The village of St. Anton, and the Austrian state of Tyrol as a whole, is known throughout the world for its skiing. Steep mountains and tight valleys are so typical, a local told me, that only a tiny portion of the land can be built upon. In late 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; even in the height of summer, the locals here are always looking towards winter, both personally and professionally.
Yes, it was truly offseason in Austria, and I was happy about it. With the winter crowds gone, the locals were getting work done, chopping wood in their front yards and steering Caterpillars across the green snow-less ski slopes, or just taking a breather and letting their hair down, biking and hiking and climbing. I wasn’t there to watch the preparations. My ambition was to conquer St. Anton’s via ferrata.
Also known as “iron roads,” via ferratas are found in mountainous regions all over the world. In a combination of alpine hiking and rock climbing, climbers clip onto a steel cable and follow its path, typically over ridges, peaks, steep walls, and other highly exposed terrain. Austria has over a hundred today, but the country’s first, known as the Arlberger Klettersteig, was built in 1988 right here in St. Anton; it’s three kilometers long, entirely above treeline, and leads climbers up and over four consecutive crags before reaching the summit at just over 9,000 feet. For someone like me, a competent hiker with limited technical mountaineering experience, it seemed an exciting and safe way to gain climbing experience.
In a combination of alpine hiking and rock climbing, climbers clip onto a steel cable and follow its path, typically over ridges, peaks, steep walls, and other highly exposed terrain.
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 to 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.
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 they get too far.) I went straight up, using both the cable and the rock to climb a 30-foot vertical wall. Halfway, 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 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. The ridgeline was like the back of a stegosaurus. We climbed over boulders and shimmied sideways across ledges. The route was narrow, always coming to a point with cliffs dropping off on either side. As we climbed the last crag to the summit, I could see clearly down into the valleys on either side. The peak itself was a large area where I could walk around, unharnessed, for the first time since our ascent had begun.
The descent was 1,000 feet of rappelling and re-clipping. Halfway down, my guide stopped on the wall and hung 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.
When we finally reached the bottom, we hung our helmets from our packs and set off by foot down the uneven, grassy hillsides towards the valley. 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, puzzled. His English had failed him — what he meant to say was thunderstorm. It was just another reminder that in these mountains, and for these locals, winter is always on the brain, and never as far away as it may seem.