Monday, March 19, 2018

In search of real winter

While applauding this year's great snows, we wonder what the price might be

In the last days of February, our “Geezer’s ski-tour” started in Davos. Of course, we’re not really geezers – well, not yet – just friends who’ve met up almost every year over the last two decades for an annual ski-mountaineering trip. Although, we have to admit, over that timespan, the packs have kept getting heavier and the mountains higher.

On the way up to the Swiss Alpine Club's Grialetsch Hut

No complaints about the weather, though. We stepped into our bindings right at the bus-stop. In most recent years, you’d have had to carry your skis for kilometres before reaching the snowline. At last, we’d reverted to a real winter, or so it seemed.

Adequate snowcover in the Dischma Valley

By coincidence, Davos is the Swiss alpine resort that hosts the World Economic Forum. This year’s iteration must have been a gift for would-be deniers of client change. In late January, when the WEF met, the walls of snow hemming in the streets rose higher than anybody could remember. Comparisons were made with the record winter of 1999, when giant avalanches roared down all over the Swiss Alps.

Snowdepth indicator in the Dischma Valley

Up in the real mountains, the facts looked a bit alternative. True, the snowdrifts lay deep early in the New Year, when the Sensei and I snowshoed up a minor eminence near Zurich. But rain and meltwater had furrowed the snow with rills and gutters, a sight that you’d normally not see until late spring. And, at the month’s end, Swiss Meteo confirmed that, overall, this had been the country’s warmest January since records began, in 1864. So far, then, this winter was a fake.

Rain channels in the snowpack, Furggelenstock, January

Fortunately, no rills or gutters obstructed the Geezer’s ski-tour. We headed south into the Dischmatal valley, where snowdrifts lapped the alphuts up to their eaves, just like the old days. Turning uphill, we broke trail up slopes of wind-blasted snowcrust. The skis skidded sideways on the icy glaze or broke through into sloughs of unconsolidated powder. Any fun was definitely of the Type Two kind.

Approaching the SAC Grialetsch Hut, late February

Cresting the col into the Grialetsch region, our extremities tingled in a wind that must have originated somewhere near Archangelsk. Grialetsch means “sheep pasture” in the local dialect; today it felt more like the High Arctic. In the ultra-dry air, clear as a high vacuum, distant ridgelines stood out like mountains on the moon.

Summit day on Piz Grialetsch

Minus 12°C was forecast for our summit day. Sadly, neither of us had a thermometer when we topped out on Piz Grialetsch (3,131 metres). What we can say is that a wet glove, when removed to work the camera, froze solid in less than a minute. Swiss Meteo later confirmed that, in the mountains,  this was one of the coldest Februaries for three decades. Up on our summit, perched above a sea of heaving vapours, we felt like time travellers who’d somehow flown back to a winter of long ago.

Taking the wide view: Piz Grialetsch

Or were we, like spendthrifts maxing out a bank overdraft, just borrowing our winter from somewhere else? For it seems that, even as our gloves were freezing solid , temperatures in the real Arctic were soaring unimaginably far above normal. If the New York Times is to be believed, our mountain top was around ten degrees colder than the North Pole at exactly the same moment. 

If this was a real winter, then we need to be careful what we wish for in future years.

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