I’m currently reading Andy Kirkpatrick’s Psychovertical; it’s worth a read! It’s all about his escapades in winter mountaineering and terrifying aid climbs, and if there’s one thing it has made me realise once and for all, it’s that I’m not at all interested in suffering my way up multi-day winter epics.
It has, however, inspired me to share my one personal account of mountaineering, which totally and completely pales in comparison with Andy’s mind-bending adventures, but was still one of the most memorable experiences during my travels so far.
It happened in Austria this summer, when my brother came to visit and the weather turned too rainy for sport climbing. It was my first attempt at mountaineering and even this comparably timid adventure turned into something closer to type two fun…
The whole experience was led and overseen by my brother. He is far more restless, but also crucially much more experienced, than I am. Not content with sitting around drinking beer and watching the rain out of the window, he suggested we walk up to an alpine hut, the Olperer Hütte, only 1.5 hours walk up from a parking spot by a lake. We would then attempt to summit the Olperer peak the next day if the weather improved.
At 3,476 metres, it is one of the three tallest mountains in the valley and promised some snow at the top. I would have to learn to use crampons and the basic idea of self-arresting, and do some serious walking – not something I was used to after months of five-minute approaches to sport-climbing crags.
We made it to the hut in the pouring rain, wet through and surrounded by impenetrable fog. In this weather, one and a half hours felt more like three, but a large glass of wine later we forgot all about the discomfort.
The hut was empty apart from the owner and the staff, so we spent an evening chatting and trying in vain to finish off the rather large dinner that we ordered, our bodies refusing to take in so much food. At 2,389 metres, it turned out my appetite dwindled.
The next day, the fog still thick around the hut, we decided to set off in the hopes that we would climb out of the cloud. After an hour or so we did, and the view truly was breathtaking. But it was quite intimidating going on to the summit, unsure if the fog would clear or rise further.
The hardest thing for me to adjust to was how little protection is used when mountaineering compared to rock climbing. True, for much of the top part we were roped up, my brother leading ahead and placing a few bits of protection here and there, and the terrain was very easy. But a slip at any point would mean quite a big fall, and the exposure got progressively worse the closer we got to the ridge that led to the summit.
And the weather plays such an integral part, capable of turning a fun day out into an absolute epic. Eventually, we made it to the top in blazing sunshine, but fearing a change in weather for the worse started back down after a quick selfie.
By the time we finally made it down, we had been out for nine hours and my knees were in agony, my walking boots wet through from wading through snow. So we decided to stay at the hut for another night.
Another lessons I learnt that day was: mountaineering is the best diet! Somehow, eating stops being the main priority when you’re fighting your way uphill for hours on end, your mind and body becoming to exhausted to worry about hunger.
Between the altitude and the need to keep going, we stopped once to share a Snickers bar, finished a half-full bottle of blood orange juice and stopped again on the way down to gulp down a handful of nuts. And yet for dinner we still ended up sharing one dish because we didn’t think we could make it through a whole one each. Hooray for altitude-induced lack of appetite!