Herzogkante, V-, 18 pitches
I first saw the northern Karwendel walls in November, 2005. Mat, Ari and I made a tiring walk up the snow-covered road from Hinterriss to the Kleine Ahornboden. Wind-whipped, with powder snow on thousands of tiny ledges, the wall looked like a vicious edge of the world. I wondered what it would be like up there. And that's always where the trouble begins!
It took a few years for the right combination of partner, weather, weekend to arise. Everyone I'd pitched the idea of climbing on the Laliderer Spitze to demurred because of loose rock, and (if they are German), possibly they remembered a famous rescue on the North Face in 1979. But Dan was in the U.S., probably playing with Star Wars figures like me in 1979. So he had no idea. "Sure, sounds good!" he said.
We got up in the dark and reached the trail-head at the head of the Eng Valley around 5 am. It was our hope to approach and climb the route, then descend the Spindlerschlucht back to the base and then reach the car in one day. But I was worried about the Spindlerschlucht. A twisting array of gullies, bristling with loose rock, it would be an impassable obstacle in the dark. The only other way down would be an easy but incredibly long walk southwest to Scharnitz, leaving us stranded many miles from the car. Consequently, we derived some comfort from knowing there was a bivouac hut just below the summit.
The Eng circ had kind of a cow town feeling. Farmers with milk pails were visiting cows in the darkness. Various outbuildings were being sprayed down by utility-belt wearing denizens. In one alarming incident, a man accosted us from a second story window. "Boys, boys!" he said. "Gutes Wetter, ja, ja..." he trailed off, mimicking my overheard English conversation in German, grinning maniacally in the glow of the milk lights.
"That might have been a bad omen," I thought.
But as our dark lord of the milk stalls had echoed, the weather forecast was probably the best of the summer. I've grown twitchy from dodging summer rainstorms. Reinhold Messner couldn't have asked God for a better forecast: warm, stable high pressure. Cool enough that thunderstorm risk was 0 percent. That was one less thing to worry about. But if we wanted to get up and down in a day we needed to use this information ruthlessly: no shell jacket, no rappel rope.
An hour of hiking, led by Dan who has been using the late summer for 4 hour bike rides before work at the same time I've been slacking off, and we stood on a broad pass to see a deep red fire light the faces. Our ridge was a crisp line between the fire and cold blue sky. The Herzogkante, first climbed 97 years ago. What are the chances there is anyone still alive who knew about that first climb? A centenarian in an Innsbruck nursing home, already choking on his final piece of toast as we watch the rock glow like coals? Perhaps!
We miss the steep scree trail that goes directly to the ridge, instead following another further right. A permanent tongue of snow marks the start of the climb. We ended up climbing the moat on the right side of the tongue, hoping to cross to the left side at the apex. It was not to be: kitty litter angled at 70 degrees dropped into blackness under old snow. We had to retrace our steps, then climb the snowfield directly. With a rock in each hand I cut steps for my tennis shoes in the sun-cupped yet very icy snow. Above, Dan spied a party of three on the rock. I thought about the danger of following another party on a loose Karwendel Range mountain route. Soon I was nearly screaming as my fingers thawed out. Dan dealt with violent intestinal revolt on a perch of rockfall-scarred ice.
God, I love alpinism!
We crossed the moat onto the rock, and scrambled up a pitch to find a smashed-over bolt. I'm not an intelligent man, so it took me several hours to realize a traditionalist had come at each and every belay bolt with a hammer. I got used to reaching Dan's belay to see he had made a text book 3 or 4 piece anchor with a cordalette and all the fixin's next to a ravaged hunk of metal.
The second pitch was a nice, fairly clean crack leading up and right. In the context of the Karwendel Mountains, "nice" and "clean" are relative. It basically means that the standard loose rocks are wedged better into place for some reason. In fact I was hand jamming between blocks that would have been frightening, but they complimented each other so well, fitting so perfectly together like puzzle pieces that only the vigorous usage of a jackhammer could separate them.
We caught up to the party above in here. They were three guys from Innsbruck, and they were now disappearing around the corner to the right exactly the wrong way. But maybe they knew a route variation? Dan led up a chimney, then I continued up another one, placing a nut and two cams in overlaps near the end of the chimney. Then, I crept around a corner onto a loose face and belayed from a sling around a rock. Dan continued on what started out like a simulclimbing pitch, but then ended up on a new and startling kind of rock. You know how under a smooth plane of concrete there is another layer mostly made of pebbles and medium sized rocks? And this layer isn't loose at all, but it doesn't have any handholds, and only offers the smooth round sides of medium rocks as laughable grips. I think they call it conglomerate. Dan was spread-eagled in a conglomerate chimney, totally uncalled for on a pitch that was supposedly grade III! (5.4 or so YDS). I set a belay on a horn, then watched carefully as he navigated past it to normal rock again.
Finally we'd reached the ridge crest, and continued for several pitches right on it. Excellent scenery, though we were wondering about the other guys. Having seen the wilderness of loose wastelands down on the right, where the Innsbruck guys must be, we worried a little bit. One of the neatest things on these pitches were the textbook perfect tri-cam placements Dan found. I'm always ragging on tri-cams, preferring nuts and cams. But I'm the fool!
On harder pitches, there would be pitons. I remember one in this middle section of the climb where I climbed parallel slabby runnels, and was really happy for the rusty piton. There was a V+ variation around to the right, and I could see the crack there bristling with pins. But a brief exciting leftward hand traverse offered a more direct way up to finish a stellar pitch.
We ate a sandwich, and looked down on the Falkanhuette. The cowbells were jangling at a fever pitch, the sound carried from a dozen meadows and hundreds of cows. We rounded a corner and found that the guys were ahead of us again, by a pitch or two. That was great! But what was not so great was the rockfall. Before long I was cowering under a rock while Dan strategically hopped from one protected area to another. Dan's topo for the route differed from the one I carried, and asked him to make a hard rightward traverse on a loose ledge. The other guys had done that too, and this was responsible for the fusillades of stone. It was mostly off to my right, but sometimes a rock would shatter and fragments would hit me. Dan ventured that way too and I was hating the climb on that pitch! It looked like we could have gone straight up, but we'll have to save that information for next time.
Some more good climbing gradually dispelled the memory of that bad pitch, and soon we were sitting and talking with two of the guys below the last hard pitch. Their leader scooted around the corner to a vertical corner crack with appalling exposure beneath his feet. After a few minutes it was Dan's lead. He did a great job finding the best way, and placed good protection. This was a great pitch, so high on the wall where the rock usually deteriorates. On the last two pitches we had some more rockfall, in fact Dan got hit on the neck. It was one of those situations where the rope above us was under some tension and sluiced off some rocks when the leader traversed to the side.
We got on top at about 4:15, so I think the climbing took us 8 hours. Of course the guidebook said 6 should be enough. I just don't know how to beat these guidebook times! The amount of loose rock, plus extra caution due to the rockfall coming down the route from the party above seemed to preclude long stretches of simul-climbing. But we felt like we had enough time to make it down the Spindlerschlucht. The Innsbruck guys gave us some advice, then headed down, planning to walk many hours out to Scharnitz.
We stomped down to the bivouac shelter, where some hikers planned to stay the night. It was deluxe! It would have been great to stay here. But we pressed on. After 30 minutes of traversing scree hillsides to the west, we climbed up on a marked path to meet the first rappel station of the Spindlerschlucht. The guidebook calls this long descent "an adventure in itself," as it features many rappels, much down-climbing on exposed terrain, and several twists and turns that would be impossible to sort out in the dark. We made three rappels, then had to start down-climbing, always feeling a little bit insecure because we might pass a rappel station or miss an important turn.
But our instincts turned out to be pretty good. Even though we were losing the light rapidly, we made steady progress. There were one or two really sketchy down-climbing sections, where we were on pebble-strewn slabs with big drops beneath, with no protection like good handholds or positive ledges for feet. Once we sort of dove into some loose rubble on the side because the wall of the gully at least offered some handholds. Volleys of rock fell at that point: I was glad no one was below us! (at least we didn't think so)
As the light failed we moved quickly, touching down on steep scree just in time. A comical traverse marked by lots of drunken stumbling as the rocks constantly gave way was the last obstacle. Finally we bombed straight down the scree until finding the trail.
The 2 hour hike out felt really long. We were content to walk in silence, and look up at the Milky Way above. When we finally reached the floor of the Eng Valley, the lights of a restaurant were too tempting to pass up. We went in for Bier and Brotzeit. Some guys at the next table climbed a 20 pitch 5.11 route called "In the Shade of the Sphinx." Wow. We thought we were all that! They were really nice guys and gave us their topo. Something to work towards!
I crashed at Dan's place, unable to make the drive back to Munich. It was awesome to sleep in til 8 and read his Rock & Ice magazines. At home the kids would have had me up by 7 at the LATEST!
Thanks Dan for a great climb! This was another good one in a great summer.