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24 hours at Wildspitze Peak

The author and photographer Bernd Ritschel has climbed North Tirol's highest mountain several times. His last peak conquest, however, ended just before the summit amid dense fog, rain and storm. His experiences show that the necessary climb down - among the unleashed forces of nature - does not stand for frustration but is rich in insights, experiences and memories.

Starting the tour in excellent weather

It's a cloudless August day as we hike from Stablein towards Breslauer Hütte. At the height of Rofenbach brook I said to Andi, my companion on this tour: "We are really lucky! The weather forecast for the next four days is just perfect. We will probably never have better conditions for our summit bivouac at Wildspitze this summer."

We treat ourselves to a short rest with apple juice and soda on the sunny terrace of Breslauer Hütte. Other mountaineers at the neighboring tables already celebrate their summit conquest of Wildspitze. We listen curiously to their stories: "Top-notch conditions, brilliant panoramic vistas, what a mountain…." We continue our tour with confidence. There is no breeze at Mitterkar cirque.

Vent Summer Breslauer Hütte

Up to Mitterkarjoch under perfect conditions

Even in the steep snow trough towards the via ferrata under Mitterkarjoch we don't need crampons. The conditions are really perfect. We climb over dry rocks into the narrow gap.

Our backpacks are heavier than usual as we want to bivouac overnight directly under the summit cross of 3770-meter high Wildspitze - on a small sleeping mat, warmed by the down feathers of the light sleeping bag. In the gap we put on the climbing harnesses, connect with the rope, put on a jacket, hat and gloves. A few bands of cloud are moving in from the northwest.

An icy storm approaches

We quickly climb up towards the summit ridge. All of a sudden the clouds get even denser, fog envelops us, the wind gets much stronger. Temperatures suddenly drop by at least 15 degrees. At the foot of the summit ridge we brace against hissing gusts of wind. We struggle with reality beyond the current weather forecast.

"Andi, let's go on, it will surely brighten up again soon," I suggest. But only 20 meters below the summit we can no longer feel our fingers. Our feet are ice cold, the storm draws all energy out of our bodies. With every step it becomes clearer: Today a summit bivouac is impossible.


Returning 20 meters below the summit

Without a word we decide to climb down again. We can't understand this bizarre situation. As we descend across the glacier, a "white out" swallows us: Zero visibility. Should we give up? Withstand?

Back at Mitterkarjoch I ask Andi if he is ready for a bivouac here. It should soon brighten up again ... Protected from the wind by a hollow, we prepare hot tea on the gas stove and then crawl into our thin sleeping bags. But things get even worse: Squalls take sleet and fresh snow into our sleeping bags.

Bivouac at Mitterkarjoch

Sleepless under the summit of Wildspitze. Time creeps like a snail. My thoughts go back to the past. I have been to the highest mountain in North Tirol many times in the last 30 years. I climbed all Wildspitze ridges. Even the icy north face, and I found my way over the wildest boulders and blocks. As a photographer looking for the most atmospheric light, I usually started out alone or with someone at night.

Sometimes we followed old tracks over Mittelbergferner glacier in the light beam of our headlamps, sometimes we went across the crevasses of the wild Taschachferner. Once at the summit cross, the traditional "Berg Heil" was always followed by an emotional hug. We were so happy, lived the mountain and our dreams. Strange. The memories of "fair weather mountain hiking" are so pale. But why? Does sunshine make mountain experiences interchangeable?

Midnight – Descending in the storm

Everything is soaking wet. The sleeping bag down sticks together into thick lumps. My body is shaking uncontrollably. "Andi, I can't go on, let's get down," I ask my companion.

With clammy fingers we stuff the equipment into our backpacks. We start a fairly demanding descent. The light beams of the headlamps only reach a few meters in the inferno of snow, fog and sleet. Both the rock and the steel cables are covered with a thin layer of ice - we have to be damn careful.

Finally the weather calms down a bit. Protected by a stone wall, we lay down on our mats for the second time that night - in soaking wet sleeping bags. I feel the elemental force of nature with every muscle fiber of my body. Again my thoughts are capricious. And show me that the storm experiences are actually burned into my memory most clearly. I was only 15 years old and had been traveling all alone for two weeks across the Ötztal Alps. Inspired by the desire to become a successful alpinist, I had already climbed 20 three thousand meter high peaks in the Ötztal Alps in such a short time.

Time for memories

Back then, on 12 August 1979, from Braunschweiger Hütte I saw the glacier fields and crevasses of Mittelbergferner and all of a sudden my ambitions as a soloist were partly destroyed. Wet air creeps deeper and deeper into my bones, sleeping is out of the question. I think of Chris from Essex, England. I met him as a fifteen year old soloist in the anteroom of Braunschweiger Hütte. He was quite a filthy guy but very cheerful. Thick raindrops slapped against the window and snow could be seen further up. We were the only ones who set off towards Wildspitze that day, worriless and wild with strong nerves and tough, just as I imagined the perfect alpinist at that time.

We both only had the bare essentials: crampons and ice pick. Spontaneously we joined forces for this weather-beaten day. As a team we felt strong. Much safer, too, after Chris had pulled an old rope out of the depths of his backpack. The only disadvantage of this rather symbolic connection: It was made of thin, old hemp. Probably an old clothesline. We were the only ones on the mountain and fought our way through thunderstorms, hail and heavy snow showers towards the summit of Wildspitze. When we congratulated each other on the summit cross, the clouds cleared as if by magic. And Chris began to sing euphorically with his deep voice: "Here comes the sun". Since then, this Beatles song has been my symbolic anthem for every feeling of happiness in the mountains.

The spook is over now

The last stars are fading high above Ötztal's main mountain ridge. The pale colors of twilight replace the blackness of the night. I've been hearing voices for a few minutes now.

With my head out of the sleeping bag hood I can see them: The first rope teams from nearby Breslauer Hütte are already following the narrow path into Mitterkar. Some groups follow a mountain guide quietly and devoutly. Others are chatting excitedly, looking around curiously. What might the day bring? In any case, it is cloudless.


Fried egg and bacon as one and only consolation

Probably Alexander Scheiber, the hut tenant of Breslauer Hütte, thinks we are rather weird types when he serves a truly splendid breakfast with fried eggs and bacon on the hut terrace. Andi and I had laughing fits in a row, in between we shake our heads in disbelief. Our senses are completely overwhelmed by the nightly adventure in two wet and cold bivouacs, the emotions gallop off. But there is one thing we enjoy to the full: The warming sun.

Cheery and lively we hike down towards Stablein in the sunshine. And at some point I just have to tell Andi: "Hey man, forget about the summit. We lived a true adventure. A damn impressive one."

Bernd Ritschel

Guest author Bernd Ritschel

Bernd Ritschel loves and has explored the Ötztal Alps since he was a child and young adult. Born in the upper Bavarian village of Wolfratshausen in 1963, now he lives together with his family in Kochel am See. For more than 25 years already, his great passion has been photographing and describing the Ötztal Valley and its adjacent mountain areas.

Several illustrated books about the Ötztal Alps, varied calendars, exhibitions, posters and series of postcards give an insight into his varied talents and the great love for this Alpine region.