What were once classic snow and ice routes which were traditionally climbed in the summer are now routes that can only feasibly be climbed in the spring because it is just too hot in the summer. Recently there has been a new guide book published dedicated to the alps classic snow and ice routes in which it recommends that they are attempted in the spring. In many cases the book also suggests skis are useful for the approach and the descent , at the time of year when the routes will be in condition.
With this in mind Charles Sherwood and I headed for Austria to attempt a couple of Austria's famous ice climbs. We decided to start with the north face of the Hochfeiler, the classic route of the Zillertal alps.
With the car loaded up with every conceivable bit of kit from skis to full bivouac equipment we left Chamonix and headed through the Mt Blanc tunnel aiming to circumnavigate the alps by passing south of them. It was only when we saw the signs for the outskirts of Venice that we clocked we had missed the turning for Verona and the Brenner Pass.
Eventually we got back on track and found our way in to the remote Val di Vizze where you are actually in Italy , but everything is Austrian in out look. All the people are much more comfortable speaking German than Italian and the whole area is rather confusing. Fundamentally the area is the South Tyrol and independent area inside Italy. They do seem to have some issues which they are not shy at voicing:
It being May and therefore out of season , everything was looking ominously shut and so it was with some relief that we found a delightful hotel that was open and they could feed us. We stayed at the Pfitscherhof Albergo [or Gasthof].
Once we were checked in we decided we should do some preliminary scouting of the road to the head of the valley. We duly drove up the road which suddenly turned from tarmac to dirt. Eventually at about an altitude of 2000 meters it was blocked by snow. The up shot of this was that I was required to make a "three-point turn" on a crumbling narrow track which would have been an ideal platform to execute a BASE Jump into the void below. Nevertheless our pre dinner excursion had revealed the sign to the bivouac hut - a easy two and a half hours walk. Something to look forward tomorrow.
We decided to take skis because after all we could easily lug them up to the hut because it was only 2 hours 10 minutes.
After walking for 2 hours 10 minutes there was no sign of the hut. It was only after about fives hours that we collapsed outside the "Gunther Messner Biwak Hut."
Still we were here now and the bivouac hut was clean and would be very comfortable for the two of us. We sat around , drank some tea and soaked up the beautiful surroundings. By bed time there were about 20 people attempting to squeeze into the seven free beds. Needless to say some of the people slept outside. Fortunately breakfast was at 3.00am and we were a way soon after.
At least our decision to bring skis was not as strange as we had feared the previous day when we were stomping through cow- packs. All the local teams were on skis [apart from a sad snow boarder]. We put the skis on about 100 meters from the Hut and climbed up to the col which is also the Austrian border. We then had to strap the skis on our rucksacks put crampons on and then loose all the height we had just gained as we descended a steep gulley. At its foot we then reverted back to skinning . This was laborious as we had to negotiate a couple of kilometers of frozen avalanche debris. Then over another tricky col.
Not before time we arrived at the foot of the face. It had taken four hours. We once again strapped the skis to our rucksacks and fixed crampons on, roped up and started the climb up the north face. I have to say this was the easiest north face I think I have ever climbed. It was in perfect condition and the groups in front of us had provided a stair case of bucket steps. We climbed the actual face in about an hour. Fifteen minutes later after climbing a delightful summit ridge we were on the summit of the Hochfeiler. The weather and view was very good. In front of us on the opposite side of the valley was the peak called the Gross Moseler. I first climbed this when I was 16. At 17 I climbed its north face. An Ice climb that is no longer exists.
I peered down the normal route . The skiing looked fantastic. Perfect spring snow. The only slight glitch was the 50/55 degree slope which gave assess to the fantastic skiing. Although intimidating the run out looked survivable and so we elected to ski it.
The skis had undoubtedly been useful for the ascent , but the descent looked mouth watering. The guide book suggested that with enough snow it was possible to ski down to around 2000m. Giving only an hours walk to the road head. There was enough snow and the spring snow gave us perfect, skiing.
Yet it would have helped if I had read the next paragraph more carefully , because the guide book went on to say that if you choose this option you will end up at the foot of an impassible gorge. [Why mention it as an option when it is anything but?] The only escape will be to walk back up the hill side to find the path. This proved to be an unwelcome 300m slog , especially up near vertical grass and searing heat all while carrying skis. Yet we did reach the path. By the time we got back to the car we had been on the go for 12 hours. We returned to the delightful Pfitscherhof Gastof where the beer was very welcome and we could discuss the next part of our Austrian Odyssey.