High Peaks of Austria: Part 1 – Similaun

Spending time in the mountains is to me as essential as breathing. When I have spent much time at sea or confined to an area devoid of noticeable loftiness the mountain itch creeps back in. That is why in spring of 2018 I was very excited to be offered a job as a ski instructor in Sölden, Austria. I had specifically applied to work in Sölden based on a friend’s recommendation and because it lay in Ötztal, the home of many of Austria’s highest peaks – cloud piercers reaching well over 3000 meters above sea level. 

I was very happy working as a ski instructor for Skischule Sölden Hochsölden. During the day I would take groups of kids out skiing and in the mornings/evenings I would have time for my own skiing/personal development. It was a great opportunity to build up stamina and improve my skiing ability.  

When some free days came up other activities or adventures were planned, and fortunately I had made a few mountain crazy friends to share them with. The previous year at a bar in Longyearbyen, Svalbard I had randomly met a guy from Bavaria, Germany. He was an adventurer named Christoph and what we had in common was beer, the German language and of course, a love of mountains! When he heard I was headed to the Alps, he invited me to join him on a skiing trip with some of his friends at an alpine hut. After the trip we vowed to keep in contact through the spring and plan some ambitious high mountain adventures… And that is what we did!

The Plan

In March, Christoph and his friend David decided they wanted to ski and climb Austria’s sixth highest peak and contacted me to see if I’d like to join them. OF COURSE I wanted to join them and together we planned to summit Similaun at 3606 meters (that is some eight Empire State Buildings stacked)!

The attempt was to take place over the course of a couple days (15-16th of March 2018) that had a favorable weather window. They met me in Sölden and we packed all that was needed. We didn’t need much in terms of camping equipment, as we would be staying at a mountain hut the night before the summit push. The mountain huts in Austria generally provide you with a basic place to sleep, food and drink – essentially all that you need. Usually the only things needed to bring for the huts are a sleeping bag liner and cash, Austria seems to run almost exclusively on cash, especially in the mountains. What did however weigh our bags down (besides wads of cash) was the glacier and avalanche safety equipment, and some choice snacks (i.e. chocolate). 

Fridrik (me), David and Christoph

Packed and ready we then headed deeper into the Ötztal valley to the small village of Vent, sitting comfortably at about 1890 meters. This is where we parked the car and from where we started our journey upwards. Starting in the early afternoon it wouldn’t be a long way to go, only 8 kilometers and 650 meters of elevation gain to Martin Busch Hütte (hut) at 2501 meters. We arrived there early enough to go out for a session of rescue training near the hut, it was a chance to sync our knowledge and responses to an incident. Bedtime came soon after dinner, as we needed to get up early the next morning, to set off at daybreak.

Heading up the valley from Vent
Afternoon rescue training

The following morning started with a quick breakfast and eager anticipation as we geared ourselves up for the big push. It started out as a grey, cloudy and somewhat snowy morning and we had approximately another 8 kilometers ahead of us with an elevation gain of 1105 meters. Our route would follow the valley West of the hut and from there turn South upon Niederjochferner, a glacier flowing down from Similaun. 

Given the time of year everything was covered in a thick layer of snow and with the recent weather, we had gotten a fresh layer of powder on top. This meant that every step of getting over the moraine (the rock debris in front of the glacier) was a challenge. It had sapped a lot of strength, but we trudged on, eventually using the gradual ascent of the glacier to our advantage. 

As it progressed towards midday the greyness lifted to reveal a beautiful blue-sky day. This development made the progress up the glacier somewhat more pleasant, as we could gradually see our goal revealing itself more and more. 

There was definitely a “gentle” breeze near the top as we saw clouds and snow whipping over the ridgeline. This is where we saw fellow mountaineers that had also taken a chance on the weather window, so we were not all alone on the mountain, not that we minded sharing the summit. At the ridgeline it was time to take off the skis, as the last few hundred meters were too narrow and steep to attempt it with them on.

Similaun ridgeline

The Summit

Near the summit, the last few meters turned out to be the most gruelling test of strength and endurance, intensified by how well or poorly we were acclimated to the higher elevation. As soon as you start to exceed 3000 meters of elevation you notice a difference in the oxygen level and your capability to keep going at your normal pace. I was probably the most acclimated, given that I had been spending the last weeks skiing at elevation in my job as a ski instructor, but for David and Christoph coming straight from the plains of Bavaria, it was more of a challenge. 

The summit cross was within our reach, only a few steps further, so together we motivated each other to push on! Reaching the top of Similaun together was incredible! I felt a sense of elation and accomplishment; it was my highest peak since 2013 when I climbed Mulhacén, the highest mountain in continental Spain. From the top of Similaun we could look across an endless sea of snowy peaks, including several of Austria’s highest! It was beautiful, and I knew then and there that I wanted more of this view and summit feeling! 

Summit of Similaun with David and Christoph
Panorama view from the summit of Similaun

We took a mandatory summit selfie and then soon after started making our way down the ridgeline. Humans are not meant to live on snowy mountaintops and it was mighty cold. Once at the ski depot we got ourselves strapped in, skins off, downhill mode engaged, and off we went at full speed down the glacier. We were able make quick turns in the powder; hollering and screeching like little boys, enjoying the rewards of the climb. For me personally this was one of the most satisfying downhill experiences ever, even up until today! 

Once back in the valley and nearing the Martin Busch Hütte things flattened out a bit and became a more gradual and controlled decent towards Vent and the car. We made it all the way down just before 14:00 and were super stoked, but also quite worn out and hungry. I invited David and Christoph to my place in Sölden for a post-summit Käsespätzle (the Austrian version of macaroni and cheese), home-made of course and very cheesy. With bellies full and spirits high on summit glory, we reveled in our achievement and dreamt of future lofty adventures…

Down in Vent, well worn, but happy