Freesteel Blog » Austria January 2004


Austria – January 2004

Our itinerary. Forsaking airtravel where possible, we stayed overnight outside the Preston bus station to catch the luxury snow-coach at 4am and were bothered by the police only once. Becka had insisted we should save on the huge weight of carrying a sleeping bag, but I’d moaned and whined for days until she gave in to this reasonable requirement of sleeping equipment when one is planning to stay outside overnight in the north of England in January.

The snowcoach was great. Forty seats instead of fifty-six gives you space to sleep and turns what is normally misery into not bad at all. We got to Kirchdorf, where the package-designated ski resorts were, and caught the train to Bad Aussee. We hiked for an hour into town and up the road to Hilde’s. A bunch of English tourists were there on their last day, wrapping up from an over-Xmas and New Year holiday.

“But why on earth come here of all places?” I attempted to ask, which was difficult since the meaning easily gets misread. The meaning is: With all the high advertising, cheapness, and ease of, say, Majorca, you don’t really expect people to find Gasthof Staudnwirt by chance. There had to be an interesting reason. We’d thought we were the only loyal English customers, and we know exactly why we come there: For The Caves. What were they here for?

We spent a lot of time lost in a dark grey blizzard looking at useless maps.

Ski day one. We caught the bus to Losermount the next morning. This is a stop at the bottom of the mountain. We quickly hired skis, bought a pass, and were dragged up and skied down both sides of the valley. It was interesting to see all those familiar parts of Loser from above, including that road we must have driven up a thousand times, and the track past the Bergrestaurant. The far lifts, more towards the caving area, were not open yet due to lack of snow. Having done everything twice, we changed our down-hill skis to XC skis (launglopen) and bussed ourselves back to Hilde’s.

Loipen day one. There were blizzards overnight bringing 6 inches of snow. We knew there was a lopen path from Grundlesee (near Hilde’s) to Altausee (near Loser) because we’d seen it on the map. The skis were completely useless in the snow– they were just long sticks on your feet that got in the way. It took us twice as long as it does to walk. For lopen XC skiing to work, the tracks have got to be groomed. Clearly we needed the information about which tracks on this map were prepared.

We arrived in Altaussee just in time for the Tourist information office to shut for two hours at lunch. Brilliant. At least it was a Monday. When we arrived in Bad Aussee we’d tried to get some information on our way through town from Tourist office there, but it was Saturday afternoon and it had closed for the weekend. What is the point of that? Is tourism not predominantly a weekend activity? This is worse than British in 1974. At least now we have cashpoints and credit cards, so we don’t need the banks to be open. The tourist offices try to do the same and stick their info on touch screen system outside.

dirsignalt dirsignlot
Sometimes we’d find signs, but these tended to presuppose a path to follow. Trying to determin where to go from the exact angle it was planted in the ground is futile since the track — when it is there — snakes around the landscape. The right hand picture is a place of convergence of six routes all ending in the same place.

The Altaussee Tourist Info office eventually opened long after we’d had a shivering lunch on a bench in the eaves of the Spar supermarket. And it was useless. Sometimes these places see themselves as a coupon dispatching service: 10% off of a trip to the swimming pool. We wanted to know: What loipen runs are open today? What’s the weather forecast tomorrow and the next day? Is there anyone who knows about the XC ski tracks over the Loser Plateau? We did not want to know: How many gasthauses have rooms available with ensuite bathrooms and carparks for between 125 and 150 Euros excluding the single night surcharge? This information is almost always irrelevant and not wanted, but is extremely easy to obtain.

We did find the Loipen path from Altausee to Losermount, which was very good. None of the locals seemed to like it since it goes uphill slightly according to the map, but it was definitely the best. At the bottom of the ski runs, from where we caught the bus, we checked out to see if any more lifts were open because of the extra snow. Almost all were closed now because of the avalanche risk. We’d been lucky. Had we chosen to do the loipening and the downhill in the other order, it would have been rubbish. That’s the kind of thing a tourist information is supposed to tell you.

snowdrift snowtrac
Left. Crossing a snow-drift in the forest somewhere between Grundlesee and Altaussee. Not only were we lost without the flattened path, the skis were no good in the quarter metre deep fluff. You just dragged your feet and didn’t even see your skis above the surface of the snow.
Right. This is the vehicle you want to see coming through when you are lost in a trackless wilderness. Unfortunately, it was ploughing a circular route above Grundlesee when in fact we wanted to get to Altaussee.

The bus back to Bad Aussee cost nothing to skiers. People getting on at the half-way point in Altaussee had to pay. We returned for another night at Hilde’s, beer and food, and rushed up early for a trip to Bad Mitternforf. Becka had the bus and train times worked out perfectly.

If snowshoes let you go at walking speed, we could have got to Grundlesee in half the time. When you fall over you sink right through the snow. It’s like climbing back onto a log floating in the water, with your feet tied to the log.

Loipen day two. Unfortunately, there were no busses on that day because it was a holiday, which is something we didn’t know.

Actually, this isn’t true. On holdays there is one bus that runs from Bad Aussee all the way up to Gossl beyond Grundlesee (about 5 miles) and back again at around 3 o’clock in the afternoon. What’s the bleeding point of a single bus running up and down a valley once a day?! You can’t go anywhere! If you caught this bus to anywhere, under no circumstances can you get back again by bus in the same day. Unsurprisingly, many of these busses were completely empty. The local bus service in Bad Aussee, by some quirk of history, is run by the post office, even though it carries no post, otherwise this timetabling would have been a shade less useless.

We got a refreshing bus rant from Hilde later, about how the post office was unwilling to schedule their infrequent busses to fit with the school-times, and some of the schools eventually having to change their times to fit with the busses. The busses don’t double up when there’s a school run so, she said, it gets completely packed. Her grandchildren catch the bus from the Gasthaus to school in Bad Aussee, the same school she went to from the same place when she was a child. In her day the road wasn’t so dangerous and she walked. And it took the same amount of time to travel to school then as it does now. So much for progress.

Hilde whistled and got one of the men of the Gasthaus to drive us over to Bad Mitterndorf, the capital of loipening in the region. We’d seen hundreds of people on tracks from the train on the way to Bad Aussee and intended to follow the line through the network and catch the train back from a further station. The trains run all the time. We covered a lot of ground and were passed by many people in lycra who’d mastered the art of ski-skating

We came back to Bad Aussee by train and walked up the road to Hilde’s. It’s now been a long time (seven months) since I started writing this article, and I’m going to finish it from memory.

Lost again. There might be a road there.

Hilde came out for an afternoon of XC skiing on one of our days, after our adventure of skiing on a frozen lake, and we skied to a corner of the valley below the Loser Plateau, called Bla Alm, where the farmers are allowed to set up their rustic shepherd’s huts and drink fortified tea. I was falling all over the place after two cups only. You stir in a lot of sugar as well to make it taste good. The heat means it slips down easily.

When we were done with all our days in Bad Aussee, until the summer caving season, we moved ourselves to the mega-ski-resort of Schladming on the other side of the Dachstein, got our fill of downhill skiing, and returned to Loipening in the blizzard for one last tiring day before getting back to the bus and going home.

By accident, we’d caught the early bus out from the Gasthaus, the one the children catch to school. It really was packed, like a subway train in Japan. We were almost standing between the gearstick and the driver, as kids crammed themselves into the spaces between the seats, onto steps, and on top of each other. The bus kept stopping by the road to pick up another line of children. They somehow got in through the rear door. Or maybe they climbed into the boot. It’s not warm enough to cling to the outside window sills like they do in India.

I think it’s time they put the train company in charge of the busses.

I had a number of rants I was going to pad this out with, but I’ve no time to edit them. One was about capitalism and skiing, and the other was about Ayn Rand whose book Atlast Shrugged dogged me throughout this holiday, and for weeks before and after. I’m a slow reader.

I’ve sworn many times never to read a books fatter than a thousand pages, but someone persuaded me that this one might have the power to explain the logic behind capitalism. Well, it explained a form of deranged thinking, that was superficially wrong. But that’s how it is for most religions, it seems.

Never mind. We had a big argument about whether to wear gaitors, since they have a strap that goes under the boot and therefore should interfere with the slot between it and the ski, but it didn’t seem to matter. Nor did it matter that I didn’t wear any. So what were we arguing about anyway when we can just each do our own thing?

Apparently, Rand’s book has had a lot of influence to those who become true believers. But what’s funny is the way she raves about the evils of collectivism and how free market private capitalism is the only way that human beings can unlock the power of natural forces through creative engineering.

There are three main technological centres of the book. One is the steel mill capitalist who has himself personally invented a brilliant new alloy of metal. Now, normally the mill owner is rich enough to hire someone to do his inventing for him, and then he nicks the invention and relies on the system to behave exactly as though he was the one who invented it.

The second is the railroad system manager. Oddly enough, capitalism has proven that it can get railroads built in the last but one century. But after that, the situation tends to deteriorate on account of the fact that once the economy has reordered itself to rely on this means of transport, the railroad can make more money by running the system into the ground and charging a premium, than doing anything else. The theory of responsible investment in the infrastructure to preserve good working order for future generations does not hold. All functioning railways in the world have to a real degree been nationalized. It’s not axiomatic that a money making machine will have to make anything else useful as a byproduct, and it won’t if it is working efficiently, according to the laws of the financial system.

The third component of the novel is the enlightened capitalist who has invented what one would recognize as a perpetual motion machine that will give the world an unlimited source of power. His enlightenment is an enlightenment into the true thought of capitalism, a state of mind that is required if one is to understand the engineering of said miraculous perpetual motion machine. This is kind of like a religious order. Similar to the opposite of asserting that you have to believe that the world is more than six thousand years old to succeed as a geological prospector. You’d think this is so, if all the geological theories and billions of years aren’t to appear gobbledegook to such a mind. But it is, unfortunately, not the case. It would be nice to suppose that ardent creationists were illiterate, but holding nutty beliefs seems to do no damage whatsoever to one’s intellectual capability.

We did find our way out onto Toplitzee Lake which was allegedly frozen. Just follow in the ski-tracks of someone else, we were told. Perfectly safe. Except they were covered up by the fresh snow. I had never been on a frozen lake before, and had imagined it would be like a beautiful sheet of glassy ice. Of course, once you’ve remembered the layer of insulating snow and discovered that there is no smooth snow-ice interface — only a progressive wetness and slushiness of the snow as you dig down through it — you wonder what is keeping you up really. There is no ice; you are standing on a compressed layer of snow like a floating snow-ball.

Atlas Shrugged was published one year after Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite, which ought to have given the game away about how a third world country who’s people were functioning under a dreadful dictator, with an economy as badly run as Railtrack, that had no connection to a recognizable form socialism beyond its superficial rhetoric, can perform engineering miracles.

You got to wonder if all the people being taken in by Rand in the 1950s and 60s thought of this. Or were they urging the US to invest in high technology, in the way that the forces of private capitalism couldn’t, to pull the country into the space age? The dynamic public sector is what saved the US, and all the stories about the triumph of private capitalism is nothing more than superficial rhetoric to cover for the mass privatization of the technology. We all pay for it twice: once through our taxes to develop the technology, and a second time to buy it back from the corporations to whom it has been given.

Private capitalism reinvests a fraction of its immense state sponsored profits back into the people who run the government to persuade them to commission more and bigger publically funded projects, choosing the ones that give the greatest profit for the least risk. And so began the great military build-up of the last fifty years. It’s hard to complain that these missiles aren’t doing any good and just being a dangerous waste of money and resources, because they’ve bought all the experts who tell you that they’re absolutely necessary: we need it to be safe from the Evil Empire, there is no way you can question it. Not even when the Evil Empire disappears and the nuke building continues at a pace. Wasn’t there supposed to be a connection? Surely when the war ends you stop bombing the other country. And when the cold war ends, you stop building Intercontinental missiles. This is also the genius of the Ballistic Missile Shield. No other countries have got any missiles to fire at it, so it won’t be completely obvious that it doesn’t work. That’s a risk free scenario worth bribing anyone for.

I was pretty annoyed with that book. It might be the best defence of capitalism there is. But if you know a better one, give me a recomendation. I’m out of synch with the system and want to learn how to believe.

lunchhide freedrink
Left. We took lunch along the way in this box. It was a little awkward since there was just a bench and absolutely no table surface — not even a lip the size of a thin windowsill — on which to perch parts of our lunch. Two nails in a stick would have given the necessary rim. I mean, you’re watching birds from here, where do you put your flask of tea?
Right. This fellow has managed to get a free drink from Hilde by putting a tea-towel over his head with two eye holes and wearing a hat and gloves and refusing to say a word (so she can’t recognize who it is) and rattling a cow-bell outside the door on the night of the 5th of January. Ah, those ancient Austrian traditions. Halloween for the grown-ups where you get given drink instead of sweeties.

snowtrees treesnow
It looks bad when your pictures don’t line up, doesn’t it?

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The snow was full of people having fun with gravitational motion, all going different directions with limited immediate acceleration or braking power. I am always astounded that you are not constantly worrying about collisions, and that there are so few collisions. Is this natural? We all have had years of car driving experience, with instantaneous brakes and accelerator pedal control. Coasting without the engine on is terrifying for most people. Sliding on mud or on ice when on foot is usually traumatic. How do we gain and keep, therefore, our controlled-friction personal inertial frame intuition?

You can also notice how many very small kids are being taken out onto the slopes for their lessons. They must be three or four years old when they start. And they probably get lessons all through school. Their skiing is as good as their English. Skiing is a skill that’s absolutely non-transferrable to anything else. You try putting it on your CV. It’s not like caving where you learn about teamwork and danger and the ability to get through the toughest environments.

Becka’s attempt at taking us off-piste was not successful. Much too steep and lumpy. Unless you can do this at speed, the lumps do not average out and it’s like trying to surf out to sea.

The End


Julian Todd 2004-07-19.