The Elusive Hochferner North Face


We left Augburg around 3:40 pm taking back roads through Austria to save toll expenses… in Italy we took the first highway exit and drove down a long valley to the tiny, tiny village Stein… it had 2 houses and a barn. It was a difficult finding the path to take to the parking area, all of the paths had grass growing in the middle like hiking trails. It made us hesitant to drive down them (plus turning around would be impossible!) We stayed on it until we hit some closed gates… that added an additional hike up the 5 hairpin turns to the normal starting point… We got changed, packed our things up and started up. Passing the gate, we noticed that it was not locked, just closed! We jumped back into the car but only made it around the first hairpin turn before we hit snow… we “parked” in a little bay and set off again. Although it was slow going, we did actually make good time getting to the normal starting point and saw the sign pointing us in the right direction. According to all of the literature about this tour, the hike to the bivy shelter should be 1 hour. The real hike began… it started off going though a small wooded area with a little dirt path. There were stones which looked like they had been dipped in silver…they sparkled and reflected in the headlamp light and moonlight. The moon was nearly full providing enough light to hike without lights once we were out of the trees. This part was rather strenuous and involved a lot of steps… very similar to going up flight after flight of stairs… The hill began to plateau out a bit with the mountain ridges on the right side, and a lower rounded grassy ridge on the left side. The two ridges formed a kind of corridor which led to the glaciers at the end. The ground we crossed, was a cross between a field and what looked like tufts of hair on bumps… long shaggy tufts of grass. Little wooden huts where the farmers keep tools to repair fences when they bring the cows up to graze were scattered throughout the valley. We continued on and on and on but didn’t seem to get closer. Far in the distance before the beginning of the glaciers, a slopey ridge from the left sagged down to the right; we hoped that was just blocking sight of the bivy shelter. We had been hiking for over 2 hours already and didn’t seem to be making up ground! After a very difficult and extremely steep climb to the top of this ridge, we still couldn’t see the bivy. We reached the cul de sac of the glaciers now 3 hours into the hike, and the bivy was no where to be seen…we could even see the entrance to our route. The bivy was supposed to be a 15 min. hike from that start…we started wondering if an avalanche ruined it or something… the only possibility that I saw for it to be there but out of sight, was behind a ridge about 2/3rds up the glacier…we could see everything else thanks to the full moon. Around midnight we decided to bivy where we were. It was relatively flat there no danger of avalanche either, so we went to sleep. We woke up rather late for alpine standards, around 6:45. 2 ski touring groups passed through the tiny valley which was just below the ledge we were on. We looked for the bivy shelter in the daylight and did see it up on that ridge I saw last night… it looked tiny from where we were! That meant we still had a good hike before us. We packed up quickly, didn’t even have breakfast, and set out for the bivy. My legs felt the 3 hours hike in last night. In spots of deeper snow, we sometimes broke through the crust of ice sinking up to our ankles, knees, sometimes even to the hip… so it was slow going. After another 2 hours hike, we finally neared the bivy…the last 20meters were rough. We met a David, a Tyrolean guy, in the bivy. We chatted with him while making brunch. By the time we had finished eating, it was shortly before 10. David’s friends called to say they had to turn around because the snow was too deep. He offered us his number to call ahead about the weather conditions next time. We decided to hike back down and try to go rock climbing to save the weekend. His friends arrived, ate a little and they all jumped on their skis and descended in a flash. Eugen and I were more than a little jealous of the skis thinking about how long we would need to hike down. We packed up once again and started back… I chose the “seat-of-my-pants slide” method of descending… it was pretty fast and fun too! Eugen just hiked down. We got back to the car after a while and drove to Innsbruck. We called up David who gave us directions to his house to borrow his climbing guide. We got a few routes each which was good for us for that day. We stopped to get a bottle of wine as a thank you for all the hospitality. When we arrived at David’s to return the book, he was on the way out to throw the trash away. He said “run up and stir for me!” So I went up and stirred his dinner which was cooking on an old-fashioned wood stove. He came back up and told us to sit down, have a glass of wine and he finished cooking…some friends of his came over and we all had dinner together! I couldn’t believe how nice he was to do that! We ended up hanging out until 11pm the end. This weekend was a real lesson in learning to let go of plans to embrace new opportunities, in our case, meet amazing people unexpectedly!

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