Four of us (Simon, Jonathan, Carmen, Peter) went for our first independent glacier tour, in the Stubai Alps, as the first week of the YAC summer alpine meet.
We flew in to Munich on Saturday and took the train to Innsbruck, where we eventually arrived at 5:30 pm, in heavy rain. We found the Pension on a map, but could see no obvious taxis in sight, and got there after 10 minutes' wet walk.
By the time we had sorted ourselves out the weather had cleared and we walked into the city centre. While having a beer by the Golden Roof, we saw three chickens on stilts with musical instruments, and a double-sized cow on four wheels, noisily approaching us. We were treated to a musical performance and dancing by the chickens, while the cow did a gradual striptease down to its metal frame. One of the chickens stole Simon's beer. Eventually they moved on and after this surreal introduction to Austria we had a meal and returned to the Pension to pack for the morrow.
Sunday was dry but murky, and we shouldered our heavy packs (harnesses, crampons, ice axes and a rope) and took the bus to Neustift. We planned to take a minibus up the Oberbergtal for the walk in to the Franz Senn hut, and had some time in hand, so we took the chair lift up to 1800 metres, providing a new experience for Peter, who had to hit the ground running, literally, in order to get off at the top. Leaving our rucksacs at the Elfer Hut we walked up, through spectacular limestone towers, to the Elfer Spitz, with an awkward but well-protected scramble up a chimney to reach the cross at the top (2505 metres).
After a sustaining lunch of dumpling soup at the Elfer Hut we took the lift down and, with a very brisk 2 km walk to Milders, just caught the minibus which took us to the Oberiss Hut, 1 1/2 hours walk below the Franz Senn Hut. There is a goods lift there, but it would have been quite expensive to use, and has a minimum load of 100 kg; even our packs weren't that heavy! When we arrived at the Franz Senn Hut (2140 metres) we were allocated a comfortable bedroom (they had no knowledge of a confirmed email booking, but didn't seem worried). An excellent meal with Wiener Schnitzel as its centrepiece completed a satisfactory day; at last we were in the mountains proper!
On Sunday evening we sat down to plan our week, and decided to do a day tour on Monday, cross the glaciers to the Amberger Hut on Tuesday, do a day walk on Wednesday, cross to the Dresdner Hut on Thursday, and descend to the valley on Friday. Surprisingly, we actually followed this plan, only curtailing the last day because by then we were looking forward to an easy day.
On Monday we set off for the Lisenser Ferner Kogel and the first real scenic reward of the week was when we arrived at the top of the Rinnennieder pass (2900 metres) to a spacious view of glaciers and snow-covered mountains. Although it had been exceptionally hot and dry for the previous few weeks, Saturday's snow fall of about 15 cm provided a soft snow cover, and we did not need to use our crampons all week. We descended to the Lisenser Ferner (glacier) and roped up, crossing the rubble-filled bergschrund awkwardly. The glacier itself was straightforward, with occasional melt-water streams to step over. Unfortunately, the cloud came down and we were slower than the book time so, after scrambling up the top of the Prattiger Wand at 3000 metres and verifying that we had no visibility, we retraced our steps to the hut. We had learned how to manage ourselves as a roped team, and that we should expect to be slower than the book time when crossing glaciers. In the evening we consulted the hut warden about the feasibility of the route to the Amberger Hut and he reassured us about it; a guide had crossed it yesterday without difficulty.
On Tuesday morning we set off early. After a long walk up the Alpeiner valley we scrambled down a moraine on to the Alpeiner Ferner, before the normal route which was impassable due to rock fall and disappearing glacier, so we had to take a detour across the glacier, as suggested by the hut warden. Simon led us through the crevasses up to the Wildgrat Scharte (3170 metres), a rock ridge that both the book and the hut keeper said should not create a problem. Unfortunately the hot dry weather had removed most of the snow from the ascent gully, and we moved to an alternative gully which we could see that the guide had used. It required a bold lead by Simon, up a steep 40m scree gully with soft snow on top, to reach an anchorage point from which he could bring us up. Getting down the other side looked even worse, and we did this roped also, although it was actually less steep or exposed; the gaping bergschrund at the bottom turned out to be full of firm snow!
After that, the final glacier crossing and the long walk down to the Amberger Hut gave no further major problems, although the unstable boulders made walking slow. When at last we arrived at the Amberger Hut (2135 metres), there was no record of the booking that we had made the previous evening, but there was plenty of room in the dormitory, and a very welcome hot meal.
We had been unnerved by the long time that the previous day's journey had taken (and pleased that we had set off early), and decided to take it easy on Wednesday. After some discussion, our "rest day" turned out to be a walk up Schrankogel (3497 metres). The solid red line on the map turns, on close inspection, into a dotted red line for the top 200 metres, which could be described as an "exhilarating, airy scramble" on irregular blocks with a soft snow covering (about a UK grade 2 scramble with much more exposure). The view from the top on a cloudless day was worth it, however. We declined to take the more "interesting" East ridge down, but the descent still took us as long as the ascent. We rewarded ourselves in the evening with kaiserschmarren (scrambled pancake with apple sauce) except that Peter abstemiously had apfelstrudel with cream instead.
Our third day's glacier travel was on Thursday. We had inspected the Sulztalferner from the top of Schrankogel and it seemed relatively flat and crevasse-free. However, we took the (more "interesting") winter route across the glacier, rather than the summer route marked on the map, from which the glacier seemed mostly to have receded. In the event we wound tortuously between and across crevasses until finally we got to the foot of the Daunjoch (3057 metres), which we needed to cross. Thankfully the ascent of this was not as steep as we had feared, but it still gave us some trouble because of the lack of snow cover.
Once on the top, we looked for the glacier down the other side, as marked on the map, but could see no sign of it: only a rubble-filled valley leading down to a distant glacier with a background of ski-lift clutter. We set off down the valley, across rather unstable scree, and Peter and Jonathan in quick succession found the glacier, when a scree run turned abruptly into a (shallow) ice slide. We moved gingerly off onto firmer rubble, keeping well above the valley floor after a large boulder trundled past us. We were left puzzled about whether or not we were on glacier or ground until eventually we looked back and saw a shark's maw with icicle fangs - the bottom of the glacier with a cave hollowed out by the melt-water stream.
The remainder of the walk down to the Dresdner Hut (2308 metres) was incident-free and, when we arrived, they had an anonymous booking for someone coming from the Amberger Hut. We said it was us! Another comfortable bedroom and a good meal marked our final night on this trip.
We had been considering, for the Friday, going back via the Sulzenau Hut, but one look at the scree slope that was inviting us convinced us to take an easier option. A pleasant walk, via the Mutterberg See, took us down to the asphalt and motor cars of Mutterberg Alm, just in time to catch the bus back to Innsbruck, where our Pension awaited us. Another, quieter, meal near the Golden Roof on a calm warm evening, completed our week. As we downed successive rounds of Junge Wein, we reflected on how much we had experienced during the week and how, almost uniquely in the annals of YAC, we had actually achieved almost all that we had planned.
At the end of the week, Peter and Jonathan returned to Munich and England, while Simon and Carmen moved to the firmer ground of the limestone alps to sample some of the klettersteigs in the area.