04 Mar 2012

Pitztal ice with Georg

Sorry this is a bit late. A few weeks ago in the incredible European cold-snap Georg and I got into the Pitztal for some ice climbing. One of the most popular sites for ice in Austria, we were surprised to have everything to ourselves. Apparently, it was just so cold that no one was out. We saw one party come and look at a wall, but they got back in the car and left!

First we climbed the Luibisbodenfall, which I’d done before in 2011, and Georg had been there several years before that. Pitch by pitch:

1 - 50 meters, WI4-. Michael. Climb the ice shield directly. Belay from a tree on the left (sling in place).

2 - 45 meters, WI4. Georg. After walking up the gully, climb the impressive shield up to a ledge at 3/4 height. Belay from ice screws.

3 - 50 meters, WI4-. Michael. Climb a short steep step on the right, then walk up snow to another short but steep step. Belay from a big root (sling).

4 - 45 meters, WI4-. Georg. After a 10 minute walk uphill, climb an enjoyable ice wall. In general, the low volume of ice for the season seemed to make most pitches easier. I’ve used WI4- to reflect that. In terrain that is normally a steep shield, there are shallow gully-ways between vertical pillars, and we usually followed those. Belay from a tree (sling). (really?)

5 - 25 meters, WI4-. Michael. Finish the shield with a short step, then belay at the base of the final wall from ice screws.

6 - 50 meters, WI4+/5-. Georg. Climb a vertical runnel between ice pillars. The previous year I’d climbed it in WI4+ condition, now it was harder, as the ice was alternately very cold, requiring effort for placement, or (on the left side) continuous streams of water were running down, which would freeze on your jacket. Very steep and interesting! Georg found a good tree up in the snow atop the fall to belay from.

No need for me to write too much about that climb, as it’s been described before.

Sunday we decided to climb the two icefalls above the avalanche protection gallery a bit up the valley from Stillebach, called Galeriefälle. Both offered some WI5 climbing, in addition to pitches of WI3 and 4. That sounded good. We decided to start the day later, and stay later, in an attempt to avoid the worst of the morning cold when we need to climb (better to deal with the cold of evening during the somewhat more mundane task of descending).

We made for the right fall first. As I mentioned already, the first pitch was hard because of freezing hands and feet. The pitch looked easy from below, I half-thought I’d place one screw for the pitch, maybe two. But the cold ice broke up into big dinner plates, and required a lot of work for a good placement. Placing the second screw was especially hard, as it was difficult to get enough leverage to drive the screw in. I felt like I’d fall off just from that. Plus my fingers would only survive a few seconds without having to stop and ball them into a fist for a few precious seconds of warming action. Finally I got some decent protection and could climb pretty quickly another 20 meters to the anchor, first on ice then on snow with rock just beneath that dulled my tools. My anchor was two screws embedded in ice laboriously cleared of junk ice where the climb steepens again.

While bringing Georg up I worked hard to restore feeling to my now-frozen left foot. Very painful coming back to life! My fingers were finally able to hold warm thanks to the thicker belaying gloves. By the time he arrived, I was quite worn out from the effort of staying warm in only one pitch of climbing! He stopped and stared at a two bolt anchor only a few feet away from my ice screw anchor. Oh brother, I wish I’d seen that! I just wasn’t expecting the climb to have a fixed anchor.

Georg continued on a really nice pitch, about 50 meters with good ice climbing for 40 meters, then a bit of snow walking to an amazing anchor: three bolts in a headwall, that had been dug out of a snowbank with herculean effort. It seemed like 2 meters of snow had been on top of the anchor, and we wondered who had taken the trouble to dig it out! Certainly, without it, you’d have to climb another 15 meters to ice or belay awkwardly at the top of the previous icefall.

No one had climbed higher than this point, it appeared, so the last two pitches would be “virgin territory” for the year. I set off clearing a path through steep and deep snow, trying to decide where the route went above me, as there were at least three possibilities. Finally, plowing into the middle of a gully I could see the vertical icefall above. I climbed an interesting step, then resumed kicking steps in snow up to another ice screw anchor in the good ice of the final, and steepest fall. Georg came up, and after a good but fruitless search for fixed anchors, he dealt with the WI5 pitch. It was very steep and kind of awkward. He protected well, then went out of sight to a higher section. After 50 meters, he built an ice screw belay. I enjoyed this pitch a lot, I think it was my first WI5. I was grateful to be able to follow it instead of leading! At the top, Georg had built a double Ablakov anchor. We laughed when we realized we’d both forgotten our knives down below. So he had to leave a lot of sling! One 50 meter rappel, then a shorter one from another Ablakov got us hooked up with the two fixed anchors. 2 more 50 meter rappels got us to the ground.

Comically, I poured some tea from my thermos, then a very thin snow slide came and emptied right into my cup of hot tea, overflowing it with cold snow and staining the snow all around an unlovely brown. I tried to drink what was left but it was now freezing. Drat, a whole cup wasted! With some disgust I threw the remains in a wide arc, then felt bad for coloring all the snow around me brown. Doh.

We packed up and hiked around to the left icefall. Here, we enjoyed the sun for a few minutes, finally not having to work hard just to stay warm! I went almost straight up for the first pitch of this fall, which looks more impressive from below.

I just loved this pitch! Not vertical, but continuously steep, it’s rated WI4+ in our book. It might have been a bit easier due to lower than usual ice conditions that allowed me to weave between pillars to some extent. Generally, I climbed into a grove on the far right of the fall, remaining close to rock, but always with good ice for screws. The sun kept me warm, and it wasn’t painful to protect fairly often. I was having a blast. Finally, after 40 meters I decided I was at a good stopping point, and Georg would have to turn left above me to avoid ice overhangs. Chopping out a tiny ledge for feet, I built an anchor and brought him up. He was pretty tired from the hard pitch an hour before, but took some slings and headed up and left. Before long he was out of sight, then bringing me up for an excellent pitch. A full 50 meters, first traversing left to the left side of the central water hose, exposed here and there and carefully avoided, then snaking up the shallow gullies like my own pitch. Now I continued as the terrain eased, finding a good Ablakov anchor to clip, then reaching the top of the fall on increasingly thin ice over churning water. I really expected some kind of fixed belay at the top, based on pictures taken, but I couldn’t find anything. I was forced to wade up deep snow until Georg could climb. At this point I stomped out a sturdy snow platform, hammered one tool deeply for an anchor, and made a belay seat. I thought it would be awkward to climb down and find a solid anchor to begin rappels. Georg arrived with frozen fingers. I loaned him my gloves, and after briefly considering if we should try to walk off, he climbed back down to find a good anchor in the ice. I followed him, and we built an Ablakov anchor and rappeled 30 meters to the good Ablakov setup I’d passed on the far left of the icefall.

I forgot to mention that the sun had disappeared during this last operation, and it got uncomfortably cold immediately. Plus, in the narrow gully a faint wind and stream of colder air sucked our warmth away very quickly. We were extremely hopeful that this next anchor would allow us to descend to another fixed Ablakov anchor I’d seen on the face below.

Happily, it was! One more 50 meter rappel got us to the ground. Elated with our two icefalls, completed on a day of extreme cold, when these “famous and crowded” climbs were entirely empty, we stuffed our packs with ropes and gear, bombing down to the car to gradually begin the warming-up process.

Big thanks to Georg for the great company and climbing! This was damn fun, even though I know I complained about the cold a lot in this report! My tools and monopoints were amazing. I just need some decent winter mountaineering pants to feel much more secure. I think my tools could use some sharpening tool. We drove home, listening to loud metal and eating gummy worms.


Pitches on the right gallery fall:

1 - 50 meters, WI3. Michael. Painfully cold! Continued in snow to a gear or ice belay below a shield.

2 - 50 meters, WI4-. Georg. Good ice climbing up and left to the top of the step, then walk 10 meters up to a gear anchor (if visible) on the slope above. You might need to cut the pitch short and belay from the last good ice if this anchor can’t be found.

3 - 60 meters, WI3. Michael. Wade snow to a short ice step, and then more snow to an ice screw belay below the final vertical ice wall.

4 - 50 meters, WI5-. Georg. Vertical ice, amenable to stemming between pillars. Belay from ice screws at the top.

Pitches on the left gallery fall:

1 - 40 meters, WI4. Michael. Sustained, highly enjoyable climbing on the right side of the icefall. Ice screw belay in a shallow corner.

2 - 50 meters, WI4. Georg. Climb up and left to the left side of the icefall, and climb steeply up. Belay from ice screws.

3 - 60 meters, WI3+. Michael. From Georg’s belay, another 10 meters reached a good belay and fixed Abalakov anchor on the left side of the fall. Continue on thinning ice to the apex of the fall. Above this point, I continued in snow for 15 meters looking for a gear anchor but none was found. Belayed from a snow-seat and axe belay.

More pictures at the Flickr gallery.