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A Different Sensation in the Snow

  • Gero Guenther
  • December 19, 2019

Trend or no trend, snowshoeing is in the eyes of many an alpinist rather something for wimps trampling through the mountains on snowy forest paths. We experienced step by step on a hut tour in the Swiss Rätikon that you can also experience real adventures with snowshoes on your feet

Snowshoeing is anything but an extreme sport. Boring as hell, is how many ambitious alpinists would describe the almost technique free activity. Just about anybody who is halfway fit for the mountains can go snowshoeing after a few hours, as if he had done nothing else all his life. And if you follow one of the well-trodden winter hiking trails or designated snowshoe tracks, which sometimes start directly at the middle station in the ski area, it really doesn't get too exciting. The walking aids, which were already used in the Stone Age and which European trappers and trackers took over from the North American indigenous tribes, are the perfect tool for small or big adventures. When winter has laid a blanket over our structured landscape, the mountain forest in the Alps suddenly feels like wilderness, highly frequented hut trails become pathless routes into loneliness.

For moderately talented skiers, like Christelle and me, the plastic things with the metal prongs are definitely the salvation. The only way to explore the winter mountains. Without them we had got stuck in deep snow often enough. With Robert, our companion, the motivation looks quite different. He's only wearing snowshoes today because his cruciate ligament tore some months ago. Whilst skiing, of course. "To go ski-touring," he says, "my knee is just too wobbly."

Rest at the bridge
Snowshoeing can be a very - sometimes even too - relaxed affair. If you follow one of the well-trodden winter hiking trails. Off the beaten track it quickly becomes adventurous
Image credit: Robert Pupeter

The fact that our tour might be too soft is a concern that has occupied us since the planning phase. Unjustly, as it now turns out. After one hour the trail ends abruptly. At the same time the wind freshens up, which we had hardly felt in the valley. I take a few steps through the fresh snow and am immediately out of breath. Unbelievable how deep we sink despite the snowshoes. The fresh snow has not yet settled. But the sun has already made it heavy.

And the terrain is steep. "What a beast," I say, and suddenly I find snowshoeing quite intense. "First up to the alp," Robert suggests. "Then we'll see." So we take turns tracking. None of us at the front can stand it for long. Somewhat above the buildings a ski ascent track crosses, which we follow. So much for our unconditional will to adventure. "It's much easier," Christelle finds and takes the lead.

In the distance the Carschina Hut is already greeting us. Small catch: Before that a tough final climb in deep snow is waiting
Image credit: Robert Pupeter
Image credit: Robert Pupeter

High up, the target becomes visible for the first time. Between us and the Carschina Hut there is a treeless snow field dotted with boulders. It looks like a giant pack of Stracciatella ice cream. The track of the ski-tourers is in many places so overblown that one can only make it out after hundreds of meters. And finally it disappears completely. From now on we have to track our way to the top all by ourselves - which was actually somehow the idea. "Cool, how white it is here," says Robert, as we stomp through the almost contour-less landscape. The gaze finds no hold, and everything begins to swim before the eyes. In the end, only Christelle has enough power to track the last meters. Robert complains about his poor condition due to injury. I'm not saying anything anymore.

When we reach the hut, it is already getting dark. We dig out the entrance to the winter room and the outside lavatory and open the shutters, although there is hardly any daylight left that could penetrate the parlor with its 10 sleeping places. We're alone up here. Nothing but rock and snow for miles around. The Carschina Hut is located at 2221 meters, directly below the vertical wall of the Sulzfluh. In summer, the Rätikon with its rugged peaks on the border between the Austrian province of Vorarlberg and the Swiss canton of Graubünden is a well-known climbing area. In winter it remains much quieter.

First the entrance has to be dug out
First clear the entrance, then make a fire and melt the snow. A snowshoe hike to a winter room offers an outdoor adventure in its purest form
Image credit: Robert Pupeter
For water, snow must be melted
Image credit: Robert Pupeter

Simple and comfortable it is, our place to stay for the night. But freezing cold. First melt the snow and chocolate and tea from the flask. After two hours, the enamel oven gives off so much heat that our faces glow. For dinner, we of course brought cheese fondue and a bottle of white wine. A fondue set are part of the fixed inventory of every hut in this country. Over-eaten we sink into our beds. The thermometer on the ceiling now shows just under 30 degrees Celsius.

Map study
The way is the goal? Maybe. But honestly, the goal is above all a warm hut room. On arrival, frosty -6 degrees greet you from the parlor
Image credit: Robert Pupeter
The display is set to uncomfortable
Image credit: Robert Pupeter

Quarter past seven. Behind Scheienfluh the sky begins to blaze. "Looks like a big fire," Robert says. At the flagpole the wind is humming. Probably it has been humming his monotonous song for three days without any noteworthy variations. Dark cloud banks crowd over the Carschina Hut as if they were in a hurry to get to the north. "Are you sure it won't snow today?" Christelle wonders. No, it shouldn't. We hope.

Panorama Hut
Reward on arrival: sunset over the Carschina Hut, and no one around
Image credit: Robert Pupeter

The call of a ptarmigan buzzes persistently like an alarm clock across the plateau. I grab the mobile phone out of my jacket pocket and take a picture of a mountain that looks as if a tent had been doused with thick cream. At first it is dark grey, then it gets a strange greenish tinge, later the summit turns violet for a short time and finally shines in immaculate white. At the foot of the Schafbergs the trail we laboriously trod in the snow yesterday is still visible. The landscape around us now resembles the ceiling painting of a rococo church. A world in pink, baby blue and gold leaf. We strap on our snowshoes and march a little through the pastel paradise before hunger drives us back to the winter room.

The nut bread goes well with the raspberry jam and we also carried a piece of butter up. Then we fill the thermos flasks with fresh herbal tea, sign the hut book and start our way back. The sky is only slightly cloudy, the snow much firmer than the day before. After three quarters of an hour we meet the landlady of the hut, who is just ascending to Carschina with a friend. One of the tasks of the young woman from Graubünden is to regularly check up on things. "Merci that you have tracked so beautifully", says the cheerful woman and is pleased that we enjoyed our stay in her winter room so much. "Up there the view is just amazing."

Putting on snowshoes
Departure from the hut the next morning: With foehn storm and fresh snow the descent begins in adventurous conditions
Image credit: Robert Pupeter
Always following the tracks
Image credit: Robert Pupeter

Spontaneously we decide to add a massive detour to the descent route. Well, it's worth a try. Between snow-covered boulders the size of a garage, the trail descends leisurely through hilly terrain. "It's cool what you can do with snowshoes," says Robert, who is slowly acquiring a taste for it. "I'd never have ended up in terrain like this on skis."

The further down we go, the milder the temperatures become and the more cracks of sliding snow are visible. Fortunately, Robert knows a lot about avalanches. After checking the conditions, we can therefore jump and slide down some slopes with confidence. The haystacks and alpine pastures of Partnun soon come within reach.

Bright views
Image credit: Robert Pupeter
On and on through the snow
Image credit: Robert Pupeter
Shadow play in the snow
Searching for traces alone on wide open fields and always having a view of the landscape: at a constant walking speed, this is the great advantage of snowshoe tours - despite all the effort
Image credit: Robert Pupeter

While the foehn storm a thousand meters above us blows mighty snow flags over the ridges, we strap the snowshoes on our backpacks for the last two kilometers. Pedestrians and snowmobiles have paved the way in the valley. The stream gurgles beside us, the ice has long since melted. "And? Weren't you bored?", I ask Robert and point to the ski tracks that run across the slopes next to the parking lot like first-graders' writing exercises. "Not a bit," Robert replies and puts the snowshoes in the trunk. "They're quite practical really".

Image credit: Robert Pupeter