On Friday, July 24, I had my first solo adventure in the Lechtaler Alpen. It was definitely a learning experience.
I chose the main summit of the Ruitelspitze (as opposed to the “cross summit” – more on that in a moment) because of its proximity to the cabin here in Bach, Austria. I consulted several guides and a few trip reports on this climb, and all of them made this sound like a fairly do-able climb. Also, I had been up to the well-marked trailhead last summer – which was closed due to detonation work on the mountain (as in with dynamite; more on that later too) – and remembered that the sign suggested a three-hour walk-up to the summit. Last but not least, if the main summit was too easy, there was at least the consolation of some difficulty in a short traverse to the Kreuzgipfel (the summit with the huge cross on it), which some guides rated at III+ and others pooh-poohed as an easy II. I had also read that the route had been freshly marked and cabled, thereby reducing the difficulty significantly and adding a higher level of safety.
I began my adventure on Friday morning with a proper start at 5:00 am. I chose to embody the classic phrase, “Proper preparation prevents poor performance,” so everything was ready the night before; all I had to do was put my clothes on, pick up my backpack, and head out the door. Which I did, into a slightly chilly and foggy but otherwise promising morning.
I crossed over the Alpenschonbach stream and headed up a steep forest path to the Jausenstation Wase, basically an alpine restaurant where you can get food and beer while enjoying the view.
Nobody was there at 5:45 though, so I cruised on past, congratulating myself on my cheerful alacrity. At this point, I was already 45 minutes ahead of schedule. Just one tiny problem: the sign for the trailhead wasn’t there.
So I went up the forest road for a while, up a couple of switchbacks, and then noticed that I was going a bit too deep into the Madau valley; the trail was supposed to cut back north and east, but this road was headed straight south. I checked the map and then headed back down, thinking that I had missed the turn. I got back to Jausenstation Wase, headed northeast through some charming little one-room huts, and then dead-ended into a smelly morass of what was probably alpine cow manure. Clearly not the trail. So back up the switchbacks, up and up and up and up… until I got to a fork in the road that definitely wasn’t on the map. I guess the blasting last summer was for a new road?
I then heard the sound of an off-road motorcycle, getting louder and louder. I stopped to see who would be motoring up a scree-strewn forest road at 6:15 am, just in time to see two guys with backpacks and trekking poles zooming up the road to the left. I checked the map again, and it looked like those poor guys with the local license plate were headed the wrong way. Poor fools.
I continued up the forest road for about 20 more minutes, until I noticed that the mountain side of the road looked like someone had just scraped it clean. There were also some construction markings in bright orange spray paint. But just one more bend, I told myself, and then the road took a turn and went steeply down. Definitely not the right way. And then it slowly sank in that a map almost never trumps the locals. So I headed back down to the fork in the road, and I, I took the path more traveled by.
After going up about five switchbacks, with the views becoming increasingly majestic, yet another fork presented itself. This time, doing my best Aragorn impression, I just looked for signs of fresh motorcycle tracks. Bingo, head right. And up and up and up.
Keep in mind that I had not yet seen a single sign indicating I was on the right path, which for this region – in which every single damn trail has these bright yellow signs that you simply can’t miss – is rather the exception. So when I came to the end of the road and saw the motorbike parked near a materials-only cable car lift, I was like, where am I?
I went over to the cable car, thinking that maybe, despite all of the signs clearly prohibiting the conveyance of humans, this was a chariot of the gods meant to transport me to the ‘real’ route. No such luck. But upon further investigation there was a muddy trail that went straight up into the forest, following an electrified cattle fence.
After about five minutes of following two pairs of fresh boot prints – with long smeared slip marks that I was soon to emulate – I finally found the first sign suggesting that I was on the right path.
This was enormously encouraging, so I redoubled my efforts, chugging uphill, thinking oh yeah, take that, box steps! The trail crossed the cattle fence, so taking care not to tangle up my poles or brush the inside of my thigh against something meant to frighten off thousand-pound animals, I instead managed to get my left hand covered in pine resin, which is like having your skin turn into flypaper. Slightly annoyed, I continued on through an alpine meadow, dodging fresh cow pies until I saw some shaggy horned beasts, bells jangling around their necks, grazing near a tiny barn. I kept moving, not wanting to attract their attention, since one hiker had mentioned being threatened by a particularly aggressive bull last summer. What an inglorious death that would be – he went in search of the summit, but got gored by a bull. Anyway, the trail soon crossed the fence again, this time at a rock that required a bold class I move to step over the electric thread. I continued up above tree line and got my first glance into the northern walls of the Ruitelspitzen, dropping 600 m / 1,800 ft.
In my excitement, I picked up the pace, even though the terrain was becoming increasingly difficult in terms of the rocks underfoot. I consider myself a very sure-footed person, and one thing that all of the German guides repeatedly insisted you have to have is Trittsicherheit, basically that you’re solid on your feet. Unlike similar terrain in Colorado, though, these rocks love to shift under your feet, no matter what size they are. So I kept scrambling upwards through scree-filled paths, and then all of a sudden I looked down a chute to my left that fell more or less vertically away into space.
Ahead of me, a wall reared up at 70-80 degrees. Oh yeah, I thought, here we go. So I scrambled up about 5 meters, my foot dislodged a very large rock, and then I realized – I’m nowhere near the summit, so there shouldn’t be any climbing going on yet. I looked down and thought I saw a trail headed off to the west, so I downclimbed – never fun, especially when every step sends stones skittering. And I also remembered reading in one trip report that someone mentioned a path skirting a cliff before heading up to the summit. Sure enough, the path seemed to peter out in the krummholz, only to re-emerge as clearly the right way. And that was the last of my route-finding difficulties, which had probably burned up a solid hour of time up to this point.
The trail now wound its way around a steep grassy slope, crossing a couple of rocky chutes with water trickling down them into nothingness. I stepped from one side to another, praying that I wouldn’t slip. Maybe it was just being alone, without someone to share the experience with, but it seemed like the hiking was getting more and more stressful as the trail steered up into a cirque, switching back every meter or so in a very steep ascent. Then, near the top of the bowl, the trail went straight across another grassy slope, topping out at a flat area with a tremendous view of the Ruitelspitze massif.
It was a strange feeling to look at that faint trail winding its way along the ridge, knowing that I had about 200 m more to ascend before reaching the main summit. To the left, 800 m of air, with jagged crumbling rock teetering over the abyss, and to the right, a 45-degree grass slope. Even though the trail was covered in that treacherous scree, it seemed safe, but still, from where I was sitting, it looked like a tightrope.
I looked over at the Kreuzgipfel and noticed two tiny figures standing on the summit. They began working their way down, moving quickly, so I knew I was about to meet those intrepid motorcyclists who had inadvertently shown me the way.
Finally, at 10:02 am, I reached the main summit. I was feeling good, if a bit tired. I had been on the go for 5 hours straight and had covered 11 km / 6.8 miles and a leg-shredding 1,683 meters / 5,500 feet of elevation. I thought to myself, this is what you’ve been training for – get ready to put on your big-boy pants, because you are going to ace that traverse to the Kreuzgipfel.
At about that time, the two guys coming back from the Kreuzgipfel were headed my way, slipping and sliding in talus and scree, sending small avalanches down the mountainside. “Servus!” we called to each other. I asked about the traverse. “Oh, it’s great!” this twenty-something Austrian told me in crazy dialect. “They’ve got cable up everywhere!” “Is it well-marked?” I asked. “Oh yeah,” he said. “A six-year-old could get up there! Even in these shoes!” He pointed to his tennis shoes. We all laughed and said goodbye. I put on my helmet, skirted the ridge to where red-and-white blazes indicated the way down, and started making my way down into the notch.
A few words about this traverse. To the south, a gigantic bowl with snow in it descends vertically and then levels out about 600 m down. To the north, who knows – nothing but air. The slope descending to the middle of the traverse – which is conveniently blocked by a tower – is covered in scree and rotten rock. And after the tower, there is a 60 meter / 196 feet wall with some cable strung up on it, leading to the summit of the Kreuzgipfel. And right where you top out, where the cable ends, there is a 45-degree ramp covered in scree.
Well, I told myself, everyone says that it’s a lot worse than it looks. So I went down about 10 meters, watching every step, glancing nervously over at that 60-meter stretch. My eye followed the trail blazes across a series of cables that circumnavigated the tower, and I thought to myself, get around that tower and see what that wall looks like up close. So I took one step – slip, slip – and another – slip, slip – and turned to look back at the way I had come, which suddenly looked very steep and slippery, and that’s when I felt a definitive instinctual moment: holy shit, get me out of here.
I won’t lie. My ambition to write a kickass trip report, and to have the bragging rights to say that I had climbed the Kreuzgipfel alone, evaporated completely. All of my reading and researching had convinced me that I would pull off some amazing feat of daring, but now that I was here, I realized that I simply didn’t have enough experience in this kind of terrain to feel safe. Instead, my tired legs seemed as if they had a mind of their own, and I didn’t feel as sure on my feet as I normally do. So I scrambled my way back up to the main summit, where I sat down and had some water and a handful of nuts and raisins and savored the feeling of being safe and alive.
It was about 10:45 when I headed down, and the first thing I noticed was just how tired I was. I had been on the go nearly non-stop for almost six hours by this point, and my legs were feeling wobbly. This was not good when descending endless mini-switchbacks that might as well have been made of bearing balls. I have never, ever been on such slippery ground, and the grass next to the trail was just as slippery with the remaining dew. I don’t think I’ve ever fallen down while hiking, but I ate it three times before gaining tree line. Also, my heart was pounding, and I was breathing in long haggard gasps. And now that the sun was directly above me, it was hot as hell. I found comfort in the fact though that at least I wouldn’t get lost on the way down. And there was also the highly motivating thought of…
Two hours later I summoned my strength and arrived with some measure of dignity at Jausenstation Wase, where I sat down – just the motion of sitting down was painful in my thighs – and ordered a Weizenbier. It was ice cold, and I was so grateful. As I was taking my shoes and socks off – my feet were pulsing by this point – the owner came up to me and said, “Sie waren auf der Ruitelspitze?” I nodded my head. “Is’ anstrengend,” she said (it’s hard). “Sehr,” I said. Very. Then I ordered homemade sausages, sauerkraut and bread. I gobbled that all up and then had another Weizenbier. I got back to the cabin at about 2:00, a bit dazed but very glad to be barefoot and drinking cold water.
So what did I learn? First, that I may not have the requisite Trittsicherheit (sure-footedness) nor Schwindelfreiheit (literally, freedom from the fear of heights). Whether covered in scree or damp grass, the flanks of the mountains here are extraordinarily steep; it’s not really a big deal when you’re moving along, but the second you stop and take a look around, things get kind of scary. One big slip and off you go.
Second, I’m just going to go out on a limb and say that this is the hardest climb I’ve ever done. Previously, Blanca Peak in Colorado was my record in terms of distance and altitude gain (54.7 km / 34 miles round trip, 1,934 m / 6,345 ft of elevation gain) – but I did that over three days. On the Ruitelspitze, I covered 16 km / 10 miles round trip, with 1,683 m / 5,521 ft of elevation gain, all in nine hours (including about one hour of being lost and one hour of drinking beer and stuffing myself. So I was ascending at a rate of about 420 m / 1,380 ft per hour. In this regard, my training has definitely paid off.
Third, I’m very glad that I relied on a number of sources for information about the route. Had I put all of my faith in a single guidebook or in my map-reading skills, I probably would still be out there wondering around. Those guys on the motorbike also saved me some major time; had I not seen them scoot off up the road, I’m not sure I would have gone that way. So route finding is probably a skill that I need to keep in mind moving forward.
Fourth, I’m relieved that my healthy survival instinct kicked in and booted out my ego. I’ve asked myself over the past two days if I shouldn’t have gone a bit further into the traverse, just to see if that 60 m wall was really as scary as it looked. Then I remember the feeling of all that open space around me, those few little slips on relatively solid ground, and how quiet it suddenly was, except for the sound of those rocks skittering off the edge and then into nothingness.
Fifth and last, one thing that I keep realizing about alpinism is that the only way to become truly proficient is either to live in the mountains (or a very hilly topography) or to spend an inordinate amount of time there, like one week out of the month, every month. I’m fairly new to the game, but there seem to be so many intangible pieces of the puzzle that have to come together: knowing how to move in shifty terrain, building up a tolerance for altitude and exposure, recognizing your limits in terms of fitness and ability, judging the weather properly, route finding and negotiating confusing terrain, and, above all, building up an endurance engine that can propel you up major ascents for long periods of time. I’m not sure how else you can build up these delicately interlaced skill sets. It’s one thing to do box steps in my living room or to carry a heavy pack up and down the only hill in Potsdam, and it’s a completely different undertaking to head up a mountain.
On Tuesday, July 28, I sallied forth to the Großer Krottenkopf. But that story has yet to be written… stay tuned.