We’re back in Kals am Grossglockner after what can only be described as one of the best alpine climbs I’ve been on, climbing the Stüdlgrat on the Grossgockner. 4 hours of stunning alpine rock climbing takes you up to the 3798m summit of the highest point in Austria, the second peak in Challenge Sophie and my Alpine Coast to Coast.
Here is a video of our climb:
Arriving in Austria
After a whopping 202km cycle ride from Trenta, Slovenia, to Kals am Grossglockner, Austria via a wrong turn into Italy, Sophie was pretty tired. With a relatively short approach for our attempt on Grossglockner, we planned on resting most of the day and heading up to the Stüdlhütte after lunch. At 2802m, we would be climbing the 900m from the Lucknerhaus to the Stüdlhütte in approximately two and a half hours.
Waking up with her now signatory puffy eyes due to tiredness, I knew we needed to take the approach day as easy as possible. We washed clothes, ate a filling breakfast, and then decided that we wanted to head into town from the campsite and pick up lunch on the way as the Austrian supermarkets were superb. Getting into town we realised a slight flaw to our plan; it was Sunday, everything was shut.
Thankfully we still had a car full of food and so decided to just head up to the hut after eating a snack at the car. As we headed up the the Lucknerhaus, my navigation failed me. Reaching a car park that, with hindsight, was far too small to be the one we were aiming for, we set to making lunch and finalising our packing. Amazing Austrian sausages with cheese followed by a few Reese’s peanut butter cups.
Heading up to the Stüdlhütte
We set off and quickly I got a funny feeling about our approach. I was sure that the parking was meant to be at a major tourist spot, the Lucknerhaus. We most definitely did not park at a major tourist spot. After one hour and twenty minutes of walking, 600m of vertical ascent, and the aim of taking it easy today, we arrived at the Lucknerhaus. A buzzing restaurant with a large car park. Bugger.
Well, the aim is for us to complete this challenge by human power and so, accidentally, we kept true to that. After a few irritable words to each other we started to see the funny side and decided to crack on. Now it should be two and a half hours.
As we headed up to our next way point, the Lucknerhütte, an alpine hut at 2241m, clouds started to appear and the afternoon storms rolled in. Not too heavy but still wet enough to make it a very Welsh day in the hills. Filling up on water at the hut, we braced ourselves for the final hour and a half, and 561m of ascent up to our home for the night, the Stüdlhütte.
Three hours and forty-five minutes after we left the valley, we arrived, soaked to the skin at what turned out to be the best alpine hut Sophie and I have ever stayed in. We had heard the rumours; nearly every site talking about climbing the Grossglockner says people simply must stop there to enjoy the food. We were in for a treat.
We had brought spare clothes, predicting the rain, and after getting changed we headed into the bar. Provisions are often flown in by helicopter to alpine huts and prices reflect this. Grabbing a table, a waiter approached us – yes, a waiter in a hut – and in perfect English informed us that draft beer was a snip at €4.20 and that all the tap water in the building was drinking water and completely free. This is unheard of elsewhere so Sophie rushed off to refill our water bottles. I ordered some beers and asked about snacks before dinner. The waiter smiled and said it would be best if we waited for dinner, only 20 minutes away.
Wow, I’m glad we waited. I have never seen a spread like this. We were invited up to the buffet area where, for our first course we created our own soup; two choices of broth, a few different meats, then countless crudités, croutons, and other delights. I filled a giant bowl and got stuck in.
Wolfing down my soup, I was itching to go when the second course was laid out. Salad, but not as I knew it. There must have been a dozen different bowls to add to your plate including potato salad, fresh vegetables, pickled cabbage, and more. Filling my plate for the second time, both of us revelled in eating fresh fruit and vegetables again.
By the time the main course came round we were rather full but not ones to let the side down, we took a deep breath and ploughed on. The main course we had a choice of stuffed peppers, spaghetti bolognese, or meatballs and mashed potato. I couldn’t go for anything other than the meatballs and was even more surprised when the mash turned out to be real mashed potato and not smash. This was just unbelievable!
Now well and truly full, the idea of any more food made me feel a little feint but after a little breather, I found some room. The whole meal was finished off with a cheese platter, a kind of rhubarb crumble, and some mountain shaped chocolates.
Blimey. This was both quality and quantity!
Finally admitting defeat and collapsing back into our seats we gazed outside. After such a miserable ascent, the weather was turning for the better. The evening sun was coming out and we could tell we were in for a beautiful sunset. Slowly making our way outside, we were able to view the beginning of our approach the next day as well the the stunning alpine terrain all around us.
A few photos, a little reading, and we were done. Time for bed. There is one thing that is always the same in alpine huts – the bunk rooms full of snoring, farting, sweaty people. This was no different but, after such a wonderful meal, it didn’t take me long to fall asleep.
Climbing Grossglockner by the Stüdlgrat
After a one hour approach, the climb was set to take four hours. A very helpful poster in the hut warns if you are not at the frühstückplatz, or breakfast place, within 3 hours of leaving the hut then turn around as you are moving too slow. As we were heading down to breakfast the next morning, this warning was playing on my mind; would we be fast enough? What if we are too slow?
Often when I go to sleep very full, I wake up starving. That morning was no different. Sophie was excited to see what they had in store and we were not disappointed, they pulled out all the stops for breakfast too and, after a few rounds of breakfast we headed out into the Austrian dawn.
A popular summit, the Stüdlgrat is one of the harder and more technical routes up the mountain. Sophie indulged me with the route as the objective of the Alpine Coast to Coast is to complete the objectives not necessarily make the task deliberately harder for ourselves. A dozen other, mostly guided parties were gearing up and we had been warned that there would be far more on the summit coming from the other side. We didn’t want to be caught up in any traffic jams and so set off promptly.
The final approach was stunning, the sun was just over the horizon as we set off onto the glacier and we made quick time, arriving at the base of the route after one hour. Removing our crampons, getting our climbing rack out, and having a little water, we were ready to get going.
The climbing on the Stüdlgrat is stunning.
For four hours we weaved and threaded our way up a beautiful and inspiring ridge. The storm the day before meant the route was a little wet but this didn’t diminish the experience. Well bolted, the climbing was never dangerous but exciting enough to keep a grin on my face the whole way up. Sophie, who is not as accustomed to climbing in big boots on rock at this grade, made quick work and after only two and a half hours we passed the breakfast place cut off, we were on fire.
From here the climbing gets harder. The rock is both excellent quality and varied throughout. Slabs, a little overhang and more and more ridge finally gave way to the huge cross on the summit. Our timing was perfect, reaching the summit after exactly four hours of climbing. What made it better was that the parties ahead had already left the top, leaving the summit for us to enjoy alone. Sadly the clouds decided to come in just as we arrived at the top, not just stealing our view but, more worryingly, obscuring our descent route.
Getting to the top is only halfway
We took some photos, ate some food, and, as a party arrived from the normal route, got set to descend. The descent is where most accidents happen; you’re tired, you’ve reached the top, and you let your guard down. We had been warned of the descent from the Grossglockner as, even down the easier, normal route, it was still technical, dangerous, and prone to accidents.Add to that a white out and we were in for a bit of a mission to get down.
The last 5 days of pushing finally caught up with Sophie. Her confidence suddenly took a nose dive and the situation dramatically changed. On a normal day, Sophie would have made light work of the descent terrain but both of us were tired, her understandably more than most. As we started down, I noticed her being much slower than normal and far more cautious.
We stopped and I asked if she was ok. She clearly wasn’t. The combination of exhaustion, the environment, and the whiteout were too much and she wasn’t in a good place. I knew we needed to get down and out of the danger zone quickly but also couldn’t rush her. Carefully, and together, we made our way down over the tricky terrain until we reach the snow slopes below.
Sophie loves being on snow and I knew once we made it down to the slopes below the summit pyramid she would be in a better place. As our feet touched down onto snow, Sophie let all the emotion and exhaustion of the last 5 days out. Sophie is one of the strongest people I know and that moment was a testament to how hard she was pushing herself. All she needed was a little release as, a few minutes later, after a long hug, she looked up, a twinkle in her eye and smile on her face and, wiping away the tears, she said we should get a move on. Amazing, she was back!
From there, we charged down the snow slopes, passed the hut you stay at on the normal route, and made it down onto the lower glacier. By now, Sophie had cheered right up. We were chatting away and happily making our way back home. En route we passed someone from the local mountain rescue. As we walked down together we started chatting. We told him about Sophie’s challenge and he stopped in his track. He carefully reassessed Sophie and then set off into barrage of questions about the Alpine Coast to Coast, where the idea came from, what training she had been doing, and more.
The Alpine Coast to Coast – Leg 2, done.
We ended up walking the whole way back to the valley with him and two of his friends and their reaction blew both Sophie and I away. It made the whole adventure seem more real. We were really doing this and now were 25% through the challenge. Yes, we’ve got some of the biggest cycles and mountains to come but we had just climbed a stunning mountain via a difficult and challenging route and come out on top. We are actually doing this.
We made it down with sore feet but much restored humour and souls. The idea of heading back to the campsite to cook on our little stove didn’t seem to do the day justice so we thought we would treat ourselves.
When in Rome, well Austria, you’ve got to do as the Austrians. We headed to the nearest bar and sat down to the most amazing schnitzel, and beers I’ve tasted in a long time.
Today is a rest day. A well earned rest day before we carry on with this most epic of adventures. With more ups and downs, both literal and metaphorical, to come, I know that, together, we can do this.
Bring it on!
Here is a video of our climb, I hope you enjoy!