Band of Brothers
From easy cruising to extreme climbing, Tirol is a paradise for off-piste skiing and freeriding. For three local brothers, exploring the mountains is a family affair. Their alpine adventures large and small are a ritual since childhood– and a tradition that bind the bonds of brotherhood tighter than ever.
When the days get longer, the snow in the valleys begins to melt and the first flowers of spring burst into bloom, he falls ever more silent. In summer, when the heat of the day drives people to the lakes in search of refreshment, he retreats into hibernation.
But as summer slowly slips away and autumn arrives, bringing with it the first snows of winter, it is only a matter of time before he remerges from his slumber: “Going to the Karwendel Mountains on Thursday. You guys in?“
A shared passion: Oliver, Frank and Andi (left to right) atop the Schwarzenstein mountain
My brother Andi is addicted to snow.
As is often the case with addicts, he finds it hard to talk. “It’s so quiet, so peaceful,” he says when asked what it is that he likes about winter in the mountains. “And I like the cold,” he adds with a smile. I am about to ask my next question, but he is keen to add more: “No two days in the mountains are the same. Conditions are always changing. You never know what you are going to find.” He waits for a moment, then looks at me again with an expression that says: “Why are you asking me all these things? After all, you know all the answers already!” But then he snaps back into it and sums it all up in just one further sentence: “I’ve been snowboarding for a long time, but it’s something that still gives me so much pleasure.”
Our conversation is taking place in a hut high in the Silvretta Mountains. Autumn has arrived, bringing with it the first snow of the season – and bringing together our band of brothers: Andi, Oliver and Frank. While I stir the pot on the wood-fired stove, Frank and Andi are busy chopping wood for the long, cold night ahead. We have been going into the mountains together for decades. Our teenage and student years now lie far behind us now – we have relationships, families, jobs, commitments.
At the Furtschaglhaus hut high in the mountains our author is melts snow while brother Andi and friend Ben prepare dinner.
We don’t even live in the same city. In day-to-day life we see little of each other. But as soon as it gets cold and white in the mountains, we reconvene in search of the best powder fields with the fewest tracks. A quest to find new lines and to revisit old spots from our shared past. A chance to get together, for old time’s sake.
The pleasure of skiing off-piste, of exploring the mountains together, is the same as it was when we were children. As we reach our mid-forties we are spending more time skiing together than ever before. Favourite destinations include the Bavarian Alps, western Switzerland, the Dolomites and the Karawanks. Our adventures have even taken us as far afield as Japan and Georgia. Recently we set ourselves the challenge of skiing visiting one hut in each of Tirol’s regions, forcing us to explore new routes at the start of a new season.
Three tracks in the snow, somewhere in the Eastern Alps: Over the years the brothers have become more similar in their skiing and snowboarding style.
And as the season draws to a close, when the rivers swell with melt water rushing into the valley and my brother Andi starts getting grumpy like he does every summer, we head higher into the mountains in search of the last few bits of powder on the north-facing slopes and the wonderfully soft spring snow further below.
The Alps are our playground
This winter we have experienced many silent ascents and joyful descents together, in driving snowstorms and under deep blue skies. We have learned much. About Tirol – for example, that the Lienz Dolomites offer some of the best powder skiing in the world, or that the eastern part of the Tux Alps is great for getting away from it all and being on your own.
Our author and his brother Andi climb the final few metres to the Schönbichler Scharte ridge in the Zillertal Alps.
Frank abseiling down a snowy rockface. At the bottom of the wall awaits a long descent – a special treat he is happy to share with his brothers.
But more important than anything else is that each day together in the mountains, each night spent at a hut, each summit conquered as a band of brothers, has made it clearer to us how fortunate we are to share these experiences with each other. No awkward family meals for us. When we want to be together, we know exactly what to do. Each ski tour brings us closer and strengthens the unique bond that exists only between siblings.
It’s not always about the extremes, like the incredible powder we experienced in Lienz in January, but also the mundane, like our ritual of rock-paper-scissors to decide who gets first tracks this time.
As brothers, of course, there is always a bit of sibling rivalry. I remember our ski tour on the Kuhscheibe mountain. After negotiating a tricky section near the top, the rest of the descent was relatively easy – a chance, we decided, to race each other down the mountain at top speed just like we did as kids. But being in the mountain also comes with its dangers – and, as such, a particular sense of responsibility towards the other members of the group. Is everyone feeling okay? Will Frank be able to negotiate this section safely despite his semi-broken binding? And, last but not least, there is pride. The pride we feel in our own achievements, sure. But also the pride we have in each other – for pushing through the pain on a long, hard ascent, but also for having the courage to speak up when unsure. Is this slope really safe? Is this ridge too exposed? Where such questions would once have been seen as a sign of weakness, they are now our strength.
Sharing memories around the fire
These are the moments and memories we remember when we sit down together in the evening, light the fire, look out of the window and see if the sky tells us anything about tomorrow’s weather.
Racing each other through the forest. Carving first tracks in the fresh powder next to the piste on those few days after a heavy snowfall when we all manage to get time off work. But the best experiences are when we do something together for the first time and it works. That butterflies-in-the-stomach moment of not quite knowing what will happen. Is this slope really safe? Will we be able to find our way to the ridge? Then, finally, pure relief and joy as the nerves disappear in a puff of powder and we swoop and whoop our way down the mountain.
Our shared pleasure is like a tree. The seed was planted in childhood by our parents, who weren’t great climbers or skiers but simply enjoyed being outside in nature and passed on to us their spirit of adventure and curiosity.
Me first! Our author tries to get a head-start on his brothers through the forest. Sibling rivalry about first tracks and best lines is – mostly – friendly.
As we became teenagers, this tiny plant began to grow – we finally had the freedom to go out and explore the world together, without our parents. Today we are reaping the rewards, harvesting the fruit of this decades-old tree year by year. I ask my brother if there is anything he notices about how we divide up the different jobs when skiing in the mountains. “You are responsible for the food. Apart from that, I don’t think we have clearly defined roles,” says Andi, the youngest of us three brothers. “I suppose in some ways it’s a bit weird that most of my skiing is done with my brothers,” laughs Frank, our middle brother.
We have been doing it for so long now that we know we can absolutely rely on each other. In the mountains, we work as a unit. “We are a real team,” says Frank. We know each other so well that often just a look is enough to know what the other person is thinking. That makes things a lot easier. Is there, I ask them, anything they don’t like about our shared adventures. “I suppose all three of us are desperate to find the best snow,” says Frank. “Sometimes we have to be patient and think of the others instead of just going out and claiming the best lines for ourselves.”
He’s right. Sharing out the pleasure of first tracks is something we have become good at over the years. Mostly. At the start of the season we still tend to race each other up the mountain, each keen to carve the first line in the glistening snow waiting above. But in most cases we manage to wait for each other and take turns going first.
I guess we are a bit like those old surfers who sit out in the ocean and let each other catch the best wave, consoled by the knowledge that another one will be along soon. The older we become, the more we are able to take pleasure in giving others pleasure. Tomorrow we will once again take turns on the front crunching our way through the fresh snow on the way up. And when we reach the summit we will agree who should get first tracks down the banana-shaped couloir. “You first.“ No, you first.“ No, really, I insist. Today it’s your turn.“ And at the bottom, if everything has gone well, it’s fist bumps and wide smiles as we gaze back at our three lonely tracks in the snow.
The moon shines on the Floitenkees glacier as the brothers’ latest adventure draws to a close. Here’s to many more!
Those are the moments, the memories, that keep Andi, Frank and me going through the summer, when the days are too bright and the sticky heat leaves us pining for the cold of winter.