In the last days of September 2016, my girlfriend and I went for a trip to the Austrian Alps. Our goal was Östliche Simonyspitze (3448 m) and possibly some other peak in the area – the Venedigergruppe, the mountain range around Grossvenediger, Austria’s second highest peak.
We chose to go from the south, from a parking lot near a little village called Streden. Delightful little village. If you like the movie Deliverance, that is. (Those who wish to skip to the description of the ascent itself, please go to the next paragraph starting “Anyway…”)
Our plan was to get to the parking lot in the afternoon, go up the valley and bivouac somewhere above Essener-Rostocker Hut (2208 m) so we could go up Simonyspitze the very next day. We arrived late, but still had about one hour of daylight left, so I thought we would walk at least part of the way without the use of our headlamps. That proved to be an overly optimistic assumption. The parking lot was paid, which we knew beforehand, but it soon became obvious that it was virtually impossible to pay the fee. Which we wanted to pay, since A) we didn’t want to come across as jerks, and B) we didn’t want to receive any unnecessary fine. But there was no one in the parking lot, and you had to have a filled-in parking card behind your windshield – which, according to the sign on the wooden toll-booth, you had to obtain in the tourist center in the next village, Pragraten, if no one was present. We weren’t sure we understood the German instructions correctly – luckily, there was some man just running past us. I said “Hi”, he said “Hi”, I asked “Excuse me, how do I…”, he ran past me like he didn’t see or hear me. No reaction whatsoever. What the fuck? I’d never gotten a non-response like that, and definitely not in the Alps. Never mind, let’s try the tourist center. Closed, open till 6 on weekdays, closed on the weekends. Well, there are never any tourists on the weekends anywhere, are there? We were there on Wednesday, but we certainly didn’t want to wait until the morning to get a parking card, or better yet, to find out that the center was closed anyway.
We went back to the parking lot and looked around, hoping to find someone we could ask. With the exception of a large barn with cows, we didn’t find anybody, so once again, we went back to the tourist center. Although the center was closed, there was someone in one of the two or three offices. The light was on, and he was doing something on a computer. I’ll wait for him, I thought. Sure enough, about ten minutes later, he turned the lights out. He will come out. Just a few seconds. OK, just a few minutes. OK, where is he? I went around the corner to our car, parked next to what must have been his car – the only car around – and waited in the car. Five minutes. Ten minutes. OK, this is getting ridiculous. Well, he is probably scared of us, we thought. It was dark at this point, and yes, our car was just two years shy of becoming a veteran, and yes, it was the shabbiest car one could find in 50 kilometers in any direction. And certainly with the most dirt and bird poo on the roof. Back to the parking lot. We chose to stay until the morning, not because of the damn parking card, which we found out only about half of the cars had on their dashboard, but because it was too late to go anywhere. Two cars came into the parking lot, each time they drove around slowly, and drove away. Around 10 PM, we were sitting in our car with the ceiling light on, when a third car came into the parking lot, with a spotlight mounted on the roof. It stopped, and the driver was searching the nearby hillside with the spotlight. OK, looking for cows. Then he turned the spotlight to the parking lot and started checking the individual cars there, one by one. OK, maybe some municipal employee checking the parking cards. He turned the light to our car, and I stepped out to talk to him. He kept pointing the light at our car and me, and halfway to his car, I waved hello at him. At that point he turned the engine on and drove away. What the fuck? It was dark, but I don’t think I looked like Jack the Ripper, though maybe I did, since no one knows what he looked like.
Anyway, we left the parking lot early in the morning, leaving a note in both English and I think quite OK German saying that we would pay when we got back down from the mountain. The trail up to the hut along the Maurerbach creek is very beautiful, especially once you get above the tree line – the autumn rusty-greenish colors and the character of the landscape reminded us of New Zealand, and we got to snack on blueberries at one of our stops.
After about two and a half hours, we passed the hut and continued up the valley, now flat with just a little elevation. It still looked quite New-Zealandish, grassy with a lot of boulders. We found a nice spot for our tent among a group of big boulders (some of them are nice to climb) and set up camp. At first we intended to at least go to one of the lower peaks nearby, but both of us soon developed a headache and were feeling utterly tired – the lack of sleep prior to our trip and the elevation sucked all the energy and zest out of us, and we decided to rest, go for a dip in the creek, and enjoy the views.
We set out at 4:40 in the morning, in the dark. We went a bit back downstream and turned right onto the SE ridge of Simonyspitze – the path is marked with a sign at the branching. We quickly gained height on the slope. It was quite warm, and I ended up walking just in my T-shirt and cargo shorts, until the wind at a higher altitude talked me into putting my jacket back on.
We reached the rim of the glacier shortly after dawn. Lazy to put on my crampons, I chipped steps into the firn with the tips of my boots to get up the two-hundred-or-so meters of glacier to the rocky part of the ridge, with my ice axe as a walking stick/emergency break. It would, indeed, be one hell of a ride toward the edge of the glacier, and if successful in swooshing over the crevasses, the final jump over the edge of the steep wall to the bottom of the valley might ruin one’s day. I got off the glacier at the first suitable place to climb onto the ridge, whereas my less-lazy, crampon-shod girlfriend continued further up toward what seemed to be an easier way to mount the outcrop. My chosen option was quite all right, though unexpectedly exposed – up to some twenty meters above the glacier, where, in the event of a fall with unbroken limbs, it would still be quite difficult, if not impossible, to take out the ice axe from in between my back and my backpack in time to avoid the jump into the valley. But the climbing was enjoyable (about II UIAA), though a layer of fresh snow on all the holds in the upper part of the climb provided a mild adrenalin surge at one point. Once on the ridge, I continued up the ridge to wait for my girlfriend. Her chosen variant proved to be less suitable than mine, as the terrain there was quite unstable, with a lot of loose rocks. I built a belay station, threw her a rope, and gave her belay.
We continued up the rocky ridge, onto a snowfield, and up another rocky step, this time a lower one, but still entertaining to climb onto. After this step, it is only a few hundred meters’ walk on a glacier to the summit. We tied ourselves to the rope and left a full length of it between us because we didn’t know whether there were going to be cornices at the summit ridge and how big they could be. The ridge turned out not to be that sharp, though I can imagine cornices there at the more narrow parts or with more snow. Still, my girlfriend didn’t feel comfortable getting on the ridge, not to mention continuing a few dozen meters along the ridge toward what seemed to be a slightly higher point – probably the true summit. This part of the ridge was pretty sharp, and I opted not to go there without belay, since I didn’t know how stable the snow was – with the potential prospect of sliding and flying a few hundred meters down onto the heavily crevassed glacier below. Anyway, the summit seemed dwarfed by the western summit of Simonyspitze, a few dozen meters higher. Connecting the two was a sharp rocky ridge, which seemed to offer some interesting, exposed climbing (according to various online sources, there should be some places of II-III UIAA), but it was hard to judge how stable it was from the distance.
We went back down the same way to the spot where I had climbed onto the rocky part of the ridge, where I had climbed onto it. After some reconnaissance, this proved to be the best point to get off the ridge as well. We rappelled down onto the glacier/snow field (a rope really comes in handy here – it is possible to climb down, but not easy, and not really safe, especially with fresh snow on the rock).
On our way down, we admired the nicely eroded rock among the grassy patches on the outcrop of the lower SE ridge before its final drop to the valley. We got back to our tent quite early – around 2 PM, so the whole trip to the summit and back took about 9 hours at a relaxed pace. We had another skinny dip in the creek and went back down to our car, where we eventually spent another night. Again, there was no one there to give the parking fee to, neither in the evening, nor in the morning. But we did pass some friendly locals on our way to the parking lot, so the place lost its Deliverance vibe 🙂
Time needed: At a slow pace, about 2.5 hours from the parking lot in Streden to Essener-Rostocker Hut. A round trip from the hut to the summit and back about 9 hours. Could be easily done as a round trip from the parking lot in one day.
Dangers: Objectively very few, just watch out for loose rocks on the ridge, there may be some rockfall if there are climbers above you (we were there alone). The summit ridge seemed to have potential for cornices.
Equipment needed: Helmet, ice axe, crampons, it is good to have a 50-m rope and some protection to rappel down the 20 meters from the ridge on the way back, especially in more difficult weather conditions, and also for the summit ridge.