By Fair Means
Exploring new routes in a sheer rockface, climbing as many mountains as possible, enjoying the thrill of a high-speed descent – there are lots of ways to do Tirol. Visitors keen to go back to the roots and discover the region like the early alpine pioneers hundreds of years ago should have a go at mountaineering "by fair means". This means no cable cars, gondolas or ski lifts to shorten the approach – just 100% leg power. Our team set off to climb the Watzespitze, the highest peak on the Kaunergrat ridge, by fair means. Let's see how they got on.
Frank is lying on the hot tarmac, hyperventilating. I plunge my head into the fountain in Plangeross and drink like a cow from a trough. Meanwhile, Jannis is frantically googling the opening hours of the nearby guesthouses. The time reserve we had planned for our adventure has already been eaten up – after just a few hours. I drag myself away from the fountain and over to the door of the Kirchenwirt guesthouse, desperately waving through the glass until the owner takes mercy on me.
It is just after three o'clock in the afternoon. The kitchen, he explains, has closed for the lunch service, but he will see what he can do. As we wolf down anything and everything he puts in front of us, we slowly have the energy to answer his many questions. Where we have come from? Imst? By bike? And where are we going? To the Watzespitze? Really? And we want to make it to the Kaunergrathütte by the end of the day? He is more than a little surprised when we tell him that we have not taken the train to Imst nor have we driven up to Plangeross. Instead, we have be travelling by fair means, which on this part of the journey means by bike. "Why don't you let some air out of your tyres to make things that little bit harder for yourselves," he jokes, shaking his head as he walks over to the bar to get us a refreshing and well-earned round of apple juice and soda water.
When we were planning our adventure, we had imagined the first part as the easiest. Two or three hours of gentle riding through the Pitztal Valley, followed by a relaxing lunch in the village. When the heat of the day had passed, we would continue our journey up to the hut. We weren't out to set any records. Instead we wanted to find out what it must have felt like for the early alpine pioneers, who had no cars, gondolas or ski lifts to shorten the approach to the mountains. For us, by fair means means taking it slow, enjoying the experience – and spending a relaxing evening before getting up bright and early on day two for the ascent of the Watzespitze mountain via its eastern ridge.
It is our interpretation of a principle which has long fallen out of fashion in the world of mountaineering. With the development of roads and ski lifts, it has become much easier to climb a mountain – even a seriouly high one – in just half a day. However, in recent years the idea of 'by fair means' has been experiencing a renaissance. "To me 'by fair means' is leaving the last inhabited settlement and heading into the mountains using nothing but your own energy, i.e. no cars, ski lifts, etc.," says extreme explorer Robert Jasper. The origins of the movement can be traced back to the adventurer Stefan Glowacz, who for years has been using all manner of weird and wonderful ways – including sailing boats and kite-powered sleds – to get to remote mountains in north-west Canada and Greenland. Wir aren't out to do anything like that today, but we do want to following the idea of by fair means and discover one of our most famous local mountains from a new perspective.
We start the day full of energy. Leaving the Inn Valley, we head up along the road and off onto the Pitztal Bike Route leading into the forest. Jannis and I are on mountain bikes; Frank is riding a gravel bike with panniers in which he has kindly agreed to transport the climbing equipment we will need. We soon leave the main road far behind and are making progress on the gravel trail up to a sunny plateau south of Wenns, passing quaint little villages and families scything the meadows in the hot summer sun. Frank and Jannis quickly agree to swap bikes: Jannis has more leg power to get the heavily-laden gravel bike up over the steeper sections.
Leaving from Imst, on the northen banks of the Inn river.
Summer dreaming above the village of Wenns in the Pitztal Valley.
With around a third of the bike section completed, the valley narrows and leads back down to the banks of the river. The rushing water drowns out the noise of the main road on the other side of the Pitze. Every now and then there is a steep uphill section followed by a few hundred metres of downhill. We ride over bridges and through a gorge carved deep into the rock over many millions of years. Up, up, up we ride. Slowly but surely the heavy rucksacks and steep gradients sap our energy. The sun is high and the temperatures are rising. Trees and other sources of shade are nowhere to be found. We are overtaken by a runner on one of the long, straight sections. He is probably doing the Pitztal Glacier Trail, a 106-kilometre-long trailrun race with 6,100 vertical metres of uphill taking place this weekend in the Pitztal Valley. The competitors set out at 11:00 p.m. last night. We didn't leave until early this morning, but we are pretty cooked already. Time for a break and a lie down in the ice-cold waters of the Pitze river.
Pedal power on the long approach to Plangeross.
A little bovine company for Jannis as he cools off in the Pitze river.
By the time we reach the village of Plangeross we already have the feeling of completing an adventure – but the journey has only just begun. Sensible people would call it a day, stay the night at the Kirchenwirt guesthouse and head up to the hut bright and early the next morning. We, however, are not feeling sensible and have already called ahead to book our beds at the hut. The weather forecast for the next day is excellent, so we enjoy everything we are fed at the Kirchenwirt (absolutely delicious, by the way), put our bikes in the garage, pack our rucksacks and head off on foot into the steep forest.
With five hours of cycling already in our legs, the 1,200 vertical metres up to the Kaunergrathütte feel like a trek in the Himalayas. As the forest trees turn into pine bushes and the air becomes a little cooler, Frank turns to me and says: "This is the first time I can actually imagine that we are going to make it to the hut today." I know how he feels. I used to do a lot of biking, but in recent years I have spent more time rock climbing – and I can feel it in my knee. The pain started on the final few kilometres of riding. Now, as we hike, it is like there is metal loop around my knee becoming tighter and tighter with every step.
The ascent to the Kaunergrathütte hut leads through all alpine vegetation zones.
After cresting the second or third knoll – I was so focused on putting one foot in front of the other that I can't quite remember, to be honest – I see two craggy summits appear on the horizon. The Watzespitze. Rising 3,532 metres above sea level, it is the highest mountain on the Kaunergrat ridge.
The twin peaks of the Watzespitze mountain. The eastern ridge leads along the darkest section of the photo.
Around an hour later we are lying down in the deckchairs on the terrace in front of the Kaunergrathütte hut, reflecting on long day hiking and biking. Climbing a mountain this way – by fair means – gives you an appreciation of just how high 3,532 metres are. Peaks which can be conquered in an afternoon using lifts and cable cars are much more of a challenge by fair means. Sure, we could make life easier for ourselves. On other days we do precisely that. But today it's about doing things the hard way.
"Back in the day when I didn't have a car, it was perfectly normal for me to ride out from Innsbruck into the mountains and start my hike there," says Jannis, remembering his student days. "Those were adventures I will never forget – climbing a mountain that way makes you just that little bit more happy and proud of what you have achieved." We sit down with Sigmund Dobler, the father of the man who runs the Kaunergrathütte. He tells us that when he younger they would often leave Wenns early in the morning by bike, ride up to Plangeross and climb the Watzespitze – all in one day.
A hearty meal and warm bed await at the Kaunergrathütte at 2,817 metres above sea level.
The Kaunergrathütte at the foot of the Watzespitze mountain.
We are up bright and early the next morning, at 5:00 a.m. to be precise, for our attempt on the eastern ridge. The ascent involves 700 vertical metres of climbing – a rarity in the Eastern Alps. The eastern ridge is considered the most challenging and prestigious way to climb the Watzespitze. Not quite hiking and not quite sport climbing – it's a mixture of the two. Old school mountaineering. There are around a dozen other early risers who are planning on taking the same route as us. We are more than happy to let them go first – we're not in a hurry. In fact, we want to skip the three new pitches recently added at the bottom of the climb and instead take the most traditional route (which is also a little shorter). The hut is empty as we fill up on muesli and the clock strikes 6 o'clock. The sun is only just rising, but Sigmund encourages us to get going as soon as possible: "You're starting late already."
After yesterday's long ascent I could hardly move my knee. I had hoped it would get better overnight, but as we walk up from the hut and across an area of frozen snow it really hurts. I'm not sure I'm going to make it. But before I can seriously think of turning around, we arrive at the bottom of the rockface. We leave our ropes in our rucksacks, but we have our safety harnesses on so that we can rope up quickly should we need to.
The first section leads up a steep crack. Experienced cyclist Jannis doesn't seem to be feeling yesterday's exertions too much, but when it comes to rock climbing he has to dig deep. He has never climbed a route this hard this high in the mountains. Frank and I struggled with the bike and hike yesterday, but climbing is our strong suit. Normally, a route of this length and difficulty should be no problem. The only thing is that we are used to sport climbing, where you always have a rope and someone watching your back. Here we are free climbing without ropes, high above the ground. "The thing that makes the eastern ridge challenging is not the climbing itself but the fact that it is so exposed and sometimes hard to find the right route," explained Sigmund yesterday. Little surprise that Swiss mountain guides like to come here to get their clients used to climbing in the high mountains. If you can climb the Watzespitze, the Matterhorn shouldn't be too much of a problem – unless, that is, you get caught up in a queue on the Hörnligrat ridge. Ten times more people climb the Matterhorn each year than the Watzespitze.
The first few metres are steep, but the gradient relents. Such is my level of concentration at the task in hand that I have forgotten about my knee pain. I suppose that's one of the advantages of a bike-hike-and-climb adventure like this one – each bit involves a different sport and therefore a different set of movements. We make good progress, but I have to admit I am a little worried about getting back down. If my knee starts hurting then it could be more than a little tricky. The traverse across towards the ridge is one of the more technical sections. Jannis looks pale, but that is understandable. We are in terrain where a single slip could have serious consequnces. A big red arrow points the way.
Still a long way to go to the top of the Watzespitze mountain.
We soon find another group of climbers in front of us. We are all feeling good, so we gratefully accept their offer to let us pass and complete this section without a rope. That is the third group we have overtaken this morning. Things get more technical again, meaning it is time to get rope ourselves together for safety. Unlike the sport climbing I am used to, here there are no steel anchors drilled into the rock where we can clip in our ropes. Safety first is therefore very much the order of the day for each move on the rock.
We eventually reach the ridge itself and enjoy some excellent climbing. In the back of my mind, however, I know that this kind of terrain is easier to climb up than down. After three hours of climbing we reach the summit at 11:15. The view is spectacular. We are pleased to have reached the top, but at the same time we know that what goes up must come down. Each of us is tired from the long approach and challenging climb. A short night and heavy legs mean even super-fit Jannis is feeling it.
Relief at reaching the top of the mountain … is followed by the realisation that what goes up must come down.
Time to get going. As we start the descent I am almost more nervous than I was at the start of the day. I am therefore pleasantly surprised to find that the pain in my knee has subsided. It feels pretty much normal. After a few hundred metres I also get used to the abyss below, which is somehow more intimidating when you climb down than when you climb up. Step by step, slowly but surely, we retrace the route back down the way we came. I am even starting to enjoy it.
We reach a ridge which we climbed without a rope going up but will need to abseil down. It is the first time for Jannis. I guess we should have been through the basics at the hut the night before, but it is what it is. Jannis is surprisingly relaxed. The project is a success. We continue our journey down. I look over towards the glacier. Every ten minutes or so there is a rockfall which sends hundreds of stones thundering down a narrow ice-filled couloir. Impressive and intimidating at the same time. Nature at its purest.
Don't look down! Retracing our steps back down the eastern ridge of the Watzespitze.
Jannis experiences abseiling for the first time.
We head left into the shade. The handholds and footholds feel more brittle, less secure. Two or three more times we rope up for safety. Then, finally, we have done it. We are back on solid ground.
I am so pleased that everyone has got down safely that I slip and slide my way down the snowfield as if on skis. Once or twice I almost take a fall. We make it back down to the hut for the last hour of sunshine. We treat ourselves to a beer and are given a free schnapps on the house by the owner of the hut. The approach and ascent may have been tough, but they are reflected in the relief, pride and joy we all feel at a job well done.
"There's no more intense way of experiencing a mountain," says Jannis. It has been a long day. We are all exhausted, mentally as much as physically after so much concentrated climbing. At the same time we are euphoric to have actually done what we set out to achieve. We decide to stay one more night at the hut before taking on the long hike down to Plangeross, where our bicycles are waiting to whisk us all the way down to the lush pastures of the Inn Valley.