This man has bagged the 3,476-meter peak of Olperer for more than 100 times: Bernhard Neumann’s appreciation and respect for this lofty giant in Inner Zillertal Valley grew with each attempt to get there. We tried to get some good pictures of Olperer. With the help of Bernhard.
We hear the mountain creaking and cracking as if it would break in two. Here the glacier is a jumble of seracs, giant chunks of ice cleaving and tumbling in the slow progression of the glacier. We see seracs sliding down from the Olperer’s south flank. I can’t take my eyes off of it and Jens, our photographer, takes full advantage of this tempting photo-op, click, click, click. Bernhard Neumann, our mountain guide, tells us that it is very rare to see such seracs cracking and shifting up close and personal. We are en route to climb his mountain, the 3,476-meter peak of Olperer. Bernhard apparently looks like your typical mountain guide: weather-beaten, sun-tanned, dark haired, tough and wiry, wearing a three-day stubble of beard, a cap and sunglasses. He first stood on the summit of Olperer at about the age of ten, together with his father who is a mountain guide as well. He doesn’t remember the exact date, now that he has bagged this peak more than 100 times.
Bernhard operates an Alpine School in Mayrhofen and guides ski touring travels to Chile, Iceland and the Antarctic. His wife Kathrin is managing the office of the Alpine School, as he tells us. While others travel to the Caribbean, the two of them spent their honeymoon on Chilean volcanoes. On touring skis. Kathrin handles the guiding appointments of her husband so she has organised our tour as well.
We have already tackled the first and easiest section of our day hike, the ascent from Schlegeis Reservoir, situated at an elevation of 1,782 meters to Olperer Hut, 2,389 meters above sea level. Soon after the hut, we meet two women and a Siberian Husky. They are returning from their early morning trip to the 3,072-meter peak of Riepensattel. Bernhard is good friends with one of the two women, Katharina, who happens to be the innkeeper of Olperer Hut. “Earlier, before we had children, my wife and I used to climb to Olperer Hut after work, to have dinner up there,” says Bernhard. “The floor-to-ceiling window displays uninterrupted mountain views, that’s amazing. And the staff, with Katharina and Chef Manuel does a great job.”
Looking to the south, a seemingly infinite array of peaks spread out before us. Bernhard identifies some of them for us: Hochfeiler, the highest mountain in Zillertal Valley at 3,510 meters, Hoher Weißzint, Großer Möseler. And we are looking right at 3,410-meter Schrammacher Mountain in its full, unobstructed glory, with its sheer wall of a summit that is very striking. Its north face is an appealing target for the peculiarly determined climber—and instilled visions of Alpinism in young Tirol-native David Lama, who scaled this vertiginous wall in the winter. Hard to imagine. So this is the place where Bernhard Neumann grew up, towered by prominent Olperer Peak. At the age of 20, he dared to cross the Olperer from north to south in the winter among a party of friends. Bernhard had his skis strapped to his rucksack, the others their snowboards. This was the moment when he recognized that heading out to the mountains with no experience is pretty dangerous, says Bernhard. Some of his buddies didn’t know a lot about Alpinism. This was an important experience for him, one that inspired him to become a mountain guide later. Today, at the age of 40, he is teaching and instructing young people to become mountain guides.
I hear a deep growl again. This time, though, it’s not the seracs to our left. To the right, about one kilometer as the crow flies I recognize a snowcat at Tuxer Ferner Glacier. It’s only now that I spot the ski runs that spread out beneath the summit of Gefrorene Wand. Skiers cruise down the wide open slopes. Skiing on July 19?? Well, yes, Hintertux Glacier is the only real year-round ski area in Austria. “It’s very busy here at this time of year. Some 800 skiers come from all over the world to train here in the summer,” says Bernhard. “There are even ski racers from Australia up here.” I thought that ski racers would rather train on the Southern hemisphere in the summer, such as in New Zealand or Chile. “Well, yes, they do but Hintertux Glacier consistently offers some of the very best snow and training conditions in the world.”
The summit of Olperer is accessible during a day hike from Hintertux Ski Resort nowadays. In earlier times, the conquest of this mountain was an extreme challenge. Before the glacier gondola resumed operation in Hintertux, mountaineers had to climb up to Spannagelhaus Lodge, situated at an elevation of 2,600 meters. From there it was still a long and steep climb to the top of 3,476-meter Olperer – with a long section of glacier travel to tackle. “My wife’s 86-year old uncle, a mountain guide and shoemaker, did it that way,” tells Bernhard. “This was a hard technical route for mountaineers these days.” Even today it is not all that easy climbing the top of Olperer within one day from the ski resort as you are kind of pressed for time: “The lift starts operation at 8:15am and stops at 4:00pm, so there is limited time in between. Aspiring Olperer climbers wanting to scale its northern ridge need excellent technical climbing abilities. There are treacherous and smooth slab sections that are slippery and the drop off is steep. Moreover, you should not underestimate that the high elevation takes a toll, even on fit hikers. The quick gondola ride offers little relief as the air grows noticeably thinner. Given the rugged terrain and the thin air, there are times every step can be a struggle. The best way to keep altitude sickness at bay is to allow plenty of time to acclimate, such as ascending via Olperer Hut on foot. The dividing line between day-hiking and Alpine conditions is blurred here, yet another way this hike takes you into truly rarefied air.”
We have opted for the less technical route along the south face, which means we have almost 1,700 meters of elevation to hike before the summit at 3,476 meters. Which is quite ambitious for a day hike, given the many times we have to stop to capture pictures. I begin to doubt our attempt. At least Jens has spent last night on the hut, while Bernhard and I started our climb down at the reservoir. We begin to climb with a rope and a harness. This is my first time moving roped-up, as well for Jens. Our boots sink into the soft snow. Bernhard leads us through a snowfield, which is called “Schneegupf”. Snow fell last week and in some places, we sink into the snow almost to our knees. “A few days ago I had to cancel a tour atop Olperer because of avalanche danger,” says Bernhard. In the middle of July. Today, we are lucky as snow conditions are safe for climbing despite a few treacherous, icy sections.
We reach an elevation of about 3,200 meters and continue our scramble up over rocks and boulders. Fixed wires are in place to aid stability. In between, we can spot old iron steps. This is where the first recorded ascent of Olperer took place in the year 1867. Paul Grohmann, Georg Samer and Jackl Gainer conquered this tricky section without fixed wires. 2017 marks the 150th anniversary of the first ascent. Bernhard tells us that the local Alpinist Association plans to remove the fixed wires along the exposed summit ridge to give back the mountain its original, unspoiled face on occasion of the 150th anniversary. Instead, they would install bolts, a permanent anchor fixed into a hole drilled in the rock as a form of protection. “In my opinion, fixed wires mean less safety for mountaineers as they tempt people who don’t possess the required technical skills and abilities to places where they shouldn’t go to.” We are quite happy to have the fixed wire in place up here in this truly rarefied air. After all, there are exposed ledges that drop down a few hundred meters right next to us.
A few minutes later, at an elevation of 3,450 meters, we get the first glimpse of the cross on the summit of Olperer Mountain. The mere last vertical meters, marked by the rocky and jagged summit ridge, feel interminable. It’s getting late and we are running out of time. After all, we have to keep in mind that we need to get down the mountain as well. Jens is exhausted and I am exhausted. “We are all tired, me too, I am not a machine,” says Bernhard. He is looking at Jens who has braved the physically taxing ascent. “You have to know when to turn around to avoid disaster. The later the worse. And we really have come a long way. And although the summit is near it’s better to turn around now. It’s still a long way to go down.”
We retrace our steps back down to Olperer Hut. Bernhard and I sit down for a quick bite before proceeding down to the car, which we have parked at the reservoir. Innkeeper Katharina tries her best to comfort us. “So you have a reason to come back. And that’s a good thing!” Jens spends another night on the hut to capture photographs of the spectacular sunset. Alpenglow has Olperer Mountain aflame with orange light, the clouds have passed away. Bernhard looks up. “I stood on that summit more than a hundred times but it never threw me off.” Neither this time.
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 Bernhard Neumann for a guided tour please refer here: www.mountain-sports-zillertal.com