Hochfernerspitze, Griessferner Glacier
Here is a little video:
It was strange to be back in the Pfitscher Valley for the second time in less than three months. But here we were, this time intent on the Griessferner Glacier as an alternative to the Hochferner. And we certainly had our fill of the Hochfeiler back in March! We mused over the three cars in the parking lot…could they have contained climbers that are currently occupying the rare and coveted bunks in the bivouac hut 700 meters above us? We looked closely in the windows. One car clearly contained climbers. The requisite guidebooks and decals were all in place. But it could have only been two people…the car was just too neat. As for the other vehicles we ruled them out as climbers. They were very nice cars, and very, very clean inside.
No way those are climbers.
In fact, Georg and I fleshed out our approach to cars. “Men like us use vehicles and discard them,” he said. Not to be outdone, I replied “of what import is a conveyence when weighty matters of life and death are taken in hand?” I suppose it’s not only climbers who can rationalize their way into thinking it good that their car interiors are unkept!
So gamble #1 was to leave the sleeping bags and have faith that bunks remained. Gamble #2 was to leave the snowshoes at the car. Gamble #3 was, well, not that we had a choice, for me to do without gaitors because I’d left them in Timo’s car back in February. “I’m sure it’ll be fine!”
We hiked easily up valley, laughing at how difficult the avalanche debries had been in March. We reached the bivouac hut in about 1.5 hours, locking ourselves in after a peek at the Griessferner, looking soft, cold and blue in the last dim light. I ate the first of 7 McDonalds cheeseburgers that constituted my rations (spoiler: I wouldn’t possibly manage to eat all of them on the trip).
The bivouac hut with the Griessferner directly behind.
We slept well, got up at 4:30, and moving rather slowly for people without a stove to boil water, were on the move at 5:20. We decided to rope up later, and crunched out of the hut under a light snowfall but good visibility. The snow was deeper than we expected; clearly not frozen hard by the cold night. We hoped steeper conditions on the glacier would ameliorate those concerns.
Alas, the glacier was the constant recipient of fresh snow driven from above. Since I didn’t have gaitors, I let Georg kick all steps, figuring that if I could preserve some degree of dryness in my socks until the summit that would be good for us. His job only got harder with each meter gained! We reached a small cirque under steep icefalls and roped up. Georg set out for a steep pitch climbing along the whaleback fin of an icy block. It remained just easy enough to avoid the use of ice screw protection. From here, we climbed an undulating ridge of ice, occasional steep icy steps seperated by disheartening deep snow. Occasionally, a real crevasse had to be probed and climbed over with some care.
Georg breaking trail.
The clouds swirled around us and occasionally we could look down into a valley whitened by fresh snow. The conditions looked and felt more like February or March than the last days of May. After 600 or 700 meters of vertical gain, we rested and I took Georgs gaitors so I could at least break trail for the last 350 meters. Now we turned left to gain the North Ridge of the Hochfernerspitze. This went pretty well, but once on the ridge snow conditions were at their most punishing: a knife-edged ridge of unconsolidated bottomless snow made a serious brake on our progress. I gritted my teeth and kept making thigh-deep holes with my boots, knowing that brute force would eventually succeed even if it took a long time.
The clouds lifted briefly and we saw the summit block ahead. Soon we were on top, with screaming wind announcing new topography to the south: the great Weisskarferner (glacier). We descended straight down from the summit in the whiteout, attained easier ground and rested again.
It was our third time to descend this way, so we didn’t really need visibility. But my lack of gaitors made things extra slow. I thought I would just bomb down “devil may care,” because warmth and snow-free terrain was just an hour away. But my pants kept ending up packed with snow up to my knees which became painful, and the rubbing of ice chunks seemed to shred whatever organization scheme I’d applied to my shoelaces. I had no choice but to jarringly follow exactly in Georg’s footsteps, thus losing a really nice property of snow descent: the snow normally acts as a shock absorber. Despite these precautions, I still had to stop now and then to clean and reset my pants, zippers, laces, socks.
Thank goodness, by around 2700 meters the snow began to consolidate and I could make my own steps without problems. Through this long, slow and tedious descent from 3470 meters, we’d heard avalanches booming around the valley. Georg wisely suggested that we not even try the traversing Unterbergalm trail because of this, as he remembered that it traversed some narrow snow-filled couloirs.
Finally out of the deep snow! At the Gliderbach constriction.
Therefore we’d go down the Gliderbach valley by it’s floor. That floor was a nice place to be, very lonely. We hadn’t seen anyone the whole trip, and it was unlikely that anyone had been here in a few days. We made the tedious 150 meter climb up on the left side of the Gliderbach, then continued steeply down on a combination of steep snow and trails. Somewhere in here the snow turned to rain, offset by golden rays of sun which sometimes actually hit us (which felt very good!).
We went through the abandoned Unterberg Huts, crossed the Oberbergbach on a bridge, and were at the car 10 minutes later. We had a good lunch and some gelato in Sterzing, a rather civilized end to our lonely trek through the snow!