The Iceman’s name is not Ötzi. The Iceman’s name is Kilian Scheiber. A Vent-native, this mountain guide has bagged the peak of Wildspitze for more than 400 times – although it was not exactly what you would call love at first sight between him and the highest mountain of North Tirol (and Austria’s second tallest).
Asked about his favourite season, Kilian Scheiber says, “Winter.” Maybe that’s the reason why we meet in the middle of August at an elevation of 2,755 meters, where the weather is wintry. Outdoor temperatures at Vernagt Hut in Venter Tal Valley, a side valley of Tirol’s Inner Ötztal Valley, do not rise much above zero degrees Celsius today. Early in the morning we leave the hut towards Wildspitze Peak with our mountain guide Kilian, a wiry mountain man in his fifties. He loves snow and ice – after all, he grew up with it. He first stood on the summit of Wildspitze at the age of seven, together with his father who is a mountain guide as well. His father had moved from Sölden to Vent for the mountains and for love, says Kilian. “He fell in love with my mother who lived on Rofenhöfe farmsteads in Vent.” Rofenhöfe mountain farms are Tirol’s highest-lying permanent Alpine settlement. Kilian’s parents bought a small site in Vent and built a modest B&B in the early 1960ies – which today serves as Mountain Guide Office.
Kilian’s Long Way to Wildspitze
Kilian received his mountain guide certification in 1996 and took over the operation of the mountain guide office. In the meantime, he has scaled the peak of Wildspitze for more than 400 times – although it was not his favourite mountain in the beginning. “When I was younger, I preferred to bag the peak of Similaun Mountain. This is still my personal favourite when it comes to ski touring. I did some of my most epic downhill runs there. I once guided a client from Innsbruck to watch the sheep drive up there. We had to carry our skis all the way up to Martin-Busch-Hut, where we skinned up and climbed the summit of Similaun. After we ripped the skins off, we had a sensational ski down untracked corn snow, it was like floating on clouds, smooth as butter.”
However, today we are going to nab the pinnacle of 3768-meter Wildspitze Peak, the highest mountain of North Tirol and Austria’s second tallest. Which makes it something special—and that is nowadays even appreciated by Kilian. “In the beginning, I did not really like the Wildspitze. I can’t tell you why. Maybe it’s because Wildspitze is a peak that is on every bucket list, thus I wanted to go somewhere else. But then one day, the more often I scaled its heights, I fell in love with that mountain. And now I can say I really like it a lot, the Wildspitze.”
Today, Kilian shows us his favourite route to the summit of Wildspitze. And soon we recognize: He doesn’t like shortcuts! There are a number of shorter routes to the top of this mountain. Kilian, however, shows us along its longest route. It leads from Vernagt Hut over Vernagtferner Glacier and across Brochkogelscharte Notch, circuits the northern side of Hinterer Brochkogel Mountain and crosses Taschachferner Glacier on its way to the southern summit of Wildspitze. From there, Kilian’s best-loved route traverses the ridge to the northern summit and winds down to Vent along Rofenkarferner Glacier. This route involves the extended use of crampons on hours and hours of climbing over glacial ice and snow. And that’s exactly what Kilian’s likes most on this route to Wildspitze. “This way, we have three glaciers to cross.”
“The weather is decisive”
Kilian leads the way, completely unimpressed by the low lying cloud cover. Talking to Kilian, the term ‘bad weather’ gets a completely different meaning. He once tried to tackle the route in the middle of summer with half a meter of fresh snow. “All that plodding through deep snow was simply too strenuous. Usually it takes four hours to get to the top from Breslauer Hut. We had been climbing for three hours and hadn’t even come halfway.” And three days ago he led a group in a snow storm, climbing up to 3,500 meters above sea level. “Really dreadful.” So they turned around and returned to the hut. If you see it like this, today’s weather for our tour with Kilian is excellent.
Some 150 vertical meters above us runs Vernagtbach Stream, we follow a glacial moraine. “Moraines are formed from debris previously carried along by the glacier. Lateral moraines mark the maximum advance of the glacier, as it was 150 or 160 years ago. Around 1850, this entire valley was glaciated.” Kilian looks down to a tiny cabin on the banks of Vernagtbach Stream, which serves as a base for glacial research. The remains of Vernagtferner Glacier will probably completely retreat during the next 25 years. Kilian’s son Ronald will then be in his thirties. We met Kilian’s twelve-year-old son on Vernagt Hut, where he lends a hand during the summer holidays. Ronald stood on top of Wildspitze as a six-year-old for the first time in August 2010. “He had to beat my record,” says Kilian. That was a very special day for Kilian in two ways. Apart from reaching the top together with his son, Kilian installed a new cross on the summit that very day, replacing the former, 77 year old summit cross. A truly risky venture. A daring manoeuvre. And a precision job. Kilian had to place the new cross exactly into the pedestal of the former one, with the new cross hanging from a moving helicopter. Any mistake or sudden gust of wind – and the cross dangling from the helicopter would have thrown Kilian down into the depths from the narrow summit pedestal. But it all worked out fine!
En route, Kilian doesn’t speak a lot, he simply leads the way. At Vernagtferner, we begin to climb with a rope and a harness and Kilian navigates us through a maze of glacial streams, moulins and crevasses until we reach a rock formation. From there, a steep path climbs to Brochkogeljoch Col. The crampons scrape the rock with a sound similar to that of nails on a chalkboard. Having tackled the 50 vertical meters, we are greeted by freezing wind up on the ridge. All we can see is a behemoth of snow and ice, which is Taschachferner Glacier. According to Kilian, we are travelling in the largest glaciated region of the Eastern Alps. “That’s the best part here. Stones can be found everywhere in the mountains. But Thank God, we still have many glaciers here.” It really feels like winter up here – and that’s exactly what Kilian loves about glacier travel.
He promises us stunningly jaw-dropping views of Wildspitze after having circuited Brochkogel Mountain. When we reach that bespoke vantage, all we can see is: nothing. The weather is not cooperating. Dark clouds block the view, all we can see is a roped-up party in front of us, like black dots on a white canvass. No vistas of the summit to slack our jaws. The grade steepens and Kilian climbs faster as we have lost a lot of time thanks to our frequent photo stops. “If you travel above 3,400 meters, you should not underestimate that the high elevation takes a toll, even on fit hikers,” says Kilian. Like his client from yesterday. “He had some hard times on his way to the top of Wildspitze. Every step was a struggle in the end and he had to catch his breath very often. Steep, rough, and technical, this climb should not be attempted by those with a fear of heights. You also need endurance and a good cardiovascular system.”
We stop and look down into a crevasse, that deep and wide you could easily lower a single family home into it. The cloud cover opens up a little. We are granted our first teaser view of the cross on the summit of Wildspitze. “It’s all about conditions on Alpine tours,” says Kilian. “The weather is decisive as it can make for different conditions on trail. If you are climbing up the 40-degree steep slope from Breslauer Hut and there is plenty of ice on the trail, it’s demanding and strenuous. When snow is present, such as now, going up is a lot easier.”
Breaking the Ice
A few meters below the summit we meet a group of mountaineers on their way back down. The drop off is steep on this exposed ledge. A narrow chasm is all that is keeping us from the summit. The final push to the top is only a few steps up. And of course, getting to the top is a cause for celebration. Kilian opens his hip flask and we all take a sip while watching the cross on the summit that he and his fellow mountain guides installed here in 2010. His father first ascended Wildspitze Peak at the age of 19, says Kilian. 60 years later, at the age of 79, he wanted to bag that peak once again. This time, though, his son led the way. “So many years after my first ascent, I have been my father’s mountain guide and we climbed that summit together. That was a great experience, which has etched itself into my memory.”
Kilian points to the northern summit of Wildspitze. “It has got a core of snow and ice. Looking in historic guide maps, that summit used to be higher.” Today, as it has been melting off, it is lower than the rocky southern summit. Best of all, today we are not competing for space on the summit. Thanks to the not that good weather we have the space all to ourselves. Again, the cloud cover opens up a little and we can see the summit ridge in front of us. We traverse the narrow ridge to the northern summit and get down in deep snow. Passing an icefall, we follow “Martin’s Boulevard” down to Rofenkarferner Glacier. A fellow mountain guide showed Kilian this path. “What is he doing here? I thought to myself”, Kilian tells us. “There’s a near-vertical drop in the rock face behind. Suddenly, the rock gives way to a tiny path. As my fellow guide’s name is Martin, and it was him who showed me this passage, I called it ‘Martin’s Boulevard’.” Kilian shows us another mighty icefall. “And that’s what I call the ‘Take-Off Ramp’. One day ski jumpers will launch themselves from this ramp,” he adds, laughing. The ice has definitely broken between Kilian and Wildspitze.
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 Kilian Scheiber for a guided tour, please refer here: www.bergfuehrer-vent.at