Summit Stories: Guido Unterwurzacher and Wilder Kaiser Mountain
A 12-year old scrambles up the southeast face of Fleischbank, one of the most iconic peaks of Wilder Kaiser Range. This is how Guido spent his summer holidays growing up climbing mountains in the late 90ies. His uncle, Tom Unterwurzacher, took him along. This special day has etched itself into Guido’s memory; it was the day when it all started. “When I found myself looking up at these giant walls, I stood there mesmerized, frozen in awe, utterly fixated on the mystifying and alluring rock faces. In the afternoon, we were even caught by a thunderstorm, which left us wet to the skin. In short, 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 Wochenbrunner Alm Alpine Pasture Hut, towered by jagged Wilder Kaiser Range.
Today, the 12-year old boy 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 Going, on the eastern side of Wilder Kaiser Range, overshadowed by the lofty summits of Hochgrubachspitze, Ackerlspitze and Maukspitze. This is still his favourite side of the range: “Because I have been looking up to these peaks ever since I was a child.”
Grew up in Going am Wilden Kaiser: Climber and Mountain Guide Guido Unterwurzacher.
Wilder Kaiser Range 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 7:00am. Guido has just returned from a climbing trip in Italy’s Dolomites, he seems to be tired. Today, he will take me to the summit of Hintere Goinger Halt, which is rated the easiest peak of Kaiser Range in the Ellmauer Tor area. Best of all, the summit will have me hopping with joy with its nonstop horizon-spanning views of jagged ridges and colossal summits named 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, 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 a good league physically, but you also need mental strength. It’s about the ability to remain calm and analytical in dangerous situations.”
We head out for our trek in the shadow of Wilder Kaiser Range, 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. 65 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 Mr. Buhl, I assume that he climbed up there hand over hand, more like scrambling; climbing a ninth grade was simply impossible with the boots they used these days.”
Guido calls jagged and rugged Wilder Kaiser Range 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 Kaiser Range is 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 at Wilder Kaiser Range,” Guido tells me. “It’s like a living history class. You can trace the steps of legendary climbing pioneers, in the true sense of the word.”
Graduating from Climbing University
Upon reaching Ellmauer Tor, we pause for a rest. Guido is sitting on a boulder, relaxed. Up here, breathtaking views open around us, views over the jagged north side of Kaiser Range. Guido tells me about the accident of his Uncle Tom, who fell down 30 meters next to him on a joint mountain trek in Zillertal Valley and broke multiple vertebrae. This was the moment when Guido realized that it is routine what is most dangerous on the mountains. “To me, fear is like a tocsin, a warning and a call for concentration. It doesn’t hinder my performance, though. Obviously, I know that there is no room for error, but feeling fearful while I’m up there is not helping me in any way.”
Guido has learnt everything he knows about mountains and climbing here at Wilder Kaiser Range. “After completing „The Emperor’s New Clothes“ route, I felt like graduating from climbing university.” Guido has refined his expertise on mountains all over the globe. In Patagonia. Pakistan. Morocco. Alaska. Canada. “However, 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 climbing routes at Wilder Kaiser Range have wondrous names like „Goinger Wunderwelt“ (‘Going’s Wonder World’), „Des Kaisers neue Kleider“ (‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’) and „Spiel der Narren“ (‘Game of Fools’).
Fleischbank (pictured to the right) is full of childhood memories for Guido.
“Standing atop a Peak, they let their Mask Fall Off”
Guido loves to share his experience and his love for the mountains with others. He loves 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. It’s the ascent, or standing atop a peak, which causes people to lose their cool and let their mask fall off. In that moment, they are totally themselves. It is an honor to regularly meet and exceed high expectations and bond with this beautiful spectrum of humanity. Hands down, the encounters with people are the best part of my job.”
The climbing terrain of 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 graded trips in the third or fourth range. 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 Hintere 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-meter 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. If the Kaiser, which is lovingly dubbed “Koasa” by locals, was human, what kind of man would he be? “The Wilde Kaiser was a cool guy, the type you’d want to have a beer with,” says Guido. “He’d be motivated, inspiring and always in for a good joke. Yet he might have a sudden outburst of rage anytime, he is able to strike back.”
Guido at signing the summit book.
“The Wilde Kaiser was a cool guy, the type you’d want to have a beer with.”
Sleeping 800 Meters off the Ground
Guido has a surprise in store for me. We retrace our steps from the summit down to Ellmauer Tor. Guido tells me that he has an appointment at Stanglwirt Hotel in Going this afternoon and I wonder how he will manage that. Even a physical fit person like him would need much too long to be down in the valley in time. Guido smiles conspiratorially.
Guido tells me about his climbing projects on El Capitan in the heart of the Yosemite National Park. It is a vertical 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 on a portaledge—a deployable, hanging-tent system, 800 meters off the ground. This 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 meters above the ground… “But the best thing in life is having a healthy child,” adds Guido and talks about his son Xaver, one and a half years old at the time. “That is the biggest gift of all.” One day, Guido 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 it doesn’t need to be his way.”
“If Xaver is interested, I will show him my way.”
We are finally back at Ellmauer Tor. The walk back down to the valley is easily manageable without a guide. So Guido puts down his daypack and pulls something out that resembles a parachute. Or a paraglider. In fact, it is a speed flyer, a small, fast fabric wing that allows a high speed „hike and fly“ from mountainous areas, as Guido explains. Like paragliding, speed flying is done by launching from a slope with the wing overhead, already inflated by the incoming air. Speed flying creates a fast, thrilling ride close to the slope. The mountain lover truly becomes a fearless eagle under his small wing. Hikers stop and watch him taking off, awestruck. Most of us prefer walking down. Guido soars high above the rest.
Photo Credits: Tirol Werbung / Jens Schwarz
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 Guido Unterwurzacher or another experienced member of his Rock ’n‘ Roll Alpine School please refer here: www.alpinschulerocknroll.at .