19 May 2012

Hochferner Nordwand

Basti, Georg and I drove down to the Pfitschtal in Südtirol Friday evening. We got some pizza for dinner in Sterzing, then drove up to the parking lot at the end of the valley. Another party was at the car, and said their two friends had just started hiking up to the Gunther Messner bivouac hut, where we were going too. Satisfied that it wouldn’t be too crowded, we packed up our rope, ice tools, snowshoes and other gear, and started hiking at 8:30 pm. It was great to be out on a summery evening, hiking up a snow-free trail. We followed it as long as we could without headlamps, which got us to snowfields, and then we could reliably follow some tracks in the snow up a big moraine to the bivouac hut.

The Gunter Messner bivouac hut with the Hochferner glacier behind.

The hut sleeps twelve, and happily there were just 5 of us tonight. By 11 pm, we were ready to sleep, having shared some food with Jörg and Andy, two guys from Bozen. We all decided to get up around 4:30 am and be hiking at 5:00 am. We didn’t have a stove so no one needed to cook anything. It was a good night’s sleep.

In the morning, we started out, the Tyroleans a bit ahead. From the hut we hiked up the moraine about 5 minutes to where we could drop easily onto the glacier. The Hochferner Glacier rolls and buckles, with a few interesting seracs. The climb is about 900 meters high, and boasts of an 80-degree step in the middle. Fun, fun!

We hiked up to the base of the first ice cliff and promptly avoided it by a gully on the left. Unfortunately, we suffered some injuries here! Georg got smacked in the ear by a flying chunk of ice (which hurt quite a bit…still swollen 2 days later, he says). Basti got hit in the arm. Oh well, if you aren’t out the door first on these climbs, you don’t really get to complain!

A bit of black ice…dirty and hard!

Above the gully, there was a mandatory bit of hard, black ice for about 40 meters. That was a nice wake up call! Now fully awake, we continued up easier (40-50 degree?) slopes for a while to the base of the upper bulge. We decided to tackle the middle of it, giving us the exciting 80 degree step, and then the option to link snowfields between blank ice and seracs. We set a belay beside Andy and Jörg, who apologized for any ice chunks! Having learned our lessons about gravity, our two parties set off on leads off to the sides of the belayers. I decided it was my turn to lead since Georg did the Petersenspitze in March! Basti was like “you guys can fight for it, I don’t care!” At any rate, it was a super fun 30 meter pitch, where the first 15 meters were really steep. I don’t think I ever climbed “alpine” ice that was so steep, only water ice. I could place two good ice screws for protection, then easier terrain led to where I could chop out a little belay stance. Georg and Basti came up, enjoying the pitch quite a bit.

On the 80-degree ice step

Jörg and Andy followed a line just to the left

It made sense for me to continue, this time hopefully as a simul-climb, trying to keep some amount of protection in. I went quite easily in snow for a while, then placed a couple of screws at an ice step. Another screw higher, and then after an approximately 150 meter “pitch” we gained a shelf below the summit wall. We just continued with the rope on easy but somewhat tiring steep snow up to the summit ridge, where a small cloud engulfed us.

Yay! Hochfernerspitze! 3470 meters. We enjoyed the non-view for about 0 seconds, then started down along the ridge, then dropped onto a short but steep south face with some awkward loose rock. Georg somehow zoomed down this, then took comical pictures of Basti and I contorting ourselves among the stacked blocks! We stomped down snow to a flat place for some food and water.

On top!

I’d grown to like the horrible “power energy drink” I bought the night before. Sickly sweet, almost sticky, I began to fear the liquid was contaminated with “prions” that would lodge in my brain somewhere. Diluting with water by 50% helped, and finally the massive energy drain of the ice face did the rest. Now I could declare it a good drink!

Andy and Jörg came down from the summit and joined us at our lunch spot. It was only 10 am! I think we were pretty fast overall. We had great conditions on the route, and the descent would prove to be similar. Eventually we set off down the Weisskarferner (glacier) in snowshoes. The views of Rotes Beil (2949 m) and surrounding mountains were inviting. These Zillertal peaks have sweeping bands of near vertical rock which lend drama to the scene. Sadly the rock is not good for climbing!

We reached trail and took off snowshoes. The trail was kind of annoying, as it seemed like it was always climbing up to remain high above the Gliderbach valley floor. But a “balcony” trail on the side of a valley is always amazing for views, so I have to give it that. We slowly made our way down, reaching some abandoned huts above the Oberbergbach that we climbed along the night before. A few more minutes and we were at the car, me trailing behind to give me knees some comfort, and to stop and drink from cold streams.

What a great trip! It’s not as difficult of a climb as I thought it would be, but the scenery, opportunity for conditioning and companionship were excellent. Good weather made it possible! Thanks to Georg for driving too!

More photos here.

(a postscript: coming back to Munich, I couldn’t take my normal U-bahn home from Georg’s house, due to the impending Fußball game between Munich and Chelsea. I finally had to walk, in wet mountain boots and gear, with a pile of snowshoes and ice tools, across the city to get home! Every taxi had an Englishman or three already in it!