Summit Stories: Matthias Wurzer and Großglockner Mountain
A young man sits atop the summit of 3,798-metre Großglockner mountain and enjoys the view. He is wearing a headband dotted with skulls, mirrored sunglasses and has his long hair tied back. Yet, despite his appearance, this man is not a rock star. He is a mountain guide. Matthias Wurzer. My eyes try to follow his line of vision. Somewhere over there are the Drei Zinnen, three distinctive peaks over the border in Italy. I squint but find it hard to make out the mountains he is talking about. That’s exactly what makes the difference between this renowned rock formation and the Großglockner, says Matthias: “If you stand on of the Drei Zinnen and scan the horizon, it’s really easy to see the Großglockner. It simply is there, striking and prominent.” This iconic peak has been the office of Matthias Wurzer for more than ten years, but his relationship with Austria's highest mountain goes all the way back to his childhood.
On our way to Großglockner, the office of Matthias Wurzer.
“They didn’t take me seriously.”
"You're supposed to be a mountain guide? Are you serious?" – That’s what Matthias got used to hear at the beginning of his career guiding climbers on the Großglockner mountain. “They didn’t take me seriously. Apparently I loooked a lot younger than I actually was. Their image of a mountain guide was an old, gnarled guy.” Today, in his early 30s, he doesn’t have to work harder for respect at work anymore.
We are standing on the summit, looking down towards the Stüdlhütte. This alpine hut looks like a tiny toy house from up here but can in fact welcome over 100 mountaineers at any one time. It is there that I met Matthias for the first time yesterday evening. The hut is one of the most important bases for mountaineers planning to climb Austria’s tallest mountain. It is named after Johann Stüdl, a wealthy merchant from the Czech Republic who found a second home in Kals in the 19th century. A lifelong love for the area led Johann Stüdl to erect a shelter on Fanotscharte ridge in 1868. The hut that bears his name was opened on 15 September 1868. One year later, he was the driving force behind the foundation of the Kals Mountain Guide Association, the first of its kind in the Eastern Alps. The Stüdlhütte has been extended and refurbished various times over the decades. In the 1990s, the Austrian Alpine Club had the hut reconstructed in a futuristic design, including solar panels and a heating system run on vegetable oil, while the old building was dismantled.
View back to the Stüdlhütte hut.
Mountaineering in East Tirol.
Lousy weather and the ‘South Face Guard’
We descend into a notch that separates – or connects – the two summits of Großglockner and Kleinglockner. We meet crowds of people on their way towards the summit of this formidable peak. As Austria's highest mountain and a popular summit to "conquer", the Großglockner is not the place to go for solitude. Today, the weather is just perfect. Deep blue skies and T-shirts at an elevation of 3,700 meters above sea level. A gentle breeze cools our heads. Completely contrary to the weather on 5 April 2016, when Matthias and his fellow mountain guide Vittorio Messini wrote a new chapter in the history of the Großglockner.
The weather was lousy, as Matthias puts it. Equipped with ice axes and crampons, Wurzer and Messini dared to cross a striking gully on the south flank. This cragged and jagged gully stretches upwards between Stüdlgrat ridge and the Southern Ridge of the mountain and had never been climbed from bottom to top – pretty remarkable considering that several thousand hikers come here each year. The two climbers opted for a bad weather day to reduce the danger of dislodging rocks in the south-facing gully. They were greeted with north face conditions in a south face: tough technical climbing and “mixed scrambling”, with treacherous sections of ice and frozen rock. They successfully reached the Glocknerscharte ridge and finally made it up to the summit. Matthias remembers this moment: “This feeling when you finally leave the gully, knowing you are the first person to climb this route… that’s pretty cool!” Vittorio and Matthias named their great feat “Südwandwächter”, literally ‘South Face Guard’. To explore an unknown side of Austria’s tallest mountain – that is worth more than fame, honour and glory, says Matthias.
Matthias on the descent into the Glocknerscharte.
The standard route follows a ridge to the summit of the Kleinglockner, down into a notch and then finally pushes beyond cloud level toward the summit of the Großglockner.
The fine line between luck & misfortune
We climb from the notch to the top of the Kleinglockner and descend into Eisleitl, a very steep snowfield. The view of Pasterze, Austria’s biggest glacier, grabs my attention. However, I need to turn my focus from the scenery to my feet as we cross the snowfield – a fall here could easily be fatal. “It’s a thin line between luck and misfortune on the mountain,” is what Matthias told me last night. This was the guiding principle of his uncle, who was a mountain guide, too. I try to figure out what it would be like in a snowstorm up here. Matthias knows all too well. In October 2010 he took part in a rescue mission to find three Polish climbers trapped on the mountain. “We were up here for four days, searching for them.” He and his fellow mountain guides crawled up the mountain on their hands and feet. “We so wanted to find them alive.” Sadly, it was not to be. “I found a dead body,” says Matthias. The weather had closed in quickly on the trio, who had waited just that little bit too long to call for help. “If only they would have called for help five hours earlier, the helicopter could have flown in, rescued them and no one would have died.”
The slope levels out a bit. We stop to untie the rope holding us together and take off our crampons. From here, it’s a leisurely stroll, I say to myself – at least until we get to Adlersruhe (literally ‘Eagle’s Rest’), where Erzherzog-Johann-Hütte sits at an elevation of 3,454 metres. This is Austria’s highest-lying mountain refuge. Suddenly I slip and start to fall. I lose my grip on the crampons and they tumble into the snow. By the time I have realised what has happened I have already come to a stop. Phew, that was close. Everything is OK, fortunately. We take a rest at Erzherzog-Johann-Hütte before descending down further to the Stüdlhütte.
Matthias’ first conquest of Großglockner didn’t take him along this route via Adlersruhe but instead via the Stüdlgrat ridge. He was accompanied by a fellow mountain guide called Toni Riedler. “I was so exhaused. After all, from the valley to the peak it is 1,900 vertical metres of climbing.” At the time Matthias was just twelve years old. This route via the Stüdlgrat ridge is still his preferred route today, both in summer and winter: “We strapped our skis to our backs and climbed up the ridge, which was all blanketed in snow – that was an incredible experience,” remembers Matthias.
Arriving at the Erzherzog-Johann-Hütte.
“You never really reach the top.”
Time to get going. We still have to get down to the Stüdlhütte, crossing the Ködnitzkees glacier on the southern side of the Großglockner. It, like all other glaciers in the Alps, has shrunk in recent decades. “What I have witnessed during the last 19 years is dramatic,” says Matthias looking down on the glacier. The summer sun has thawed the ice crust in places. On warm days such as today, rock fall is a real risk along the standard route. That's why Matthias opts for the alternative route along a trail known as the Mürztalersteig.
Descent along the Mürztalersteig trail.
I follow him to a kind of trail’s end. I see nothing but boulders and rocks, twenty metres above the glacier. Normally the only way down is to abseil. However, Matthias and fellow mountain guides have installed cable ladders and ropes into the rocky flank. We use these to aid our descent down to the icy masses of the glacier. Down in the valley, something sparkles in the sunlight. Maybe it is the roof of the Lucknerhaus lodge? The journey from the lodge up to the summit of Großglockner is like a journey from Europe to Greenland. “Wildlife, plant life, and types of rock change with every vertical metre you climb,” says Matthias.
Matthias has installed cable ladders and ropes into the rock.
Mountaineering in East Tirol.
We cross the glacier on our way back to the Stüdlhütte. We have done it! We have climbed the Großglockner! Is, I wonder, mountain climbing the height of empty egotism? Do we do it just so we can say: "I made it to the top!"? "In some ways that's true," says Matthias. "You need a certain ego to push yourself to do all these things. But if we are honest, you never truly reach the top."
Photo credits: Tirol Werbung / Jens Schwarz
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 Matthias Wurzer or another experienced member of the Kals Mountain Guide Team visit www.bergfuehrer-kals.at.