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Großglockner ascent: the sky close-up

When the clouds swash in the first sunlight over the 3000-meter-islands of the Upper Tauern and the world wrapped in cotton dozes down below, still fighting against the day, then the borders between sky and earth merge at the crack of dawn on Großglockner.

View from the Archduke-Johann-Shelter (Großglockner) at sunrise
Picture by T. Micke

Sunrise is always something special, mainly because you agonise over getting out of bed at such an unusually early hour to experience it, or because you haven’t made it into bed yet.

A sunrise over the sea glows with romanticism – sometimes even with some eroticism. A gentle, passionate ascension, fiery like a swig of Bacardi on an empty stomach.

A sunrise in the height of summer 3450 metres up in the eternal snow of the Hofmannskees at the foot of the Glockner-peak has in comparison something really rather dramatic: at 5 am with temperatures around freezing point you stand alone on the terrace of the Archduke-Johann-Hut – in clammy hut slippers, t-shirt and boxers, because you only dare to step outside for a short time – and you just cannot tear yourself away from the dawn spectacle on the eastern horizon: clouds roll in powerful swirls out of the valley at a low level over the fields of snow. Black and eerie, the stony shadowy ridges of the Upper Tauern break through then disappear again for seconds into the agitated white of the clouds. No birds chirp, no trees rustle, no street noise: a silent symphony for the ear.

Then, without prior warning, the first rays of the sun: it is almost a small explosion that for a moment shoots out warmth and light from the horizon, then for a few minutes melts into a milky diffused light whilst here and there, where the clouds allow it, showers of light stray over the frozen-solid snow-covered glacier.

Finally nature calls order and when a short time later you retreat with chattering teeth from that silent place, peace reigns once again in the canopy: the clouds are where they should be on such a day, usually in the valley, and the sun wanders obliviously in the blue sky, which according to the weather forecast will only shine on the hikers high in the mountains.

Departure is at 6am. In between two songs the night before we had already fitted the climbing spurs to our mountain shoes on the large tiled stove, so that today everything would run quickly and smoothly.

Around one hundred mountain climbers took up accommodation in the Archduke-Johann-Hut shortly before dusk yesterday. Two of them, brothers Martin and Norbert Gratz from Kals, go on this tour twice a week if the weather is good. In their packs they always have their trumpets, with which they serenade the great mountain Adlersruhe for the pleasure of the other guests in the evening.

They all want to reach the top of the 3798 metre high mountain today, in close groups of 3 to 8 people. About a two-hour footrace that on sunny weekends no longer has much to do with the idyllic alps: fresh snow that fell overnight forces the groups into single file one behind another in a trail. It is forbidden to overtake slower groups and also can be dangerous, therefore a tense politeness and composure prevails over the mountain guides.

Climb to the summit of the Großglockner
Picture by T. Micke

From the Little Glockner (3770 m) onwards it is really a question of safe footing. We climb along the ridge using hands and feet; the climbing spurs of the man in front threateningly close to your own fingers.

Almost like on a giant slalom, thick iron rods are driven into the cliff every few metres so that you can hold fast and so that the mountain guides of the National Park can secure their "sheep flax". You understand the reason for taking this measure at the latest when the "oncoming traffic" of the returning Glockner-conquerors sets in.

Shortly before the last ascent of the Glockner-Schartl is not somewhere for those with poor nerves, as battling with the wind you must balance along a 4 metre-long, sharply exposed ridge on the notorious Pallavicini gorge.

"Exposed", the meaningless favourite word of all route planners means in this case: damned narrow. Narrow like a marmot’s behind, around the width of one hand. So narrow, in fact, that a naïve young woman in jeans and designer mountain shoes, who this time gladly chose the Glockner tour instead of a shopping trip around Lienz, calls out loudly to her mountain guide in front: "Hans? Why haven’t they mounted any hand rails here?" And Hans replies with a composure that only an experienced mountain guide possesses: "Because, Barbara, then they would have been able to build a chairlift." And, as Hans had forgotten, because there is luckily no space for a chairlift at the summit. That would end up full of people pushing and shoving like at a supermarket checkout so that anyone who can manage it can take a photo with the summit cross to say "I've been here". Then you notice that you are setting off at speed once again in the direction of the Archduke-Johann-Hut, before the next lot arrive.

Horse trekking at the foot of the Großglockner
Picture by T. Micke

But all of that belongs today, considered with adequate humour, to the Großglockner summit experience and should in no way belie the beauty of the Nationalparks with its unique colonies of bearded vultures, the Golden Eagles, ibex and chamois, the marmots and the eternal blossoming of the mountain pastures.

A particularly beautiful variation to the 8-hour-tour to the Adlersruhe can be enjoyed on horseback for example, where you are accompanied from Kals (East Tyrol) coming from Haflingern to Glorerhütte (on half the journey), which lightens the load off your back.

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© A report by Tobias Micke (26-08-01) – Contact