A few words in advanceThe following trip report is dedicated to the memory of Peter Voithofer, a young austrian climber who was killed by an avalanche while climbing Hoher Göll, near the city of Berchtesgaden (Alps) only a few kilometres away from where we climbed that day. We heard the SAR-helicopter approach and feared somebody died at the place we climbed, but they came to pick up Peter.
I never met Peter, but he definitely shared the reasons to climb with me and a lot of SPers.
PrefacePrimarily I did not want to write this trip report. Getting in touch with vulnerable incidents again is not comfortable at all. But after reading the post of SP member Sergio and the trip report of SP member schmid th I changed my mind.
This season more people lost their lives in the Alps than in the decades before(see report at alpinist.com). Schmid_th has written about how near death comes to us; however we seldom realize how close we have been to it. This year it came very close to my wife. On a trip considered as a lazy day hike her guardian angels got a lot of work.
ApproachAfter bringing our broken car to the garage, we left Berlin in the late evening hours of Friday 27 April for a weekend trip to the Alps, 700 km and some more away. We wanted to finish the boring winter time and start the alpine season with some easy Ferrata stuff in the Karwendel area near Garmisch-Partenkirchen. While Mathias, a friend and climbing buddy of ours, drove, my wife Juliane fell asleep very fast after a long day of work. Briefly before reaching Garmisch the alps appeared in sallow moonshine and the trip really began to start, as we figured out that we are back in the alps again.
Absolutely tired we raised our tent at a camping site near Mittenwald at four in the night and immediately fell asleep. A few moments later a badly drunken guy showed up and shouted and screamed in a way you can hear it all over the place. He complained that nobody cares while he was freezing to death. One need to know that spring time in Germany and even in the Alps began very early this year and the temperatures in the night did not fall below 10° C (50° F). He calls on, until the police arrived ant probably took him. Anyway silence returned and we slept on until 7.30 (excellent 3 ½ hours) in the morning.
Climbing Mittenwalder HöhenwegAt the end of April it is usually not possible to do ferratas or climbing. Lots of snow allows only doing skiing or snowshoeing in the Alps. This year – thanks to global warming – nearly all the snow had been melted up to 2.500 m (7.000 ft.).
The weather forecast predicted clear and hot weather for the whole weekend. Shortly after the cable car (Karwendelbahn) had lifted, we undressed and arrived in T-Shirts up on the hill with heavy backpacks. Some people were already crawling up the autobahn-broad way to the access of the ferrata.
Some minutes later we made it up to the place where the wire begins. Mathias and Juliane did some funny contortions while they tried to get into their harnesses. They never did climb with the ferrata equipment before, so it took a while until they were ready.
At the first part of the ferrata some areas were covered with loose snow.
Often it was not possible to see the next section and sometimes we roped up and belayed from stances. Not anyone of the people we meet brought a rope and some of them returned after climbing only a few meters.
The climb was easy and we started to like that ridge very much.
After the crossing the first summit there was hardly any snow and we could accelerate a little. The big ladder was a big challenge to Julianne’s acrophobia, but she managed that passage pretty well and did not even complain.
Taking the last step of the ladder she told me, that she will definitely not climb it once again, no matter up or down.
The ridge bows to the right where as we guessed the final hut should be. Three guys who climbed the opposite direction reported that it was not possible to finish the climb. Shortly before leaving the ferrata, we learned, was a big snowfield. The wire was covered totally by snow and ice. Well equipped we decided to head on and use rope, crampons and ice axes if necessary.
The snow field ranged from the emergency hut all around the convex mountain. The snow was rotten and after doing some steps small avalanches went down the mountain. We built a stance and I lead to way to the next wire which was not covered by snow.
60 meters of rope later I built another stance to belay Mathias and Juliane and signalled them to follow. Juliane followed very fast and reached the stance with the words: My acrophobia is gone! (it is actually not!). Now it was Mathias row to follow, but he did not started to move. We had some shouting and discussion. Finally he refused to follow because in his opinion it was too dangerous to head on even with the use of the rope. I offered to lead all the way up built stances. I reminded him of all the gear (nuts, quickdraws, ice axes) we brought and tried to convince him that it would be possible to finish the climb. But he insisted.
So we went back until the big ladder comes. We learned that another exit of the ferrata starts right below the ladder. Juliane hat a glance at me before she down climbed. We are married for four years now and I knew she cursed Mathias to do that to her. She got really calm, an evidence that she was in a rage. Questions and suggestions of Mathias were not answered by her anymore.
Taking a break was good base to tackle the way back down to the valley. Unfortunately the way down was interrupted regularly by more or less extended snow fields and the way was not easy to find. We did not see any marking.
The snow fields were mostly steep and consisted of bad and rotten snow. Sometimes we sank to our knees. Other parts of the snow fields were nearly icy and frozen. We reminded each other to take care and step forceful into the snow to have a good and save place to walk. After every snow field we got together and talked about all the food we will have when we arrive in the valley. We decided not to rope up because there were not any good belays on the snow field and probably one will drag away the other ones in case of a fall.
In a good mood we headed on to the next snow field. The snow field fell down to the right side. The slope had a falling-gradient of about 50°. Below the snow field gravel had piled up and covered an area of four or five meters below the snow. After the gravel there was a rim. From that place we could not see what comes below the rim.
Juliane was the first one to cross the snow field. The snow only covered 20, maybe 30 meters. Then it would be passed and we could head on for the next one, leave the mountain and have a beer. Juliane passed the first ten meters in a superior way. I know I was proud of her, that she got into climbing that uncomplicatedly. A gasp later she struggled. She tried to stop the fall by grabbing at the snow, but the Gore-Tex pants she wore glided better than a sled. Mathias and I starred at her, sliding down to the gravel. We were stock-still. Juliane did not utter a cry.
A second later we recognized that she has managed to stop the fall at the intersection between snows and gravel 25 meters below us. She tried to get up on her feet, but the mountain was to steep at that part and the gravel slackened every time she wanted to stand up. Therefore her body went nearer and nearer to the abyss. We called her and told that she should stay calm. I asked if she feels ok and she answered yes. While our conversation Mathias had put out the rope of our rucksack. I told Juliane again that we will manage to help her. Mathias mentioned that it was not possible to climb down to get her. I agreed. It was too dangerous; especially there have not been any good belay point at all. So we decided to throw the rope and a carabiner down to Juliane. Hopefully she will manage to grab at the gravel and clip the carabiner into her harness. After that we will se if she will be able to climb up on her own. We were not injured as far as we could see.
I coiled up half of the rope and threw it down. The carabiner flew down and landed three or four meters from Julianne’s left hand. I hurried up to coil the rope again and have a second try. Throwing the rope more powerful the binder landed in front of Juliane and she could grab it. While clipping it, she slid down a little bit but managed to rope up. Mathias and I sat down and belayed her with only our body weight. Thank God she is such a slim girl!
She made it up finally without saying a word. When we were together again, the decision to go back to the cable car was made easily. None of us wanted to head on. Finishing the climb was not important anymore. We turned back to the ferrata track. Having a few to that rim from that perspective we could see that it went down for at least 25 meters.
Getting back safely was our only purpose. Most of the time we climbed with some distance between us and without talking a lot. The scare was still present in our faces.
After two hours or a little more we made it back to the cable car. It was not operating anymore on that day and we knew that before we arrived. Therefore we had some time to accustom ourselves to the thought of having a bivy without proper gear. We only had one single person bivy bag and some jackets, some biscuits and no water. Mercifully we were physically and mentally exhausted and sleep came very fast. At the cable car there were some deck-chairs and we had a night as comfortable as an unplanned bivy could be.
The night was cold, the guy who runs the cable car told us, it has been about – 5° C or some lower temperature. Getting down after that 24 hours round trip made us feel coming into another world. Everything was available again (food, warmth) and we were safe. We were thankful to sit on some boulders, enjoy the sun and have a brew.
Some days later we met our climbing buddy Rob in Berlin for a drink. I had described him the situation in the mountains before on the occasion of a phone call. While we were chatting about this and that, we talked about former trips to the mountains and plans for the future. When it comes on our last trip he asked: “Juliane, was it the trip you almost died?” He hit the bull’s eye.
Probably I will remember it always as the trip “Juliane almost died”.