19 January 2015

Ski mountaineering in Veľká Studená dolina

After 5 years of ski touring me and Martin finally mustered some courage to try High Tatras in Slovakia, our highest mountain range. Their unpredictable weather and rough terrain make them very dangerous. To top it off, a couple of days before our planned arrival the weather was awful—freezing rain followed by snow and very strong wind. Thanks to an icy base layer, there was very little snow but high avalanche danger. Our plan was to go up to Zbojnícka chata chalet and assess the local avalanche danger ourselves. There must be at least one good slope to ski!


Poprad in –21 degrees Celsius.
We went up to Zbojnícka chata as planned. Suprisingly, the amount of snow was decreasing with increasing altitude. The last bit below the hut was very icy and we both hated it, because we took our skis off at least 5 times. After a short nap at the hut we went outside to exercise avalanche rescue and dig some snow pits. The first snow pit was completely safe which we couldn't believe, so we dug another one in less deep snow. A column of snow failed before we even started an avalanche test.

A snow column fell even before we started executing a test.
I jokingly said that I'm staying in the hut tomorrow, but I was hoping we would find a safe slope the next day. It started snowing in the evening and I was really happy. At least the annoying ice will be covered by snow.


The safest slope in the valley was below Svišťové sedlo (marmot saddle). I was expecting a cloudy day but the sky opened as we approached the saddle.

The Sun finally reached us. Or did we reach the Sun?
When the slope exceeded 30 degrees, we decided to dig a snow pit and make another avalanche test. The snow was deep and the slope safe! The conditions in this particular valley looked perfect and nobody has been here for a couple of days. We left the skis and climbed the last meters with ice axes.

Martin climbing the last few meters.
Rovienková dolina
Happy to be in the saddle.
The view was great and the Sun was shining. Time to ski down.

Safe route choice. All other routes were either steeper or more wind-loaded.
We skied down to Zbojnícky spád which had a lot of blown-in snow. Perfect! After skinning back to the hut, Martin swore that he'll either end with ski touring or buy new skis, because his skins were slipping a lot on a steep slope. It was still only about 1pm, so why not practice self-arrest? This is a useful technique to stop a fall on a slippery slope with your ice axe. We survived even this exercise.


The weather forecast predicted high winds on Friday. Some parts of High Tatras got winds of speed 100 km/h, but the valley was calmer. This is no weather for ski touring, so we decided to head back to civilization early in the morning.

High winds up in the mountains
It was mostly alright, although sometimes we had to stop to let the wind gusts disappear.

All in all, it was a great trip. It turned out to be very educational besides all the skiing and climbing. For the first time I saw a snow pit test failing and we also did some useful avalanche and mountaineering exercises.

Small selection of my photos is on Flickr and an album merged from 2 cameras including some videos is on Google Photos. Martin also made a YouTube video in Slovak from the trip (just don't take inspiration from the first avalanche test, it was poorly performed).