Eisenspitze ski descent in the Arlberg
This is the story behind my solo ski descent of Eisenspitze. The video produced was captured on my second descent a few weeks after.
Several years ago I began looking down the Stanzertal valley from St. Anton towards its neighbouring villages. My attention was immediately drawn to this one mountain and its perfectly shaped bowl that hung isolated above the valley below. The mountain was Eisenspitze and it somehow seemed so remote. After doing my research I heard many stories of a terrifying exit, retreat and even a fatal tragedy. The time passed, beers were drunk, laughs were had and the seasons lapsed.
Despite making no attempt on this mountain there was progression being made all the time. I became more focused – I had goals and plans of reaching them. It didn’t matter if I had a team or whether I was soloing. I was going to make the most of my winters in the Arlberg. Quickly things began to happen as I was developing my skills and experience. During this time I broadened my vision and actually began to lose interest in skiing this perfect bowl I had once gazed at. It had been done before and now I believed there to be another, more “exciting” line down Eisenspitze.
The Main Couloir. A thin line that cuts directly through the mountain. Was it possible? There were certainly many objective dangers and not all the route was visible until you stood in it. I took several images of the line trying to figure out if it was possible, where the challenges would be and the best way of approaching such a project. Unfortunately there was no enthusiasm from my friends and colleagues.
“It is mad. It is stupid. It is dangerous. It is pointless.”
Many of these words came from friends I indefinitely trusted. However I knew I had to step on the mountain to at least gain a closer view. Maybe they were right…or maybe not.
Attempt 1. Sometime in January
As I toured up the summer track from Flirsch I was filled with excitement. My plan was to get into the couloir, inspect the route, dig a snow profile and camp overnight in case it was possible. The rapidly changing weather began to give me a bad feeling but that didn’t matter because I began to see that the entire couloir and parts of the face surrounding it had avalanched, big time! I returned to Flirsch not disheartened but more knowledgable. It wasn’t happening for now and there was still lots unknown about the route, but that’s what kept it so enticing.
The weeks passed as the area was hit by a string of storms that cut the town off completely! I knew that the couloir would have avalanched again though this storm cycle and that the route would be out for a very long time if not the whole season. Strangely enough we were blessed by low temperatures and a very stable snowpack thereafter!
Attempt 2. Early February
I had one day free, a short weather window and no partner. Catching the earliest bus to Flirsch I began hiking up through the streets at 5:30am.
I reached the couloir at 7:00am and I couldn’t believe my eyes! It had not avalanched again during the storm cycle and had in fact filled in the previous debris in (a little). Transitioning to crampons and ice axes I began to climb up through the couloir using the firm debris under my feet to make lighter work. This would not be skiable but it did give me an easier climb.
I quickly came to the first obstacle – a 15m section of thin ice up a near vertical wall. I laughed to myself….this was great! I did not want my project to be easy. However my excitement didn’t last long as the ice began to break away from under my feet exposing blank rock beneath. Down climbing rotten ice is not fun! I had to re-asses my approach and began boot packing through steep powder onto the shoulder of the couloir (an option I had previously looked at). This gave me access to “the ramp” which ran alongside the couloir. I eventually gained the couloir again and continued ascending my line.
As I turned a slight corner halfway in the couloir I could make out a small gap just a few metres wide between two cliff bands…this was my passage through to the upper section! A few hundred metres up this passage it began to open out into a field. With no more avalanche debris the climbing became harder very quickly. Plodding my way up knee-deep snow I realised that this would in fact be great to ski down! At the top of this snowfield it got narrow again for about 300m at 40-50 degrees steep in places. Fortunately after passing this the couloir began to open again which would make for some more relaxed turns down the steep terrain.
The motivation was high and I kept fighting my way up until I finally stood at the top of the couloir! I was relieved to be able take off my heavy rucksack. Arming myself with an ice axe I began the steep mixed climb to the actually summit. Precariously balancing my way up I reached it, overjoyed but extremely tired. It was getting late and I was eager to finally put my skis on. After down climbing I quickly changed to skis and began descending into the mist that had formed below. It was not gracefully and I could barely see anything, but to be alone on such a mountain in the Arlberg was truly special.
This is a story of self belief, motivation and the solo ski descent of Eisenspitze Main Couloir.
A few weeks later I returned with a strong crew and we made a ski descent from the very summit itself. The video above is of that descent.
View more of my adventures here