Travel

Austria’s Iron Road: Putting it All on the Line

An adrenaline-pumping climb, up and over the jagged peaks, high above St. Anton.

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It took three gondolas to get to base camp. Then we walked a half hour above treeline, over and through the snow-covered rocks. At the junction of two trails was an aluminum signpost. I noticed that instead of pointing towards the ridge, the arrow was directing people over the side of the cliff. I asked my guide about it. “Oh,” he said. Then he grabbed the metal pole at its base and spun it, so it was facing the other way. He picked up a rock and wedged it between the pole and the ground. “The wind always blows it around.” I looked up the ridge. Clouds were once again covering the tops of the peaks. It had been a complete whiteout earlier, and then it had cleared, and then it got cloudy again. Down below it was clear, and I could see the small village in the valley from which I set out that morning.

The village of St. Anton, and the Austrian state of Tyrol as a whole, is well-known throughout the world for its skiing. On my first day, I commented to a local about the steep mountains and tight valleys. She told me that this is very typical of Tyrol, where the steep, rolling terrain allows for only 12% of the land to be built upon.  I have no idea where she came up with that number, but looking at the landscape, it was easy to believe her.

The most famous local is Hannes Schneider, considered to be one of the founding fathers of ski instruction in Europe and Japan (after World War II, he helped popularize the sport in New Hampshire and trained the 10th Mountain Division of the U.S. Army). St. Anton is one of those places where even when it is summer, the locals are looking towards winter, both personally and professionally. Here in September, with the sun shining and the sky as blue as can be, most shops and restaurants are closed due to a lack of clientele. But there’s still a lot of work being done. Locals chop wood in their front yards. Caterpillars roam the green slopes, moving rocks, building jumps, and repairing avalanche barriers.

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It was truly offseason in Austria, and I was happy about it. One of my favorite things as a traveler is exploring a destination when no one else does. It’s always cheaper, and more importantly, when you can really discover local secrets. In my case, I was interested in how that same steep terrain that entices skiers turns into epic climbing opportunities during in the summer. The Austrian Alps has over 100 via ferratas, also known as “iron roads,” courses that combine alpine hiking and rock climbing. The country’s first, known locally as the Arlberger Klettersteig, was built in 1988 right here in St. Anton (in conjunction with two others in the Otztal Valley). Completely exposed above treeline, climbers go up and over four consecutive crags before reaching the summit at just above 9,000 feet.

With the sign now pointing in the right direction, we walked on and stopped at the base of a large boulder, where the end of the steel cable was bolted into the rock. I tightened my harness and clipped the carabiner onto the cable. At each junction where a bolt secured the cable — approximately every 10-20 feet — I would have to switch my carabiners over to the other side. My guide instructed me to move one at a time, ensuring that one was always on the cable. We would pass plaques along the way in memory of those who had failed to uphold this law of climbing.

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The first section was representative of the extremes I would experience the rest of the way. It has to be this way, my guide told me, you have to weed people out right away before you go too far. I went straight up, using both the cable and the rock to climb the 30-foot vertical wall. Half way, I paused on the wall, holding on with one hand and switching the carabiners over with the other. At the top, I swung my feet over and assumed a rappelling position, my toes engaged on the wall and my hands on the cable.

Walking down the wall, I descended down halfway, switched over the carabiners, and then went down the rest of the way. For the next four and a half hours, it would be this same sort of intense, tedious climbing that required not only the strength to make the ascents and descents, but the guts to trust the wire, to pause on the side of a vertical wall and switch over the carabiners. Cloud coverage blew in and out. On one hand, it took away the view. On the other, it made things a hell of a lot more dramatic. The ridgeline was like the back of a stegosaurus, and we climbed over boulders and shimmied sideways across ledges. My guide said he liked to think of it as a bunch of shark teeth. The route was very narrow, always coming to a point with the cliff dropping off on either side. This was definitely the case as we climbed the last crag to the summit, seeing down into the valleys on either side.

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Despite that beautiful view, I can say quite honestly that, after hours of climbing up, over, and around things, reaching the summit was anticlimactic. It was the one place I felt totally safe and comfortable, a large area where I could unclip and walk around. In a way, that feeling of safety let the air out of the adrenaline balloon. But the excitement was far from over. We were at 9,000 feet, and now we had to climb down another 1,000 feet or so. It was a nice change of perspective, looking down instead of up. About halfway down, my guide stopped on the wall, hanging by his harness. I climbed down next to him. He was looking at one of the bolts. It was bent in half, like the top half of a question mark. I asked him what happened. “Ice,” he said. “It will break soon. We’ll fix it next spring.”

We crossed over it and moved on. It was not the first time he had pointed out something that had been ravaged by the weather, something that needed to be repaired next year. I had seen my fair share of bent bolts and frayed cables. I made a mental note that if I ever climbed this route again, I would try to go in the middle of the summer, after the bolts and cables had been repaired at the beginning of the season. When we reached the end of the via ferrata, we packed up our gear and set off by foot down towards the valley. It was a half hour hike across the hillsides to the car we had staged. Looking back over his shoulder, my guide pointed up towards the summit. “A blizzard is coming,” he said. I looked at the dark clouds and then at him. What he meant to say was thunderstorm, but his English had failed him in the moment. I found it funny. And ironic. It was just another reminder that in these mountains, and for these locals, winter is always on the brain and, like Christmas, never as far away as it may seem.

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