Danube and Dachstein, Austria 
Tuesday, October 23, 2018, 02:14 AM - Trips
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My birthday weekend landed in the middle of a work trip to Vienna, so I took the opportunity to visit an old friend: Zee Alps. I rented a car and after work drove into the heart of the city to find the via ferrata equipment I needed. It was a mess. The parking garages were full, tourists and locals were everywhere at 4pm on a Friday, and I couldn't read any of the signs. Somehow I managed to drive my manual Renault Captur past St. Stephan's Dom, through the cobblestone streets and locate a parking area close to the Alpenverein Austria, whose website claimed that climbing equipment could be rented. As it turned out, you needed to be a member of the club to rent, so as opposed to paying the €61 member fee, I found another nearby store to purchase a Edelrid Cable Kit for €120. (Shocking that I don't own one already, I know!) I picked up some supplies and set the alarm for 6am.

Thankfully the dark streets were empty in the morning and I made a quick exit for the Danube. I crossed the river at Mautern an der Donau and snapped a few photos of the dawn glow over the river. The sun rose on the way to Dürnstein and I was treated to foggy, glow on the Burgruine Dürnstein castle around the corner. I took a quick walk around town along the river and up to the Monastery and Church and then continued on up the Wachau Valley. In Spitz, the terraced wine hills glowed in the morning sun and I cruised through the backroads to a spectacularly decorated graveyard by the Weingut Hofstätter winery. The town was a postcard picture in every direction. Then I climbed up to the Hinterhaus castle and it only got better! There wasn't a single person in sight, the morning fog was burning off the Danube, and the hillside vineyards stretched as far as the eye could see. I climbed to the top of the castle with delight and snapped photos. What a great start to my day and it was only 9am! Upstream, I doubled back at Melk to visit Burgruine Aggstein. I wasn't able to absorb too much of the history written in German, but really appreciated the 12th-century design and the view of the valley.

At this point, I headed southwest past Linz and into the Alps. Tunnel after tunnel past and I arrived in Liezen nestled in a glacier carved valley in the state of Styria. I passed pristine farmland with steep mountain backdrops until reaching the ski town of Schladming. I stopped off at the info center and asked what a nice ~2 hike they recommended. I ended up selecting the "Holl" trail up Riesach Waterfalls which included a suspension bridge and an obstacle course of metal stairways through the canyon. It was fun. After the 10th waterfall the trail cut left and popped out in an open area with a glacial lake and surprisingly, Gfölleralm Inn, packed with trailrunners and others travelers enjoying a late lunch or bier. I grabbed a well-deserved half liter of Schladminger and basked in the afternoon sun. It felt great. The people watching was topnotch as well - groups of various sizes would stop in to rest and have a drink before making the final descent to the Seeleiten Car Park. This was part of the 18 km Klafferkessel King's Tour route that included 1759 m of climbing, so I'm guessing many of the guests were completing similar excursions. (BTW Make sure to add that to the to-do list.) I made the descent and only got lost once attempting a risky shortcut. I drove across the valley and climbed the switchbacks to Ransau am Dachstein. I checked into Pension Rötelstein, a ski chateau overlooking green horse pastures. The hosts recommended getting dinner at Alpengasthaus Edelbrunn. I sat on their deck enjoying pork cooked with pumpkin seeds, potatoes, bacon wrapped green beans, and a beer as the sun set over the distant peaks.

The next day was my birthday, so I set my sights on a challenging task: tying together three via ferratas called Anna, Johann and Schulter up Hoher Dachstein - the combined "Super Ferrata" is Austria's longest secured climbing route. This adventure would require 1200 m of climbing, so I made sure to start early. Just as the first rays of reflected alpenglow were reaching the base of the tram, I started trekking towards Dachstein Südwandhutte. It was 6:35am and I was excited for my day. I got some beta from the hotel owners: the glacier traverse would be safe since it's snowcatted daily, but the via ferratas might not have many people. Since I was solo, I did want some others around in the case of an accident. Luckily, there was a group of 3 from Salzburg in front of me, so I'd be able to yell to them if I had any problems. I geared up at the base of the climb and watched as a couple groups in front of me slowly worked their way up. Interestingly, the Ramsau/Dachstein area is very well known for Klettersteigen (Via Ferratas "Iron Paths"). There are 21 fixed cable routes in the area and the route up the Dachstein was installed in 1843. These were used in WWI and eventually upgraded in the 1970s to the modern versions that exist today.

I started out very poorly on Anna. It was hard! I didn't have the technique so I made a number of mistakes and had to constantly pull the lanyards up to switch to the next section of cable. Unlike the via ferrata that I remember being easy in Zermatt, this required some rock climbing moves in addition to just pulling on the iron pins. After a couple hundred feet I was tired and stressed. If this is rated C/D, what's the D/E-rated Johann going to be like? After struggling and over muscling myself up the first section, the difficulty lightened and I got to work on technique. I mastered quickly clipping and sliding the carabiners along with me. Before long, I found a rhythm. An experienced climber using a single attachment passed me and I asked about the Johann. He said that it was similar to this except there was one overhanging part that gave it the D/E grade. Interesting. Over the next hour or so I finished off the route and found a couple guys with a topo of the route that I should have printed. It showed that the E grade move was at the start of the climb, so I figured I should at least have a look. As I approached, there were a couple women working on the move. The first made it look easy and then the second climbed up but couldn't pull over the top, lowered down and then fell. She was caught by her gear, spun upside-down and sat there for a minute talking to her partner in German. Her partner down-climbed the moves and we helped get her off the cable. Unfortunately her bungee was torn (as designed) but was no longer usable. This is the bad part of this equipment - it's a one-shot deal. You don't get a 2nd chance. And if you're on a 500+ m route, there might be a lot of distance between you and the exit. Fortunately, the ladies could just head down from there.

Having seen the person in front of me fall, I cautiously tried the moves. It turned out to be a fairly easy ~10 ft of upper-body work to clear the overhang and move on. Honestly, it's quite straightforward when rested. It's always nice on the top side of the crux. The rest was just good fun and the middle section looked like a Yosemite big wall! It was sick. I worked up the the group of 3 in front of me and we finished the climb together as the cold wind picked up. You cross over to the otherside and there's a hut and a crowd that walked from the top of the tram. It's a little bizarre. I took a few bites of a brie and Hauswürstel sausage sandwich and walked across the glacier to the final klettersteig. It was close to noon and since I had a good 3.5 hr drive back to Vienna to go, I got straight to work. The Schulter route was easier than the others, but before long the route turned to ice and my shoes would slip on the rock and pins. Luckily I brought some yaktraks and put those on. It worked like a charm - I gripped the ice and could hold the rock/iron reasonably. By this point, I was tired and considered bailing, but it was still early and the weather was great on that side of the mountain. I scurried up the to the summit of Styria/Upper Austria and the massive cross at the top. It was a good feeling and great to do it for my birthday. 12:30 on the summit!

I down-climbed the route carefully but passed a handful of people. At the bottom, I walked across the plank across the crevasse between the rock and glacier and skipped down a hundred feet or so. I reached into my back pocket and didn't find my phone. Oh no! Did I drop my phone off the cliff somewhere?! I searched my backpack and all my other pockets: nothing! I was gutted. No photos, no GPS navigation, and a full week without communications. I figured I'd ask the person behind me if they saw anything and then I thought it might have dropped into the snow on the glacier. On the way back to the crevasse I saw a familiar case laying in the snow. Yes, crisis averted! I warmed myself in the hut, took off the climbing gear, and walked the short way back to the tram. A quick ride back down the mountain and I was at the car. It was 3:00pm so I had done the whole route in a little less than 8.5 hours. Not shabby.

Then I drove the long way back to Vienna. I ran out of water on the Hallstatt/Dachstein Gletscherwanderweg and was fighting off cramps on the drive. Eventually I stopped to rehydrate and get an apple strudel birthday treat. There was a traffic jam on the way back but I eventually dropped the rental off at the airport and took the metro to my hotel by 10pm - just in time to catch a few z's before getting up at 6am for meetings.

The rest of the week was more subdued, but I did get to see some of the city. My colleague from the University of Zurich studied 5 years in Vienna, so he was keen on showing off all the local cafes (i.e. bars) like Cafe Bendl, Lamée Rooftop, SKY, Loos, etc. I managed to sneak into a private nighttime tour of the Schönbrunn with the ISGAN crew, had dinner at the Rathaus, ate too many treats at Cafe Dommayer, and visited a biergarten near the conference hotel. All in all, it was a lovely week.

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