panorama of the Eastern Alps reveals countless glaciers, peaks and couloirs of which we must settle for a minute sample this trip. Daylight is in its final hours and clouds on the horizon threaten tomorrow's ambitions, so a few of us decide that we need a summit to properly appreciate this bluebird day. Two of us fall in behind Jesse as he quickly scrambles to the peak of Ruderhofspitze (3,474m), our high point for the trip. Exhausted but buzzing from the grandeur surrounding us in every direction (or maybe the summit crucifix is encouraging the divinity of the moment), I take as many shots with my camera as I can, leaving a few minutes to just look, breathe and live.
The Franz Senn Hut is buzzing with activity when we arrive haggard, sunburned and wind burned. A smattering of different languages pepper the dining hall— everyone seems to have had just as enjoyable a day as we have. I take another generous gulp of weissbier as the peaks outside the window fade into the night.
Austria, you're all right.
Vince Shuley set himself a new bar for the backcountry hut experience. For questions, comments or suggestions for The Outsider email firstname.lastname@example.org or Instagram @whis_vince.