Thursday, June 07, 2018

The Pallavicini Couloir Austria's most famous alpine climb?

The conversation went something like this : "You have the old map the glacier doesn't look like this any longer." said the Austrian path builder/restorer. " We only just bought it." I replied "Well the glacier is melting so fast that the routes are changing each year . The only way you are going to cross the glacier on your present route is if you swim." said the Austrian path builder/restorer as his pal grinned in agreement. He pointed into the rain and the billowing mist. "The new path is way back down there." He said. This was not an auspicious start for our attempt on what is the "jewel in the crown" of Austrian alpinism. The Pallavicini Couloir which leads directly to the col between the kleiner Glockner and the Grossglockner - Austria's highest and most famous mountain. After "warming up" by climbing the north face of the Hochfeiler in the Zillertall , we had driven across Austria and over the spectacular Glockner pass to the starting point for our route: A giant multi-storey car par which would have made any city center proud. The Franz-Josefs-Haus is perched high above what "use to be" the mighty Pasterze glacier 2370m. Defiantly Europe's highest and most incongruous car park. If we had been standing in the same spot way before the invention of the motor-car AND the weather hadn't been quite as miserable as it presently was this is what we might have seen. A photo of a painting taken from the Ripa Messner Museum:
The current challenge for Charles and I was that the weather was not being co-operative. The one good day of our remaining time together was tomorrow. The present day was miserable. It was cloudy and drizzling. We had decided that if we were going to stand any chance of climbing the route , then we needed to get to the bivouac hut today in order to take advantage of tomorrows good weather. To get to the place where the "we are lost" conversation had taken place was tedious. We left the car park and then walked down a track for about 300 meters. Each step down was in effect a reminder of how much of the glacier had retreated. It was misty and raining lightly. We trudged along a path looking for the point where we needed to cross the glacier. Instead we were met with a raging torrent that cut through what was the remains of the glacier. It was impassible. We could not see much either and this is the point where we bumped into the Path builder/ restorers. To their credit they were very helpful and they did help us get on the right track across the moraine. The problem was the weather was miserable and navigating across this uninspiring landscape was going to be difficult. We sat on a rock and munched on our sandwiches deciding if we should give up. This took a lot of discussion . I reasoned that once we were across the glacier and established on the route to the bivouac hut the route on the map would be correct because if the path was not on the glacier it would not have moved. Plus it was possible to download a weather forecast to my I phone which suggested that the weather might clear a bit in the afternoon. We decided to carry on. The weather did clear but only long enough to welcome in an afternoon storm that was not predicted. The storm drenched us yet fortunately there was no thunder and lightening mixed in with it. We marched up steep snow and then onto the ridge which supports the bivouac hut. At the designated height we thought we should be able to see the hut. Yet we could not even see our hands in front of our face . We really needed to find the hut and escape out of the rain. Trying to find a grey tin box beautifully camouflaged by matching grey mist was a challenge. Suddenly Charles shouted that he had seen something that might be the hut about 20 meters below us. [Something he had done several times already.] This time he was right. We were safe.
Mind you it was not much bigger than a big tin can. Yet as the saying goes : "Any Port in a storm": Still it was "Ours" the only benefit of arriving in shit weather.
We sorted our selves out and collected some snow to melt for some Tea. It had taken us around nine hours to get here not withstanding all the earlier dithering. What we would end up doing tomorrow was another question as the weather had not cleared. It needed to clear so that the snow and ice might stand some chance of freezing. We agreed to set the alarm for 2.00am. We would get up and have a look. We turned in at about 8.00pm. I was not optimistic. At about 9.00pm I was convinced I could hear voices , but just assumed I was hallucinating and finding it difficult to get to sleep. I drifted off to sleep only to be rudely awakened by someone banging on the hut door at 9.30pm. I couldn't believe it but two Austrian climbers had turned up with the intention of attempting the same route as us. After the initial hassle of having to accommodate " Our guests" we realized that the two Austrians had at least legitimized our decision to try the climb. Or more likely, they were just as nuts as Charles and myself. The alarm was brutal. I wrestled with the tin hut door and it flew open revealing something I had not seen so far : A view. The first view of anything meaningful in a few days. We were on . We drank a pint of tea each and forced down some " Builder Bars" and we were off across the glacier to the foot of the couloir. Conditions underfoot were not the best because the snow had hardly frozen. The snow would almost support your weight but once you committed to the step you would inevitably sink up to your knees. Still it was doable. The approach is meant to take half an hour. It took us an hour. The Austrians caught us up primarily because they used our foot steps instead of making their own. We crossed the Rimaye and established our selves in the couloir proper. The conditions were suddenly excellent . Good solid neve which allowed us to move together without pitching the route. We made rapid rythmical progress gaining height quickly. While all this was happening the sun had appeared and it rather unhelpfully started to melt the snow at the top of the couloir. Big lumps of ice started to pepper us , sometimes bouncing off our helemets, some times zooming past like bullets. After about two and a half hours I spotted the summit cross on the top off the Grossglockner. I was suckered into assuming that it was not too far away as long as the couloir continued in the same vain. Yet off course it did not. The ground steepened up significantly and then the snow vanished to leave a section of lose serious rock climbing. The sort of rock climbing where each potential hold became a deadly hand held missile. A missile that threatened everyone below me. It was serious ground. This difficult climbing lasted about a 100 meters and then fortunately the angle eased and there was more snow. The snow lead to the breche between the two summits.
Fifteen minutes later we were at the cross . We had climbed the Pallavicini Couloir and were now at the highest point in Austria. It would be another long six ours before we were back at the car.

Monday, June 04, 2018

North Face of the Hochfeiler 3509m

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.