BY NADJA SKOGLUND
After a very picturesque twelve-hour train journey from one side of the Alps to the other, I had finally arrived in the GASTEIN Valley, Austria.
On Thursday evening, I met my fellow freeride-camp ladies, and Sandra, Sabine and Marlene from Shades of Winter, in the lounge at the HOTEL MIRAMONTE. We received welcome drinks from the bartender, a healthy-looking grass gin mix, and introduced ourselves before having our first evening meal together.
The group had a great vibe right from the start. We were chatting away about our journeys (Karin had flown all the way from Hong Kong!), and about what we do in life (work, study, ski as much as possible!), and what our hopes were for the camp. Most of us were here because we wanted a bit of a challenge, to push ourselves in the off-piste, and some of us were purposely fuelled to learn how to jump off a cliff. Safe to say, we would get all our expectations met.
For many of us, this would be the first time freeskiing with a group of twelve other women. We were a pack of freeski-sisters, between the ages 22-50+, from six countries in Europe, namely Sweden, Austria, Switzerland, Ireland, Finland, and Germany. We all had different backgrounds in terms of skiing as some had grown up skiing, and some had learned it later on in life. But we all shared the same love for the sport and the mountains, and we were stoked to experience this camp together!
After dinner, we grabbed our ski-boots and headed over to the yoga room to set up the bindings for our skis. FISCHER had provided test-skis for the whole camp: we all got the chance to try a pair of brand new RANGER-skis which will be released in the fall 2019 (hint: they are amazing!). After setting up the skis and discussing the plans for Friday, we headed back to our rooms. I set the alarm for 6.30, and said goodnight to my roommate Veronika (a doctor from Austria, and an awesome skier and roomie!).
On Friday morning, the early-birds met up at 6.50 on the terrace outside of the hotel for some stretching led by Sandra and Sabine. The air was cool but fresh, and the sky was wonderfully blue! It was a great way to wake up the body and ease the mind into starting the day. And then… breakfast! For a Swede, this is the most important meal of the day. Fresh juice, fruits, avocado and poached eggs on toast, salads, yoghurt, porridge, coffee, you name it – the breakfast buffé at HOTEL MIRAMONTE was healthy and tasty! After fuelling up with breakfast-energy, we got our gear ready: skis and poles, boots, helmet, avalanche-backpack etc, and the ski-day had officially begun!
The first thing we did when we arrived on the mountain was to talk about the avalanche conditions for the day. On Friday, it was at a level 2, which means “moderate” danger level. We did our beacon-checks, and then headed off for a warm up run down the piste. After that, the whole day was full-on off-piste awesomeness! I was surprised that the snow was still in good conditions for the end of March, as the past few weeks had been quite warm in the Alps. But GASTEIN fully delivered!
Around 11 am, it was time for us to do our first hike. We took a few layers off, helped each other to put our skis on our backpacks, and then started our little journey. After a 30-minute hike on snow, rocks, and some grass, we finally reached the peak. Wohoo!
Following a few group-selfies at the top, it was time to ski again. We skied a nice long run down to a safe spot in the Austrian sunshine where we had a quick lunch, which was also the perfect opportunity for me to keep working on my goggle tan. In these in-between ski moments, we were able to talk and get to know each better. But we also got to know each other from watching each other ski, and in doing so found inspiration and confidence within ourselves to ski a little harder, to overcome doubts, and to try new things.
At the end of the day, it was time to have our first avalanche training on the course. We were divided into two groups: the English-speaking group went with Sandra, and the German-speaking group with Sabine. I was in Sandra’s group, and the first thing she did was to talk about avalanche safety, and to share her knowledge on the subject. She asked us the whether we had ever been in a situation that did not feel safe, and I put my hand up. I have been in many “powder stress” situations where the people I’ve skied with have all been like: “GO, GO, GO!” without taking the moment to consider the risk. Group-pressure can be a lethal thing, which is why it is important to, as Sandra said: “Be the good guy! The one who asks if your fellow skiers have their beacons on, and if they know how to use their avalanche gear.”
We practiced finding each other’s beacons (backpacks) in the snow, and to do it all in the right order. We talked about digging strategies, and focused on “one burial”-situations. Some of us had already done an avalanche training course before, but it is always good to practice – and especially important to get the reminder that you never want to end up in that situation in the first place.
When we got back to HOTEL MIRAMONTE, there was food waiting for us: salads, soups, and some amazing dessert cakes! Friday had been a great first ski-day and it was time to refuel and relax before dinner.
Later that evening, we had a nice walk down to town, passing by the waterfall, and all of Bad Gastein’s beautiful Belle Époque hotel buildings. We arrived at Betty’s Bar, a super-cosy place run by Swedish couple Anna and Mark. The successful day was celebrated with prosecco, and a lot of laughter. After Betty’s, we went over to Jägerhäusl where we some amazing food and drinks. There was a lot of great conversation, and some entertaining life-stories to be shared (Helka had told us that Finish people were super-serious and not very outgoing – but she proved us that was not the case with her, as she fuelled the evening with amazing stories, jokes and hilarity!). Friday had been a success, and that night, I slept like a baby!
If I had to pick my favourite day of the camp, it would definitely be Saturday. It was a beautiful sunny day and our camp leader Sandra was stoked, spreading her good energy all around.
The first run started with a long traverse followed by some shimming to get to the top. The view was incredible – the Austrian alps are so impressive! It makes one feel like an eagle standing on those peaks, ready to fly. “Who wants to go first?” Sandra asked us. “I do”, I said, fully-stoked on the first run of the day. Before taking off, I got directions – “ski in this section” and a point of reference for where to stop and wait for the group – “stop just before the cat track over there”. This was the common strategy for the guiding throughout the week. It was relaxing to have someone you trusted tell you were to go because you knew you would be in a safe zone, and all you had to do was to enjoy yourself. So, I took off, and skied this amazing open-wide section, fully immersed the steepness and the speed, getting into a state a flow. It was really nice to watch all the girls ski down; they all had their own style of skiing, and were making their own unique lines down the mountain.
The next activity for the day was learning how to jump off little cliffs. Before I did my first jump, I had this thought it my head: “Am I really doing this?”, even though we had had the technique explained to us, and we just have to do it, it was clear that everybody’s hearts were beating a little harder and faster. But fear can be overcome, and sometimes it might be better not to allow oneself much time to think about it, and just give it a go! And everybody did. We inspired each other to try – it was like: “she did it! So, I have to do it! I can do it!” Our coaches Sandra and Sabine as well as our guide Sophie from SKISCHULE BADHOFGASTEIN really helped us. They showed us how they do it, they told us how to do it – and we did it!
We started small, then bigger, and bigger. It was great to see when the other girls landed a jump – Woop! But even greater to see when someone didn’t land it, but kept on trying. You get better at something the more you do it. So, we found this amazing 2-meter rock and kept going off it, and hiking up to do it again. And then Sheila, this amazing Swiss FWQ-competitor, did a 360 – making everybody cheer! That was inspirational for us all. It was so much fun jumping off that rock, and to watch the other girls do the same. It personally gave me the motivation to keep practicing it when I go skiing next.
At the end of the day, it was time for the second part of the avalanche training. Sandra spoke about the RECCO-System, and the Avalanche air-bags. Kristina volunteered to set off the avalanche backpack, and we all counted down: “3-2-1- avalanche!”. After that, we got to practice finding a hidden backpack, and using all the safety equipment – beacon, probe, and shovel. We also had a little competition: who could put all the equipment together the fastest – meaning putting our beacon on search, throwing the probe out and sticking it into the ground, and putting the shovel together. As we know, it is important to be able to do this fast, as every second matters in an avalanche rescue. It was a good exercise, and then it was time to go and enjoy a drink in the sun at Valeriehaus – a great end to an exciting day.
On Sunday, we had a quick breakfast, checked out of our rooms, and then our final ski adventure for this trip begun: today we would ski in a national park! This meant a short train journey, then a drive through some beautiful alpine villages, onto a funicular railway, up a gondola, and then a chairlift. And then we would start making our way there with our skis. After a long transverse, it was time to start hiking. The hike was steep and required some hard work. And then, after 30-40 minutes, we were up there! We made it – high fives, ladies! As the first ones to arrive, we sat down on our jackets, rested in the sunshine and drank some water, whilst waiting for the other girls to arrive. When the group was united, we took some photos, had a great laugh, built up the stoke, and then it was time to ski in the wilderness!
One at a time, we made our way down safely, whilst enjoying every turn. My leg muscles were sore, so I did not feel like I was skiing that well, but my heart was full of joy and I was enjoying the last two hours I would have with this magnificent group of people. “What is the German word for mountain goat?” I asked Sandra. It’s “Bergziege”, she replied. I decided that would be my spirit animal down the next section, which was called “the Banana Couloir.” It was incredible; spectacular in shape and form, with the mountain wall so close which felt a bit intimidating, but I was confident we would all get down. And we did. The first one to ski the banana couloir was Anita – the amazing Austrian power lady whose son had signed her up for the camp. You could see how proud her daughter Vicki was of her.
When it was my turn to ski the section, I caught an edge and fell over, my ski stuck in the snow above. Sabine skied down to help me sort out my ski, and then I kept on going. Just like my spirit animal the mountain goat would. It was not my best run, I found the snow conditions difficult – varying between ice and hard chopped up snow that grabbed onto my skis. But, this is the deal with freeskiing. Sometimes the conditions aren’t the best, and you might feel tired, but you still make your way down, you stay in control, and try to be fully present in the moment.
As everybody united at the bottom, Sandra asked us to take a minute to really enjoy the moment fully, and not say anything. We were quiet for a minute, some of us looked over towards the mountains we had just skied, and some of us closed our eyes. We had just skied in the national park “Hohe Tauern”. That was amazing! This moment would not come back, but we all saved it as photographs in our minds.
After the moment of silence and deep appreciation for what Mother Nature has blessed us with, it was time to ski the one final bit of this beautiful mountain adventure. The snow was not the best, but the moment was a good one. We came down, and did a 10-minute “Langlauf” back to Sportgastein, and Valeriehaus – where we had our last lunch together.
I had missed my train to go back home and I was trying to find new options on my phone. “You could stay at my house tonight?”, “If you want I can drive you to Salzburg!”, “Let us know if you need somewhere to stay.”. All these amazing women offered to help me out, and I truly appreciated this sign of friendship, and the bond that had formed between us just in three days. I decided to take up the offer from Caroline to drive me to Salzburg, and went to order a taxi to take us back to Miramonte. In that moment, I really wish I hadn’t been in a hurry to catch my train – I wanted to enjoy every single minute I had with this fabulous group. But sometimes life rushes us forward, and it’s onto the next. But the moments from the Shades of Winter camp are moments that will forever be ingrained in my ski and mountain-loving mind.
Thank you: Sandra, Sabine and Sophie – thank you for guiding us, and for motivating us, and for being super-rad in so many ways!
Thanks A-Team: Lorraine, Vicki, Anita, Helka, Veronika, Caro, Siona, Karin, Verena, Kristina, and Sheila. You are all such unique and brilliant people, and amazing skiers. I really enjoyed spending time with all of you on this trip, and look forward to skiing together again in the future!
And, of course, a big thanks to the guys: Christoph, Christopher, and Jakob for being an awesome film and photography crew.
Nadja Skoglund, participants of the Shades of Winter Camp 2019 in Gastein:
Born and raised in Stockholm, Sweden, Nadja is an undergraduate student, and a passionate skier.
She started skiing when she was 19 years old, and has lived in the Alps for three winter seasons since learning how to ski. Nadja loves being outdoors, and is always up for an adventure. She will be starting her Master Studies in Strategic Communications this fall.
Original text by Nadja Skoglund, adapted by @shadesofwinter