Climbing one of the highest glacier peaks in the Austrian Alps

The highest mountain range in the Austrian Alps is in the Hohe Tauern National Park region. The two dominant peaks are the Grossglockner (3,798m) and the Grossvenediger (3,674m), both flanked with massive glaciers and accessible from several valleys around it. I had climbed both peaks before, but did not stand on their summits for more than 10 years. Standing on top of one of those peaks with perfect weather conditions is a dream for every alpinist.

Towards the end of a 2 week vacation in Austria in July 2005, the weather conditions shaped up to be just perfect: Extremely hot air (30-36 C), high pressure and thus no thunderstorms forming. This meant there would be a good opportunity to summit one of those high peaks. I decided to try the Grossvenediger, which I had summitted several times, both on skis in spring and on foot in summer, as well as seen from the air while hanggliding in this beautiful region of the Austrian Alps called the ‘Pinzgau’.

Usually it takes 2 days for the climb and you stay overnight at one of the huts built by the Austrian Alpine Club (OEAV), such as the ‘Kuersinger-Huette’ or the ‘Prager Huette’. Since I had very little time, I was going to attempt it in just 1 day. From the North, the vertical gain is about 2700m (9000 ft) as one cannot enter the valley very far by car (due to the National Park boundaries). This makes for a very long ascent and descent in a single day. At least I would be using the mountain bike – the same MTB I used on the Grossglockner pass ride last year - to ride along the dirt road for the first 900 vertical meters and a considerable horizontal distance. More importantly, it would shorten the descent, as you can just roll back down at the end of a long day of hiking. But it will still be a very long day…


Thursday, July 28, 2005

The alarm clock rings at 2:15am. I had loaded the MTB into my mother’s car and prepared my backpack and all necessary gear like ice axe, crampons, warm clothing and food the evening before. Hence I only get dressed, drink some juice and start driving less than 15 minutes after getting up. I stop at an Autobahn gas station to buy fresh batteries for my digital camera and a battery light for the predawn parts of the ascent. The 145km (90 miles) approach drive takes about 1 ¾ hours. I park the car, unload the MTB and put on my heavy hiking boots. Here in the valley it has a crisp 13 C (56 F); but I can still start in shorts and T-shirt, as the initially steep ascent on the bike will get me heated up quickly. It is 4:30am when I start the ascent from the parking spot at an elevation of just 1000m.

Riding at night is not too bad since there is a half moon and absolutely not a single cloud in the sky full of stars. I put the small battery light in the pocket of my shorts. I use it only once or twice when approaching a gate in te road to check that there are no barbed wires or bars across the road. The ride feels a bit surreal, with nobody out there, and the same strange feeling I always have in the predawn hours when starting a trip, when the mind is still transitioning from anticipation to participation. The sound of the river is greatly amplified, both by the absence of any other noises in the early morning, by the huge water runoff due to the snow melt, as well as by the absence of daylight, which makes your brain tune in more to other senses like smell and hearing. After ½ hr I reach the Bernd-Alm at 1,500 m.

The predawn sky is turning into shades of dark and light blue. No more need for the battery light. My backpack is strapped to the back of the bike, which is more comfortable and less sweaty for my back. The mountain peaks emerge around the valley (‘Obersulzbach-Tal’). Next stop Post-Alm at 1,700 m.

Only cows are up this early in the morning, or so it seems along this path. Actually it turns out that most climbers headed for the summit today have already departed the various huts further up the valley. By the time I reach the end of the dirt road at 6:15am some of them are already walking on the glacier much higher on the mountain. I park the MTB next to a few others at the base station of a material lift (1,929 m) which forms the supply line up to the Kuersinger hut. The base station is at the end of the dirt road in the middle of the next picture. The first part of the day has gone according to plan and the weather is brilliant. As I start hiking up the valley towards the hut I am happy and confident.

In the meantime the sun has risen and illuminates the mountain ranges high above with warm yellow light, painting a spectacular contrast to the dark blue sky.

In the Austrian Alps the tree line is at around 1,800 m. Above 2,000 m you have only rocks and grass, as visible in the above view back down the valley. This landscape with the “U”-shaped valley was formed primarily by the glaciers in the 10,000 years since the last ice age. Those glaciers have also moved along steep rock formations, which the path needs to cross climbing up to the hut.

The path poses no technical difficulty, but at times you need to pay attention where you’re stepping and that you’re not slipping when crossing a larger bolder. In that sense it reminds me a bit of the boulder field we had to cross on the climb of Granite Peak in Montana, although that one was much more remote and challenging by comparison.

This part of the hike is great, the air is still cool in the shade, the views are getting ever more spectacular. After 1 ½ hrs of steady climbing I see the Kuersinger hut (2,550 m) and reach it shortly thereafter at 7:50am.

It is here that I can see the summit of the Grossvenediger for the first time. In contrast to the above mentioned Granite Peak trip, most alpine endeavours in Austria are much less remote and offer the luxury of huts with food and overnight shelter. I order coffee and a delicious tasting ‘Mohnstrudel’ cake. While I wait for my breakfast I sit on the balkony and take in the view of the upper part of the mountain.

Just to the right from this same vantage point is another picture perfect post card view to the Grosser Geiger, which at 3,300 m dominates the view during the approach hike in the valley. Wouldn’t you like to have breakfast with such a view?

After ½ hour of feasting both on calories and spectacular vistas I need to move on. I put on my boots again– no boots inside the hut with its wooden floors – and continue the ascent around 8:20am. A quick look back shows the Kuersinger hut in the morning sun with the Schlieferspitze in the background.

The next part of the ascent is to traverse diagonally upwards to reach the glacier. All these glaciers have receded considerably over the last decades. When my dad climbed this mountain many decades ago with skis in the winter, he had to negotiate an area called ‘Tuerkische Zeltstadt’ (“City of Turkish Tents”) which doesn’t exist any more. Some alpine maps have thus been updated with the adjective ‘former’ in this region.

I try to get into a good rhythm which is so important during a long hike (or ride J). It doesn’t take long before I can see the upper slopes of the glacier which mark the easiest route up the mountain. I pause for a quick self-timer picture, successfully using one of the many big rocks as a tripod for my camera.

What a view! It is just after 9:00am when I reach the glacier. The scenery changes completely and the green & grey gives way to the white of the snow. Luckily the snow conditions are ideal, with soft firn over a hard foundation. Hence no crampons are necessary just yet. I don’t know it at that point, but I won’t need neither crampons nor ice axe the entire day, as these conditions last pretty much the entire day.

Such snowfields always open up my mind and make me feel and enjoy the freedom in the mountains. The only thing preventing me from contemplating too much philosophy is the thinning air and the physical exercise of the steady ascent. I find a good rhythm and move fairly fast with the aid of the ski poles. Everything is humming perfectly. I stop only for pictures and to replenish my thick layer of sun screen on legs, arms and face every hour. The radiation up here is extremely intense, with the thin air filtering less UV rays and the snow reflecting the sun. Since you don’t feel the radiation right away due to the cool air, you can get serious sun burns unless using plenty of sun screen, somewhat similar to the situation at the Florida beaches. I also use a chap stick and apply a layer of fat to my lips to prevent lip chap.

An hour after the above picture I reach the first party of climbers already on their descent at 10:20am.

The view opens up to the North all the way down more than 2,000 m (6,600 ft) to the valley in the ‘Pinzgau’. The first ridges you see as highest points in the very morning at the beginning of the valley now fall away in the distance and give way to higher ridges and summits all around. Shortly after this stop I can see one of the key parts of this ascent, the ‘Venediger-Scharte’ at 3,400m (11,200 ft).

This flank is moderatly steep and usually requires crampons. It also has a large crevasse near the top which can be tricky to cross. As can be seen from the pictures, conditions were optimal and you could just walk up in the steps without crampons. Just when reaching the big crevasse I cross yet another party and ask them to take a picture of me with the crevasse and summit in the background.

I remember this part from many years ago where we negotiated an icy flank, on skis, roped up with a friend, much worse visibility, making this part more tricky. This part also reminds me of the climb up Mount Baker in 1999, where I crossed a similarly large crevasse on the upper reaches of the mountain. See also bottom part of the Alaska trip report, August 27. (German only)

As soon as I reach the saddle between the small and the big peaks ( ‘Kleinvenediger’ and ‘Grossvenediger‘) just after 11:00am, I can see towards the South. There are some harmless cumulus clouds framing the view to the Grossglockner in the SoutEast.

Hard to believe that we reached this peak with our hanggliders in August 1995, almost exactly 10 years ago! But that’s a different story…

The view also opens up towards the East down towards the ‘Prager Huette’ and the valley called ‘Innergschloess’ which features a shorter ascent to the Grossvenediger, albeit with more crevasses and thus considerably more dangerous when climbing solo.

On this last stretch I feel like adding the Turbo to my engine. While I still feel moving strongly the effects of altitude above 3,500 m start to kick in. After all, I am now more than 10,000 ft higher than Salzburg, which is not much higher than 1,000 ft above sea level. At least the various hikes of the last 10 days or so have given me some acclimatization, which I didn’t have any at the beginning of my vacation due to living at sea level in Florida. My heart rate is at 140bpm. Without consciously moving slowly I would no longer be able to maintain the same pace. Lack of steady pace leads to a stop-&-go pattern which ruins your rhythm and can really slow you down. One thought crossing my mind is the possibility of cumulus clouds obstructing the summit view like I have experienced it the first time on this mountain when climbing as a teenager with my family. Not so today: Soon I can see large groups of people sitting near the summit. At 11:50am I step up to the ridge leading to the cross. I have reached the top.

There is one more section which requires caution as can be seen in the first picture of this report. It’s good to have ski poles when following the narrow and somewhat exposed ridge.

The view from the top is stunning. I take 10 individual photos which I will later stitch together to form one great panoramic picture. (See here for this and other panoramic views.) From this selection, here is the view towards the West along the ‘Alpenhauptkamm’.

The summit is all the more sweet due to the mild temperatures and relatively calm winds, which allow me to sit in shorts and T-shirt at the summit at 3,674 m (just above 12,000 ft). In fact, I will not wear anything else other than this except during the evening swim in a small bathing lake in Stuhlfelden. All the extra gear carried but not used – well, just like the seat belt in the car or any other protective equipment, you hope you never have to use it, but you can’t go without it.

As I take the following picture from the top of a snow cone about 10 ft higher than the cross, there is no one standing higher than this (except on the Grossglockner) to the East anywhere in the Alps and about 100 km (60 mi) to the West. In case you didn’t notice, this is how I look when I’m thrilled.

One more picture shows the great dimensions of this mountain and the different climate zones you cross when ascending from the bottom to the top. Notice the shadow of the summit cross in the foreground and the massive glacial cover of the top flank of the mountain. The view reaches down more than 2,000 m (6,600 ft) to the South entrance of the Felbertauern-Tunnel, one of the main arteries for North-South traffic across the Alps.

As spectacular as the view is from the summit, after more than 1 hour I have to turn away and start going down. A long descent awaits you from the top. Thankfully, the softening snow makes for a much faster descent due to sliding with every step. Due to this sliding and the fact that I am moving solo and not roped up with climbing partners I descend much faster than another party starting at roughly the same time. I take the next picture after descending roughly 350 m (1,000 ft) in only 20 minutes. From this spot it took me more than 1 hour to reach the top going up. (On soft snow you can easily descend 3 times faster than ascending, while on rocky ground it’s hard to be 2 times faster.)

The sun is beating down relentless and walking on the snow is uncomfortably hot. After 5 hours on the glacier I am glad to get back down on the rocky slopes above the Kuersinger hut. I take my boots off, apply more sunscreen, drink and eat some cookies.

I wish I could just sit here for hours and enjoy the view, the food and the fresh air. The simple joys of a great day in the Alps - life is good J Soon however I need to keep moving. Within another ½ hour I reach the Kuersinger hut again. I buy some drinks and a Strudel to refuel for the continued descent. Due to the heat I am mostly thristy, not really hungry.

The path leading down looks slightly different going down and with the afternoon sun. There are more people here hiking just to the hut. I ask someone for another picture. Perhaps taking so many pictures is my way to compensate for the lack of a hiking partner? In any case, the memory capacity of the digital camera makes it possible to just take many pictures and then select the best. Today it just seems as if most or all of the pictures turn out great.

My feet are getting tired and a blister isn’t far away on my right ankle, despite band-aids and a fresh pair of socks. I am very happy when I am back down at my bike around 4:30pm – some 12 hours after starting this trip. From now on I don’t need to walk anymore, just roll downhill from here. How sweet is this!

I need to be careful due to the varying road surface, the at times steep road and my generally tired condition. I also forgot my bike helmet last night when packing, so I have even less protection than usual.

A switchback in the road with some people hiking down just there marks another good spot to have a picture taken against the torrent of the stream draining all the melting water off the glaciers above.

The air is getting hotter and my mood is getting higher as I descend fast. Within minutes I reach the Postalm and Berndlalm in inverse order of the ride up in the early morning hours. At the Berndlalm I stop for a last snack. The location and surroundings make this a real treat. In addition to the coffee I eat ‘Kaiserschmarrn’, a sweet delicacy made of eggs and flour with lots of sugar and marmelade. Like high octane fuel for a high performance motor …

This picture embodies so much of the Austrian way of life: Great food, alpine setting with meadows, cows, mountain streams, high snow-capped peaks, blue skies - just wonderful. Another post card worthy Kodak moment of this long day.

Another 10 minutes after leaving this heavenly place I reach the car at the parking ground near the very bottom of the mountain at 5:45pm. Changing boots and loading the disassembled MTB into the trunk I start the long drive back. One short stop for a swim in a beautiful lake not only rounds out this great day, but also cools me off sufficiently for the next hour or so in the car. At 8:00pm I am back in Salzburg, some 17 ½ hours after leaving in the early morning – happy that everything worked out well and enriched with all the impressions of a long day in the high mountains.

I was really lucky with the weather turning out so great on the second to last day of my vacation. It was the hottest day of the year, with up to 37 C (100 F) in parts of Austria. My dad once did this same climb in a single day, some 20 years ago. He remembers it vividly til this day. One reason for this is that it was the day when a newer version of the European Ariane rocket first launched into space; my dad had worked on parts of that rocket and was understandably interested in the successful outcome of the launch. Somewhat coincidentally, this was the day of the docking of the Discovery space shuttle orbiter with the International Space Station, in the first flight 2 years after the loss of Columbia. I don’t know, but probably astronauts and cosmonauts can see the Grossvenediger from space, when the ISS is in the right orbit. In any event, I will definitely remember this day in 20 years or so, when I will perhaps tell my son about what it felt like to ride and hike up the Grossvenediger starting in the predawn hours of the hottest day of the year 2005…