10 Aug 2006

Grossglockner attempt

Saturday Mat and I left Garmisch hoping to do an alpine climb. But the Engadin valley, our hopeful destination, was wrapped in clouds. Mat was keen on climbing the Grossglockner, so we figured we could first do some sport climbing in Zirl, then drive down there in the evening.

First the sport climbing was really fun. We did a route with 4 short pitches of 5+, 6, 5, 5. Mat led the first two pitches as one, then I led the second set. We rapped the route. Next door was a harder route with pitches of 7-,5+,7,5. Mat led the 7 pitches, both of which had cruxes too hard for me, so I had to pull on quickdraws and hang liberally. I led the easier pitches, the first of which was pretty run out. This time we walked down. I brought my camera but forgot the memory card, so there are no pictures of this trip. Alas!

Later after a pizza dinner we drove to the Franz Josef Hoehe and bedded down for the night at 1 am. Our alarm was set for 3 am! We were hiking a bit before 3:30, and making for the Pavacinni Couloir. After a long walk up the glacier in crampons, Mat thought he saw where we should turn up to gain the bivy shelter near the base of the route. But on the map it showed complete glacier coverage, while in the pre-dawn darkness it was clear there was no glacier. I thought it must be the next rock outcrop where we turn up, which had a big white glacier in front of it.

Once on the side glacier we were climbing fairly steeply up ice slopes. It had been more than a year since I’d been on such slopes, and it was hard to get used to again. Finally we were front-pointing and using two axes. My floppy boots and old style crampons were proving to be no match for this terrain. While following Mat up an ice gully a crampon slipped and I was caught by my tools. This was creepy. We got up to a flatter area and I tightened my boots and crampons which I really needed to do. I didn’t expect such icy uncompromising terrain, and worried a little about the big couloir we hadn’t even gotten close to yet.

It got lighter and we came to a wall of ice. I told Mat I needed a belay on these walls, due to not trusting my boots at all. I was disappointed to need to rope up (and thus travel more slowly) with so much terrain still ahead of us, but without complete faith in your equipment and ability on icy terrain progress will grind to a halt anyway. Mat led out and then I followed the pitch on belay, really glad I’d asked for it.

It got lighter and we climbed several more little ice walls, along with some easier weaving in and out of crevasses. This glacier was steeper and more difficult than we expected! A memorable pitch was sticking crampon points into one wall of a crevasse and putting hands or back on the other wall. I also enjoyed using the ice as handholds sometimes, a recommendation I remember reading in the Chouinard Climbing Ice book. It really did speed things up.

Finally we were on the upper flat part of the glacier, but still in a maze of crevasses. We saw the fabled couloir far to our left, and gradually realized we’d climbed the wrong glacier! We did go one glacier too far. Getting back to where we needed to be would be very difficult. Plus, it was raining pretty steadily, the upper mountain was sheathed in cloud, and the couloir promised to be bare rock at it’s base and time-consuming ice above. With my boot situation, I knew I wasn’t properly equipped for the climb. As the rain increased, we decided to go down.

Descending steep ice takes a lot of time! I went in front, then when we reached the ice walls, Mat put in an ice screw and belayed me down. I’d place a screw and belay him down, or sometimes he’d just come down casually. For me, the front-pointing down climbing was a lot of work because I was really tense. I never had to front point down so much hard steep ice. Actually, it was great practice and I’m glad we got to do it. Still, the lower section of steep flat-footing and more front pointing without a belay took a lot out of me.

Mat hiked up to the head of the glacier and I followed until I got hungry and wanted some warm gloves, hiking back to sit on my pack and look at the mountains. After walking down a ways we completely confirmed our mistake and identified the correct way to go for the next attempt.

The 300 meter hike back up to Franz Josef Hoehe seemed to take me forever. Mat was waiting, seemingly ready to climb something else!

On the long drive back to Garmisch we had constant sun, as this land was well protected by a Foehn wind. I took a nap at Mat’s house, then we had some coffee and exchanged stories. Thanks to Mat for a great trip - good lessons and practice were learned on a steep glacier, probably rarely visited by the sane! “We need to get stronger,” Mat said diplomatically. I am really out of shape this year!