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Hut to hut mountaineering in the Oetztaler Alps, Austria

Posted in mountaineering, austria

First published as an LMC trip report

Like so many plans, it all seemed so straightforward from the comfort of Ryan’s living room. Tea and biccies to hand, we flattened out the map across the table and read out sections of the guide book to each other as we traced out a route that would take us from hut to peak to hut across the Oetztal Alps. It looked so easy that I worried we might be bored, but our excitement over our holiday had already seen us up the ante a couple of times to factor in more peaks, so I tried to rein my giddiness in. It was probably about halfway through our second day in Austria that I began to suspect we’d been a little too ambitious.

Ryan and I met Hugh and Jen at the first hut just in time for dinner, having waltzed across Europe via a plane-metro-train-train-bus combo. A dawn start the next day had us drop off our bags at the Hochwilde hut and set out across the glacier to climb the north peak of the Hohewilde. Although the sudden introduction to altitude nagged at me we appeared to be moving at a decent rate, and the scramble to the summit was a fun change of pace. The deterioration of the snow under the glare of the midday sun and the threatening weather discouraged us from attempting the traverse to the south peak, so we skipped happily back to the hut for mid-afternoon, although the skipping did become increasingly difficult as the snow turned to slush.

The Oetztaler Alps

The next morning we set out for the Schalfkogel. Signs in the hut advised a slightly more circuitous route than the guidebook suggested in order to avoid rockfall, and standing on the balcony in our socks, we pointed out a route to one another, tracking through strips of snow between moraine fields to cut across the eastern face to the Schalfkogeljoch, then switch back right to the summit. Plan made, we geared up and stepped outside. To my horror, rather than the perfect neve of the day before, my boots sank deep into slush. It’d been too warm overnight, and the snow hadn’t frozen; it was as soft as when we’d left it yesterday. Thus began the slog to the top, trailbreaking endlessly upwards, and racing to get across sections littered with debris.

After many more hours than we’d anticipated, Ryan and I were the first to arrive at the final ridge to the summit. “Very easy from here” promised my guidebook, “a broad rocky path”. Unfortunately, the recent bumper snowfall had buried said broad path and left us with a knife-edge ridge to cross, with cornices on alternating sides. We paused to consider our options. The snow was appalling, but it wasn’t too far, and it looked like we could pitch the hardest section. My proposal to Ryan was that I reckoned I could do the next couple of steps, but if either of us decided to call it off we’d abandon it, no questions asked. A few steps out along the ridge, and I misjudged where the cornice switched and started to slither. Fighting my way back up to the crest, I sat a moment with a leg either side while I caught my breath. Trying again, I found a better way to go, and taking it in turns we tiptoed our way to the summit cross, hoping if we crept quietly enough the snow might not notice.

The Oetztaler Alps

Nervous congratulations and obligitory summit photo later, we reversed our previous tiptoeing back to the Schalfkogeljoch, and joined back up with Hugh and Jen in trying to figure out how to dismount the mountain. Some stakes planted at intervals turned a very hairy downclimb into a merely sketchy one, and past this some fixed protection brought a little security, although the fact that half of it had already been twisted beyond usefulness by rockfall made me a little uneasy. Arriving at the glacier we re-roped up and began a few more hours of slogging through slush, this time with the added excitement of taking it in turns to fall thigh-deep into hidden holes. As the afternoon wore on the snow petered out to be replaced by rocks, then scree, then a myriad of moraine banks and rivulets which became streams and then rivers. My heart sank when we rounded a corner to see the bridge lying in pieces to one side, but there was enough snow piled up to get across. For a long while we descended through a valley that had the eerie sensation of being from another time entirely; I kept expecting to see a dinosaur, or at the very least some cavemen, but the remoteness gradually faded as a path appeared, and about a lifetime later we arrived at the hut, happily just in time for dinner. If ever I’d earned pudding, it was today.

The Oetztaler Alps

The next day, according to our plan, was our attempt on the Similaun, and I dragged myself out of bed first thing. However the weather had a better plan, apparently taking sympathy on us after two long days, and decided to rain. An enforced rest day was thus declared, allowing such indulgences as washing and napping.

The couple of days that followed were pretty steady. Veering away from the itinerary somewhat we found a better pace alternating big days and small days. A walk via some rocky peaks brought us to the Vernagt hut, from which we did the Fluchtkogel the next day in perfect conditions, cruising up the glacier with no worries and returning to the hut before lunchtime. As an indication of just how much snowfall there was this year, the summit cross was buried in the cornice.

Another day of scrambling peaks brought us to the Breslauer hut, via the two tensest moments of the trip: the first, when getting off a ridge meant negotiating some very unstable terraine where at times it appeared that nothing was connected to anything else; the second, when Hugh and I came rather close to an actual argument about the rules of scrabble. Both situations were resolved without catastrophe.

The Oetztaler Alps

Our last day we’d saved for the Wildespitze. Consulting the trusty guidebook once more, it advised an alternative route that would avoid the crowds. Indeed, setting out first thing, we saw no-one ahead of us, nor many tracks. I was feeling fully acclimatised and well as we climbed the glacier to the saddle point on the ridge ahead - and then we were confused. To our left was a beautiful, beckoning peak with a nice ridge and good-looking rock. To our right was what, even at a distance, looked like a bit of a horror show: a steep icy ramp leading to a chossy climb that appeared to be relatively unprotectable. Map and compass out, it quickly became obvious that the Wildespitze was the horror show. Hugh and Jen immediately called it off, and headed on up to the lovely Oetztaler Urkund on the left. Ryan and I gave it a try, but as we climbed the steepening ramp I became increasingly aware of my single ice axe and my blunt crampons that occasionally made a break for freedom. My pace slowed to a crawl, and we decided to abandon ship. Happily, the alternative peak was a joy to climb, and the four of us sat together at the summit, appreciating the view one last time.

And then down to the hut, and then down to the valley, and then down, down, down to Munich and Gatwick and home, where fresh bread and a choice of underwear suddenly seem dizzyingly hedonistic, but the landscape is most wanting.

Anna spends all of her free time exploring the outdoors, including winter climbing, trad climbing, mountaineering, skiing, and hiking. If it's an adventure, she's happy.

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