It is already dark when I pass the toll booth near the top of the Grossglocknerstrasse above Kals. There is no one inside. After several hundred metres, just before I reach the Lucknerhaus mountain hut, first raindrops hit my windscreen. After a minute or two the rain suddenly changes into a proper downpour. Is the Big Bellringer telling me to bugger off even before showing himself to me?
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The sound of alarm clock in my phone wakes me up. I switch it off without thinking but in a while it rings again. It’s not the alarm but Ag calling with some urgent stuff to talk about. Yeah, how could she know I badly need some kip right now? I look at my watch - it’s midnight. Only an hour since I went to bed. The two Italians in the opposite corner seem to be fast asleep.
No stress in Stresa
|Some time ago our friends, an Italian girl and a Dutch bloke, invited us to their wedding to Stresa by Lake Maggiore in northern Italy. We arrived in Milan two nights before, where we did some sightseeing and had a great pleasure of meeting the SP-er Vid Pogachnik and his wife Jasmina. They came there for a mini-gathering with Italian SP-ers and were heading for the mountains nearby. And yesterday we headed to Stresa to our friends’ wedding.|
Early this morning, having had hardly any sleep, I drove Ag to the Milan Malpensa airport for her flight back to Amsterdam. Shortly after, just north of Milan, I had to stop for a kip because otherwise I would certainly drop off behind the wheel...
I managed to drive across some high Alpine passes - Mortirolo (1852 m) and Gavia (2621 m), to mention the most famous ones. Near the top of the latter there was still plenty of snow. They were both included in the yesterday’s stage of Giro di Italia. Unfortunately Stelvio (2758 m) was still closed after winter. Climbing the mountain passes by bike is exceptionally popular in Italy, today I saw plenty of cyclists on the roads. I would gladly try this myself too. I cycled the hills a lot while living in England, sometimes up to 400-500 m right from the sea level, on gradients even up to 1:4. But now I have long been out of shape and the Alpine monsters are like three of those West English hillocks put on top of one another.
Having stopped in Bolzano, I crossed the Austrian border at Passo Stalle (2052 m). After yesterday’s rain at the wedding day, today the weather was beautiful all day long and the Alpine peaks looked all inviting. Ag sent me a text message with a forecast for the Innsbruck area - still clear tomorrow, getting worse the day after.
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It is already dark when I pass the toll booth near the top of the Grossglocknerstrasse above Kals. There is no one inside. After several hundred metres, just before I reach the Lucknerhaus mountain hut, first raindrops hit my windscreen...
Snail’s RestJune 2
At 3am the movements of the Italians finally wake me up. I planned to sleep one hour longer but decide to get my bum out of bed too. We have breakfast together. Marino and Edo are from Milan. Two days ago they climbed the nearby Grossvenediger (3666 m). Now they are going to the normal route, like me. The lady behind the bar already told me about them and their plans yesterday when I arrived. She also confirmed that, despite that heavy shower, the forecast was reasonably good but only for one day ahead.
In the meantime the morning clouds go away completely. About 7am I finally get my first ever view at Grossglockner. The tiredness of recent days, altitude and lack of acclimatisation slowly begin to team up against me. The closer to 3000 m the altimeter in my watch shows, the slower my pace becomes. Edo and Marino are somewhere far ahead. In the distance I can see some other party of two going up probably from Stüdlhütte. Except them there is no one in sight.
One step, one breath. Twenty steps, a rest. If I’m moving at such an ‘impressive’ speed across the flat Ködnitzkees, what’s gonna become of me when things get tough higher up? Last night at the hut I was strongly advised not to go up and down in a day...
Halfway up the steep slope leading to the high hut Erzherzog-Johann-Hütte I meet a pair of descending skiers. The are carefully skiing down the frozen snow, often stopping. The man tells me they yesterday tried to climb Grossglockner but only reached the lower summit (Kleinglockner, 3783 m) and spent the night at the high hut.
|I enter the rocky section secured by fixed steel cables. I don’t really have to use them. Perhaps it is also possible to bypass it via the snowfield where the skiers just descended. I drink up my water and fill the bottle with water dripping from melting snow, throwing in some fizzy tablets. Above the rocks, a steep snowfield and one more long rocky passage, also secured with steel cables, lead me to Erzherzog-Johann-Hütte. The place where the high hut stands is called Adlersruhe, which means Eagle’s Rest. But today my pace resebmles that of a snail rather than this noble bird. On the other hand, it is already 3454 m. It’s just before 10am. Although I dragged myself here long enough, I still decide to take a longer rest. I know that otherwise I just can’t make it.|
Sitting on a stone I drink a lot of water and eat plenty of chocolate, at the same time putting on my harness and crampons. Two Dutch mountaineers come from below and immediately go further up. It seems a good decision as some dark clouds start to build up from the side we came from. But I’m still too tired and wait another half an hour.
Only the dense cloud that begins to completely cover the summit mobilises me to get off my bum. It’s already 11am and hell only knows how long it’s gonna take me to climb up and down at this pace. The small glacier of Glocknerleitl soon turns into a very steep snowfield leading to the summit ridge. I pass two pairs of skies standing in the snow, that perhaps belong to my Italians. High above me I see someone, he must be one of the Dutch blokes. I sink in deep, dense snow. Two, three steps, rest, ten breaths...
The clouds come and go. A roped up party of three is quickly descending. They must have started this morning from Erzherzog-Johann-Hütte or at least very early from Stüdlhütte. In the meantime another couple overtakes me, they are roped up too. Finally I crawl up to the summit ridge. I look at my watch. Holy shite, can’t believe I was dragging my arse for 1.5 hours up this wee short bit of snow!
|I climb up some snow-covered rocks and pass the sitting Dutch guy who is only now putting on his crampons. They ain’t too fast either. We talk for a while and he goes up while I sit down to rest.|
Again everything disappears in a cloud. I start moving up and soon meet the descending Italians. They are roped up and use the fixed steel rods for belaying. I congratulate them on summitting, we take some pics together and bid farewell. I don’t think there is anyone climbing behind me today. And in high season on clear days this route is famous for traffic jams...
In a while I see the Dutch returning. They only reached Kleinglockner, deciding it was too dangerous to go further unroped. Gotta go check it out myself.
|A couple more minutes and I’m at Kleinglockner too. It is only 15 m lower than the main summit but the ridge between them is the most technical part of the route. For the first time today I clip my two slings into the steel cable and descend the steep snowy ridge. At the other side of the col I can see the couple I met before.|
The little col, called Glocknerschartl, is a few metres of narrow snowy catwalk with terrific exposure on both sides. A moment of concentration and off I go to the other side, where awaits me a rock wall of several metres’ height. The couple is already above it.
The difficulties of II UIAA are no obstacle even though I’m wearing crampons. As soon as I climb to the top of the wall, the cloud breaks, revealing the summit cross a couple metres above. It’s 1.30pm. Yeeeah, made it!
We congratulate one another with the couple, who turn out to be a brother and sister living not far from here. Andi has some considerable Alpine experience. Karen is quite a novice but always wanted to climb Grossglockner so she joined her brother today. I tell them it’s my personal highest peak so far and my first ever 3000-er.
Fixed at one of the cables supporting the cross there are some Buddhist prayer flags. Andi tells me about a Tibetan man who lives somewhere nearby. Maybe he has hung them here? Anyway it looks fine, like full ecumenism in the mountains. We take some photos and the Austrians begin to descend. I take advantage of the clouds clearing out and take some more pics before climbing down.
Only now, in better weather, I can properly admire the summit ridge. But what I can also see is a massive wall of dark clouds building up in the south, where we are about to descend. A thunder can be heard in the distance. The Austrians belay at the wall so I quickly catch up and we go down the ridge together.
My tiredness kicks in again and I slow down. They are far below at the snowfields when I’m only leaving the summit ridge. Those couple metres just below it look like at least 50 degrees steep. Suddenly I lose my balance and start sliding down. Instinctively jabbing my ice axe in the snow I manage to self-arrest a few metres down. Quite a scary feeling. I’ve never practiced it, just seen some films showing how to do it.
Andi and Karen look behind. Alright, I stopped myself! - I shout, lifting my butt up from the snow. They keep descending and so do I. Fokkin’ hell, I’m sliding again! For a second time within a minute my ice axe comes to help. Well jammy... beginner’s luck? Am I so tired I can’t walk straight anymore?
When we all reach the high hut, everything is in clouds and it starts snowing. The Austrians want to wait it through. I catch a glimpse of the Dutch guys disappearing round the corner at the snowfield below the rocks. Saying goodbye to Karen and Andi I start descending.
When I’m at the bottom of the fixed cables, snow becomes heavier and gradually changes into dense hail. I don’t feel like further going down straight into this shite so I decide to return to Erzherzog-Johann-Hütte. Easier said than done. While I descended quite quickly, my climbing up is miserably slow. Hail does not stop. I walk round the hut looking for the entrance and finally get inside through the window that Andi opened for me.
I throw my backpack on the floor and my body on the nearest bed, without even taking off my crampons. I feel completely knackered and cold. I’m thirsty too but I got no more water. I talk something to the Austrians, I don’t even know when I fall asleep. Suddenly Andi wakes me up, telling me the weather improved and we can descend. I still have this blurred feeling in my head and I realise I may be dangerously exhausted. Alright, gotta get a grip on myself. We all leave the hut, Karen and Andi rope up. It is still cloudy but there is no snow or hail anymore.
We climb down the rocks together. Andi asks if I’m alright with crossing the glacier unroped. I confirm and we start the long drag down Ködnitzkees each at our own pace. They are faster, sometimes I fall behind, sometimes at the steeper sections I accelerate to catch up. We reach the end of the snowfields together, take off our crampons and walk down the path to Lucknerhütte. In the meantime we somehow overtook the Dutch party - we notice them about a hundred metres behind us.
The dirt road to Lucknerhaus seems to have no end. In the darkness on the way up it looked much shorter to me. A short distance before the hut we bid farewell. Andi and Karen turn left to the place where their car is parked. At 7pm I walk up the stairs into the bar of Lucknerhaus.
Before I finish my beer, the Dutch guys come in. We talk for a while, in English of course, as I’m too tired even for the slightest attempt at my bad Dutch. They say they might attempt Mont Blanc or Matterhorn in the next couple days. Anyway, we all decide to stay one more night here.
A pass too farJune 3
They leave quite early in the morning, saying they decided on Matterhorn. My tired mind only later realises they may have a problem with it, as yesterday they didn’t reach the Grossglockner’s summit. Have they got a rope at all? My thinking is slow. I lie on my bed almost till 11am, drifting in and out of sleep.
Only in the shower I wake up properly. I have breakfast, pack up my stuff and take some final photos of the mountain. When I drive off, the summit is hidden in clouds. A guard stands by the toll booth but he does not stop me.
I’m planning to go to Liechtenstein today, maybe to try and climb some mountain there tomorrow. Having driven some scenic Italian roads I head for the Swiss border. I see a sign pointing to the left: Passo di Stelvio - open! Quick look at the map. Just behind Stelvio I can turn right to Umbrailpass and enter Switzerland there. Alright, let’s go then.
It starts raining again. The road climbs in switchbacks. After a while I drive into a cloud. It is already getting dark and the fog is so thick that I can’t see the next switchback until I’m actually on it. The windscreen wipers don’t cope with rain and hail. This is getting more interesting than my yesterday’s climb...
|Looks like I’m above the thickest cloud now. It is raining and snowing but at least I can see something thanks to the last remains of daylight. Even in these conditions the scenery of snowy peaks is quite impressive. The road is covered with a thin layer of wet, melting snow. One of the highest drivable Alpine passes (2758 m) has a well-developed tourist infrastructure, with several hotels, bars and skiing facilities. Quickly, so that me and my camera don’t get too wet, I take a blurred photo documenting my highest altitude reached by car and immediately start descending the switchbacks to the north. Soon I take the right turn towards Umbrailpass (2501 m) with the border crossing.|
The barrier is closed. Inside the small building, through a glass door I can see a TV switched on but the door is closed too. There seems to be nobody inside. I find the information posted outside that the crossing is open till 8pm, only in July and August till 10pm. My watch shows 9.30...
I swear badly, looking at the map again. Can’t really go via Livigno, the tunnel is probably closed for the night as well. Have to return the same way. I drive the remaining bit up to Stelvio and descend into the wet, foggy darkness.
The rain is still pouring when I cross two more high passes in Switzerland - Ofenpass (2149 m) and Flüelapass (2383 m). Finally about 2am I’m in Liechtenstein. Just across the border I stop at a roadside car park. The lullaby of rain on the windscreen and roof quickly puts me to sleep.
In the morning the weather does not change much. Maybe the rain is less heavy but the clouds hang low just above the ground. No chance to see the mountains, not to mention climbing them. Maybe you could, but what’s the point?
At Triesen I buy two bottles of local beer. Can’t climb a mountain here so at least I will try the Liechtenstein brews. When I cross the border bridge to Switzerland, it starts pissing down again. After my return to Holland I will read in the news that those recent torrential rains caused some major floods in northern Italy...
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Only in the evening I will see that there still are places on this planet where the sun shines.
Big thanks to jck for a lot of helpful advice before my trip. Dzięki Jacek!
The Italian, Dutch and Austrian climbers I met on my summit day - thanks for company!