16 Mar 2014

Hochfeiler North Face

Georg was looking at the weather for the weekend, and saw that our long run of sun would end everywhere by Saturday afternoon. Thinking quickly, he suggested we leave work early Friday and climb the Hochfeiler Nordwand after a sleep in the Gunter Messner Bivouac. “Okay!” I hadn’t even been thinking about going out to climb, and this ready-made plan sounded perfect. I put in a half-day at work and met Georg at the Mangfallplatz on the southeast edge of the city.

Three hours later, we munched down a humble meal of schnitznel sandwiches with mayonaise and peanut butter at the car. We had 30 meters of rope, 4 ice screws, ice tools and crampons in addition to the ski gear needed at this time of year. The sun was going down as we set out from a muddy and snowy trailhead at the hamlet of Stein, last outpost of civilization in the Pfischertal.

The last time we’d hiked to the Biwak was in May of two years ago, with snowshoes and technical gear to climb the Hochferner (Hochfeiler != Hochferner). It took us 1.5 hours to reach the bivy then, so we were confident of a ski in of about two hours.


It took four hours.

First off, it took a long time just to reach the real “trailhead” from Stein, up a combination of almost-flat roads and a ski trail in the forest. Then, we ran into an obstacle we’d forgotten about but soon remembered: the trail had been destroyed for a 300 meter section by avalanche, and now it had apparently been destroyed anew by a fresh one. We stumbled in the dark alternately with skis on our with them on our backs, crawling through broken trees and across cliffs of mud and stone.

Finally, after several false starts we were able to keep our skis on for good and start enjoying ourselves. Thankfully, we could travel in the floor of the valley instead of the traversing hillside trail, which was strewn with avalanche debris for miles. In the north, we’ve had an outrageous lack of snow, but south of the crest they received an excess.

Now I was having fun. The moonlight on the peaks and the looming bulk of the Weissspitze/Hochferner massive on our right were beautiful. We slowly progressed up the slope left of the moraine that housed the bivouac hut, eventually removing skis to traverse over rocks to the little metal building. I had joked that it would be locked, and we opened the door with some relief. It seemed warmer inside which cheered us after the long walk. We ate some more food, drank water, and hit the sack, sleeping with all our clothes against the cold. By the morning it was clear that the temperature in the hut was the same as that outside!

We were moving by 4:30 am, skiing a traversing line in relation to the moraine which eventually grew very frustrating on the frozen slope. Finally we gave up and switched to boots and crampons, though Georg lost his water bottle to the dark depths below in the process. Oh well, I’d have enough water for the both of us…not like we were going down to get it!

We traveled very efficiently to the Griesscharte, actually taking a higher pass (or scharte) a bit to the south as a guidebook suggested. We felt out of shape, and I was happy when the crust held and we didn’t drop into knee deep snow. At the pass, we saw the sunrise over the Grosse Moeseler. The morning brought clouds, and according to Georg’s forecast it would be blowing a gale by 10 am.

We climbed down from the pass over a vertical cornice wall. That was fun! Descending about 100 meters, we met up with ski tracks making their way to the Schlegeis Glacier. Back to skis again, and we drifted along with the great north face in view. Gusts of wind came and went, but the promised bad weather held off. We reached the bergschrund which guarded the wall, gearing up and setting the rope ready near the top of my pack if it would be needed. Another party was approaching in the distance.

Our first attempt to cross the gaping hole in the ice that marked the ‘schrund was where old tracks led. But this option appeared crazy after some consideration. Georg leaned across the gap, planting his tools, but it was so overhanging, and the consequences of a mistake so dire…

Happily he could lean back to the main face. We walked another minute to the left to find an acceptable crossing, which was still rather scary. You have to absolutely commit to the tool planted in the upper wall, which is hard with a heavy off-balance pack laden with skis.

This done, Georg kicked steps up and right to enter the main face. He connected with a line of somewhat snowed-in steps from a previous party.

And now we just slowly climbed. We were already tired. At least it was easy. The face was in good snowy conditions and using the rope would have just been an annoyance. Much as it would be fun to climb “blankeis,” it was probably good for our energy levels that we just had to plod upward!

Despite occasional alarming gusts the wind held off. I was sensitive to this because of the big “sails” attached to my back in the skis. Georg made the final steps off the face and filmed me coming up. I sped up a little bit to look heroic :).

We debated going to the summit or descending from this point to the great trunk valley to the west, into the bed of the Gliderferner (ferner == glacier in south-east Tyrol). The summit trail looked narrow for the strong wind we had to shout over. But we plodded upward on a reasonable trail. I half-expected a great gust of wind to catch my sails and pull me off, so I was rather dogmatic in my axe placements. On the summit we had a great view around, but because of the cold we started down the west ridge quickly.

After a narrow ridge walk, we traversed back north onto the Weisskarferner, getting a glimpse of the Hochferner summit we’d visited two years ago. Georg walked down to the sun and sat down. I joined him, tired and needing a break. “Hello world, roll me up, and I can die here,” he said, or words to that effect, adding that a warm Fanta might just, possibly, entice him to life. I agreed, merely wanting a cold Fanta instead.

But now we could ski down, no matter that we had over 2000 meters to descend. Little did we know how many obstacles would greet us. In the end, it took us just as long to get down as to climb up!

The skiing was…how can I say this…utterly without aesthetic pleasure? I mean, it could have been worse. It was a frozen slope of ice with unwieldy dinner plates frozen in place. I was constantly expecting a ski to get caught under one and throw me overboard. Amazingly, it didn’t happen and we descended relatively quickly from about 3400 meters to 2000 meters, actually enjoying some good _firn _snow in the final stretch.

We followed some tracks to a constriction in the valley, then removed skis to cross a steep slope above running water. Alarmingly, we were greeted with a 40 meter cliff of ice and rock, with no anchors for abseiling and no sign of a trail. We’d been dead-ended!

As we tried to figure out our mistake, the climbers behind us on the wall arrived. They were highly fit and competent, and irritated at the delay. They sort of talked beside us about options. Ideas like Abalakov anchors, screws, exploratory abseils. The problem for me was that there might be scrims of ice over open water in the gorge below, and frankly, I was too tired for additional “adventure.” I wanted to backtrack to where we lost the trail and climb up 200 meters to meet it.

Georg and I did this, and after some more bickering, the other two guys did as well. And they were so fit, they passed us and were long gone. We could only laugh weakly. At the top of this side trail (on Point 2224 m), I started the ski down and promptly wiped out, losing a ski somewhere and, I think, breaking it, as I discovered with some shock near the car.

I attached my messed-up ski, and we continued down into a deeply annoying valley, full of ascents and slow side-hills. At valleys end we reached the abandoned settlement of Unterberghuetten, with houses cratered by avalanches ancient and fresh. I hurt all over. Finally, trying to cross a particularly ugly avalanche debris path, I couldn’t get my skis over a snow boulder, and I took them off and threw my poles as far as I could (about 1 meter), threw my pack off and collapsed in a heap in the snow-boulder debris. Even as I shouted my frustration, I realized how good it felt to just stop and lie there. Georg sympathized, reeling with shock and how difficult our descent was proving. Now exhausted, I could be philosophical again.

I can finally admit it…I’m not a skier. I’ll never *be* a skier. I may *wear* skis to get from here to there, but I’ll never truly *understand* how to ski.

This trip revealed to me how much of alpine climbing fitness is made up of things like getting up with a pack, carrying awkward weights, all kinds of asymmetrical motions that you just need to do in order to be strong at. All those little motions involved in awkward skiing with a big pack had beaten me.

Georg skied off, and I decided to walk for a while. I kept up with him through some terrible avalanche paths, enjoying the respite from the stress of skiing. But then he schussed off down a side valley, and I put my skis back on. A fairly pleasant descent followed to the bridge across the Oberbergbach, where Georg waited, smiling and sitting on his pack. We dealt with the massive avalanche that blocked access to the trailhead, and then skied to the car, modulo a few hilarious bits of skiing across mud slopes or carefully balancing over mud-smeared boulders.

An energetic couple was hiking in on snowshoes, with huge packs and dangling ropes. The woman looked especially feisty, and I know I looked utterly beaten to her. If I could have communicated…“you don’t know where you are going,” I would have. It would, of course, been futile. Would I listen to a bedraggled customer of the Oberbergbach on my way in. Never!

Thank you Georg for the excellent companionship, and a rather weary thanks to these harsh valleys of the southern Zillertal.