05 May 2018

Too Dangerous to Ski Down!

Springtime skiing on alpine valleys is a popular activity for experienced skiers. Bucegi Mountain is ticking all the boxes when it comes to springtime skiing:

  • Easy access. One can easily get to Bucegi plateu at 2200m, using the cable car from Busteni.
  • High altitude. There are around 10 valleys with the entrance above 2300m, Several valleys start just from Omu peak (2505m), the highest point in Bucegi Mountains.
  • Deep and long valleys that keep the snow until the beginning of summer. During the winter, the snow storms and avalanches deposit a very thick layer of snow on the valley floor. In springtime the thickness can be several meters. The snow on the valley floor looks like a highway that goes down uninterrupted to about 1600m altitude or lower, depending  on the valley and the time of the year. In winter it is possible to ski all the way down to the foot of the mountain, below 1000m altitude, but it can be more dangerous than in springtime.
I was 14 when my father took me with a larger group of skiers to ski on Morarului Valley in Bucegi. It is still my favorite valley for skiing. Since then I went almost every springtime to Bucegi Mountains for skiing.
Sadly, during the st decade the weather patterns seems to be changing and the snow conditions are not as good as they often were in the past. The warm weather comes earlier and with higher temperatures. This means fewer frost-defrost cycles so the snow is not transforming  to the much praised firn snow that the skiers appreciate so much. Instead it melts faster and has a softer and wetter consistency.

On 21 of April this year I did a skiing our in Bucegi Mountains. 2-3 weeks earlier than in other years, due to the unusually warm springtime weather we had this year.
We were a group of three: Mario, a veteran snowboarder, Vali, the youngest in the group, an experienced ski mountaineer and myself.

I was prepared for a relaxed ski day. Mario drove us with his car until the cable-car station in Busteni. We would take the cable car up to the high mountain plateau, and from there in two hours we would be on Omu Peak at 2500m ready to descent one of the valleys on skis.
However, we found out that the cable car is not working due to presumably high winds higher the mountain. This seemed a bit suspicious to me as I have checked several weather forecasts and they all agreed that the winds will be very week during the day.

Instead of waiting to see if the cable-car will eventually work, we took action and headed to Valea Alba  (the White Valley). The plan was to climb it on foot as high as possible and then down on our skis.

Valea Alba (White Valley)
Valea Alba is like a big cut in the steep rocky eastern abrupt of Bucegi Mountains. It is almost straight and quite steep, although is the least steep valley on the eastern abrupt. We started the climb on foot through the fresh green forest, then after we reached the snow continued on our touring skis. Not for long, because the slope gets steeper and narrower so it is more efficient to go up on foot with the skis fixed on the rucksack. The snow was melted on the surface, making it easy to go up on the existing snow stair made by earlier climbers.

It is not my favorite pastime to climb mountains on snow, along steep valleys between huge and almost vertical rock faces. I feel vulnerable, even a bit claustrophobic. So I went up as quick as I could. As the snow was good and safe for climbing we went all the way up. There was no danger of avalanches. The snow was stable on the valley floor, and the sides of the valley did not have much snow left.

The remains of an old avalanche

Climbing Valea Alba

Climbing Valea Alba

I got very warm and sweaty during the ascent. There was no wind and the sunshine power was amplified by the reflective snow.

Up on Bucegi Plateau, at 2300m we could see that the cable car was working... never mind, I always enjoy the descent more when I go up on foot!

As the entrance of Alba valley was getting crowded with skiers, Vali had the idea to try a better valley: Malinului. He assured me that he knows Malinului Valley well as he descended it many times on skis. I skied on Malinului valley only once in the past. Knowing how steep it is, made me feel a bit uneasy, especially that I had my very short touring skis that are not really designed for such steep slopes. But the difficulty on a descent depends more on the snow quality rather than the absolute slope...
Looking down Malinului Valley from the entrance
In less than one hour we were at almost 2500m altitude at the entrance to Malinului Valley. Vali was the first to try the snow. The old snow-cornice was not totally gone so entering the valley meant a short jump. Less than one meter, perpendicular on the slope line. The jump itself was not scary. What worried me was that on the other side the slope gradient was at least 100% and it was in the shadow which at this altitude could mean that the snow is hard frozen...
Indeed the sound from Vali's ski edges confirmed that the entrance in the valley had frozen snow! I immediately knew that there is no way for me to go there on my short skis. Mario was also worried about the hard snow as riding a snowboard on a steep frozen slope can be very precarious!

A fall on this steep slope would have mean sliding down the valley for hundreds of meters, possibly stopping by crashing on on of the many rocks piercing the snow face. It is a common way people die in the mountains during winter...

Seeing Vali on the steep frozen slope made me feel dizzy... Although in most cases it is not advisable to split the group in the mountains, I initially proposed that the safest thing for him to do is to descent Malinului Valley. We would meet again at the foot of the Mountain. 100m, lower on the valley the snow was in the sunshine, certainly softer and much safer for skiing. I reckoned that it would be safer for him to continue on skis rather than attempt to return as there was no way of climbing back the small cornice on skis. Myself and Mario would ski down the Pripon Valley, a much safer valley that looks like an beginners ski slope when compared to Malinului Valley...

However Vali was very confident and decided to return. I could hardly look at him... I even went away from the entrance to the valley as there was no way we could help him.
He carefully took off his skis. Then, step by step, on his ski boots, came back traversing the steep  frozen mountain face. Luckily the frozen snow was not too hard. Under the hard crust it was softer so he could dig steps into the snow. He was also able to plant the tails of his skis deep into the snow to get very solid anchor points.

Do I look worried? (photo by Mario Stancu)

Vali on the steep frozen slope, on the other size of the old snow cornice (photo by Mario Stancu)

On the (ski) edge... (photo by Mario Stancu)

I was amassed how calm he was and came back without any hesitation. I was so happy to see the three of us back together on firm snow... We turned 1800 degrees and started the much easier descent on Pripon valley. The snow was a bit softer than ideal, but we had a very calm and enjoyable descent on skis!
Descending on my short skis (photo by Mario Stancu)

Priponului Valley

Skiing down on Priponului Valley

The snow was great for snowboarding!

This is not the first time on the mountains I decided no to stick with the initial plan as it felt too dangerous. Returning safe home is much more important than sticking to the proposed route when the conditions are not safe. The mountains are there to stay, there is no hurry!