CLIMBING THE GROSSGLOCKNER – MY FIRST REAL MOUNTAIN
I felt on top of the world, though at 3,798m, the Grossglockner is a long way from the sky-scraping heights of Everest. It is, however, Austria’s highest mountain and offers novice mountaineers like myself a full-flavoured taste of adventures on rock, snow and ice.
Despite being the 14th of July, our journey to the top didn’t come complete with the promised spectacular views that usually reward summiteers. In fact, it was snowing. Tiny flakes swirled around my head like beads of white plastic floating inside a glycerine-filled snow globe. The sides of the pointy peak were swallowed up in mist, which actually provided some comfort for my summit partners, who weren’t as excited by the mountain’s steep precipices as I was. Nevertheless, I couldn’t fail to feel elated and proud.
Summiting the Grossglockner marked my first real experience of mountaineering, putting on crampons, crossing a glacier, clambering over car sized boulders, up vertical rock faces and feeling the comradery of “the rope”.
I brimmed with pride as our guide, Sosh, explained to me why I was at the other end of the rope. Initially I thought it meant at the back, but Sosh informed us it was because I was the strongest, fittest and most experienced climber. I would actually be at the front on the way down, leading us over tricky terrain and what I later found out to be a narrow snow bridge on one of the most exposed parts of the mountain.
We’d started early the previous day. I was climbing with two friends, Rachel and Michelle; we’d spent a few days doing warm up day hikes and an over-nighter on a nearby, much smaller, mountain range. Now it was time for the big one. We’d be summiting with a guide, Sosh, and one another person.
The meet-up point was Sälmhutte, a mountain hut at 2,644m. I made a quick-step ascent to the hut, eager to get going, to venture higher and further into unknown territory. Rachel and Michelle took it a little easier. By the time they’d arrived I’d already devoured my lunch and washed it down with a beer.
Charles, the other person joining us, was from Hungary. He was in his sixties and had been to the area before with his son. Now he wanted to climb the mountain he’d stared at, day after day, on their summer holiday – pretty much the same reasoning as my own.
The Grossglockner, part of the Höhe Tauern National Park, has peered down on me for many years. It’s the dramatic backdrop to many a mountain picture taken from the Kitzsteinhorn, where I’d worked as a snowboard instructor for two seasons in 2009 and 2010.
Initially I was too wrapped up in snowboarding down to think about climbing up anything. But after leaving the Alps for Stockholm I searched for vert to quench my mountain thirst and found it inside a rock climbing gym. In then didn’t take long for the idea of combining my new-found love for climbing with my passion for hiking to brew into full-on mountaineering.
At that point, climbing the Grossglockner, the mountain I’d admired from below on so many occasions, became the obvious proving ground. Standing on the summit, feeling strong and happy, it was as though the mountain had known all along that one day we’d be sharing a moment of understanding.
The journey from Sälmhutte was easier than expected. There was one section of climbing, but fixed ropes and metal steps nailed into the rock face aided our ascent. To reach Erzerhog Johan Hütte, our home for the night, we had to traverse a small section of the 9km-long Pasterze Glacier, but we all took this in our stride.
The hut sits at 3,454m making it Austria’s highest. We received a warm welcome upon arrival and being too early for dinner we opted for large beers instead. We weren’t alone. A large group of Austrians were already there, celebrating their summit success from the other side – a more technical approach – of the mountain. They’d even carted up a 20kg accordion to provide the theme tune to their celebrations.
I woke up first. I was nervous. I’d got up in the night to go to the toilet and seen snow falling steadily, the summit completely lost in cloud. With trepidation, I walked to the window to check the weather. It was clear. The sun was creeping over distant peaks. I roused my friends and we started to prepare our kit and ourselves. Breakfast was just bread – rather stale and unappealing – and jam. It didn’t matter. I was too excited to eat much.
By 6am we were putting on our crampons and roping up. After half an hour of zig-zagging our way up a steep, snowy slope, the clouds lowered and the temperature dropped. The valley below was gobbled up in grey. The summit was obliterated by dense cloud. Then snow began to fall. I looked at Shosh but there were no signs of retreat. We pushed on. At a ridge we stored our walking poles, adjusted some clothing and had a few sips of water. Now for pulse-pushing summit ridge.
The ridge was like the back of a Stegosaurus. It was slow going as the rock was slippery, but we eventually made it to a narrow snow bridge, no wider than our bodies.
I was still getting used to walking as a team. You had to all move at the same pace and we weren’t really that good at it. Sometimes there was so much slack in the rope I risked catching it in the teeth of my crampons. Other times it tightened suddenly and I’d get jerked forward. This happened in the worst possibly place: the snow bridge.
Rachel suddenly tugged the rope and pulled me sharply forward. The abyss either side of the snow bridge loomed large.
I was last to cross as I was at the back of the rope gang. I waited to climb from the last hump on the stegosaurus’s back until Rachel, directly in front of me, had used up the slack between us. I started my descent as she crossed the bridge without issue. As I began my balancing act Rachel, who’d started clambering over another jagged bit of rock, suddenly tugged the rope pulling me sharply forward. The abyss either side of the snow bridge loomed large. My pulse soared as I hastily tried to right myself with nothing but air for my hands to grab. Thank god for my crampons, that’s all I can say about that. They held me like glue to the compacted snow.
That same snow bridge posed a challenge on the way down, too. By that point I was leading and loved having a little, teeny-tiny bit of control. Just as I stepped out confidently to cross the bridge, the wind picked up and tried its best to knock me off balance. But my crampons cinched me into the snow. And luckily, with no one in front of me, the fear that must’ve washed plainly over my face was not witnessed by another soul.
Back home that night we all drank wine, ate heartily and went to bed early, thoroughly exhausted. I don’t know about Rachel and Michelle, but I was filled with a new sense of purpose and achievement. I’d performed well. I’d dealt with fear, with pushing through tiredness, with accepting the unknown. And I’d enjoyed the challenges. I wanted to do it again and again. I’d found direction in life; I wanted to climb high mountains. And the only limit was my own imagination.