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Climbing routes safety check

Guardians of 12,552 Hooks & Eyes

With a total of 20 Rock Climbing Gardens, 8 Via Ferratas and 750 Climbing Routes featuring 12,552 hooks and eyes spread all over the Ötztal Valley it’s not easy to keep track of everything. But Alexander Riml and Ewald Holzknecht have things under control: they take care of safety measures and maintain all climbing and via ferrata routes on behalf of Ötztal Tourismus. Recently we met Alexander at the ALPINTREFF climbing & mountaineering shop in Längenfeld – and wanted to know more about everyday work. Talking about angle grinders, cordless drills, alternating frost and thaw periods.

Safety check at the start of season

Every year in the Easter time, even before the climbing season starts in Ötztal, Alexander and Ewald head for the very first safety checks in the valley’s climbing gardens and via ferratas. Mainly because frost and thaw can loosen rocks over the winter months, Alexander explains.

Due to the huge number of routes a detailed plan is required in order to examine all official climbing areas in different intervals. It is of utmost importance that all routes are checked and maintained on a regular basis to guarantee a maximum of safety.

The maintenance works also strongly depend on how much frequented the climbing and via ferrata routes are. Standard routes of certain difficulty levels and high climbing frequency must be checked yearly and in certain intervals while other, less frequented routes with long ascents and high difficulty are checked not that often.

A unique and well tried & tested system

Making safety checks of all climbing routes is not the only duty during a long climbing season. Therefore Ötztal Tourismus employs two local, certified mountain guides and ski instructors who have developed an entire concept. Among the great advantages is their long experience in the industrial climbing sector.

Following a certain scheme, all climbing hot spots – like the much frequented Stuibenfall Via Ferrata – are examined and marked if necessary. Hazards, loose rocks, damaged hooks are taken down in the minutes and reported to Ötztal Tourismus. Afterwards Alex and Ewald are ready to solve the problems. A note is made of every activity, like drilling new hooks etc.

According to the danger level, maintenance works are completed on the spot and immediately or within a maximum of 2 days. Of course, also climbers and guests in Ötztal can contact Ötztal Tourismus if they notice loose footholds or handholds. The tourist office will pass on the information to our experts Alex and Ewald who will check the spot.

This pre-defined cycle of work also guarantees a very high level of safety. And it has been working very well over the last years, Alex states. If climbers actively contact the tourist board it is very important to explain the problem and to describe its location exactly. Which route is it? After how many pitch lengths did you notice the problem? Where is the loose hook: is it the second, fourth or sixth one? The more detailed the information is the better – and the quicker – we can solve the problem.

Tricky distance between the hooks

Alex and Ewald are the main contact point when it comes to safety on Ötztal’s climbing routes as they are responsible for 80% of all maintenance works and safety checks. But there are also other certified mountain guides who give a helping hand sometimes.

What is the biggest challenge during their work on the rocks? Alex explains that the distance between the single hooks can be a quite tricky question. It is an absolute must to keep to the obligatory distance guidelines – which is not always easy. Especially if a loose hook is changed and a new drill hole is required, it happens that there is not always enough space.

Using heavy devices

Not only the obligatory distance between hooks represents a true challenge for Alex and Ewald, also the heavy devices they must use in dizzy heights and precipitous rock areas. A good physical shape is absolutely required, in addition to cordless angle grinders, heavy drilling machines and other special tools.

Maintenance and safety measures for via ferratas require an even bigger driller compared to other climbing routes – so the backpack can weigh up to 15 kilograms, comprising also glue, steel ropes, hooks, handholds and footholds. A truly impressive performance for body and mind, sometimes hundreds of meters above the ground!

Asking Alex about his favorite climbing area in Ötztal, he can’t give a precise answer. The passionate outdoor sports fan is totally enthusiastic about the endless variety of rock climbing routes in the valley. What’s best, you can change from Ötztal’s granite rocks to Haiming’s limestone walls, for example, within almost no time.

Another advantage of the valley’s routes is the high safety standard compared to other Alpine climbing regions. Alex knows everything about suitable diameters of hooks and distances between hooks, footholds and handholds. Ötztal Tourismus came up with several own initiatives to develop further safety measures. With this in mind: have a memorable 2020 climbing season!

Benedikt Steiner

Author: Benedikt Steiner

When it comes to activity and motion, Benni pricks up his ears! He is a passionate snowboarder, mountain biker, climber & hiker and he knows no better playground for outdoor sports than the Ötztal.

He is not the type to sit still - therefore Benni can be often found on the valley's most exciting bike trails and pristine powder snow slopes.