Tickets pleez...(18 pitches, VI (5.10a))
This TR made the front page, many thanks to our Elves and everyone who liked it!
I was happy to get the chance to show my friend from Seattle the Wilder Kaiser. So few Americans have heard of this amazing climbing mecca which continues to amaze me. We had hoped to head south to the Dolomites, but the weather was very bad south of the alpine crest.
In fact it was supposed to be bad in the north too, but a careful look at the forecast revealed that we could expect some sun in the northern limestone ranges.
Knowing that it could rain at any time, we kept the commitment factor low, and sought out a long bolt protected climb. The Totenkirchl has a great fairly new "sport alpine" climb called the "Totenkirchl Express." Rated VI (about 5.10a YDS), it has 18 pitches in 2400 vertical feet of climbing. The topo advises to bring a few pieces of gear, but mostly quickdraws. It had rained heavily the day before, so we had another reason to enjoy a long clip-up: no squishing around in seeping cracks!
We slept at the trailhead and woke early, making the hour long hike to the base just as another party hiked up to start "Via Classica," a climb on the Fleischbank that Daniel and I had done back in May. It's funny, the two routes start about 50 feet apart from each other, the one going up the Fleischbank wall of the canyon, and the other climbing the Totenkirchl side.
The first two pitches climb slabs with the occasional runnel of water that I could tip-toe around. I dropped the extra battery for my camera and Aidan had to fish it out of a gully...it seemed to be okay. The third pitch had a nasty surprise: it was actively running with water! Aidan watched me carefully as I climbed tensely out on the V+ (5.8) pitch. I could avoid the water on the right sometimes.
Finally, I had no choice but to smear up a steep slab. At that moment a blast of trombones sounded! Unbelievable, there was some kind of concert at the Stripsenjochhaus just 30 minutes walk away. I tried to control my laughter and asked Aidan to quit laughing, but it wasn't possible. All kinds of jokes about climbing in Germany came to mind! Anyway, by the end of the serenade I had to pull on a quickdraw to get past the running water. Above, it stayed delicate, and before the end of the pitch there was a dripping overhang made possible to climb only by good holds at the top. Aidan came up and took off to combine pitches 4 and 5 on the topo (rated IV+ and III), where normally straightforward slabby terrain was made exciting by water.
I led the easy pitches 6 and 7 as one with simulclimbing, which brought us to the end of the slabby lower face. We walked around a corner to see the impressive steep upper face, all golden rock in the sun. At the base is a strange feature called the Schneeloch (snow hole). Well it's just a big steep bowl of snow all right, very old and dirty and surrounded by scree. I thought of the Sarlock Pit.
Aidan sent me up for a wet V- pitch that got us onto the steep upper wall. I was getting used to climbing the wet rock. There really are a lot of good footholds to make up for the moisture. Then it was Aidans turn for a hard pitch, a fairly long sustained VI- (5.9 or so) that traversed left from the belay, then up. He dodged wet spots and moved with his inborn solid skill. Handholds were often small, damp and unconvincing!
Aidan combined the easier pitches 11 and 12 on the topo to bring us to the base of the crux grade VI (5.10a) corner. "Gulp!" I said, as I looked up at it. The rock looked a bit rotten somehow, an impression that changed only when I got up there into the corner. It was a chimney as well, and I found myself enjoying carefully turning from side to side as I wound my way up. The protection was good, though I was rather nervous at the grade, for some reason afraid that it would get really hard all of a sudden and I would fall! I rested on the rope before an overhang in the corner that looked like it might have the hardest moves, then banished my inner 'fraidy cat to twist my way up on pretty good jungle gym holds with kind of insecure smearing feet on outside corners. Above the overhang I clipped a bolt and continued a bit more, now excited by the thrilling climbing. At the belay I relived the exciting pitch while Aidan came smoothly up. He really enjoyed the steep and solid moves too.
For the next pitch (14 on the topo), I climbed a really nice V- handcrack, then traversed to a belay in a chimney. Aidan went straight up, laughing about how ungracefully he was getting over little bulges. I think he nearly ripped his pack off in the crowded chimney just before he disappeared out of sight above! Here we suddenly could see the steep Dülfer chimney and the recommended continuation of our route via the much easier Haroldweg. A group of 6 people including a 9 year old were negotiating that in a really old-school way, with 10 foot long ropes, hip belays and thick mountain boots. The chimney was wet, and reportedly lacking in both pre-placed gear and in protection opportunities. Plus we were a bit tired, so we followed the Haroldweg, enjoying the huge exposure on normally easy grade IV terrain. It followed a twisting ledge up and right like something out of Lord of the Rings. We made a short rappel around a corner, and then I belayed Aidan out for a grade IV pitch up a steep gully while the party of 6 loitered around me. I took off with this party and a nice pair of guys who had been following us on the whole route right behind. A few easy pitches later on the ridge, I saw a cairn and what looked like a little trail. "Here we can leave our packs and bag the summit!" I said. Aidan didn't buy it, so he continued up with his pack on. Sure enough, the real descent trail was about 60 meters higher. I had to climb down, get my pack and reclimb. Some more interesting scrambling brought us to the summit. We loved the look of the other summits, made mystical by clouds rising from the valleys. Indeed we were chased up the peak by a cloud slowly rising from the Snow Hole.
Getting down was much tougher than we expected. Scrambling back to our packs, we then kept scrambling down well-marked gullies until reaching a trail on a heather and scree slope. This brought us lower but vertical cliffs barred the way. We did a double rope rappel, made a bit time consuming because we were using the exciting new technique from Aidan's cousin Colin: a 6 millimeter 50 meter length of perlon to allow a full 50 meter rappel. First we had to untangle the perlon from the strange way the woman had tied it in Schushter for us! As it turned out, we only needed to rappel for 20 meters. This system worked okay, and kept our pack light, but it isn't that easy to use.
We made many more rappels, each one about 20 meters, though we opted to downclimb as much as possible. In one case, there was no anchor for a chimney that looked uncomfortably steep to me. Well, there was a tattered sling from the 1970s emerging from a dripping paste of conglomerate rock...no thanks!
Aidan was really brave..."come on, it's easy!" he said. I still don't know how he got the courage to try this, but there was a chockstone in the chimney that blocked the view of everything below it. He lowered himself down from it, legs dangling in the air, and somehow found one foothold right at the end of his reach. From there, he managed to stand on a boulder wedged in the chimney, and drop through the hole between the boulder and the inside wall, repeating the long reach to a just manageable foothold. When I finished the double moves I had a cold sweat..."but how did you know?" I didn't envy the guys above us figuring out that move, but I thought maybe the solution lies in double rope rappels from higher up!
That was exciting but we still had a long ways to go. I had no idea that the "normal route" on this peak was so involved. Getting down from Predigtstuhl or Fleischbank (the other two peaks I'd climbed in the Wilder Kaiser) was much, much easier. Finally we made the last rappel and followed trail down to a little pass, then gently followed the ridge to the Stripsenjochhaus, where Wienerschnitzel and Spetzi restored our energy. Clouds drifted in and gave a magical impression of the mighty Totenkirchl. We saw gray walls ascending into cloud, and then above it golden towers emerged faintly.
We wondered about the large group of family friends, and hoped they were finally on their way down. As we started down they had finally reached flat ground at which point the little boy burst into tears. He saw us coming and clammed up with embarassment, but clearly it had been a huge, huge day for him. We warned that there was still at least 30 minutes to the summit, though we ourselves had no idea that the descent would take 2 hours or so. I hope they weren't coming down in the dark. We watched the last light leave the face over Apfelstruedl at the hotel by the parking lot. Another good day in the Wilder Kaiser!