with Christoph and Claus-Dieter

Großglockner climb: Großglockner in the background

Having spent many years of climbing in the Pacific Northwest, I had actually never climbed in the Alps. So after relocating to Europe in August of this past summer there was a window of opportunity because my new job wouldn't start until later. Since I didn't know any climbers over there I browsed the local climbing boards. There I met Claus-Dieter from Munich and Christoph from Cologne and we decided to climb the Großglockner (3798 m / 12460 ft), which is Austria's highest mountain and the highest peak in the Eastern Alps. This trip that we did in early September was my first climb in the Alps.

Immediately after arriving from Seattle I spent 3 weeks in the beautiful resort town of Kitzbühel participating in a training program by my future employer. In the winter Kitzbühel is a ski resort geared toward the rich. The summers are off-season but the scenery is gorgeous nevertheless. Unfortunately, due to the intensive training program I only had 3 free days during these 3 weeks and so I never really got a chance to get out into the mountains to do something more serious than a hike. As soon as the program ended this changed...

Großglockner climb: cable railway

The three of us met at the start of the Großglockner Hochalpenstraße, a famous scenic road that leads over the Alps from North to South along a very old merchant's route that had already been used by the Romans a long time ago. The road winds over the pass (2571 m / 8435 ft) with many serpentines and is very well developed. It's a big tourist attraction and hence pretty busy. The views are ok, but a feeling of wilderness is completely missing. Eventually a dead-end road leads to the Kaiser-Franz-Josefs-Höhe (2369 m / 7772 ft), a viewpoint apparently already liked by that Austrian king. Because of the many visitors that come here to look at the Großglockner and the largest glacier of the eastern alps, the Pasterze glacier, the Austrians have built a monstrous tourist facility that includes a multi-level parking garage, restaurants, a viewing tower, a cinema, and many gift shops. Anyway, this thing is the "trail head" for the route we had planned to climb. We parked the car and gathered our gear. Because we would spend the next night in a hut instead of in a tent on the glacier we only needed to carry day packs for the 2 day climb.

Großglockner climb: on the Pasterze glacier

To start the climb one first has to descend the moraine down to the Pasterze glacier, cross the glacier, and ascend at the other side. To aid the climber, who is already exhausted from the drive along the long and winding road, a cable railway has been built for the descend down to the glacier. Unfortunately, glaciers are receding nowadays, a fact apparently not considered by the engineers who built the railway in 1963. Back then it reached the glacier. Today it goes only about half way down and we still had to descend by foot.

As it was late in the season, the glacier was pretty much melted out and consisted mainly of hard ice and melt water puddles. No crevasses were visible and we crossed it unroped, just as everybody else.

Großglockner climb: Erzherzog-Johann-Hütte

On the other side of the glacier we ascended the glacial moraine onto a ridge where the trail splits. The usual path winds in a large arc over the Hoffmannskees glacier. Since this route looked boring we chose to follow the ridge straight up which is a less popular variation. After an initial crossing of a pretty unstable boulder field we regained the ridge. The difficulty was about 5.2-5.4; we climbed mostly using running belay, slinging horns and using the occasional bolt. It was a fun ascend. At the top of the ridge we had to cross the glacier to get to Austrias highest hut, the Erzherzog-Johann-Hütte (3454 m / 11332 ft) at the Adlershöhe.

This is not a primitive but rather a full fledged facility: we got nice and comfortable beds with fresh linen, a 3-course dinner (soup, main course, and dessert), clean restrooms, and a hearty breakfast in the morning. Well, all this doesn't come cheap: It's about 40 Euros per person, per night. But I guess, that's how it works here: You don't carry a big pack around in the Alps, a fat wallet is enough. In the evening, the hut slowly filled with climbers, most of them were old guys, not many young folks where around. I saw many ice axes with wooden shafts, and many, many cotton shirts. After dinner we went to bed. Luckily, we had a 16-people sleeping room just for the three of us.

Großglockner climb: Erzherzog-Johann-Hütte, Großglockner

We didn't get up until 6am the next morning -- not quite an alpine start. The delicious breakfast was at 6.30am and I even got a free coffee refill. We were on our way by 7am, reached the glacier soon thereafter, put on crampons and roped up. We only had to gain about 300m (1000 ft) to get to the summit. After crossing the upper part of the glacier we turned left to enter a pretty steep chute which we had to ascend to gain the rocky summit ridge. Conditions were good although it was a bit icy. The climb along the rocky ridge over the south peak, trough the narrow notch, and up the main (north) peak wasn't very difficult although there was considerable exposure. Every now and then there are metal poles one can sling the rope over for running protection.

Großglockner climb

The biggest hazard were the countless rope teams that we met. There must have been about 50 people in the area, all roped up in teams of 3-6 that were coming down or passing us. Now this was not like in the Cascades, where people that one meets are usually polite. This was different. People were not very friendly, some were outright rude. Nobody asked if they could pass another rope team. Ropes got tangled up, fingers were nearly stepped on. I though Mount Hood on a sunny weekend is bad but this was much worse. Particularly annoying was a certain species of old Austrian mountain farts that tell you to put on crampons/take them of, that you should be quicker belaying your partner, how you should belay, etc. All of this of course without being asked and with a very strong, nearly unintelligible accent. They'd roll their eyes when I tied myself to an anchor while waiting, etc etc. When at one point one of these guys (who apparently think they own the mountain just because they are from the area and have climbed it a few times) rearranged our rope I got really mad and loud. This of course didn't have much of an effect, maybe because I seem to have lost my ability to effectively curse in German... Oh, and by the way, we were the only people wearing helmets...

Anyway, we eventually reached the summit of the Großglockner. There is a huge iron cross and a lot of plaques that one can read. And of course there were all the nice people which we had already met. The way down the rocky ridge was the same high traffic business. And, by the way, this was a Monday. Not a weekend... It is supposed to be much worse on the weekend.

Before reaching the hut we observed a helicopter that shuttled building material to the hut. Apparently they are planning another extension...

Großglockner climb: on the summit

After reaching the Erzherzog-Johann-Hütte we refreshed and refilled our bottles with precious water (they charge 2.40 Euros per liter). For the climb down we chose the standard route over the Hoffmannskees glacier to reach a rock ridge that leads down to the Pasterze glacier. The Hoffmannskees was pretty much melted out. We weren't too concerned about hidden crevasses but at times, while navigating a maze of crevasses, it got pretty steep and very icy so that I got a bit concerned that if somebody would slip, the two others might not be able to hold the fall. This made the descend a pretty exciting business but nothing bad happened. After crossing the Pasterze glacier and reaching the cable railway we missed the last train by 10 minutes and had to hike up all the way the the parking garage which we reached by about 5pm.

This was my first climb in the Alps. It was an awesome trip and an overall rewarding experience. The mountains aren't much different from the Cascades. What's different is that the Alps are in the middle of highly populated Europe. On the one side this brings the convenience of a tight network of climbing huts and the luxury of not having to carry shelter, food, etc. But it also brings in people. Lot's of it. And to nearly every corner. I don't think there are many spots left where one could get a feel of remoteness, or solitude. I'll need some time to get used to it.