Hard-luck on Austria's Grossglockner
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Hard-luck on Austria’s Grossglockner.
Austria’s tallest mountain, Grossglockner (3798 meters, 12,461’) remains one of the top destinations in the country, if not central Europe, for a few reasons. Roughly translated it means “Big Bell” and it’s a major goal of mountain climbers. It’s Austria's highest mountain and it has a breathtaking alpine road, known as the Hochalpenstrasse, that takes in some of the greatest views of the Eastern Alps and terminates at a parking lot that overlooks the Pasterze Glacier, said to be the longest in the Eastern Alps. About 5 miles long and shrinking every year, the Pasterze Glacier occupies a trough to the northeast of Grossglockner. Some claim that Grossglockner can be seen from Venice on clear days. While this is doubtful (there are plenty of mountains blocking the view), it’s almost certain that Venice can be seen from its summit on equally clear days. While glaciers continue to quickly recede from the peak, the mountain, like the rest of Alps, imperceptibly grows as the Alps continue to be shoved upward by the collision of the African plate into Europe. Some estimates put the growth at 1 millimeter per year.
Grossglockner is no mean feat for the mountaineer. It’s a relatively easy climb until the last stretch that requires steady nerves, technical belays, and negotiating throngs of climbers that are competing for limited space while trying to avoid a 2000 foot free fall on either side of the final pitch. If you can surmount this challenge and the weather permits you are rewarded with spectacular views atop this summit of crystalline rock. The summit of the Grossglockner was first climbed on July 27, 1800 when four members of a large party were able to negotiate the Glocknerscharte and mount a wooden cross on the summit. It’s no surprise that this expedition was sponsored by a local bishop who supplied carpenters to construct a summit cross. The previous summer only the Kleinglockner had been summited – this is the lesser peak 18 meters lower than the actual summit. The arête and couloir between the two is what turns many back. The impatient crowds at this point-of-no-return are as intimidating as the death-defying exposure.
The Grossglockner is only Austria’s tallest because of a strange twist of political fate and fiat, and it certainly wasn’t the tallest in the Hapsburg crown lands when it was first successfully climbed in 1800. It’s not that the Glockner grew taller, (although imperceptibly it has) but the redrawing of boundaries following the Treaty of St. Germain in 1919 gave a huge chunk of German-speaking Austrian Tyrol to Italy. This post-WWI political reconstruction effectively split Tyrol into three parts. South Tyrol is now part of Italy, and is known as Alto-Adige even though it remains mostly German-speaking. If you travel there you will notice the signs of the cities, towns, and villages are in both Italian and German – for good reason. Italy’s South Tyrol left the remaining parts of Tyrol, north and east, physically separated and the eastern exclave, or East Tyrol, eventually became a separate federal province in the Austrian Republic. Today, the Grossglockner sits on the boundary of the Austrian provinces of Carinthia and East Tyrol. Before the 1919 division, Austria’s highest mountain was the Ortler, at 3905 meters, 12,812’, now in South Tyrol. It was the scene of some intense mountain warfare between the Austrians and Italians during WWI. Live ordinance is still found high up as the glaciers quickly recede.
The most popular and accessible climbing route on Grossglockner starts from Kals, which is almost due south of the peak. Sitting at 1325 meters Kals would be a quiet mountain village in Ost Tirol if not for the hordes of summer hikers. Although clearly not a major winter destination, the snow still brings a few skiers to the area as the town supports a lift or two up the slopes of the adjacent Ganotzeck. The views of Grossglockner are excellent and the top of the lift is appropriately named Glocknerblick, which translates to “Glockner View”.
I attempted to climb the Grossglocker in 1985. It was August, the month Europeans traditionally vacate their homes and work and head for the hills as they do in Austria. Hiking vacations are common and the string of mountain huts, or hostels, that the OAV (Oestereich Alpine Verein) supports is incredible. My dad and I set out from Munich with our sights on tackling Austria’s highest. It was an ambitious goal. We headed down the autobahn, crossed the border into Austria, went through the Felbertauen tunnel, a 5.2 kilometer bore through the Granatspitz Gruppe of the Hohe Tauern and into Matrei in Osttirol. If you continue past Matrei you will reach Lienz, the capital of Osttirol, on the “sunny side” of the Alps. At least the Romans thought so and near Lienz, remarkably, one can find the ruins of Roman temples and settlements. From Matrei we went to the village of Huben, where we turned north northeast into the deep Kalser Tal. We reached Kals (1312 meters), some 500 meters higher than Huben (814 meters) about fifteen kilometers up the valley. Eager and ready to go our immediate destination was the Neues Lucknerhaus (1920 meters) in the Koednitztal which feeds into the broader Kalser Tal. That’s where the road ended and we would begin our journey on foot. It is also an excellent place to view the south aspect of Grossglockner which looms almost 1900 meters, or 6100’, directly above. The icy apron of the Koednitz Glacier was a beautiful sight and we would have to cross that before reaching our destination of the day, the Erzherzog Johann Hut atop the Adlersruhe, a rocky shoulder at 3454 meters high, at the base of Grossglockner’s pyramid. We got our gear together and with more than 5000 vertical feet ahead of us we began our ascent towards Stuedl Huette at 2802 meters, at the base of the Luisengrat. Once you arrive at the Luisengrat, the climber has two options: either to cross the Koednitzkees (glacier) and head towards Adlersruhe – the standard route, or head straight up Luisengrat to the summit – a direct but technically demanding climb that only the most experienced undertake. Of course we opted for the former. We arrived at Stuedl Huette and took a break while surveying the expanse of the Koednitz Glacier before us. A short walk across rock and then a couple dozen feet of drop brought us to the glacier’s edge where we affixed out crampons and readied our ice axes. The glacier was relatively stable and we could easily make out the tracks cut by other climbers. Crevasses were within a few yards in a couple places and for someone who had never crossed a glacier on foot this was a frightening prospect. Falling rock and ice were also commonplace with the constant frost wedging occurring during these months. I repeatedly looked up to see if it the icy projectiles were headed for me but we seemed quite far out of range. The glacial basin where we were climbing only amplified the sounds making it seem too close. Finally, at about the 3300 meter contour, we made it to the base of the pitch that climbed up to Adlersruhe. This was a steep section with an exposed part or two, but the fixed steel cable allowed us to ascend without any great difficulty. We made it to Adlersruhe and the weather seemed to be closing in on us. Light snow was falling and it was getting relatively late. We had climbed all day from the valley. We settled in for the night at the Erherzog Johann Hut. This was Austria’s highest mountain hut and it was an island in the middle of an icy, rocky world which seemed to desperately cling to a tenuous existence. Bolted down against the wind and snow, it was the final stop for climbers who were heading to the summit. The walls of the dining room were neatly decorated with plaques and pictures from successful mountain parties. I noticed one was from the U.S. Army Special Forces (Green Berets) stationed in Bad Toelz, Germany. We ate a dinner and then crawled in to our sleeping births in the lager. “Lager” in the huts means you sleep with a bunch to a room. Little privacy is afforded, especially in this hut which had limited space and popular demand from climbers. Indeed, it wasn’t comfortable and I slept fitfully. You could turn your face and be within inches of a stranger’s breath. I could never understand how people could sleep like this – yet I heard plenty of snoring, not to mention farting, through the night. At one point my dad and I heard someone shout Falsche Luft! the German euphemism for a fart which roughly translates to "false (bad) air". What's unbelievable is that this individual actually thought he was entitled to a fresh breath of air in a room that slept upwards of thirty people.
The following morning we were the last to leave. Well, maybe not the last, but we got off to a late start. I could hear other climbing parties leaving in the pre-dawn hours. We left after we spent some time adjusting our packs and good daylight was burned. The final glacier pitch cuts a switched-back path up a thirty degree slope of the upper reaches of the Hofmannskees (glacier). If you fall on this one, it’s a sure bet that you will be killed somewhere along the thousand meter free fall down the steep icy slope. Inexperience found us without harnesses (Swiss seats) and the accompanying rope that prevents such fateful mistakes, so not too long into the day we deciding to err on the cautious side and head back down. The Grossglockner would have to wait for another day.
Within one week we were back at Lucknerhaus. This time we had the Swiss seats and ropes which made for bulkier packs. We got to Lucknerhaus around noon this time and set our sites for a night bivouac at the Stuedl Hut, roughly a thousand meters below the Glockner’s south face. As we were more organized we made the Stuedl Hut in good time and checked into the lager and more comfortable accommodations. We decided to climb Fanot Kogel (2905 meters), the northern peak of a spiny rib of crystalline rock that extends southwards from Luisengrat. Fanot Kogel looms only one hundred meters above the hut and offers great panoramic views. A violent electrical storm rolled through soon after we descended Fanot Kogel. The next morning found us energized for the passage across the glacier. We roped up this time, just to try out our Swiss seats and ropes. We ascended the Adlersruhe and regrouped for the final icy pitch that leads to the base of the Kleinglockner’s heady pyramid. From there it would be all rock. We cautiously ascended the upper reaches of the Hofmannskees and an old, scraggly Austrian who was headed down greeted us with the cherry exclaimation “Sonne am gipfel!” ("There’s sun at the top"). How did the “Old Man of the Mountains” as I named him, who had passed us earlier near the Erherzog Johann Hut, actually summit and return in that span of time? Wearing lederhosen this guy’s pace and confidence was remarkable. It was clear that he had summited the peak many times and his off-hand manner made it look like this was just an afternoon jaunt. Finally we made it to the standing room only patch of rock that marked the terminus of the ice. It was scary to look down and there was no room for error. We fastened ourselves to the fixed steel bolts and slowly my dad led the first pitch. The going proved very slow. People were passing us and their frustration became audible at our lack of progress. Apparently we were holding them back. At one point I heard someone rudely commented in German “Are they from England?”. Well, at least we didn’t give the Americans a bad name, I thought, trying to keep my sense of humor. Had I been on level ground I might have given this blunt-spoken German an American knuckle full on his jaw. My father barked something at them in German and they shut-up. Going proved too slow for us and we barely completed two 60 foot pitches, gingerly making our way up Kleinglockner’s face. Bad weather, late afternoon, and a slow pace forced us to turn around. A mountain rescue gendarme was heading down and advised us to do no less. I remember his prophetic words: “You shouldn’t continue if you are scared”. I wonder what gave him that idea? That was enough and this wasn’t even the hairy part. He told us we were approximately at the 3600 meter contour, which was a nice benchmark that stuck in my head. If you do the math that would have been another 170 meters, or about 560’ vertical feet to Kleinglockner’s pinnacle. We headed downtrodden back to the various huts and lodged at which one I don’t remember. It was a great experience but unfulfilled to have attempted Austria’s highest twice only to be turned away by a lack of confidence and experience. My father tried to convince me on the drive home to try another peak in the Stubaital near where he grew up outside of Innsbruck. I had had enough and stubbornly refused. I regret that decision but we live and die by our experience. It’s been a quarter century since my attempt to summit Grossglockner and I hope I’ll have one more opportunity in my fast-paced life to try again. I’ll do things differently this time because of the lessons I learned on the first two attempts. I know by the time I get around to it, the mountain will have grown at least 25 millimeters and its glaciers will be smaller. I wonder if this will make a difference…? Probably not.
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