Friday, 28 November 2008

Flight of the Concorde

First, a correction. The Grossglockner is not on the Italian-Austrian border. It is sort of in the middle of the country, about 100 km south of Saltzburg. That being so, it is still a long way from Kolin in the Czech Republic – approx 600 km, and the best part of a days drive, weather dependant. The forecast was not looking too rosy, although it looked best over the alps for a possible summit on Tues 25th. That said, we could still expect summit temperature to be -20 to -25 C (without wind chill) for the 3798m peak. Seriously cold, which is why the peak is normally attempted during summer months. Affording a day of travel, and a day to walk into the desired hut, this meant that we would drive down on Sunday 23rd, and that Saturday was a day of rest. One option for Saturday evening was to drive to a mountaineers gathering 2 hrs north on the German border, which Karel assured me would be a no-holds barred beers till 4 am affair….which would make the drive south on Sunday a bit more of an effort. So we stayed in Kolin on Saturday night, went to a pub for dinner, one thing led to another, and we didn’t get to bed till 4 am anyway. At least the drive would be easier, although not trivial given the amount of snow which had been falling constantly during Saturday and overnight.

Our mode of transport would be Karel’s motoring throwback to last century, his 1998 Chrysler Concorde – a 3.2 litre beast of a car which runs on both natural gas and petrol, is heavy enough to get through all sorts of snow, and big enough to carry all the various bits and pieces required for mountaineering trips. “Let’s go!” Traveling south through the Czech Republic to the Austrian border was indeed slow – narrow snow-covered roads. We had dinner in Cesky-Budejovice, of Budweiser brewery fame, where we hired the skis we forgot to pack?!, then continued on through the night, eventually approaching the Grossglockner from the south, and hitting the hay (literally) at about 1 am. Our abode was a road-side barn, about 12 km from the trail head (alt ~ 1200 m). Temperature = -5 C. Brrrrr, but quite cozy in the sleeping bag Jana lent me for the trip.

We coffee’d in Kals am Grossglockner before parking further up the hill at Lucknerhaus (1920 m) where we donned packs, clipped into skis, and started the slow approach into the mist through thick powder (11:30 am). This is the first time I’d cross-country ski’d in many years, and it was certainly more enjoyable in good snow, although energy sapping with backpack and naught but uphill ahead. En route we passed a couple of elderly Austrians in traditional garb (feather in felt hat etc), with rifles, on the hunt for deer – we passed one of these further up the trail as well – they seemed to be everywhere, as evidenced by numerous tracks in the snow. We climbed from 1920m, past the “Lucknerhutte” (2240m), and on to “Sudehutte” (2800 m) which, given the time of arrival, would be our base. Karel had originally intended aiming for the higher “Erzh. Johan Hutte” at 3450m, but the powder and continuous snow fall had made travel so slow and exhausting that we were lucky to make Sudehutte before we needed to get the head torches out. Temperature -10 C. Bloody hell! We soon got the wood fired stove going and managed to get the hut up to a balmy 13 C, allowing the drying of numerous bits of sodden clothing draped from racks above the stove. The log book revealed that the hut was last occupied over a month ago!

I was quite chuffed at feeling in such good condition but it wasn’t to last, as the headaches that normally accompany me (Karel too) at such altitude hit me early during the night, making extended periods of sleep near impossible. We decided not to do the traditional alpine start in order to avoid as much of the bitter cold as possible. In winter, as opposed to summer, the sun is your friend, what little there is of it. We still got up in the dark, went through the laborious task of dressing for the cold, and were out the door just as the morning light was showing at about 7:30 am. Onwards with the skis – my first real taste of ski-mountaineering – so much easier and faster than trudging NZ style. It was fantastic seeing the early morning light playing on all the adjacent ridges and peaks.

Although it was about -10 C, I was soon sweating up a storm, especially when the sun got a little higher. Temperature regulation is a major issue in this sort of activity. You can be overheating like crazy one minute, and only seconds later, if the breeze changes, feel the bite of frost nip on your nose or ears, or have your axe stick to your ungloved hand. A few times I removed my sodden gloves briefly to do something, and the breeze whipping past would freeze the gloves solid in seconds, making it difficult to get my toasty hands back into them. The temperature was also playing havoc with my camera, which would only take a few shots at any one time before quitting, requiring me to keep it near my chest, which made taking pictures difficult. I’ve been mountaineering a few times in NZ, but not experienced anything quite as extreme as this. At least the weather was holding. Actually, it was doing better than holding – despite early high cloud that concerned Karel, it was turning into a cracker of a day.

The route we were attempting, the “normal” route required us to cross the Kodnitzkees glacier, gain the south-east ridge, pass the E.J. Hutte, and follow the same ridge to the summit. We roped up to traverse the glacier and set a more or less direct course free of any obvious crevasses, and decided we wouldn’t worry roping up on the way down. Once we gained the ridge we dumped the skis and it was on with the crampons. Negotiating the mixture of snow, ice, and rock on the ridge up to the E.J. Hutte was made very safe by the provision of fixed cables in certain sections. This is one of the more popular peaks in Europe (the highest in Austria), and has been “fixed” in certain sections to make travel safe for the numerous guided parties that make the ascent. The view from the ridge and the E.J. Hutte was truly spectacular. We were now only a few hours (hopefully) from the top, although at 3450m, for our unacclimatized bodies, it was now a case a take 10 steps, take a breather, repeated over and over again.

The heat was really on now, with the sun as high as it would get for the day, and no escape from the radiation reflected from the snow and ice. We shed clothing down to a layer of thermals and a shell, dumped the packs, drank some Tang, and went for the top. About 45 min later we had gone as high as we could on the snow and pulled ourselves onto the narrow summit ridge. This is where things went a bit pear-shaped for me, I think a combination of vertigo – suddenly being confronted with massive drops on both sides, the narrowness of the ridge – literally a slip one way or the other could be irrecoverable, and dehydration – we started with only had 2 insulated bottles which couldn’t hold the volume of fluid we really needed, and you dehydrate fast at altitude. Additionally, the mixed nature of the ridge (combination of rock, snow and ice) made finding good footholds difficult, with lots of scraping of crampon points and axes on slippery rock. But Karel was cool as a cucumber, as always, and thankfully opted to take the sharp end of the rope.

The summit ridge is actually in 2 halves, with a sharp “notch” or col separating them, which was cabled on one side due to its steepness. Protection for the rest of the ridge consisted of metre-high steel poles drilled into the rock every ~ 5-10 metres. The method of leading, which I hadn’t seen before, involves the two climbers being tied together with approx 15 metres of rope. Both move at the same time, with the leader simply looping (one full loop) the rope around each pole as he gets to it, and the rope slithering around the pole as the leader continues. The second simply flips the loop off the pole as he passes it. So, there are usually 1-2 poles connecting leader and second at any one time. This method makes travel potentially fast, but I was a little freaked by the whole experience and had to take it slower. It took us about 1 hr, to travel the ~ 200m from the start of the ridge to the false summit, down to the notch, then back up to the final summit, which Karel suggested I lead.

I must admit that the emotions I’d weathered on the final ridge did result in my yielding a tear as I gained the summit at ~1:30 pm. Fabulous views all round, basking in sun, not a puff of wind, although bitterly cold. We munched on a chocolate bar that was so brittle I wasn’t sure if was the chocolate or my teeth breaking. Took as many shots as my camera allowed…. Time to move!

Aside; there was someone else on the mountain that day. As we were nearing the summit ridge, down below (about 0.5 km vertically below!) we noticed a lone skier, flying across the glacier on the tracks we had laid earlier in the day. About ½ way up the summit ridge we noticed that he had carried his skis through the lower ridge/rockband, and was now motoring up the final couloir to the ridge we were on. Unbelievable! From the summit, we watched him scrambling solo, without ice tools (gloved only), across the ridge to the false summit. He ended up crossing our path as we were approaching the notch on the way down. Seeing how fluidly he moved, and how he used he hands rather than an axe to find handholds was inspiring – so that’s how it was done! Watching this guy did wonders for my confidence, and I put the axe away and used my hands to discover all the holds – lying under the powder, that I’d missed the first time. With me showing more confidence our descent from the summit ridge went far more smoothly than our ascent. The local guide still passed us again before we hit the couloir, but we were functioning efficiently again. Half way down the couloir on skis he stopped, gave us a wave to confirm we were clear of the technicalities, then bang, he was gone. He cut an alternative line to bypass the E.J. Hutte and ridge, and in no time was carving across the glacier all the way back to Lucknerhaus where he had started that morning! (ie, where we had left the car the day before – talk about being humbled). Incredible fitness – knows the thing like the back of his hand, and well acclimatized, Karel assured me.

Our day was still far from over. We stomped down the same slope we has just seen ski’d, followed the guides tracks bypassing the second rock ridge to the bowl above the glacier, and traversed back to our skis and put the crampons away for the day. My skiing skills at this stage of the game were so dreadful that after a few stacks I ended up just hanging on to them and tobogganing the steep section on my backside, before re-attaching them for the lower slopes. Karel, of course had all the moves and added some nice tracks to those of the guide – before I bum-ploughed through the middle of them. As well as not being a particularly good skier, the skins on my skis had long ago become unstuck, and were separated from the plank by an inch of snow, held in place only by the tips and by tape Karel had applied in several locations on the first day. This, combined with major lethargy, dehydration and exposure, made the last couple of km extremely difficult, to the point where I finally entered the hut in a state of complete exhaustion and mild hypothermia, just as the sun bid us farewell for the day too. 6 hrs up, 3 hrs down. It certainly rates as one of the hardest days I have ever done.

After a few brews and a quick nap, we both got back to the business of celebrating our little achievement. We polished of the Gambrinus – which predictably failed to stop the constant ringing in our heads – and cranked the stove to maximum, getting the temperature of the hut to ~ 23 C!, which made taking a whiz outside a bit of a shock (-10 C). The following morning, with the weather closing in we packed it up, removed the skins from the skis, and descended through thick powder all the way back to the car. I think I crashed about 30 times and resorted to the stance of the snow plough for much of it. Skiing powder with a full pack is hard! Needless to say everything we had left in the car was frozen – coke, apples, beer, cheese, sausage etc. Back in civilian clothes we graced the same CafĂ© in Kals, where the man behind the bar, who recognized us from a few days earlier greeted us with a nod and “Grossglockner?”, which we acknowledged, followed by a knowing smile and, “kalt!?”.

The Concorde

The biggest mattress i've ever used

Our humble abode, night 1

The route

Heavy going, day 1

The Sudehutte (little one on the left of the Hilton), as photographed on our descent....

...and inside

The approach

having crossed the glacier we move up and around a buttress

time to dump the skis and pack the rope

lower ridge with fixed lines to gain the E.J Hutte

Still a way to go!

Karel, high on the final couloir

The precarious (false) summit ridge, just before the notch

Karel getting ready to descend to the notch. The true summit is top right.

The summit!

Karel approaches. The ridge we traversed, and false summit, are in mid-picture (extending diagonally upwards from RHS to LHS).

Time to flee

descending across the glacier

making good time at the end of the day

The next moring - one of my many stacks on our exit

The Grossglockner is in the background


  1. Congratulations Dave & Karel, that sounds like it was a extremely difficult but challenging and ultimately rewarding experience. I feel a liitle evenvious and very soft.

    Well done, now to celebrte with some green drink?

  2. Wow! What an epic, sounds amazing (and extremely hard), Well done!

  3. Bloody Hell Dave. What an adventure!! Glad you have made it back to earth in one piece. That ride of Kevs seems a little soft for you now.
    Cheers, hamster

  4. Dave, that's nuts. And Karel too, bloody bastard! Remind me that if you ever say you want to go and climb mountains and to leave the bike at home, count me out.

  5. Thanks for your comments guys (and gal). Hope you enjoy the extra snaps. C'mon Greggles, you'd love such an experience, especially once it's over, of course.