In Italian ‘via ferrata’ simply means ‘iron way’, and that is exactly what it is; a series of metal cables, staples and ladders enabling people to climb and traverse otherwise impenetrable rock faces. Via ferrata was created in the Italian Dolomites during the First World War as a means to move the soldiers through the mountain environment, but it wasn’t until many many years later that it became a popular sport. There are now hundreds of routes across Europe, and although they are not for the faint-hearted or those who suffer from vertigo (!) they do make climbing much more accessible for aspiring adventurers with little experience or skill.
During a recent trip to Lake Garda in Italy, we headed for the Sentiero Contrabbandieri, an old smugglers’ route high above the shores of the lake. It turned out to be more of an adventurous, and rather terrifying walk with a few sections of cable, rather than a classic via ferrata, but it was brilliant fun, and with stunning views to top it off.
Yesterday dawned beautiful, bright and sunny in Innsbruck, so we made the most of a day off by heading in to the Stubai Valley to do the Schlicker via ferrata, one that had been on our to-do list for a while. We have skied in the Schlick resort, but this was our first time outside of winter, and the stunning rock pillars that tower so majestically over the pistes were, if possible, even more impressive in the summer.
It was a full day out, with a 1.5 hour walk-in, around 3 hours climbing, and about 2.5 hours walk down, but the views were simply breathtaking all day, the climbing superb, and the location second to none. I couldn’t recommend this highly enough, it is described as one of the best via ferratas in the area, and rightly so.
Via ferratas, or klettersteigs as they are called in German, are much more popular in Austria than in many other European countries, and we are very lucky to have several great routes within just a stone’s throw of Innsbruck. Now that the warm weather has returned we have got back out on the rocks, climbing and klettersteig-ing, and are loving it. Klettersteig is basically assisted rock climbing. You climb up and across enormous rock faces with the aid of metal staples and steps in the rock, all the time following a metal rail that you are permanently attached to, so there’s no chance of getting lost!
Most peaks in Austria have the standard summit cross to signal the top, and often there is a ‘summit book’ tucked inside for each climber to sign and date. It’s a lovely tradition, and the fantastic klettersteig in St Jodok, around 40 minutes drive from Innsbruck, is no exception. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable route, the view from the top is beautiful, and the solitude just marvellous. Hard to find any room for improvement!
So imagine our delight when we looked around and saw a large wooden chest sitting in the forest at the top of the climb, and opened it to discover a huge ‘outdoor fridge’ full of cold beer, water and soft drinks! The sign reads ‘Voluntary donations to the St Jodok mountain rescue fund.
A fantastic cause and a superb bonus after a sweaty climb on a hot day. What a wonderful idea!
I hate to say it in April, but winter in the Alps is well and truly over, and has been for a while. The last few weeks in Innsbruck have seen temperatures as high as 25 degrees C, the cows and horses are back in the meadows, and rock climbing, via ferratas, hiking and running are very much back on the agenda.
Despite the fact that it feels like summer, this is my first Spring in Austria and I love the feel of the city as the seasons start to change. Being a university city, it’s no surprise to see the students out in force as the weather becomes warmer, but the sight of the neverending line of people sitting along the banks on the river Inn next to the university still made me stop, get off my bike and marvel at the power of the sunshine.
The mere presence of the sun means that everyone is happy and relaxed. Stress is forgotten, people suddenly have more free time and want to be outside; having barbecues, playing frisbee, or simply socialising out in the sun.
Here’s to a long summer of enjoying the outdoors x
I continue to marvel about how the good weather just keeps on coming in Innsbruck, and there are still no signs of it letting up in the near future. Despite starting to get a little concerned about whether winter will ever arrive, we’re thoroughly making the most of this unprecedented sunshine and, having discovered a superb little climbing area just 20 minutes drive from Innsbruck, have now been 3 times over the last 1o days! With a 5 minute walk in, enough sectors to keep you occupied for weeks, and grades from super easy to far too difficult (!), Arzbergklamm near Telfs has proved to be a brilliant find. Even now in mid-December it still holds the sun until after 1pm, and we have yet to see another person there. Stunning views, fun climbing and even a picturesque river running down the middle of the gorge. What more can you ask for?!
So last weekend we decided it would be fun to try and climb the Großglockner, the highest peak in Austria at 3798m. The weather was still warm, autumn colours still beautiful, the weather forecast good, and surely the route or hut wouldn’t be busy in the second week of November…?
How wrong we were.
After a 3 hour drive from Innsbruck, we parked up and set off on the 2 hour hike up to the Stüdlhütte at 2801m. We hiked the last section in the dark via head torch and arrived around 6pm to find to our delight that the winter room was empty. Fantastic, maybe Saturday it would be busy we thought, but clearly people were at work on a Friday so didn’t have time to get up there, lucky us. The hut’s winter room even had electric lighting and a long drop toilet, what luxury!
We melted snow, cooked our dinner, and generally enjoyed the peace and solitude of being alone at almost 3000m metres, then intending to get up around 5am to head for the summit, we settled down in the 14 bed dorm on our own around 9pm. However this signalled the end of the peace and solitude.
At 10.30pm we woke to heavy boots and loud voices. We scrabbled up confused, to meet 2 Slovenian climbers arriving, and telling us ‘there were more coming’. And so it began, from then until 3am, more and more climbers arrived; thumping up and down the stairs, slamming doors, unpacking their bags in the middle of the dorm, shuffling around in noisy goretex, waving torches around, and communicating at the top of their voices. One group even cracked open cans of beer and started having a party at 1am. There was no chance of sleep, yet worse than that was the utter confusion as to where these people were coming from. The walk from the car park was only 2 hours, so these people must have left well after midnight. Why?
Added to this, the wind was picking up outside to the point where it could only be described as howling; indeed the small winter room building had started to violently shake. By 5am we had had enough, it was time to get out of there. Looking around as we left, every bed in the dorm was full with people attempting to sleep, and every spare patch of floor and bench was covered in bodies, there must have been 25 people in the tiny wooden hut. And of course the group of Slovenians banging around shouting and laughing at the top of their voices. Where had they come from and why so late? There’s a question which will continue to baffle me for evermore…!
We battled our way down by head torch through the howling wind, finding it difficult to drag our thoughts away from sleeping. It was such a shame we couldn’t climb the peak, but all we could think about was getting away from those people! It really did make me question what goes through people’s minds when surrounded by sleeping bodies in the middle of the night. If I arrive somewhere late at night I creep around and do everything I can to avoid disturbing anyone. I am aware that 2am is an unsociable time and I try my best to not annoy or bother people. I foolishly thought this was fairly logical, yet I’m starting to think I may be in the minority.
We would still like to climb the Großglockner, but I think next time we’ll avoid the hut…!
How does the saying go? Make hay while the sun shines? Well at the moment I’m very happy to keep climbing while the sun shines, and shining is exactly what it’s doing in Innsbruck right now, day after day. Traditionally November in Europe should be a pretty dreary, fairly miserable month; arguably the worst month of the year. But this year seems to be an exception (well certainly in Innsbruck!) and I am absolutely loving it. With a perfect forecast for the weekend we made the bold decision to head up in to the Karwendel National Park, just outside of Innsbruck, take on a 2 day via feratta, and bivvy (yes, sleep outside!) up in the mountains – on 31st October! Bags packed we headed off in the sunshine, excited about yet another new place to explore, and it didn’t disappoint.
Waking up outside at 2000m, watching the sun creep over the mountains on 1st November was certainly a first, and felt pretty cool. The views were spectacular, the sunrise and sunset stunning, and over 2 full days we saw perhaps only 15 other people. There is nothing like being out in the mountains, especially when it’s wild and virtually empty. It’s a perfect escape from daily life, somewhere you can feel completely free and happy. Plus, a full day out leaves you tired, content and fully ready for a big feed in the evening; very satisfying!
This week brought yet more Autumn sunshine, and a bank holiday! We used it wisely and headed across to Achensee, a beautiful lake around 30minutes drive from Innsbruck. A ride up the Rofan-seilbahn cable car rewarded us with these views, and one of the best and most spectacular via ferrata routes we’ve done yet. Covering 5 peaks and traversing a truly stunning ridge line, it’s a day I would thoroughly recommend and will most certainly be back to do again!
Innsbruck is a wonderful place. Where else in the world do you have stunning mountains and all the nature you could wish for, within spitting distance of a city with all the amenities a person could ever need?
The seasons are changing fast here, the bright orange and yellows are out in force and the colder weather is creeping in, which means Winter is coming…! But not quite yet. Last week we managed both a via ferratta (climbing rock faces using fixed metal railings) and a ski tour within a couple of days. Perfect!
I’m reading a fascinating book at the minute, Where the Mountain Casts its Shadow, by Maria Coffey. The former girlfriend of a mountaineer who died on Everest in 1982, it’s about climbing and mountaineering, but not your average mountain story. She’s looking at the other side of this addictive passion, why people choose to take such risks, and more importantly, what effect these risks have on those they leave at home. She recounts stories of brave heroes, incredible feats and those who simply cannot walk away from the challenges no matter what the consequences. Yesterday I read about a truly remarkable story, one which I find difficult to believe that it actually happened. Here it is in her words:
Nanga Parbat. Its summit guarded by the Rupal Face, the biggest mountain wall in the world. A murderous wall: sheer, beset by storms and avalanches. Four Japanese men are attempting it. They enter a long chute called Merkl Gully. A storm breaks. The men do not return. At base camp the rest of their team wait … and wait … Before abandoning the mountain they climb the fixed ropes to 22,000 feet and leave a duffel bag filled with equipment, food and shelter. A gesture beyond hope; an offering to the dead.
Some years later, four North American men attempt the same mountain, by the same face. They are in Merkl Gully, 1,200 feet from the summit. One man is suffering from altitude sickness. A storm breaks. They retreat. Spindrift avalanches pour over them in waves. One, far bigger than the rest, sweeps them off the face. Their rope holds by a single ice screw.
Dangling in panic from the mountain, choked by rushing snow, they expect the screw to fail at any moment, and death to follow. When the avalanche ceases, the sick man’s face points upwards, his eyelids frozen shut. ‘I was going to unclip,’ he tells his friends, ‘and get it over with.’
Hour after hour, they fight their way down. Around ten at night, they emerge from Merkl Gully and reach a protective overhang. Two of the men remove the ropes from the final section of the gully. ‘I’m letting go of the ropes,’ shouts the man at the top. The wind blows away some of his words. His friend misunderstands. He hears a command. He obeys it. ‘Okay, I let go,’ he shouts back. Their ropes – their umbilical cords to the mountain, to life – sail away through space.
They have two choices. To stay where they are and freeze to death. Or to attempt the impossible – descending the Rupal Face without ropes.
Morning. Four specks cling to a mountain by a few slivers of steel – crampons and ice axes. No safety net. A single slip, and they fall 10,000 feet. Chances of survival: negligible. Then they see it … a duffel bag, clipped to the wall. Sunbleached. Tattered. Emblazoned with Japanese writing. They cut it open. Sixty pitons spill out. A dozen ice screws. Chocolate bars. A tent. A stove. Two new fifty-metre ropes. An offering from the dead.