Großglockner, Austria.

ESC - Austria - Großglockner, 3798m - Info | Trip Report

D. Stillingfleet, September 2002

Waiting at Klagenfurt airport for the delayed flight back to London Stansted was a time to reflect on the highs and interrogate the low of the closing weekend. There was little else to do other than eat, drink and admire the view; which though great from the restaurant terrace, fails to make much of an impression after the last few day's mountainous splendour. There is a small kiosk selling books and magazines, but English language reading material is a limited and puzzling choice between back issues of OK magazine and Issue 5 volume 6 of North & South, the official magazine of the Civil War Society. I kid you not.

The interrogation of the weekend's low could not be avoided. The simple truth of the matter is this. At approximately three o'clock on Sunday afternoon Thomas and I retreated from within fifty metres of our goal, the 3789m summit of the Großglockner, Austria's highest.

The Großglockner from Teisehnitzal Valley.
The Großglockner from Teisehnitzal Valley.

The Stüdlhütte
The Stüdlhütte near the end Teisehnitzal Valley.

When the perfect pyramid of the summit first came into view from the Teisehnitzal Valley on Saturday morning we had thought success was in the bag. We rested breifly outside the Stüdlhütte, then as we crossed the Ködnitzkees glacier beneath the Großglockner's south face, we saw tens if not a hundred insect like figures queuing upon the south east ridge to take their turn standing on the summit.

Crossing the Ködnitzkees glacier.
Crossing the Ködnitzkees glacier.

We took our time; a little tired after our sixteen hundred metres of ascent from the villages of Großdorf near Kals, but warm in the sun and content with our progress. Below the 3100m contour the Ködnitzkees was "dry", the trail well beaten as it crossed to the medial moraine which acted like stepping stones in an icy waste weeping with melt water. When the glacier became "wet" (snow covered) we paused to strap on crampons, rope up and take walking axes from sacks. These precautions may not have been necessary, other groups did without, but we had carried the equipment far and it was time to practice some new skills. We enjoyed this play, placing hollow ice screws into the snow and ice when the slope steepend, and were amazed at how easy they twisted in and how impossible it was to pull them out.

At the glacier's far side we stowed away the ice tools and as we scrambled the last hundred metres, the exertion of the day hit me, Those last two hundred metres of rocky spur led to the Adlersruhe, also known as the Erzherzog Johann Hütte, our shelter for the night. It was just gone three in the afternoon when we arrived, enough time for an afternoon nap before inspecting tomorrow's route before dinner.

The Adlersruhe aka Erzherzog Johann Hütte.
The Adlersruhe aka Erzherzog Johann Hütte in 2002.

A few words of warning about the Erzherzog's (Archduke's) hut. At 3451m it is the highest in Austria and therefore comes with some reservations. Firstly it is very expensive, a postcard costing 40 cents elsewhere costs 2 Euros here. You pay for every drink, even water, for here is the real sting in the tail for those used to their home comforts, there is no running water, hot nor cold, even in the toilets. That's right, make sure you triple fold your toilet paper. You cannot wash your hands afterwards.

Overlook these things and the Adlersruhe is a very pleasant place. Those lucky enough to summit that day certainly thought so, we heard them cheering and singing well into the night. An early morning shudder to the above mentioned toilets found sleeping bodies strewn on the landing floor as if I stepped into the remnants of a teenage graduation party.

The hut was also a pleasant place to be in at dawn when the world outside was obliterated in a snow storm. Breakfast was hard to stomach. We ate watching groups and their guides leave only to return minutes later saying that it was impossible. A waiting game began, a wait similar to that here at the airport where the arrival of the plane, now many hours late, is just as uncertain as was the possibility of venturing outside.

At 10:30 a brief lull in the wind lured us into the clouds where we endeavoured to follow the tracks of those who had gone before us. It was difficult, with visibility at a minimum, and spin drift that both pelted our faces with ice and filled up our boot prints as quickly as we made them, we placed our faith in a slight ridge of ice that cut a straight line across the snow slope. I assumed, correctly as it happened, that this line of hardened snow had been made by the trampling of feet over the previous months. It tricked us on a few occasions with its sharp zig zag turns, but by and by we made our way to the highest reaches of the snow slope, removed our crampons and left them with walking axes in a huddle of boulders. The rocky slopes above were covered with an inch or two of powder snow, our tools would not bite here. As we began to ascend the cloud cover was finally torn away by the wind and for the first time we could see both where we were going and where we had been. This was nice, but only revealed the true exposure of the our situation. We continued up, scrapping off the snow to identify every hold in the rock beneath. In our cautious state of mind we opted to climb in pitches, one of us tying on to a spike to belay the other. But whilst we belayed we grew colder, my outer gloves frozen into a hook like grip, Thomas' fingers becoming numb. By the time we reached the Kleinglockner, a subsidiary summit 18m lower than the one were aiming for, the full strength of the wind had returned. We clung to an outcrop of rocks, took stock of the situation; the 14m drop, narrow ridge and the final 32m of near vertical rock to the true summit. We would not be able to do this in these winds. It was time to turn heels.

Whiteout on the Großglockner.
Whiteout on the Großglockner.

Looking across the summit of the Kleinglockner to Großglockner.
Looking across the summit of the Kleinglockner to Großglockner

The descent proved similarly tricky,  both of us were thankful for the rope on the same section of icy rock. But once on the snow slope our confidence returned. We rested briefly at the Adlersruhe, packing away rope and ice tools for the scramble down the rocky spur and onto the slopes above the glacier. Here we once again strapped on our crampons and took axes in hand. The rope we decided could stay in my sack, it would only slow us down if we chose to use it.

The descent of the Ködnitzkees was a relief, our conversation though tinged with  disappointment,   was upbeat and generally concerned the things that we could have done differently to have ensured success. No doubt there will be those who will say that we should not have been there. Others who will cajole us for not pushing on. All I can say is that we did what was best for us. And the only word of advise I will give is to bring your own book for the airport.

Retreat from the Großglockner.
Retreat from the Großglockner, fine weather now.