Also posted on Summitpost.org here.
Timo, Georg and I had been itching to get out for a weekend trip and climb some Nordwände (North faces!). It all came together pretty nicely, and a couple of days ago we drove to the end of the Pitztal to attempt the “Pitztal Express,” a punishing series of three or four ice walls, depending on how you define it. We figured to do our best, and ended up well satisfied with two. I call our trip the “Pitztal Shuttle Bus:” a little pokey, but fun.
The Pitztal Express climbs the Taschachwand (55 deg., 600 m), the Petersenspitze (50 deg., 200 m), the Hintere Brochkogel (55 deg., 250 m). In some sources they toss in the North Wall of the Wildspitze too (50 deg., 250 m). I did that last one as a day climb in its own right once, and was damn tired! Happily, you can exit the tour after any one of the climbs, so it's always there to shoot for as an ideal!
We got to the trailhead, a ski area called Mittelberg at about noon on Saturday. Looking at our piles of gear in the parking lot, I reflected that there can’t be any sport that involves more gear than ski alpinism. Maybe scuba diving. Anyway we had all the backcountry ski gear, along with a full set of ice climbing gear, even a “lucky cam” in case we (horror!) had to climb through some rock. Toss in the food and paraphernalia of an overnight trip and you’ll be hurtin’. At least we didn’t have to camp. About 3 hours journey up the valley was the Taschach Hütte. It was closed, but the winter room was kept open with a stove and wood.
At first we hurried up the valley, going the wrong way through a crowd of bored downhill skiers. Somehow we thought the hut would be packed with other people trying to do the same thing. In our minds, the “Pitztal Express” was famous, and we imagined 5-10 parties lining up for the climbs. But we didn’t see anybody else going up valley. It was a hot, beautiful afternoon. Either this or the long monotonous low angle ski travel gave us all blisters. Eventually, we climbed out of the main valley more steeply to circle around to the back side of the hut from the west. Clouds arrived and it even snowed lightly. We did get some nice views of the Taschachwand: a mighty 600 meter high wall of snow, ice and hopefully buried rock. Advertised as a 50 degree wall, it did look steeper from below. We could also see the Petersenspitze North Wall peeking “over it’s shoulder.”
At the hut we studied the wall, knowing that we’d have to approach in the dark. The growing piles of clouds convinced us we’d be lucky to have any visibility at all. We worked out schemes to make sure that we’d recognize when we’d traversed below the wall and needed to turn right. The effort felt a bit futile, as we all had our stores of long experience to draw on. Experiences that mostly consisted of wandering in the dark, “trying out” different gullies, shouting and arguing about the “right” slope only to discover we were 500 meters away from the real climb. But you do your best!
The hut was really nice. A party of 6 skiers were there, telling tall tales over a massive pot of tomato soup. I got to know Timo a little bit, he and his wife just had a baby. This brought back memories of 3 am feedings, the joy of the kids finally sleeping, etc. We pooled our food resources. Timo had pasta with mushroom sauce. It was highly bland, until yours truly had the brilliant idea of raiding the Ramen seasoning packs for spice. That turned it into a great meal. Then we cooked the Ramen which was great. Finally, my entry didn’t fare so well. A fancy, expensive freeze-dried curry chicken meal that ended up tepid and undercooked. But who cares, because…
The Hut Sells Beer.
That’s right. It’s “closed,” but beer is available on the Honor System. You take a beer, you leave 3 euros.
If you want a reason why it’s good to live in Europe, it’s this!
So we broke into the drinks. I really enjoyed a good Weissbier and a Radler. Georg drank about 6 Radlers, and Timo was content with various kiddie apple juice drinks. We set the alarm for 3:35 am, and Georg really had to beg for that 5. I was tired so I went upstairs and crashed with the guys, but I felt like I should have had about a liter of tea or water. We were encased in thick cloud. What would the morning bring?
What the morning brought...
The Taschachwand, 55 degrees, 600 m
I had a headache. I toddled downstairs to pee and stepped outside. It was 2:30 am and the sky was mostly clear! Awesome. I drank a bottle of water, and hoped another hour of rest would get rid of the headache. 10 minutes later, Georg woke me up. The first words out of my mouth were “how ‘bout another hour of sleep?” Georg was polite, and like, “okay, uh, sure.” But in the time it took for that conversation, Timo had already neatly folded his 6 blankets in Army style, gotten dressed and checked the weather (“all good!”). I felt terrible for suggesting more laying about, so I withdrew my highly creative idea and marched down to the kitchen to get ready. But I could barely eat. Every time the kitchen door opened the oppressive smell of the “composting toilet” wafted in. Ugh. Headache, nausea. I prepared for a staged exit. “Guys, I’ll either abandon the plan now, and send you off with the rope from my pack, or at the base of the wall, finding my way back to the hut to wait.” This was depressing. I’d never had to bow out due to ailment, and I didn’t want to do it now. I concocted a “medicine” of water, aspirin tablets, and some chemical orange calcium tablets that Timo found in the pantry. I remembered somebody telling me that carbonation is good for digestion. Since the mixture bubbled madly, and the fruity orange smell was preferable to the composting toilet (a marvelous thing, in principle), I thought it boded well for recovery.
We hung around a while for me to finish the drink, and then I was ready to at least go to the face. We got harnesses on, donned helmets and headlamps, then skied away under the stars. The face was a black bulk on our right, but rather far away. Moving slowly, we traversed the rim of the valley head, darkness far below where the moraine dropped into snowfields and occasional crevasses on the glacier. I was really feeling better, grateful for the slow pace, and the magic bubbling health drink.
“Wow, I’m hungry!” I said, as we reached a plateau and saw the face above us in hazy blue outline. Timo and Georg approved heartily, and we connected with a single ski track going up to the face. It was adequate to reach the gully we’d chosen, just right of a buttress and massive icefalls. The angle steepened, and we stomped out a ledge to change into crampons and ice tools. For the fourth gift of the day (the first being the clear sky, despite forecast, the second my miracle cure, the third that we found the base in the dark), the skiers before had decided to climb the face, so we had boot tracks in the thigh deep snow that begun the couloir. “Thank You Jesus” I sang in a high, lilting soprano. Just kidding. But we were all happy!
Georg started up, then me and Timo. It’s amazing how much a steep snow face feels “dumbed down” when you have a tool in each hand. We hoped we wouldn’t need the rope for this first climb, especially because it’s the longest (600 m), and roping up would cost time. Despite the weighty pack, the climbing felt secure and even fun. Slowly, dawn charged the icefields with color, and clouds began to break up.
Tool, tool, step step. Tool, tool, step, step. Breathe. Tool, well you get the idea. After about 200 meters of climbing into the face we were surprised to see that the climbers before had switched back to skis. “That’s weird!” we thought. “Whatever!” I said. But we could make no further progress on foot. Georg tried and ended up building a snow cave around himself. I don’t think any of us ever put on skis in such a steep, precarious place, intending to climb further! But there was nothing for it. Using Georgs new snow cave, we did the costly gear changeover again, and wobbled away with skis carefully planted in the skin track. Would our skins hold? I didn’t want to look down! But we gradually gained elevation in switchbacks and a big traverse under a rocky buttress. It would have been almost impossible to come through this area on foot.
The switchbacks got tougher to negotiate. “How did these guys do it?” I thought, watching Georg execute a laborious 6 step procedure to turn his skis around without sliding off the mountain. Eventually, his skins wouldn’t climb further, and I tested the snow, realizing it would hold our weight from here. Back into boots, feeling much safer then.
We climbed to a blank ice cliff and avoided it with a traverse to the right. In here, the snow got much thinner, and we felt our crampon points bite into the ice underneath. The angle appeared to be over 55 degrees, but I’ve seen multi-page forum threads on the internet when somebody says something like that offhand, so we’ll just apply a clamping function to any talk of angle. But anyway, we’d reached my favorite emotional “region” of any climb: when there is vast wall below you, but still significant climbing above. When the walls loom at their finest, and the great gulf of empty space yawns behind and below. Here are the “secret faces” of the mountain. You have to be embedded in them to see. Despite the environment, everyone is warm and secure enough. When success teeters on the edge of certainty, here are the moments to savor. If you ask me why we do it, it’s for these times.
With our new freedom we played around. Georg traversed off to the side for some pictures. “Wow, that’ll be awesome” I said, “lemme do that!” So I traversed over to the side a bit. Georg took some pictures of me while I screwed my face up into “Nordwand” mode. Looking at these pictures later, by far the more interesting ones were the ones I took looking back on Georg and Timo. A couple of laughing guys a million miles from home. Cool.
Now we were on the “ice shield” that marks the top of the wall, and we could feel it in the changed surface. Crampons bit well, but the ice tools often took two or three swings to reach good ice underneath rotten surface crust. Climbing unroped like this, the key is to make sure every single movement is secure. With that in mind, you have to place your tools well. I learned this from Alex Krawarik on the Ice Cliff Glacier years ago. He saw me tripping up the face just barely placing tools, instead relying on steps Dan had kicked. I resisted this good advice…it was more tiring to follow it! But there is no real chance of arresting a fall on this terrain. The import of his words still ring in my ears…
Laborious hacking here at the end. When I tired, I would chop out a ledge to place a foot sideways and rest my tired calves. Georg reached the rocks, and carefully traversed to a saddle that marked the end of the climb. Following Timo, I was glad to be done with the ice. Carefully, I scraped at the snow for solid rock underneath. Testing, then shifting weight to the right. Snow under my feet seemed to rot away. Later we all laughed, agreeing that the primary thought in our minds at that point was that we don’t come all this way just to fall 2 meters from the end of the climb!
The Petersenspitze, 50 degrees, 200 m
Suddenly everything was different. Brilliant, full-on morning sun, and a great reflective frying-pan of a glacier to radiate the heat. We relaxed and looked down the vast face one more time. Just memories now. I think it was 9:30 am, we’d been on the go 5 hours. 2 for the approach, and 3 for the climb. Not bad! But we were tired, so we decided to cache our skis, climb the Petersenspitze North Wall and head home. We skied down from our col to the east, then walked up to the col between the amorphous Taschach summits and the Petersenspitze. Going a bit further, we found a good place to leave our packs and drop down onto the face. I coiled the rope around me and followed Timo and Georg.
The first steps to descend were difficult, as hard, blank ice lay under a thin layer of snow. Timo had hollered back to me that Georg “fell” here, but he didn’t sound excited so I didn’t take it seriously. But once on the ice I could imagine. When Georg dropped down it was buried under snow. Somehow, now the snow was in a little pile about 4 meters down and the ice was well scratched up. Hmm.
Later, we traversed snow under a huge crevasse to Georgs ice screw belay. We had a terrible time uncoiling the rope, it just twisted itself into a frenzy. I apologized lamely, “it was fine when I coiled it around me!” 2.5 hours later, Georg started climbing on hard, hard ice. Even the crampons would sheer out from an upper rotten layer. Earlier I had waxed on about how fun this “blank” alpine ice is, from my experience with Daniel a few years ago on the Wildspitze Nordwand. From my perch as “back seat driver” I continued to urge the seeking-out of blank ice to that point. Finally though, even I was cowed. “Do you mind, if I don’t seek further blankeis?” asked Georg. Not at all man!
I really didn’t want to simul-climb on that blank step, so I asked Georg to set a belay. We did two pitches like this, then Georg just continued for a simul-climb. The upper part became more snowy and felt secure. Finally, the angle leveled off and soon we were on top. We had a whole new vista, with the Hintere Brochkogel in front of us. The Nordwand looked very impressive from here, as did the North Ridge (My buddy Sebastian Hamm climbed it a few years ago, very nice!).
The Hintere Brochkogel
Much as we would have liked to climb that as “summit number three,” we knew we’d be exhausted. It was easy to enjoy the look around, then hike down to our packs, then our skis. In a long schuss, with a few good turns we reached the saddle (Taschachjoch, 3236 m) which we had to climb up in boots, then finally we could become plain ol’ downhill skiers. We thought about descending to the Urkundsattel (notch) and continuing the descent on the Sexegerten Glacier (nice name) to emerge on the west side of the Taschach Hütte, but ultimately the nicest way seemed to be to descend the Taschach Glacier. This began an excellent ski descent of about 1200 meters, over excellent powder snow for the first half, then in terrain resembling a ski piste with many tracks, even mogul runs. Georg and I each had a wipe out crash where we lost a ski. Timo is an excellent skier, he began at age 3, apparently, and it showed in his technique despite the heavy pack!
Now we traversed the long flat valley for miles, working for every ounce of speed. My shoulder muscles ached from push polling over and over, and my legs quivered too much to skate by the end. Finally, the angle allowed floating along again and we were at the car before long.
We finished the trip off with a great dinner at the “Bollywood” Indian food restaurant in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. It was a hell of a lot of fun, and I was really grateful to have made it out of the hut in the morning for such a memorable day. Huge thanks to Timo and Georg.