A plan gels from a vague stew
I'd wanted to climb the Ortler for a long time via the "Hintergrat," which is basically the East Ridge. Ever since I saw this photo:
Daniel and I planned to do it, then he was lucky and able to go when I needed to stay home one weekend. So on Friday, with the weekend available at the spur of the moment, another friend and I made a plan to climb it. However, the weather forecast turned very bad for Sunday so we sadly canceled the plan.
Saturday was still a good forecast. It occurred to me that one could, in theory, drive down there, get a hour or so of sleep, climb the ridge and return to the car the same day. It was "only" 6000 feet elevation gain in total, standard fare for a big day climb in the Northwest. As I toyed with the idea, I charged the camera battery, put insoles in my brand new La Sportiva Nepal Top boots, printed out driving directions. Would it be at all prudent to start from the car when everyone else is shuffling out of the hut 2500 feet above? Would the technical difficulty be too hard?
The ridge has lots of 3rd and 4th class climbing, with a 15 foot high crux of grade IV or V (5.6-5.8). However, two pitons are in place to make it a bit easier. As for the glacier descent, I judged it safe enough to go alone based on recent pictures of the glacier and reports. I'd be able to downclimb any part of the ridge (including the crux, because of the pitons) in case of storm. I had my heavy new boots and a technical tool so any kind of snow or ice the ridge threw at me would be manageable. I sounded my friend out before leaving to see if he'd like to try this as a "marathon" climb. He very wisely declined!
This would be a real logistical challenge! I had to drive to a totally new area, hope to find an open gas station along the way (not so easy in the Alps), find the trailhead in the dark, and pray that my new boots didn't hobble me. Though I was sleepy after dinner, contemplating all the possibilities woke me up again.
I was speeding away from Munich at midnight.
Heading southI love driving through the Alps, and take pains to go different ways each time. It's amazing how many little towns there are in the side valleys. I drove over the Reschenpass, which has a beautiful lake on the Italian side of the border. Though the Ortler was still almost an hour drive from here, I read that it dominates the mountain skyline. The deserted road was my only company as I ticked off the contents of my backpack: crampons, helmet, harness, slings, axe, food. kexp.org podcasts kept me musical company.
At the trailhead I whipped out my sleeping bag and set the alarm for one hour hence: 4:15 am. Though the sound of the alarm filled me with mournful disappointment, I obeyed and started my walk at 4:30. A gentle trail took me slowly above the town in long low-angle switchbacks (unusual for the Alps), and I used my "climbers sense" to find and keep a much steeper trail on a hogback ridge. In a scree basin with a ski lift I got my first view of the Ortler, very high above.
The Ortler was the highest peak of Austria before the first World War. Then it became Italian territory and that designation fell to the Grossglockner, far to the northeast. But it will always be the highest peak of South Tyrol.
I can't help but think of Tyrol as a kind of magical kingdom of rocks and mountains. Reinhold Messner's home is just a few miles away, and he's
written a book about the beautiful Ortler peak. Sadly, during that war there was intense fighting on the highest glaciers and ramparts of this range. Soldiers had so outfitted a glacial cavern on the Marmolada, that a priest regularly said mass in one of the sub-chambers (Martin Matschik). But a good side of human nature was visible in the worst situations. Austrians and Italians were holding positions on opposite sides of a high Dolomite peak, the Schoenleiten-Spitze, and were ordered to stay and keep fighting over the winter. But the men threw the war away, trading supplies and eventually visiting each other's camps for music, stories and wine. In the spring, they had to resume the war, but they had lost the ability to slaughter each other. I don't think there was a bloody battle up there again.
On another occasion an avalanche near Schluderbach, Italy (then part of Austria) buried more than 250 Austrian troops. The Italians held their fire while rescuers managed to dig 30 out alive, and others for burial. The agreement seemed to be "today you, tomorrow me."
With these sad and strange thoughts, I continued across a moraine and around an eastern slope with sheep sleeping on the trail. They bleated plaintively.
I had a nasty surprise at the Hintergrat Hut. After sipping the last of my water, I walked confidently to the door and found it...locked! But wasn't this a busy refuge. Where was the Hut Warden, sweeping the steps for the morning? It was like a ghost town! But I needed water. I walked around the hut looking for a faucet. Finally I found a little bathroom with a sink and a sign in two languages that the water was not for drinking. Oh well, I have a strong stomach.
I sat down to eat some breakfast and look up at the route, which was mostly hidden by a lower ridge and some clouds higher up. It was the Koeningspitze that stole the show from here. The fact that the summit was cut off in cloud just gave the impression that the wall of snow continued forever into the sky.
Just as I was getting cold, the door opened and a hiker came out of the hut yawning. She said the warden was gone and there was no water in the hut. I was crestfallen, as I was willing to pay greatly for water. But we talked about great hikes, then I shouldered my pack and bade her farewell.
It was 6:30 am.
Up and back downThe mountain view from the level walking toward the ridge was stunning! The Koeningspitze, Monte Zebru and the Ortler filled the screen. Sunbreaks lit up the heather slopes and blue sky promised me a day to remember for years and years.
Gentle moraine turned into tiring scree slopes. Soon I followed a track in the snow. It had snowed quite a bit in the previous week and I was happy for it to cover the scree, though I worried about the rock ahead. Would it be too snowy to climb safely?
The slope steepened, and the view of the Koeningspitze distracted me. The north face used to have a great hanging glacier, but it disappeared in the early 90's. Still, as the sun hit the slopes around me, I began to hear the boom of avalanches. The sound was all out of proportion to whatever traces of snow hurtling over cliffs that I could see. Or maybe the faces were just so massive that any one event looked small. I was glad to be nearing the crest of the ridge. Even now the slope around me was littered with little dots from snowballs, and dripping icicles provided a constant patter. Now and then I needed to climb some rocks, in one case having to carefully consider the safest way. Rather than thrutching up an icy chimney (my first try), I liebacked the right edge to the top.
Finally I reached the ridge top and marveled in the view. A cloud was over the summit, and a thin line of gray crowds was marching in from the north, though they seemed to dissipate over my range. A gentle section of the ridge would follow, almost entirely on snow. I ate a "second breakfast" of speck, cheese and bread then I started up. Around here I began to feel the altitude. The exertion at a rock step could make me dizzy, and I was moving more slowly.
I was surprised to see two people on the slope ahead. I thought they were coming down. A half hour later I'd come to the summit rocks of a tower. As I looked for the way up or around I realized someone was looking at me. From a tiny stance on the near-vertical side of the tower a climber was clipped into a bolt. "Hallo!" I said. To get to him would be tricky, so I stopped to put on my crampons, harness and get the ice axe out. Now the technical part of the climb would begin.
After a few minutes, I started down a somewhat sketchy snow path with rock walls on the side. Sometimes I faced in and downclimbed. Eventually I reached the belay and struck up a conversation with the nice fellow waiting there. He said there would be a long delay because of a party of 5 people on the crux just ahead. His guide was waiting out of sight, and he was stationed here at this belay bolt until that party cleared the crux. The guide was worried about the snow conditions higher up, which made sense given the avalanches going off every now and then. I knew there was one potentially problematic slope of 40 degrees for 60 meters or so. Just above us, there was a fortuitious cloud lingering on the ridge. That was protecting the steep slope from the sun. I asked if I could pass, and that was ok. So I traversed easier ground to meet the guide, where we watched the large party finish up the crux pitch. It didn't look easy!
I went over and said hi to the last fellow going up. I saw a good fixed Camelot at the base of the left-leaning crack, then two pitons along the way up. Finally, a metal sling could be used as a handhold at the very top. I resolved to cheat my way up any old how.
First I bounce tested the lowest piton with my daisy chain. I climbed up a bit and also tested the second one. Reaching high, I hated that there was nothing for my feet, and then the handhold was poor anyway. I came back down and removed my crampons and thin liner gloves. This time I was able to get a foot higher and stand up to reach the metal sling. Once I had that I was home free. For me, in these boots, with the fresh snow, I'd rate it IV+/A0 (YDS 5.6/A0). I was happy that it was short enough that I could downclimb it (with ample cheating via slings) if I needed to retreat.
There was pleasant easy 5th class climbing above this, and I took it very slowly, not relishing trying to pass a party of 5 people on technical ground, and also to keep my head from getting light. I'd slowly put on my gloves or take them off, depending on the type of holds I needed to grip. I put crampons back on, because even though they made the rock a little harder, they gave a much better feeling of security on the snowed-up gullies and little chimney steps I found.
The guide and I had talked about sleeping in the Payerhuette, and the vision of sleeping there after a beer had really taken hold. It would be about 3 hours down from the summit on the other side of the mountain, though still over 4000 feet above the valley. The guide was happy to hear about the good fixed Camelot, as he could bring his waiting climber off of the steep face around the corner.
I followed the large party up a snowfield, which is apparently really stunning in good weather. We were in a cloud at this point though, probably a good thing because sunny slopes all over the bowl under Monte Zebru and Ortler were still avalanching. Our slope felt pretty good though: not too sugary and it held axe placements.
I kept turning around and watching to see the guide climbing the crux, because it would make a great photo. But alas, I never saw him on it, and also the cloud would blow over the ridge sometimes.
I sat down for a while and talked with a couple members of the 5 person party. They were really nice. I thought of this as a fairly technical route, but one of the guys said he really wasn't a climber, and was just along with his friends. I guess I would never think of getting on a route like this without some experience. But he was doing great and having fun. Besides, who am I to judge? They offered to let me pass through, and I snuck up this enjoyable grade II-III rock pitch in crampons. Above, two more members of their party were searching for a belay piton at a short wall. Not finding one, they slung a huge chockstone. Once they were anchored, I climbed through and carefully climbed the final short wall. I waved goodbye and continued on easier terrain for another half hour to the summit, reaching it at 12:15 pm.
It felt great to be there. I put on a jacket and set to looking all around. Some other people were there and we discussed peaks for a while. I managed to get a few pictures of the party still on the ridge. Hopefully they'll find this on the interwebs and I can send their pictures.
The wind was pretty cold, so I started down after 15 minutes or so, following the ridge crest for a few minutes, then turning right to follow broad seemingly crevasse-free snowfields for a long time. Finally, there was one steep kind of icy snow section with a visible crevasse. I stopped to put crampons on, then easily descended to more snowfields and an emergency bivouac hut where I removed them again. Below this was the "Barenloch" (bear cave?). It was just a short rock downclimb to connect with a lower section of the glacier. Once on the lower section, I surprised everyone by doing a butt-glissade for about 200 feet. That was really fun! People don't seem to do that around here. ("Cuz yer on a glacier, stupid!" I can hear).
A good friend already smacked me around a little bit for venturing onto a glacier alone. I know that on principle it's always a knave's choice no matter what justifications you can think of. Though I have my own little pile of justifications, it's not worth enumerating them here. Best just to say that I don't recommend it!
Back to the story!
I thought I was at the end of technical difficulties here, so I reverted to hiker mode, then made a sketchy traverse of a black-ice-covered-in-gravel slope that almost made me get crampons out again. There was a little traffic jam on a rock buttress directly across from me. A guy told me that sometimes there is a two hour delay around there. I found it hard to believe, but then once over there I discovered it was pretty tricky. There are belay bolts, and parties tended to downclimb very short pitches on the compact, polished ridge. I passed a few parties, then got stuck at a small overhang because I couldn't see a place for my feet. I asked a friendly man sitting at the belay anchor if I could hang from one of his slings to look over the edge. He said sure, and this allowed me to get down. Once down, I saw a massive foothold that I'd missed. For the first time I saw a couple of other guys traveling without a rope. They were obviously big "mountain professionals" by their loud joking manner and swaggering through the groups on the ridge. They had Camelots, crampons and technical tools on their harnesses, so I can only imagine what wicked things they were playing on.
The way climbed up and down on ridges and across scree to reach the hut. I arrived very tiredly, and asked for a bed. Sadly, they were all full for the night. So I settled for water, Spetzi and spiegeleier. I had a headache, so I quietly nursed my water for at least an hour. There was a great view of the mountain from the terrace, though eventually I got cold and went inside. A guy told me about a great 1000 meter grade IV rock climb of a lonely buttress they had just finished. He seemed to think he had to work extra hard to get me to understand that there is little or no pro all the way. "Ja, ich verstehe, ich liebe diese Art!" I said, telling him that I knew what he was talking about and I really liked climbs like that too.
Finally I headed slowly down, following a scenic trail along the side of the ridge, then switching to the other side for steep switchbacks leading down. I talked with a mountain guide who also had a pension in a town nearby. He gave me his card, and we exchanged recollections of the crux move on the Hintergrat. He had taken an older couple up to the summit and back, and the joy they expressed when they got back to the Payerhuette was kind of moving. Their daughter was there waiting for them. I told him he was a lucky man to be able to make people so happy.
"In eine andere Leben koennte ich vielleicht auch Bergfuehrer sein," I said wistfully, wishing I had a job like his.