We based ourselves in Kals, which is the gateway to the road that creeps up the valley to the Lucknerhaus, a hotel based at 1918m, and which provides a car park, and the start of our walk. We had arrived that day, and due to what appeared to be the only favourable weather window, we hastily sorted our gear and set off immediately. The plan was to ascend to the Studlhutte at 2801m for the night.
The walk is initially on a wide gravel road that services various other huts in the area, and it was teeming with tourists and walkers. It is still steep though, and by the time we got to the Lucknerhutte, we were dripping with sweat under our heavy loads. We had been told that it was possible to have your sacks transported up to 2800m on the cableway, and sure enough, for a 5 Euro fee, we did just that, and boy was it money well spent! The path then becomes more traditionally alpine as it winds its way up the valley and finally to the hut.
We had read about the quality of the hut, and it lived up to its reputation. Indeed, the food would put many a restaurant to shame with its 5 course dinner! The only problem was that I had booked the week after. Doh! I must have been transfixed by the Swiss climb, and we had an anxious couple of hours awaiting confirmation that there were spare beds, slightly softened by a shandy and wine served by a waitress! Luxury. When our beds were sorted, we soon turned in. The beds were a mattress on a long sleeping platform of two tiers of 12. And therein lies the rub, as Shakespeare would have said. 24 people means a lot of bag-rustling, snoring, banging of doors and lights on and off, let alone stage whispers, head torches and the odd mobile phone, (yes, there was even 4G!!!!). I had a really inconsiderate chap of indeterminate nationality next to me who managed to ensure I would only get about 3hrs sleep, in fits of 20 mins at a time. Awful.
So at 04:30am I was ready to get cracking, and joined the bleary eyed throng rattling ice screws and donning harnesses before rushing some breakfast and away. We got on the route at 05:35, and were soon roping up on the glacier. The crevasses were not that threatening, but despite being quite 'dry', there were a number of snow bridges requiring respect as we made our way towards the Luisencharte at 3175m, the low point in the ridge that allowed access to commence the climb. Most folks were going left, up a shallow groove that led to some loose ledges before the main ridge. We decided to cut right to avoid the queues and possible rock fall, over some loose choss to get onto the direct route, at III. We met some German lads there, and they confirmed we were on route. The rest was just a case of follow the crampon marks, up increasingly interesting terrain. It would be fair to say the exposure was exceptional, and we both felt exhilarated.
We were in our element. Moving together, steadily, safely. Belaying occasionally where the natural protection allowed, thus retrieving gear and moving efficiently. When we got to the Fruhstuchplatz at 3550m, there was a foreboding sign telling you to descend if you were too slow, but we were pleased to be 'on guidebook time', and took a short break. It said the difficulties increased here, and certainly the technicality did, but there was always reassuring bolts and crampon marks, despite the increasing wind and cloud. We allowed guides to pass us with their groups, as they were assured and moving very quickly....I am not all sure their clients were enjoying the experience to be frank, but hey ho. There were the classic exposed slab pulls, an exposed traverse, lots of challenging little moves, and a section with a fixed rope to pull on that gives the route its A0 grade. None of it was really hard, but all together, added to the increasing altitude and exposure, it felt 'good value'....a classic Alpine route.
And then we were at the summit. It just appeared out of the clag, all 3798m of it, in the form of a summit cross. We took some pictures, but although there were three or four other parties there, there was a subdued atmosphere - Probably as we all knew the descent was challenging. There is a tight bottleneck with steep climbing either side, which we had to que for a good while. There was then some very exposed but actually quite enjoyable white granite-like rock with ample protection. There is/was always parties crossing too, so the usual snippy tempers and tutting occurs regularly. You just have to make sure you are safe. But eventually you arrive at the left turn which accesses the glacier and on to the Johann Erhzog hut. This is loose, with denuded ice which is bullet hard, covered in shale and loose rock. Horrible.
We elected to make two 30m abseils, and nearly made the glacier, finishing with some scrambling down loose and soil-ridden terrain. In hindsight, I feel moving left (looking down) would have been better, but we made the glacier to join a queue of nervous novices. The reason was not immediately apparent. It's the ice. Due to global warming and glacial reduction, the ice is thousands of years old, and bullet hard. I could not get any purchase with my axe, and my G12 crampons felt impotent. Not nice! We only had a dozen or so metres to a trodden track, but we were sufficiently unnerved to belay it, and then scuttled off down as quickly as possible. No amount of ice axe braking would be effective on that.
We got to the Johann Erhzog hut for a quick natural break and snack, but it threatened rain, so we pressed on down. Even now the challenges were still abundant - Firstly a steep path with a VF cable, followed by a very steep descent and a bergschrund onto the final glacier that looks as if it will become very interesting as the season progresses! Once across carefully, we paused to put on our crampons and rope up when a large stone bounced by, obviously set off by someone higher up. That spooked us and the other parties doing similar, and we wasted no time in tramping off down the glacier, another larger natural rock fall echoing ominously around us as we did so.
The lower reaches of the glacier are so rubble strewn that crampons are unnecessary, and we took them off, put the rope away and had a snack, safe in the knowledge that the more dangerous stuff was all over, and it was just a case of plodding down to the Studlhutte, following the (not always) obvious wee cairns. We had promised ourselves a pint at the hut as we collected the gear we had left there, but time was pressing on, and Paul was determined to get dinner in the hotel, so we wearily descended the whole way to the Lucknerhaus and the car. Our legs were pleading for mercy as we got to the car after 14hours of work, but the sense of satisfaction was palpable - I had wanted to do this climb for some years, and we had done it in guidebook time, safely and efficiently. Excellent.
The hotel had stopped serving food by the time we arrived, but the chef kindly made us a three course meal, which we actually struggled to get down, the nausea that comes with fatigue, dehydration and altitude making itself felt. A glass of wine and some force-feeding helped, knowing that our bodies needed it, but we did feel guilty only managing a fraction of what was offered. It was then straight to bed, but sleep didn't come easy, tired as we were, the buzz of the day still whirling around our heads. It's strange how our bodies work eh?
And that was our adventure. The Dufourspitz can wait for a dedicated visit next year. The Studlgrat of the Grossglockner is prize enough for this trip. Fantastic.