Sigi Hatzer has bagged the 3,660-meter peak of Großvenediger for more than 900 times – last summer he did so together with his ten-year-old son Lorenz. I joined them on this memorable trip and learned a lot about the many years of friendship between a mountain guide and iconic Großvenediger Mountain.
An occasional wind blows icy snow crystals through the air and into my face. It is the 23rd of August 2016. Which is actually summer on this side of the equator, but only down in the valley. Sigi Hatzer, our mountain guide, unpacks his ski goggles. His ten-year-old son Lorenz is already wearing his goggles and goes ahead. The rope is kept reasonably tight, and I am struck by the majesty of endless blue-tinged crevasses here at an elevation of more than 3,000 meters. It’s a few hundred vertical meters more to go until we reach the summit of Großvenediger.
It was a good decision to climb the mountain today. Yesterday, when the weather was bad, a climber from The Netherlands fell into a crevasse. Sigi points to the left with his three-meter-long wooden pole and I spot a crevasse: “This is where the rescue mission occurred”. Sigi is one of those who know the crevasses of Großvenediger Mountain better than they know the TV programme. After all, he has been up here 936 or 937 times. For the exact number, he has to consult his tour book, as he told me yesterday evening at 2,964-meter high Defreggerhaus Lodge, our base for today’s climb.
Sigi Hatzer, who is 51 years old, was born and raised in the village of Prägraten in East Tirol. Prägraten lies on the base of Austria’s fourth tallest mountain, Großvenediger. When I started investigating about this majestic mountain, I soon stumbled upon Sigi. He stood on top of this mountain as a 16-year-old for the first time, hiking it with friends. Which he considers “quite late.” “Nowadays, children start climbing earlier,” he continues. The reason for his somewhat delayed climbing career: In the summers, he head to look after his father’s cows from the first until the last day of school holidays. His father had sheep, too. “Actually, I first took sheep up the mountain, just opposite in Timmeltal Valley.” At the age of 17, Sigi first conquered Mont Blanc, Europe’s highest mountain.
A few meters ahead, a ten-year-old trudges through the ice and snow of heavily crevassed Inner Mullwitzkees Glacier. “Lori, you go ahead,” Sigi ordered at the start of our tour. He uses a rope to protect Lorenz and himself. A few hundred meters ahead, I see an older mountaineer cross the glacier on his own. “Well, looks as if he is trying to kill himself,” Sigi says with a shrug. He explains us that safe and less foreboding travel on glaciers requires at least three climbers moving roped-up. The aim of roping up like this is so two climbers can arrest the other person from falling further into a crevasse—and rescue the other person from a crevasse fall. It did not scare me off, still. Sigi seems to know what he’s talking about—and what he’s doing. Since he started his mountain guide education in 1985 (and finished in 1987), he has been taking people to the summit of Großvenediger for 30 times in an average year. Sometimes more often, sometimes less often. Meanwhile he is operating an aerial forest adventure park in Virgental Valley together with his wife.
“Head right of the route well used, so no one will have the nasty surprise of discovering a poorly bridged crevasse.” Mighty hollows are often found beneath these snow bridges. Sigi uses his long wooden pole, which is called “alpenstock”, to sound for hidden crevasses. The baton vanishes into the snow, two meters deep. “There is a crevasse that runs parallel to the route.” Only the colour of the snow, which is slightly brighter here, tells that there is a hollow space underneath. Many of these cracks and crevices in the ice are up to 30 meters deep, and some even reach 60 meters. Which means that the entire Bergisel Ski Jump, rising 50 meters high, would vanish in a crevasse. The approach trail across Inner Mullwitzkees Glacier is dotted by over 40 crevasses. “Now, with all the freshly fallen snow, it’s hard to see them, you only feel them when you fall into one.” Poor visibility in combination with unexperienced climbers makes glacier travel so dangerous—just as the accident that happened to the Dutch group of climbers the day before. Nevertheless, Sigi often happens to hear that the Großvenediger is a “well-trodden path”. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy—or safe. Don’t let Großvenediger’s popularity fool you, however. Even with its heavy foot traffic and respectable grade, this peak should not be mistaken for a bunny hill. There are times, when it takes Sigi and his fellow mountain guides two or three days to sound all crevasses in order to find a safe route to the summit. Apart from the rope, the alpenstock adds a further degree of safety to Sigi’s glacier crossings. In case of a fall, the pole gets stuck—and has saved Sigi from falling into a crevasse various times.
We continue climbing the snow, which covers the glacier’s ice. There has been some snowfall during the last few days, which makes it perfect for glacier travel. Sigi keeps talking to his son Lorenz. “Are you freezing, Lori?” We stop for a rest, Sigi offers Lorenz something to drink. “Drink even when you don’t feel like it, that’s really important.” Lorenz doesn’t say a lot, but he is smiling. It’s his second ascent of Großvenediger Mountain. He first conquered its summit two years ago. Which was one of his father’s best experiences on the top of Großvenediger.
There were times when climbing mountains was the most important thing in Sigi’s life—even more important than his family. He has bagged the peak of Großvenediger from all sides. Along the Southwest Route. Along the Northeast Route. Where an ice ledge broke just below him and his fellow climber. They were not roped up. “Roping up would have taken too much time. Then, the ice avalanche would have swept us away. Thank God, our gut instinct saved us. Standing on the top of the mountain, you are canny, many a time.”
Eleven years ago, there was a day when Sigi bagged the peak of Großvenediger twice. He had taken part in a few ski touring races and mountain running events. So he had the idea of conquering Großvenediger twice in a row. With skis. “The high elevation takes a toll, even on fit hikers,” he remembers. In his first attempt, he reached the summit from Hinterbichl in Virgental Valley at three hours and 23 minutes. In the second attempt, he took only three minutes longer. Which sums up to a 70-kilometer round trip and an elevation gain of 4,500 vertical meters in eight hours and 30 minutes. “Of course, this was a highlight in the true sense of the word. Enough to sizzle into your memory for years to come.”
An s-shaped ridge crest appears and we get our first glimpse of the summit cross atop Großvenediger. A fall here could easily be fatal, so it’s good to be clipped to my harness with a carabiner. Behind us looms the 3,560-meter peak of Rainerhorn. Some 100 meters lower than Großvenediger, it seems more significant than Großvenediger, especially when seen from Virgental Valley. Großvenediger is a modest majesty. The first recorded ascent was in 1841, four decades after Austria’s tallest mountain, Großglockner, had been ascended for the first time. No one knows the exact height of the peak. “We still use the same stamp than 30 years ago. Each of our clients gets one after his or her tour. The stamp has 3,674 meters inscribed,” says Sigi.
Sigi estimates that the peak of Großvenediger is 3,660 to 3,662 meters tall, depending on snow cover. It’s two to three meters higher in the winter than in the summer. “The rock will soon appear at its highest point, so we can tell more exactly.” Some say that Großvenediger is not a Tirol mountain, but a Salzburg peak. In fact, its summit ridge straddles the border between the Austrian Provinces of Salzburg and Tirol. Sigi doesn’t consider that important: “What is important is that it is there—and that you are there to experience the grandeur of the mountain.”
We reach the summit. Getting to the top is a cause for celebration, and we are greeted by a swarm of people buzzing with excitement after having made the rigorous climb across the glacier. We enjoy the atmosphere and savour the view. A rare solar halo dazzles in the sky. This rainbow makes a perfect circle around the sun and is also called sundog or ice bow. I remember Sigi’s words spoken at the lodge on the eve of our tour: “It could always be different. We should always bear that in mind.” Saying so, he didn’t only mean the weather. Sigi gives his son a hug and raises a tiny, red flag with these words written on it:
He doesn’t understand people who push their kids atop peaks at an early age, with six or seven years. They do it “out of pure egoism”, Sigi told me before we started our tour. His son was raised in the mountains. What’s normal to Sigi and Lorenz, the mountain people, might be extreme to flatlanders.
We descend back down to the valley. I want to know how this mountain has changed—and shaped—him, I ask Sigi. “I appreciate it much more than earlier that I am allowed to climb this mountain. That I am there to experience its grandeur. I am not trying to ‘conquer’ it.” Over the time, he has developed a deep respect for the Großvenediger, adds Sigi. “We have become sort of good friends.”
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.