Closing the circle

12.105km.

3 countries.

16 resorts.

82 days, 3 hours and 22 minutes.

Thousands of powder turns.

Hundreds of kicker jumps.

Zero severe injuries.

Countless new friends.

These are some of the numbers of the Perfect Winter. But you know as well I do that there is much more to a long trip than mere numbers. While I’m finding it difficult  to stay away from emotional clichés when talking about this season in the Alps, let me try to stick to the facts of these last few months.

One of the big objectives of The Perfect Winter was to witness the changing of the seasons. In Portugal, especially in the south, spring and fall are kind of extensions of a long summer. Even our winter is very mild when compared to higher latitutes. Therefore, we are not used to the changes that come as Earth spins around the sun. In the Alps, on the other hand, these changes are not only obvious but they also profoundly affect the lives of the people living in and around the mountains. First of all, green and brown give place to a magical white carpet covering everything. I was fortunate enough to witness the first heavy snowfall that kicked this late winter into full gear.

At first I didn’t grasp the true importance of this in Alpine life, but it’s pretty obvious. While this generation relies on snow to make ends meet as it attracts tourists, previous generations would wait for snow to cover the fields and fertilize the earth for cattle grazing and crops. It’s scary to think that all this can change as winters get shorter and snow falls higher and higher.

I must say that even thought this winter was far from harsh, I enjoyed it to the maximum. Because I was there all the time and with the right people, I could go out whenever conditions were perfect. You can read all about this throughout this blog…

Eventually the season in Tirol came to an end. By the time of departure spring had arrived and once again I was privileged enough to witness the changing of the season, as the snow starts to melt and the grass starts to grow.

This time the arrival of a new season had a strong impact. After  my first winter in the mountains I could really feel the days getting longer, and the warmer temperatures seeping through the valley. Experiencing the incoming Spring is hard to describe in words, and quite pointless at this time actually. However, while it did put a different positive vibe into the daily routines, it meant that Perfect Winter was ending.

I left Tirol on March 15, and headed West towards the beautiful village of Villars, in the Vaudoises Alps in Switzlerland. This town and the surrounding mountains are a picture perfect place – but extremely expensive. The obscene prices around here were simply an insult for someone coming from southern Europe, even after spending a season in Austria where the cost of living can be similar to that of Portugal if you shop smart. However, I was invited by friends to stay over and their company largely compensated for this financial shock. I ended up exploring most of the amazing mountains in Villars, Les Diablerets and Glacier 3000 in just 2 days, with a hint of local knowledge and chilled vibe. Thank you David and André!

The final stage of this journey would really represent the closing of the circle. Most of us usually started skiing or snowboarding  with friends, and still spend their holidays in the mountains in groups, and friends are probably the most important part of every snowtrip. Most of the fun comes from the people you are with, regardless of the snow conditions or how nice the place is. So being reunited with the MG Snowtrip family in France, who I have travelling with for some time now, was indeed returning to the origins of snowboarding: sliding down slopes with your snow buddies. I would be lying if I said that it didn’t take some time to adjust to be snowboarding with other people around me instead of simply roaming free, but in the end it’s just another way to enjoy life in high altitude.

There are hundreds of photos of this amazing gathering of friends and snow enthusiasts here and here, so I’l just post one that shows the good spirit present in this snowtrip.

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The drive back to good old Portugal was nice and easy. I was blessed with amazing waves right when I arrived, and pretty much that sums up the invaluable experience from this Perfect Winter.

However, the ride is never over. There will be more winters to spend and more paths to travel.

Ride on.

 

The mountains within

The Alpine landscape has a strong effect on the beholder, especially if one comes from a relatively flat country such as Portugal. The magnitude of the features in front of you, the harshness of the weather and the speed at which it changes is nothing short of wonderful.

So excuse me if I tend to get a bit philosophical here. But after two months traveling around in the Alps alone (OK, not all the time, but still) it’s easy to start wondering through the mountains within, just as much as I do in the peaks and valleys out there.

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As I was writing about here, the purpose of this trip was not only to discover the mountains of Tyrol, but also (and mainly) to feel the mountains. Because, let’s face it, most of us are tourist when it comes to high altitude. The usual week crammed in a room in some resort with a group of friends eager to ride hard and party even harder doesn’t allow much space for deep understandings of anything. I mean, it’s always a blast and if that’s the only way to go above freezing level, super. But I wanted more. And so it just happened that I got more than I bargained for: going out (and staying out) in the wide open valleys, forests, glaciers and snowy peaks made me go deeper inside my own mountains. As if instead me looking at the Alps, it was as if the Alps were looking at me – and I got as overwhelmed as it sounds. As so many songs, books and even more unwritten journals of travelers described better than I could possibly do, this overwhelming happens often when you step into the unknown. And, according to oriental philosophies, it serves a quite curious purpose of cleaning your mind of conscious thought. Just like those ancient chinese riddles ‘what is the sound of one clapping?’ or ‘if a tree falls in the woods and no one’s around, does it make a sound?’, only nicer and much more expensive.

So, as I crossed the Gerlospass and witnessed the beautiful valley of the Salzach river as it showed the north facing slopes covered with snow and the south faces completely barren, as if winter and spring met exactly there, I had one of those moments.

Wow.

It gave me a sudden realization of some deep universal meanings – which I am not going to tell you, obviously, they’re mine.

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So, what’s the point of all this? The point is I am so glad I came and did this, despite the money and other associated costs, despite the ‘saudade’ of so many people and things, and also despite the uncertainty of what will happen next. This is quite a claim, but this journey made me a better person.

At the risk of sounding even more cliché (is that possible?), but not giving a damn about it, I’m going to leave here a song that has one of the best descriptions of what traveling is all about. It is in Portuguese but there’s bound to be a translated version of the lyrics somewhere.

Chronicles of a Perfect Winter

There’s been a lot going on lately. But before I get onto writing about about the latest exploratory missions, let me just link you to my latest chronicle that came out in the Sul Informação magazine: the interview with one of the most influential riders in Austrian snowboarding and member of the infamous Ästhetiker crew, Friedl Kolar.

Again, it is in Portuguese, but fortunately we have Google translate to serve us a funny yet intelligible  translation. Just copy the link and shove into translate.google.com

Crónica de um Inverno Perfeito: Snowboard na primeira pessoa

Tourist no more

Looked out the window. It’s a complete whiteout, flat light, and the recent rain took all the new snow. It looks like this:

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That’s it for me, I’m staying home. Am I a tourist no more?

After more than a month straight in the Alps, my perspective has evolved (much more than my performance, unfortunately, but who cares anyway?). I no longer feel the urge to go out to the slopes everyday, nor do I particularly enjoy riding pistes anymore. After being introduced to some of Tirol’s secret spots and riding for 5 days straight in what could be considered a private, untracked, unspoiled, private mountain, maybe it turned me into a bit of a snob. Obviously I have to get down to earth and think about how lucky I am to be doing this and especially how grateful I am to the local crew who is showing me around. Does riding with the locals make me a local? No it does not. But it does shift my way of riding  and reading the mountain into something more than being a tourist.

I have nothing against being a tourist – after all, it is virtually impossible to avoid it. If you only can take a week a year to go some place far away and do something you really enjoy, there’s no problem whatsoever. I did exactly that until this trip, and will probably continue to do so. But my point here is that that there is so much more to a place, any place, than what can be seen and experienced in one or two weeks per year. You have to take the time, to put in the hours to know the people, know the spot,study the conditions and learn when it’s good and when it’s not. How are you going to do this if you have to plan your trip months in advance, and stay only for a fidgety 6-day opportunity to release all the eagerness to shred that you accumulated over the year? Of course you’re going to go out every day, from opening to closing, no matter if it’s windy, cold, foggy, wind blown, snowing, freezing or simply dry of snow. You’re gonna be out, and you’ll make it worth.

The obvious comparison is with the beach. After being in the Algarve for 15 years, I hardly go to the beach in the summer (except for surfing, if it’s pumping). The ridiculous crowd filling the sand and the roads is just a nightmare. And  they all seem to come for the same places, at the same time, with all the things the Algarve has to see. And yet, I cannot blame these people who can only come for this small period and enjoy their time, making the most of what they know. That’s me in the mountains up until now.

I fear this season will damage my future snow vacations. After spending a whole winter in the Alps, and experiencing the best the mountain has to offer while knowing that you cannot plan these things so far ahead, it will be hard to be a tourist again. Or maybe not, maybe that will make me even more stoked to return to this magical place.

But what am I talking about? I haven’t even left! You know what? I’m gearing up and going shredding!

smile

 

The Chronicles from a Perfect Winter

I have been sharing some of my thoughts on this Perfect Winter thing on a portuguese newspaper. They are in Portuguese (duh) but it’s nothing that Google Translate won’t solve. This is my last one:

Crónica de um Inverno Perfeito: A Passagem

The Flow

Firstly, I must apologize in advance to a fair bit of you, my readers, who are more into traveling and exploring and less into the technical and philosophical aspects of riding boards sideways. The following text will dig into the what I think is the whole concept behind ‘boardriding’ (as referred to surfing, skateboarding and, alas, snowboarding). Also, as a disclaimer, it is raining outside and I just drove my friend to the train station. So, after 2 weeks with my girlfriend and another week with my friend, I am, for the first time in The Perfect Winter project, all by myself. You’d expect that the philosophy would kick in, wouldn’t you?

Why do we stand on a board and decide to ride it down waves, ramps, streets or mountains? Why are so many of us willing to change our lives or even direct our own existence into spending as much time as possible standing sideways, speeding down natural or man made features that can hurt us or even kill us if things go wrong? It’s the rush of flowing. Effortlessly, weightlessly, simply flowing. That feeling you get when you are a moving part of something larger, perfect and timeless. The flow.

There are infinite variations of what you can do while riding a board. If you are skateboarding, the creative aspects are indeed endless: spin, flip, rotate, shove, jump, slide, climb, in every sense of motion, in every obstacle imaginable, in the streets of any city or in a purpose-built park. And if skateparks are getting more and more innovative and allow for a safer, legal and easier progression, it never ceases to amaze me how creative skateboarders can get when looking at any street feature. Curbs, banks, stairs, handrails and yes, the everlasting hydrant, are the tools of creation for skaters, allowing for boundless interpretations of the world around them.

 

Riding on snow is traditionally limited by the fact that your feet are strapped to your board (although not necessarily). But what it lacks in versatility it compensates on size. The sheer magnitude of the medium you are riding on – the mountains – is totally out of a human scale. The forces responsible for pushing the earth’s crust upward, the time it took to happen and the temperatures and winds that allow for snow and ice to form, are somewhat out of our scope of comprehension. Maybe that’s why snowboarders are so keen on going big. The jumps are getting bigger by the day, the spins are going crazy in degrees (they’re throwing 1800’s in contests now..) and the mountains snowboarders are riding are higher and steeper than ever.

 

However, the fountain of flow is in surfing. No other sport/culture/lifestyle embodies the idea of flowing so seamlessly as surfing. When you surf, the medium is moving with, around, under and over you. Adjusting to the rhythm of the waves, sets, tides, swells and seasons is tuning in the vibration of our planet – indeed to our universe. The flow of surfing epitomizes the flow in the ride of all other vehicles, either rolling on concrete or sliding on frozen water. And it is impossible to explain – you just have to feel it.

 

So think about this: you can stomp gaps, kick flips, throw spins and perform any sort of trick, newschool or oldschool, and still be completely out of tune if you are missing the essence. The flow.

Why Austria?

If you had to choose a destination to spend 3 months of your life, paying hard-earned money to stay at a carefully picked location, with enough solitude to feel like a soul-searching trip yet close enough to civilization to be able to leave your house on foot and access stores, local ‘wildlife’, transportations and whatever it was that drove you there… would you choose a country that speaks one of the most unintelligible languages of Europe (at least for us Latin speakers, but I suspect we’re not alone on that one), and a region that boasts the most unfriendly, inaccessible and harsh geography on the Old continent?

Well I did. Austria was always the choice to spend The Perfect Winter. And despite the obvious disadvantages (language being number one), here’s why.

– It is beautiful. The Alpine landscape here is just breathtaking. And yes, I am aware that the Alps start in France and cross Switzerland, Liechtenstein, good ol’ Oesterreich, Germany, Italy and all the way into Slovenia. In all these countries the mountains look good. But there is a special care with the landscape in Austria that is truly heart-warming. Especially compared to the landscape raping you see in that country that starts with an F and has baguettes.

– It is cheap. Ok, it’s not cheap. But it is definitely cheaper than any other Alpine country. Yes, I know, choosing wisely you may find here and there cheaper places in other countries. Or not. After having been in every one of the latter (except Germany) for snow holidays, I can tell you, for example, that the cheapest beer in any French resort costs more than the most expensive beer in Austria. And it always tastes better here, hands down. Food is cheaper too – try eating out in Switzlerland. Or even in Alpine Italy, and you’ll see those €€ flying away so fast you won’t have the chance to say goodbye. Even the lodging is cheaper, but that’s not the main plus about it…

– Everything always looks brand new. Everything. The houses. The roads. The cities. The streets. The gardens. The buildings. The infrastructure at any ski resort, it is mind-boggling, it’s always spanking new. How on earth do they do it? At every apartment I was in during holidays in Austria, everything was just clean and perfectly set. No paint coming off on a hidden corner. No patch of rotten wood on the back of the house. Brand new furniture. How do they do it? Go to a restaurant. Nothing looks remotely used. Go outside. The buildings look perfect. What materials are those? How often are they maintained? As I said, mind-boggling.

– Things work. Maybe it’s because of the proximity with their German cousins – or maybe due to their common origin, better yet – stuff works. Rules and regulations apply, oh yes. But it simply works.

– The people are a strange and balanced mix of German stiffness and southern warmth. Strange but it works fine for me.

– Did I mention the mountains look amazing? It is just breathtaking.

There are of course other negative aspects (other than the language, and even that, I must say, I am growing fond of). But everything is bearable. Except for one detail.

The hedious music exhaling from the aprés-ski bars. Oh dear. We are in the country of Mozart, for goodness sake. Or Parov Stelar. Or Kruder & Dorfmeister. How can they assassinate so much good music with the euro-dance garbage puking out of so many overly loud speakers everywhere around 4PM?

But hey. It ends soon, and then you have those mountains around you. And it makes everything fine again.

Começando pelo fim – MG Snowtrip

O que têm em comum o Tirol e os Alpes Franceses? Ambos fazem parte do roteiro do Inverno Perfeito.

Mesmo ainda não tendo metido o pé na estrada, já sei onde vai terminar esta viagem. Depois dos 3 meses a explorar o Tirol em modo solitaire, a caravana arranca no final de Março em direcção ao domínio de Vars-Risoul para desaguar na MG Snowtrip. Esta não é aquela snowtrip de pacote onde a agência marca hotel e envia os participantes para despachar cartuchos de turistas. A diferença aqui é que os organizadores estão dentro da viagem, fazem o roteiro, a festa e as pistas, e vivem o espírito com o grupo todo em formato família.

Se viajar sozinho é bom, em grupo também tem a sua piada. Basta escolher a companhia certa.

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Throwback thursday

O interesse pelos desportos de montanha não vem de agora. Desde há muitos anos que faço papel de turista na neve, tanto pelos picos mais próximos da Sierra Nevada como pela cordilheira Alpina, como ainda pelo meio do caminho nos Pirinéus (e é claro pela nossa serrinha da Estrela). Cada local tem o seu encanto, cada montanha tem a sua magia. Seja em grupo, seja sozinho, cada viagem é especial à sua maneira e deixa a sua marca. Esta, por exemplo, foi uma brincadeira com 4 amigos que realizámos no início da época do ano passado. Porque não aproveitar o facto da Sierra Nevada estar aqui tão próxima e fazer uma road trip de fim de semana numa autocaravana até acima dos 3000 metros?

Com os anos, o interesse foi crescendo pela parte da montanha que o turista normalmente não vê. Mais do que condensar o máximo de descidas nos 6 dias que habitualmente constam das férias na neve, começaram a surgir outras questões. O passar das estações. Os primeiros nevões. A preparação para o frio. Como será a sensação de viver a montanha sem pensar na data de regresso?