Grossglockner – 12,461ft
Eric Gilbertson, Janette H
Date: August 27, 2012
Grossglockner is definitely one of the funnest and most dangerous mountains I’ve ever encountered. Combine a one-person-wide thinly-snow-covered knife-edge rock ridge having multi-thousand-foot drops on each side with literally hundreds of climbers trying to pass each other (of which maybe half are experienced mountaineers), and you’ll get an idea of what makes Grossglockner a unique mountain.
Kris, Janette, and I were in Europe for a week trying to bag as many country highpoints as possible, with special emphasis on the big mountains in the Alps. We had waited out stormy weekend weather down in San Marino climbing Mt Titano, and it looked like a brief weather window might open up soon for us over the Alps. We decided that Grossglockner, the country highpoint of Austria, strategically made the most sense to climb next: it was tall enough to help us acclimate for the bigger mountains by following the climb-high-sleep-low mentality while only taking a day to climb. This way hopefully the good weather would still stick around for Mt Blanc.
We left San Marino Sunday afternoon heading north through Bologna, Verano, and Bolzano towards the Austrian border. As we got close to the border the road became narrower and narrower, until it was only one car wide and winding through dense mountain forests. Then we came to a mysterious sign that had a bunch of german and a big clock with the bottom left quadrant green and the rest red. We didn’t need to read german to figure this sign out: the road ahead was so narrow that each direction was given a 15-minute time window per hour to enter and cross over the mountain pass in front of us. Unfortunately we had hit the sign at the top of the hour, and had another 30 minutes to kill before we could proceed.
There was a small hotel conveniently located right at our stopping point, but we dismissed staying there because it was still a far drive from our trailhead, and we wanted an early start the next morning. We spent the 30 minutes quickly stuffing our packs with glacier gear and everything else we’d need for Grossglockner.
We raced up the road when our turn came, and indeed it was comforting to know no other cars would be oncoming on that narrow road during our open window. We crossed into Austria at the top of the mountain pass, and eventually made it to the trailhead by 9pm. It was raining lightly, and there were hardly any cars in the parking lot. But all of our weather sources said Monday should be clear, and we were optimistic.
There was a little hotel, Lucknerhaus, at the trailhead that was still serving dinner, so we grabbed a few bowls of goulash soup, and reserved a few beds in the bunkhouse. A true alpine start would have been absurd given that we weren’t getting to bed until 10pm, so we decided to sleep in a little.
By 5am the rain had stopped, the clouds were rolling out, and we started hiking up the trail. The mountains above us were still shrouded in the clouds, so it was a bit unclear yet what sort of challenge we were up against. The route started as an easy gravel road up to the Lucknerhutte, and then turned into an honest trail. There was actually a cable system from this hut up to a higher hut meant for hauling supplies up, but a sign on the cable read in German and English “Backpack lift – 4 euros.” I guess if you were really lazy they’d haul your pack up to the next hut for you!
We continued up the trail and soon encountered fresh snow on the grass and trail. I sampled some and it indeed tasted just like the New Hampshire snow I was used to. The snow got deeper until I was stepping through occasional drifts in the trail. Surprisingly there were no signs of other footprints before me. Could this really be the mountain famed for the “worst queue in the alps,” which our guidebook strongly recommended avoiding on weekends at all costs? Here we were in prime climbing season, apparently the only ones on the mountain (from what we could tell). I thought at least someone would have climbed it yesterday on the weekend, no matter what the weather, and would have left some footprints coming down the snow. I mean, I’ve climbed Mt Washington in terrible weather many times just because that’s all the weekend would offer, and I expected European climbers to be the same.
Nobody in our group was complaining about the solitude, though. We soon reached the Studlhutte at 2802m and caught two climbers leaving, apparently for one of the more technical rock climbing routes up Grossglockner. We headed right here, across some deeper snow drifts and eventually reached the edge of the Kodnitzkees glacier. Cliffs loomed above us to our left, with some freshly-formed moderate-sized icicles hanging off the edges. It wasn’t supposed to be cold enough to form all that ice in August! We weren’t even that high up the mountain yet!
At the edge of the glacier a 6-person group caught up with us as we were tying into our rope.
“I’ll bet you 4 Euros they’re a guided group,” I said to Kris. “See how four of them are taking pictures and the other two dudes look just look bored?”
“Hey, I could haul my pack up here for that kind of money!” he replied.
We finished tying in and followed in line behind the group. We didn’t really have to walk right behind them, but since there were no other tracks to follow at least that group would identify any thin snow bridges for us.
Two other groups soon reached the edge of the glacier also, and we were beginning to appreciate that this was indeed the popular mountain we had expected, even on a Monday. Right then the clouds above us finally blew away and we could see Grossglockner in all its glory. From this side the glockner looked impenetrable, like one big cliff. We knew, though, that our route spiraled around to a ridge that, while steep and exposed, was not terribly difficult.
The glacier steepened as we wove around some crevasses, until we eventually reached a huge bergschrund spanning the full width of the glacier and bordered by cliffs on each side. I was secretly hoping there might be a little ice-climbing involved to get over this gap, but the guided group headed to the right of the bergschrund to a cliff band. It turned out there were via ferrata cables here, which made the cliff option much easier than the ice-climbing option. It kind of felt like cheating to me, using some unnatural metal hammered in to the rock to make climbing the mountain easier. Via ferrata doesn’t really even exist on mountains in the US. If the route is steep enough for via ferrata, you just bring a rope and climbing gear and climb the mountain like the first ascensionists had to. But we used the via ferrata nevertheless, since it was the standard way up and gave us the best chance of a successful summit.
The via ferrata continued, except for a small gap, all the way to the next hut, the Erzherzog Johannhutte at 11,300ft. We took a break here to admire a little bit of construction action: a helicopter was ferrying loads from the trailhead way up to this hut, and dropping the contents of a bucket each time. At first we thought it was carry loads of dirt for a foundation (that would have been some pretty expensive dirt to be hauled by helicopter!) but we later learned the bucket was full of concrete. I guess the hut workers were making a new extension.
By now the sky was completely sunny, and we noticed a moderate line of climbers heading up the smaller glacier above us and onto the summit ridge. We were by now high enough on the mountain that altitude might start being a concern, and indeed Kris revealed he was starting to show signs of altitude sickness. Altitude affects everyone differently, and somehow Janette and I were still feeling strong. We made the decision that Kris should wait at the hut so he didn’t get any worse while Janette and I pushed on for the summit.
We roped back together, shortening the rope with some handy kiwi coils, and started up the next glacier. By now it was 11:30am, and based on the guidebook we should hit the summit and get back to the hut in a few hours. Just to be conservative I told Kris not to start worrying until dark if we hadn’t returned.
We soon reached the top of the glacier, and began the rock scrambling section of the climb. I started up first, scrambling between the snow and rocks until I reached the end of the rope, and then gave Janette a body-belay up. We continued this way a few rope-lengths until we reached the summit ridge proper. Here someone had pounded huge 5-ft metal poles into the rock every 30ft or so. I was surprised there was no cable connecting the poles, like the via ferrata we had climbed up earlier, but this at least made us feel more like we earned the mountain, even if using the poles still felt slightly like cheating.
I had never encountered a route protected by metal poles like this, and wasn’t sure what the best way to use them was. Simul-climbing would definitely have been the fastest way to climb this summit ridge, but we decided to pitch it out like before. I would lead up a past a few poles, then girth-hitch a sling to a pole and belay Janette up on that. The scrambling was definitely fun on the thinly-snow-covered rocks, but we were kind of slow this way and started getting passed by other groups. Their technique was apparently to simul-climb while wrapping the rope around each pole as they went, so there was no need to use slings. I was a little skeptical of the safety of this approach, so we continued pitching out the route.
The ridge soon got narrower until it was only wide enough for one person to proceed at a time. Meanwhile the drops on each side were over 1000ft, making us appreciate the rope connecting us together and the poles connecting us to the mountain. We eventually reached the Kleinglockner, a highpoint on the ridge just before the summit, and some of the groups that had passed us going up were now passing us going down. Everyone was very polite, but it was still frustrating that there were so many groups trying to pass each other on such a narrow ridge.
From the Kleinglockner we dropped down into a narrow snow-filled saddle, and then climbed up the steepest rock section on the route. This time I officially had Janette belay me (unlike any other pitches), as I slung metal poles going a full rope-length up. I belayed Janette up the steep part, and by 4pm we reached the summit of Grossglockner. Amazingly we had it all to ourselves! Somehow we had managed to find a small window of solitude in between the hundreds of climbers going to the top that day. The gap only lasted about 10 minutes, though, before a few more guided groups caught up to us.
I hadn’t realized there were so many glaciated mountains in the Alps. Every direction I could see more mountains I wanted to climb, and we were only in the Austrian section of the Alps. Too bad MIT couldn’t be just a couple thousand miles farther east.
We roped back up at 4:30pm and retraced our steps down to the saddle. This time I lowered Janette down first, and then she belayed me as I down-climbed. We continued pitching out the climb (and getting passed by people) until just past the Kleinglockner. Here we decided to try a new strategy that would hopefully be faster: I would belay Janette down to the next pole (much less than a full rope length), she would clip herself to the pole and then pull rope in as I down-climbed. This indeed proved faster and we inch-wormed our way down to the glacier top by around sunset. Still, we weren’t the last ones on the mountain somehow. We put crampons back on for the glacier and marched back down to the hut, reaching the door at 9pm.
What we thought might take a couple hours had instead taken over 9 hours, and in hindsight we probably should have simul-climbed the whole thing. But at least we made it back safely.
We stopped in at the hut to grab some food and look for Kris, but he was nowhere to be found. Luckily Janette’s phone got reception and we found out Kris was back down at the trailhead. Understandably he had headed back down solo around 6pm (thinking he had somehow missed us, since we were only supposed to take a few hours round trip). He did manage to find another rope team to join up with for the glacier crossing.
We decided to try to reach the trailhead too that night, and gave him an estimated arrival time of 2-3am. First, though, we needed to stop in the hut to get a little warm food.
We ordered a bowl of soup each and started talking to the hut caretaker, and he strongly advised us against hiking down at night, saying it was very dangerous. I thought it would actually be safest at night when the glacier was cold and the snow bridges most solid, but the caretaker looked to be a pretty hardcore mountaineer himself and I decided to trust him on this recommendation. The hut was full, he said, but we could sleep in the dining room for just 9 euros apiece (instead of the 35 euros apiece for a room). It sounded like a pretty nice offer, and after wavering a little we finally accepted.
We still wanted an early start, though, to get past the glacier before the sun hit and started softening the snow bridges. So we got up at 4:30am the next morning and were heading down the via ferrata by 5am.
We hit the glacier by 6am and already there were at least 40 people hiking up! Apparently Monday was a pretty slim day in terms of crowds, because today looked to be way more popular. I cannot fathom how crazy that mountain must get on a sunny weekend in the summer, nor would I want to climb it on such a day.
We crossed the glacier just before the sun hit, and had an easy hike back to the trailhead from there. On the way down we passed literally hundreds of hikers heading up – everyone from senior citizens obviously just walking up to the huts to decked-out mountaineers doing the full mountain. It was hard to believe all the activity was happening on a Tuesday.
We met up with Kris at Lucknerhaus for a nice big breakfast, and then started planning the next mountain of the trip.