Gimpel Left Me Gimpy

After my first summer of rock climbing on a fairly regular basis, I tried my first alpine climb. A guy (Karl) from the climbing center offered to take me to climb the Neue Südostkante (new southeast ridge) of the Gimpel mountain, in the Tannheimer valley. It was a 6+ tour with only a few pitches in that difficulty. He said he could lead the tricky pitches (or the whole thing) if I wasn’t comfortable. We drove to Tannheim Austria and hiked a short, steep trail to the Gimpelhütte, a private hut. It was a huge building with several stories of rooms and a large terrace where people were enjoying their lunches and beers in the sun. After checking in, we still had daylight to enjoy and hiked to the Tannheimerhütte, a very small hut run by the German mountain club. Their tiny terrace was packed with mountain enthusiasts of all ages. We found a spot at a table and ordered a beer to cool off. The view was exceptional in the summer sun, the colors of the valley and rocks surrounding us were vibrant. Karl pointed out the summit of the Gimpel which stood sovereign over the roof of the small hut in the distance. It was an attractive looking rock face, high above the hills around it. This was to be my first alpine climb, I didn’t know what I was in for and enjoyed my cold wheat beer. We returned to our hut to prepare for bed. Karl said that it was a busy route, we would have to leave early to avoid waiting in line to climb it. The next morning we awoke to the usual noise of a hut, at such early hours. The wooden floors and thin walls carried the sounds of climbers, hikers and families bustling around. Breakfast was rather minimal so I ate as much bread as I could knowing it would be a while until I we ate again. We grabbed our gear and started the approach to the Gimpel. The trail led up and down green meadows and around rock faces and boulders until we reached a large slope of rubble, thrown down over the years from the face. The long trail led zigzag through the rubble up to the face. We put our helmets on as falling rocks were not uncommon (aka huge rubble pile). There were people hiking and climbing everywhere. Teams of climbers hung at different stages in different routes in the wall. A team was just beginning our route so we had time to wait. They continually loosened pebbles and small rocks during their ascent. A woman and her son arrived to climb the same route behind us. We let them start before us thinking that they would be faster since I was a beginner in the alpine climbing scene. The woman didn’t seem to have had much experience herself and took a very long time reaching the first stand. She kicked a good sized rock down inspiring us to let them get 2 pitches in before we started. While we were waiting, we heard several rock avalanches going down and I started getting nervous about our route. I guess it wasn’t uncommon to hear that sort of thing here, the rock was all limestone which is crumbly and brittle. We tied in and were ready to go. Karl started up the rock reaching the first stand quickly. We changed the belay and I got ready to climb. The first pitch was not technically difficult and offering a lot of hand and foot placements. I noticed quickly how many, great looking holds were either loose or nearly loose. If you “knock” on the rock, you can get a sense of how solid it is and if it might hold you. I focused all of my energy on moving statically to not provoke any of the holds to break off. Climbing up second, I unclipped the quick-draws Karl had placed during his ascent. I noticed the distance between the bolts was considerably further apart compared to sport climbing which is between 1-2 meters generally. The bolts were up to 5 or 6 meters apart! There were several places where the route took a left or right meaning traversing the rock sideways to the next bolt. Even seconding a pitch, the danger of falling was consequential due to the traverses and distance between the bolts. It was an unfamiliar feeling climbing up without audible or visual contact with the belayer. All in all I had climbed the first pitch quite cleanly and felt good about the tour. We switched the gear and I took over the belaying position. He continued on to the next anchor and I followed up again. This second pitch went more smoothly as I got more accustomed to the rock. At the second stand, I agreed to lead the next pitch and continued on past Karl and made my way up the rock. I then realized how difficult it could be to actually find the route through the rock… sometimes you had to climb blindly up until the next bolt came into sight, and even then it was had to determine if the bolt belonged to our route or one of the neighboring ones. I reached the next stand without any major problems and built the anchor to belay Karl up. He arrived in a flash and took over the next pitch which was rated 5+. The fourth pitch started with a kind of a mini-overhang where height helped… Once I was able to get over that belly, the rest of the pitch was shaky. I had used up a lot of nerve and strength. Our route went further and further up the mountain. I wasn’t interested in leading anything anymore and was relieved that Karl was ok with that. The final 2 pitches were the crux areas. Both were 6 or 6+ and slab climbing. I had not had any experience with slabs and found inching my way up with the tiny holds very technical. The slab rock was bombproof which was a relief, but there seemed to be nothing to hold onto and no where to stand. During the very last pitch, I followed the rope along the rock and came to a kind of steep slab where there was literally nothing to hold onto. The rock had dimples. It looked like hail damage on a car, but nothing to hold my weight. I managed to get my feet up high into two little “dimples” and inched my way up the rock with my upper body to stand upright hoping to find something to hold onto there. I did find something, not quite what I was hoping for; there were two 1 finger holes. I used them. I looked everywhere but found smooth rock in every direction. I had no clue of how to move from this position. A voice found its way down the rock to me, it was Karl’s and he said that I should keep to the right on the slab and not follow the rope. Hmm… too late I thought. I had to find a way to climb down to go to the right, but how? There was nothing I could hold onto to even lower myself. I didn’t see anyway of doing this delicately and asked him to take the rope in to help support my weight while I lowered myself off the 2 finger holes. I made it back to a place where I could climb to the right and up around the slab I just got stuck on.
After about 10 more minutes of climbing, I reached the top so drained but totally filled with happiness. Happy to have reached the top, happy to have not gotten hurt, happy to not be climbing anymore! We walked up over to the summit cross and I sat down leaning up against it. I was totally empty. Physically, mentally… I was done for. I sat there not moving for at least 45 minutes. There were people all around up there but I didn’t really take notice of them. For the first time probably ever, I was absolutely powered out both physically and mentally. It was a great and horrible feeling at the same time. There were about 3 times where I didn’t think I was going to make it, my heart was racing and I had the feeling that I stopped breathing. What I had now was a total adrenaline rush and complete exhaustion, all in one. We ate a few muesli bars and had some water before starting the descent. I hate down-hiking; I am the worst down-hiker in the world. We slowly made our way down the “normal” path involving some down-climbing in rather easy terrain, From there it was through the rubble where we could “ski/slide/run” down. Rocks and pebbles gave way under our weight similar to that of sand and cushioned the impact of the steps, it was a really fun and fast way of descending. I found that the smaller the rocks, the easier it was to “run” down. We followed the path back to the hut for a cold beer. We ran into Jakob and his girlfriend (friends from our climbing center) on the terrace. After enjoying the warmth of the sun and the comfort of sitting, it was time to descend to the car and go home. We picked up the rest of our gear from the hut making it feel ike I had cement blocks on my feet thanks to the extra weight and fatigue of the day. We hiked down and reached the car before dusk.
It was an amazing day out for me. I don’t think I have ever experienced so many different feelings all in one day. Ice hockey is strenuous, but I have never been mentally exhausted from it, and there have been times that I have been mentally exhausted but not physically. The alpine climbing really had it in it as far as total body fatigue goes. The exposure gives you a feeling that you just don’t get from sport climbing… I was looking forward to trying it out again!

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