Summit Stories: Matthias Wurzer and Großglockner Mountain

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If you climb the same mountain more than 300 times, there are very little chances to experience something new, see something different, aren’t there? Well, 32-year old mountain guide Matthias Wurzer succeeded in doing so. How? He told me on our joint tour of Großglockner, the mountain in his backyard and Austria’s tallest peak.

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When he is not working, Michael Gams is out exploring this... View author

A young man sits atop the summit of 3,798-meter Großglockner Mountain and enjoys the views. He is wearing a headband with skulls, mirrored sunglasses and has his long hair tied back. Yet, despite his appearance, this man is not a rock star. He is a mountain guide. Matthias Wurzer. My eyes try to follow his line of vision. Somewhere over there are the Three Peaks, three distinctive battlement-like peaks in Italy’s South Tyrol. I find it hard to make out the peaks in the distance. And that’s exactly what makes the difference between this renowned rock formation and Großglockner, says Matthias: “If you scan the horizon standing atop the Three Peaks, it’s really easy to identify the summit of Großglockner. It simply is there, striking and prominent.” This iconic peak has been the office of Matthias Wurzer for more than ten years. However, his incredible relationship with Großglockner Mountain didn’t just start a decade ago. He has known this mountain all his life.

On our way to Großglockner, the office of Matthias Wurzer.

“They didn’t take me seriously.”

Matthias grew up on Spöttlinghof, a farm at the end of Kalser Tal Valley. Later, his parents moved to Kals, located on foot of Großglockner. Today, he and his girlfriend live in Lienz, the capital of East Tirol. He never wanted to become a farmer. Still, he attended an agricultural college and completed a metalworker education. What was his passion even then, at a very young age, was climbing. “Toni Riedler often took me along. He completed his mountain guide education when I was 15 or 16. And I said to myself: now that would be something.” Thus, he pursued the same career and received his mountain guide certification at the age of 22.

So you are supposed to be a mountain guide? Are you serious? – That’s what Matthias was used to hear at the beginning of his Großglockner guiding career: “They didn’t take me seriously as I apparently looked ways younger than I actually was.” First impressions were tough with his clients who expected a mature and experienced guide. Today, in his early 30s, he doesn’t have to work harder for respect at work anymore.

We are standing on the summit, looking down to Stüdl Hut. It is amazing how it looks like a toy from above… after all, Stüdl Hut sleeps more than 100 mountaineers. This is where I met Matthias for the first time yesterday evening. Stüdl Hut is one of the most important bases for mountaineers planning to ascend Austria’s tallest mountain. The hut is named after Johann Stüdl, a wealthy merchant from the Czech Republic who found a second home in Kals in the 19th century. A lifelong love for the area led Johann Stüdl to erect a shelter on Fanotscharte Notch in 1868, thus providing the infrastructure to attain Großglockner Mountain from Kals. The hut that bears his name was opened on September 15, 1868. One year later, he was the driving force behind the foundation of the Kals Mountain Guide Association, the first of its kind in the Eastern Alps. Stüdl Hut was extended and refurbished various times over the decades. In the 1990s, the Alpinist Association had the hut reconstructed in futuristic design, including solar panels and a heating system run on vegetable oil, while the old building was dismantled.

View back to Stüdl Hut.

Lousy Weather and the ‘South Face Guard’

We descend into a notch that separates—or connects—the two summits of Großglockner and Kleinglockner. It depends which angle you look at it from. We meet crowds of people on their way to attain the summit of this formidable peak. Obviously, Großglockner is not the place to go for solitude, and today the weather is just perfect. Deep blue skies and T-shirts at an elevation of 3,700 meters above sea level. A gentle breeze cools our heads. Completely contrary to the weather on April 5th, 2016. That day, Matthias and his fellow mountain guide Vittorio Messini wrote a new chapter in the mountaineering history of Großglockner.

The weather was lousy, as Matthias puts it. Equipped with ice axes and crampons, Wurzer and Messini dared to cross a striking gully on the south flank of Glockner. This cragged and jagged gully stretches upwards between Stüdlgrat Ridge and the Southern Ridge of Glockner and had never been completely climbed before – which is kind of unbelievable on a mountain whose magnetism pulls several thousand hikers each year to attempt the summit. The two climbers opted for a bad weather day to reduce the danger of dislodging rock in the south-facing gully. They were greeted with north face conditions in a south face and hard technical challenges and “mixed scrambling”, with treacherous ice-covered and rocky sections. They succeeded to attain the Glocknerscharte Notch and finally made it up to the summit. Matthias remembers this moment: “This feeling when you leave the gully, knowing you became the first person to scale it… that’s pretty cool!” Vittorio and Matthias named their great feat “Südwandwächter”, literally ‘south face guard’. To explore an unknown side, an unknown face of Austria’s tallest mountain was the thriving force behind their task. This is worth more than fame, honour and glory, says Matthias.

Matthias on the descent into Glocknerscharte Notch.

The standard route follows a ridge to the summit of Kleinglockner (literally ‘Small Glockner’; pictured in the middle), down into a notch and then finally pushes beyond cloud level toward the summit of Großglockner, literally ‘Tall Glockner’.

The Thin Line between Luck & Misfortune

We climb from the notch to the top of Kleinglockner and descend into Eisleitl, a very steep snowfield. The view of Pasterze, Austria’s biggest glacier gets my attention. However, I need to turn my focus from the scenery to my feet as we cross the snowfield—a fall here could easily be fatal. “It’s a thin line between luck and misfortune on the mountain,” is what Matthias told me yesterday night. This was the guiding principle of his uncle, who was a mountain guide, too. I try to figure out what it would be like in a snowstorm up here. As when Matthias went on a search and rescue mission for three Polish climbers here in October 2010. “We were up here for four days, searching for them.” He and his fellow mountain guides crawled up the mountain using hands and feet, “we wanted to find them alive.” Sadly, without success. “I found a dead body,” says Matthias. Orographic lifting over the southern end of the mountain was their doom. “If only they would have called for help five hours earlier, the helicopter had rescued them and no one would have died.”

A fall here on Eisleitl Snowfield could easily be fatal.

The slope levels out a bit and we stop moving roped-up and take off our crampons. From here, it’s a leisurely stroll, I say to myself—at least until we get to Adlersruhe (literally ‘Eagle’s Rest’), where Erzherzog-Johann-Hut sits at an elevation of 3,454 meters, making it Austria’s highest-lying shelter. Suddenly I slip, and I start to fall. I lose my grip on the crampons and they fall into the snow. And so do I. I breathe deeply. Everything is OK, fortunately. We take a rest on Erzherzog-Johann-Hut before descending to Stüdl Hut.

Matthias’ first conquest of Großglockner didn’t take him along Adlersruhe but via Stüdlgrat Ridge, together with Riedler Toni, as he remembers. “That ascent really left me exhausted. Well, the route entails 1,900 meters of climbing from the valley to the top.” Matthias was twelve years old then. Still today, Stüdlgrat is his preferred route, in summer as well as in winter: “We strapped the skis to our back and climbed up the ridge, which was all blanketed in snow – that was an incredible experience,” tells Matthias.

Arrival at Erzherzog-Johann-Hut.

“You are never really up there.”

We have to move on. We still have to get down to Stüdl Hut, crossing Ködnitzkees, the glacier on the southern side of Großglockner. As everywhere else in the Alps, the glacier has recessed during the last decades. “What I have witnessed during the last 19 years is dramatic,” says Matthias upon looking down on the glacier. The summer sun has thawed the ice crust in places. On warm days such as today, rock fall is a real risk along the standard route. That’s why Matthias opts for the alternative route along Mürztalersteig Trail.

Descent along Mürztalersteig Trail.

I follow him to a kind of trail’s end, with nothing but boulders and rocks waiting to be conquered, twenty meters above the glacier. Actually, there is no way to carry on from here but abseiling. How practical that Matthias has installed cable ladders and ropes into the rocky flank together with fellow mountain guides. Which we use right now, descending to the glacier. Down in the valley, something sparkles in the sunlight. Maybe it is the roof of Lucknerhaus Lodge? The journey from the lodge up to the summit of Großglockner is like a journey from Europe to Greenland. “Wildlife, plant life, and types of rock change with every vertical meter up here,” says Matthias.

Matthias has installed cable ladders and ropes into the rock.

The summer sun has thawed the ice crust of Ködnitzkees Glacier in places.

We cross the glacier on our way back to Stüdl Hut. We have really attained it, the summit of Großglockner. Or rather: I did it! Is mountain climbing really the height of empty egotism, I ask myself (and Matthias)? Is the only plausible reason any climber is able to articulate: “So I can say that I did it.” “Well, somehow yes,” says Matthias, “because otherwise you wouldn’t be able to do all these things. If you ask yourself why you are there you have to admit: You are never really up there.”

Photo Credits: Tirol Werbung / Jens Schwarz

From Großglockner to Wildspitze, from Großvenediger to Wilder Kaiser to Olperer: This summer, we will be telling the stories of five Tirol mountain guides and the mountains in their backyard.

If you want to join Matthias Wurzer or another experienced member of the Kals Mountain Guide Team please refer here: www.bergfuehrer-kals.at

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