- Erik Rieger.
On January 12, the Alpine Mentors group, which includes Nik Mirhashemi, JD Merritt, Kurt Ross, and I, flew from the US to Munich. From there, we drove south to meet Steve House, first in the small mountain hub of Lienz, Austria. Steve secured lodging for us at the highest farmhouse/lodge above Lienz from January 12–15 from which we could base our initial adventures. Imagine a steep, snowy, winding road, endlessly switch backing up a vertical mountainside—something like you might see in car chase movie scene.
With a notably good late fall season for alpine climbing in Europe—meaning, no snow—we hoped to climb long and technical routes on some of the big walls in the eastern alps, primarily northwestern Slovenia, all the while meeting up with skilled, local “mentors” who’d climb with us. (All we had for prior planning, really, was a handwritten note Steve left us during a prior trip to the Black Canyon.)
It, however, snowed hard in the few days prior to our arrival, with a larger storm forecasted for our first few days in the eastern Alps. Hoping to take advantage of what were previously good alpine climbing conditions in December, our initial plan was to spend four days in Austria’s East Tyrol (Osttirol) before driving a couple hours further south to Slovenia. We’d planned 2–3 days of climbing on the Grossglockner, the highest peak in Austria, which has a number of steep routes on its north and south faces, as well as some easier ridge climbs, and a high hut with a winter room to stay at.
On our first day, January 13, a new storm dropped 30cm+ of new snow and we decided to climb lower elevation waterfalls and mixed routes in a zone just north of the Felbertauern tunnel. We were joined by Austrian alpinist Alex Blümel. The goal route was the four-pitch El Nino (M7) and another similar route rated M8. Exiting the car, visibility was limited to about 10m with strong wind and snow. Using a GPS, we found the base of the wall, though were completely unable to see any of the climbs from below. With such poor conditions we split into two groups, climbing steep two-pitch waterfalls in the gullies adjacent El Nino. We were eventually called off from more climbing by local authorities due to high avalanche danger and the potential for mitigation to affect the highway where we had parked. That night we attended the opening festivities of the local ice festival at Tauernhaus, a classic European style lodge located along the Hochtirol ski traverse route.
On January 14, it was clear that our alpine plans would be delayed, with the storm continuing. We met renowned female alpinist Ines Papert in the town of Matrei that morning, hoping to again climb some harder multi-pitch waterfalls and mixed routes. We drove west from a bakery to a car park at the national park and then hiked over an hour up the Isel River valley to a south-facing sub-alpine wall with many routes. This wall can be viewed up valley from the seasonal IslitzerAlm hut. JD and Kurt climbed a highly regarded two-pitch M8 route that finishes on a hanging 10m-ice dagger. Ines, Nik, and I focused on establishing a new route on an adjacent 30m wall to the right. Nik began leading the route but the difficulties and poor gear (slung horns and a bad cam) forced him down. Ines then tried her hand at it, using incredible effort to climb the steep wall and then ascend up the hanging icicles (25m, M8/9 R). Hard, ground-up, traditional mixed climbing!
Check this video of Ines leading the crux on Nik's Instagram Account.
Double ropes were essential and a fall from the crux would have been bad. After this route, I climbed a 60m waterfall between the two routes. This was a very cool zone with potential for new mixed routes and nice ice climbing in a cool mountain setting. Like with the previous area, overhead avalanche hazard is a potential concern.
On January 15, Ines, Steve, JD, Nik, and I woke up early to try and climb a 1,300m rock route in the Dolomites above Lienz, the northwest ridge of the Hochstadel. Darkness and some route-finding errors on the approach caused us to miss the start of the route by over an hour. Further up valley than intended, we plan-B’d it and continued up higher and climbed a 300–500m long rock and snow ridge on a 2,600m peak. The ridge was mostly easier roped climbing—not hard, but very loose, and with a cool position. The day involved 18 miles of travel with about 2,000m of gain. It was the right thing to climb in the -15°C temps.
Watch the short video here.
Even on the daylight walk down, none of us could figure out how to access the Horchstadel route or where exactly our intended line climbs. For those willing to walk, there’s certainly a huge amount of winter alpine climbing opportunity in this part of the Dolomites, which also had less snow than the surrounding mountains.
Heading to Slovenia
On January 16, we drove south two hours from Lienz to Kranjska Gora, Slovenia, located in the heart of the Julian Alps. We were joined that evening by Slovenian alpinist Ales Cesan, who would climb with us for a few days. Ales and Marko Prezelj (who would join us a few days later) informed us that 50–70cm of snow had fallen in the two days prior; that, plus intense cold, wind, and continuing storm conditions would severely limit alpine climbing opportunities.
On January 17, we woke up at a reasonable time and skinned for two hours up the Virsic Pass road, which rises a few minutes drive out of Kranjska Gora. The road is usually plowed but had not been since the storm. Our goal was to climb long waterfall routes at the base of Prisonjnik, a striking mountain home to many long summer and winter climbs. Ales, Kurt, and Nik climbed the Centralni slap (4 pitches, WI5) and Steve, JD, and I tackled the Desni slap (4 pitches, WI5). On Desni, JD established a direct mixed variation to the unformed crux pillar (M7/M8). It was the second impressive ground-up and traditional mixed lead I witnessed on the trip, with JD hanging on to pound in pitons and leading hard moves above some suspect gear.
Watch the video.
We did not climb the final pitch of the route. The waterfall routes in this zone seem world class, on par with the Canadian Rockies.
On January 18, JD, Kurt, and Ales climbed a picturesque and rarely forming 70m waterfall up the Vrata valley below Triglav, called Slap Peričnik, which last came into condition in 2012. Steve, Nik, and I chose to climb an alpine route up the Virsic on a 2,000m peak called Nad Sitom glave, opposite of the Prisonjik where we had climbed the day prior. Without the pass road fully cleared, it took about two hours to reach the base of the climb. We climbed the northeast ridge, which involved everything from moderate rock climbing in gloves to a few pitches of technical M5/6, about 8-10 pitches in all. This route had serious alpine character with loose rock, snow, and knife-edge ridge traversing. The crux of the day was intense cold and constant 50kmh+ winds. We climbed the final 2-3 pitches in the dark, arriving on the summit after 7pm. A dark, whiteout descent took about 2 hours and we were back at our rented apartment in Kranjska Gora by about 9:30 p.m.—approx. a 13-hour day round-trip.
On January 20, we all split up into various groups. Domen Petrovčič (Slovenia), Kurt, and I climbed a rarely forming south-facing waterfall called Krokarjev slap (2 pitches, WI5). An additional pitch above the climb was not in condition. The route was in a nice position with good sticks before the sun hit it. Again, in a good season, Slovenia appears to have world class waterfall ice climbing.
On January 21–22 the group experienced the first bout of good weather and varied (a couple groups got shot down due to hours of deep snow trail breaking) but generally good alpine climbing conditions on various peaks. The best success was had in a group of peaks located east of the Spik, where three teams found nice neve and mixed climbing on two different summits via two different routes over the course of the weekend. Two other groups returned to Nad Sitom glave, one to complete the northeast ridge and another a variation to the ridge on a more northern aspect of the wall.
Overall, climbing in the eastern Alps was a solid experience culturally and with quality climbing. As Marko Prezelj would say about this kind of climbing, “It’s not cable cars,” referring to Chamonix, Zermatt, and other zones in the western Alps. With tricky gear, conditions, long trail-breaking approaches, and challenging mixed and ice climbing, it’s easy to appreciate why so many accomplished alpinists come from this area. Steve House believes we are the only Americans, other than himself, who have done any winter alpine climbing in the Julian Alps or in Osttirol. Anyone looking for “real” alpine mixed climbing in winter conditions, which is not really available in the USA, would definitely find it here. For sure, the hard work, planning, and creativity required would elevate one’s alpine skills.