Summit Stories: Guido Unterwurzacher and Wilder Kaiser Mountain
A 12-year-old boy scrambles up the southeastern face of Fleischbank, one of the most iconic peaks in Wilder Kaiser Mountains. This is how Guido spent his summer holidays growing up in the mountains in the late 1990s. His uncle, Tom Unterwurzacher, took the young Guido along with him on his adventures. One day has etched itself into Guido’s memory – the day when it all started. “When I found myself looking up at these giant walls, I stood there mesmerised, frozen in awe, utterly fixated on the mystifying and alluring rock faces. In the afternoon we were caught in a thunderstorm, which soaked us to the skin. It was absolutely awesome, with memories that will stay with me forever,” says Guido Unterwurzacher 20 years later, in the summer of 2016, as we sit down to talk about his life on a wooden bench at the Wochenbrunner Alm, a charming wooden hut at the foot of the mighty Wilder Kaiser Mountains.
Today that 12 year-old is one of the most prolific mountaineering guides and rock climbers in the area and runs an alpine school in Kirchdorf in Tirol. Guido grew up in the village of Going, on the eastern side of the Wilder Kaiser Mountains, at the foot of peaks like the Hochgrubachspitze, Ackerlspitze and Maukspitze. This is still his favourite side of the range. “I have been looking up to these peaks ever since I was a child,” he explains.
Climber and mountain guide Guido Unterwurzacher grew up in the village of Going in the Wilder Kaiser Mountains.
The Wilder Kaiser Mountains from afar. Pictured in the middle: Ellmauer Tor.
Early in the morning we head towards Ellmauer Tor.
Guido’s Wonder World
It’s very early in the morning, before 7:00. Guido has just returned from a climbing trip in Italy’s Dolomites. He seems tired. Today, he will take me to the summit of the Hinterer Goinger Halt, which is rated the easiest peak in the Ellmauer Tor area of the Kaiser Mountains but nevertheless offers a fabulous view of iconic peaks like Fleischbank, Christaturm, Totenkirchl and Predigstuhl. Moreover, it offers sweeping views of nearby and iconic alpine climbing routes with wondrous names like "Goinger Wunderwelt" ("Going’s Wonder World"), "Des Kaisers neue Kleider" ("The Emperor’s New Clothes"), "Buhl Quergang" ("Buhl Traverse") and "Spiel der Narren" ("Game of Fools").
To him, climbing has never been a mere physical activity, says Guido. He is determined to keep pushing the envelope of the sport he loves, despite the dangers. He is always looking for adventure. And adventure he found, right on his doorstep. In 2009 Guido completed one of his biggest climbing achievements with the the ascent of "The Emperor’s New Clothes", one of the toughest multi-pitch routes in the European Alps. This route is rated a 10+, with 11 being the maximum grade in rock climbing. “You have to be in good physically shape, but you also need mental strength. It’s about the ability to remain calm and cool-headed in dangerous situations.”
We head out for our walk in the shadow of the Wilder Kaiser Mountains with the sun hiding behind sheer rock walls and under a deep blue sky. It’s going to be a hot summer’s day. Guido walks up with shorts, a T-shirt, trainers, a red fleece jacket, a daypack and sunglasses. Just like your ordinary day hiker. But the fact is that Guido became the first person to scale the iconic 9th grade "Buhl Traverse" free, without using ropes or other safety gear. The traverse is named after Austrian mountaineer Hermann Buhl, who is considered one of the best climbers of all time. Sixty-five years after Buhl’s first ascent, Guido completed this great feat of rock climbing along the original route. Climbing probably isn’t exactly what Hermann Buhl did seven decades ago: “With all possible respect to Hermann Buhl, I assume that he climbed up there hand over hand, more like scrambling; climbing a ninth-grade route was simply impossible with the boots they used back in those days.”
Guido calls the jagged and rugged Wilder Kaiser Mountains a “unique blend of natural playground and maze.” During our trek we are directly under the towering spires of lofty peaks and I always have to look up. At one point, I see a roped-up party scaling its rocky walls to the left. Apart from countless well-maintained sport climbing routes, the Wilder Kaiser Mountains are still home to many routes that are just the way as those Hermann Buhl conquered 60 to 70 years ago. “That’s what I like most here,” Guido tells me. “It’s like a living history class. You can follow in the footsteps legendary climbing pioneers, in the truest sense of the word.”
Graduating from climbing university
Up at the top of the Ellmauer Tor, we pause for a rest. Guido is sitting on a boulder, relaxed. The views of the jagged north side of the Wilder Kaiser Mountains are breathtaking. Guido tells me about an accident his Uncle Tom had, when he fell 30 metres in Zillertal Valley and broke several vertebrae. That was the moment when Guido realised that even the easiest of trails can be dangerous . “To me, fear is like a warning sign, a call for concentration. It doesn’t hinder my performance, though. Of course I know that there is no room for error, but being afraid won't help me.”
Guido has learnt everything he knows about mountains and climbing here in the Wilder Kaiser. “After completing 'The Emperor’s New Clothes', I felt like I had graduated from climbing university.” Guido has refined his expertise on mountains all over the globe. In Patagonia. Pakistan. Morocco. Alaska. Canada. “But what I like most about travelling is coming home again. Sometimes the biggest adventures are closer than you think; they are waiting right on your doorstep.”
The Wilder Kaiser Mountains.
The climbing routes in the Wilder Kaiser Mountains have some interesting names like "Goinger Wunderwelt" ("Going’s Wonder World"), "Des Kaisers neue Kleider" ("The Emperor’s New Clothes") and "Spiel der Narren" ("Game of Fools").
The Fleischbank mountain (pictured to the right) is full of childhood memories for Guido.
The Wilder Kaiser Mountains.
“On top of a mountain, people reveal their true selves.”
Guido loves to share his experience and his love for the mountains with others. He enjoys the endeavors his friends or clients take him on. “I am here to facilitate experiences beyond my clients’ dreams. I am here to managing their expectations, motivations, fears and desires. It’s that awesome feeling of bringing people to new places they never thought they would be able to reach.” Before heading out, everyone is wearing kind of a mask, adds Guido. “They are telling me about their abilities and their technical skills. But when you get onto the climb, when you reach the top of a mountain, people reveal their true selves. In that moment, they are totally themselves. It is an honor to meet and exceed high expectations and bond with this beautiful spectrum of humanity. Meeting people is the best part of my job.”
The climbing terrain of the Wilder Kaiser is perfectly suited for guiding, as beautiful routes for all abilities, from novices over families to experts, are easily accessible. “It’s the ideal location for offering climbing tuition. The great variety gives the area something for everyone, from kids and first-timers to improvers and experienced climbers.” Guido mostly takes clients along easy routes. His guidance allows non-skilled climbers to achieve heights and access areas they thought not possible.
Being Guido’s client of the day, I enjoy our trek to the Hinterer Going Halt a lot, although he might not exactly consider our trip an ‘adventure’. We traverse a slope and scramble over rocks on our final push to the 2,192-metre summit. Picture time! Guido ascends a rocky needle next to the summit. His early morning tiredness is blown away like clouds driven by the high mountain winds.
Guido leaves an entry in the book at the top of the mountain.
“What kind of a guy would the Wilder Kaiser be? A cool guy, the type you’d want to have a beer with.”
Sleeping 800 metres above the ground
Guido tells me about his climbing projects on El Capitan in the heart of the Yosemite National Park. This sheer rock formation that has been attracting people who love extreme sports and extreme experiences for decades. “It’s simply terrific, being aerial on El Capitan for several days, five or six. This awesome feeling when you find yourself waking up 800 metres above the ground. That definitely is a rock climbing location worth bragging about. That’s my number one passion.” I smile and wonder what it would be like, enjoying a good night’s sleep hundreds of metres above the ground. “But the best thing in life is having a healthy child,” adds Guido and talks about his son Xaver. “That is the greatest gift of all.” One day he wants to show his son what he loves most: mountains and climbing. “If he is interested, I will show him my way. Of course, it would be great if he liked the same things I do. But if he doesn’t, that's okay too.”
“If my son Xaver is interested, I would love him to follow in my footsteps.”
The Wilder Kaiser Mountains.
Großglockner, Wildspitze, Großvenediger, Wilder Kaiser, Olperer – we tell the stories of five mountain guides in Tirol and the summits that have shaped them.
If you want to join Guido Unterwurzacher or another experienced member of his Rock 'n' Roll Alpine School please visit their website: www.alpinschulerocknroll.at.