Walking on thick ice
22nd September 2011 | Ian Anderson, The Austrian Alps
With all the talk of global warming you might be forgiven for thinking that Alpine glaciers were as rare as hens’ teeth. Thankfully, not so, says PlanetSKI reporter, Ian Anderson, who has been walking high up in the Austrian Tirol.
When I told a good friend I was going to the Austrian Alps and hoped to see glaciers, he mailed back and said he didn’t think there were any left.
Well, think again. If you want to see the full majesty of an Alpine icefield in summer, the opportunity is still there.
You need to go high of course, at least 2,500 metres, and higher still to get that awesome view of multiple glaciers, complete with deep and menacing crevasses.
Which is why I headed for the Otz valley, better known in winter for the ski resorts of Solden and Obergurgl. The paved road into Obergurgl and into the adjacent valley at Vent, ends at around 2,000 metres. That makes the area a great jumping off point to reach that magic 3,000 metres, without too much extra effort.
Whereas Obergurgl has all the appearance of a ski resort in summer (closed hotels, bars and shops) neighbouring Vent feels like the summer walking and climbing capital for this part of Austria.
Rucksacks, poles and rope everywhere.
A two-hour stroll upwards and out of the village will take you to the first of the mountain huts, where for as little as 35 Euro you can enjoy dinner, bed and breakfast. Don’t expect luxury, or a great deal of hot water, unless you pay extra for a shower.
But do expect a great relaxed atmosphere in an authentic Gaststube among people as passionate about the mountains as you.
Shared tables make for easy conversation with the regular Austrian and German clientele. Swapping stories of the day’s walks and prospects for tomorrow is always entertaining, but at these heights local knowledge can be a lifesaver too.As the evening wears on the food and alcohol barely stops, despite the isolation. Many of the huts rely on helicopter drops, others on lightweight cables that carry boxes of provisions from distant valleys below.
Most people start drifting off to the shared sleeping quarters sometime after 9pm. Think wooden bunk beds, so large that 10 people can lie down side-by-side, top and bottom.
Blankets and pillows are provided, so the only bedding to weigh on your rucksack will be a sheet sleeping bag.
Come 5.30 in the morning (or earlier) the first stirrings might be heard. Alpine walking culture is one of seriously early starts, especially if there are plans to traverse glaciers, or conquer summits.
Breakfast will be on hand from 6 am, and the copious quantities of bread, cheese and ham can be translated into a thick doorstep for later in the day. Unless another hut is on your route, you won’t find lunch up here easily.
And then if you are as lucky as I was, you will look out of the window and see the first rays landing on the surrounding peaks. The air will be still and the sky blue. As you climb the path, you begin to get that pilot’s view of the mountains. A wonderful sea of ice stretching without interruption from one summit to the next.
You can stick to the paths that skirt the glaciers or occasionally cross them near the ‘toe’. But to make the most of the icefield regions you can take to walking across the glaciers, and like oceans, reach rocky shores on the other side and another welcoming mountain hut.
But this is no place for the casual walker. You will need crampons on the boots, an ice axe in your hand and a rope around your waist. Crevasses are to be taken seriously, although by September most of the snow hiding their presence will have gone. If your excitement is in danger of outstripping your abilities, do everyone a favour and hire a guide.
Cool as the ice itself.
For a photo gallery of the glaciers and some more of Ian’s pictures of the high alpine scenery see the Photos of the Week on the home page of PlanetSKI.
For the spirit of the mountains