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Hoch-Tirol: 6 Days in 27 Hours
Hoch Tirol is a well known alpine ski tour, crossing from Kasern in the Ahrntal, Italy all the way to Austria's highest mountain, the Großglockner (3,798m). Traditionally tackled in six days using the numerous huts scattered along the route, the crossing takes in one or two picturesque peaks per day as skiers traverse an impressive landscape. And adventurers won’t go hungry! The area is known for gourmet coffee and apple strudel, while plenty of travelers will end their day with a warming combination of beer with soup while stretching their legs in the sun. This multi-day textbook tour could be just as relaxed as it is beautiful.
But when athlete Philipp Reiter started thinking about tackling the Hoch Tirol, he didn’t have relaxation in mind. It was two years ago, during the ’Long Way’ a 2000 km journey across the entire main Alpine Ridge from Vienna to Nice, when Philipp Reiter got a flavour of the epic dimensions of the Großvenediger-Großglockner area. When he asked French ultra runner Francois d’Haene about his winter plans last autumn, the Hoch Tirol tour came up. Was it possible to make the crossing in 24 hours? Without hesitation, Francois agreed: "Great, I’ll come with you!"
Below, Philipp gives us a unique insight into the trials and tribulations of his and Francois' journey across the mountains.
We’re in a car park at Kasern Nature Park, northern Italy at 9:20 am – we are about to take off! Actually, the start was scheduled for 8:30 am, but it is raining. The second coffee in the bakery was just too tempting and the toilet break was mandatory anyway. The first part of the tour takes us over two passes to the Essen-Rostocker hut. It's stormy, it's cold, there is no visibility. It quickly becomes clear to us that if these conditions continue, then we have seriously miscalculated our schedule.
Time for a quick hot soup in the hut? You better believe it! A small soup becomes a big plate of pasta and with the addition of coffee to the ‘short break’ ended up taking an hour. "I guess, we'll just go faster," Francois comments in true French spirit as we take off again. On this section, we’re supported by 3 companions, which makes the windy journey up the 1,200 m climb to Großer Geiger (3,360 m) a whole lot easier.
Even in the high mountains there is currently far less snow than usual for this time of year so every so often we have to unclip and carry out skis while traversing on our way to Johannishütte, which is tedious and time-consuming. Once at the hut, we separate from our support group – Francois and I tackle the 1,500m climb to the Großvenediger (3,657m) on our own. The day is already starting to come to an end and we quickly realize that the last sunlight disappears up the rock faces around us faster than we can follow on the hairpin bends.
Our plan, to stand on the top of the Venediger in the last light of the day, does not quite work out: We are either too slow, or it is getting dark too fast.
The solution? We switch on our headlamps and are grateful that the crevasses cutting through the glacier after Defreggerhaus are currently not a danger. Fortunately, I had already looked at this part of the route a week earlier. This now gives us security and reduces the risk of falling. Hours later, we stand at 3,657m in the pitch black and stare into the darkness surrounding us: complete silence and a seemingly empty space. Shortly thereafter we shred down on frozen slopes in quick turns - the result of a sunny afternoon that made the top layer melt in the warm hours of the day.
As the descent continues, the snow becomes increasingly ‘lazy’ and we sometimes break through the top layer all the way down to our knees. More precious energy gets lost. As we enter the Matreier Tauernhausy, my watch tells me that I have already logged eleven and a half hours of moving time and 4.700m of altitude gain.
Halftime break. At last.
A pot of steaming hot Tyrolean dumpling soup and Kaiserschmarrn is waiting for us. Our ingenious crew celebrates a little while we change and give ourselves a 30 minute break which we spend almost entirely horizontal! We take off again at around 10:30 p.m. My legs hurt, I'm tired and have no idea how to get through the next 5,000m +. How do you eat an elephant?! Well, I’ll have to find a way. I just put one foot in front of the other, step by step. Francois, on the other hand, seems a bit more energetic, at least more energetic than me.
As we step outside, an ice-cold and clear night welcomes us. But instead of using the stars in the clear night sky for navigation, we follow the blue line on the displays strapped around our wrists. We work our way up the next mountain in seemingly never-ending hairpin bends.
What is the name of this mountain again? I don't know, just keep going, step by step.
The descents remain ‘exciting’: between rugged rocks and sometimes extremely steep terrain we make our way down cautiously. Fortunately, everything is frozen into what feels like one solid sheet of ice, so we don't have to worry about avalanche danger.
My legs are getting heavier and I suggest a break and a short power nap at Rudolfshütte. At 3 am we eventually find an entrance into a sheltered space and simply lay down between old fries, bitten sausage ends and other pieces of I’d rather-not-know-what discarded food items. We are pretty knackered at this point. After a few minutes, but with the feeling of having slept a bit, we continue on with the most technically demanding part of the route.
The legs burn and my stomach hurts. My insides are rebelling and I can’t get myself to eat anything. At dawn we put on the crampons, meanwhile we already have 8,000 m of altitude gain in our legs, I have never climbed that much in one go in my life.
We ski around the Johannisberg and tackle the penultimate big hurdle – the ridge on the Romariswandköpfe, a climb in grade 3 or 4 terrain. We are exhausted but we really need to pull it together and focus on this stretch. We don’t have a choice, this is the only transition to the Großglockner.
I am now, as we say in German, ‘banana’: I take 10 steps and then let myself fall into my poles, look up and wonder why the summit is not getting any closer. I will repeat this process over the next few hours like a prayer wheel. In retrospect, it is an interesting self experiment into the strength of my mind: It is playing tricks on my body, despite its self defence, refusing to go a single step further.
Finally a wind-pressed, rough descent, the final transition to the Glockner Glacier and the last few meters up to the Eagle's Rest where our crew is already waiting for us. By now, I just want to sit down and stay sat down. But giving up after 26 hours with the final peak in sight is not an option! So we put on the crampons one last time and tackle the last 300m. We’re ridiculously close and yet infinitely far.
In the end I am delighted when we finally arrive at the 3,798 m high summit: Done!
Done? Unfortunately not quite: The descent in a total whiteout turned out to be the icing on the cake of an insane adventure in the Austrian Alps.
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