Of Ice And Men – Not To Mention The Gastroenteritis

(by Declan Cunningham, from IMC Newsletter Autumn 2003)
Ice climbing in Malta, Austria.

I can’t remember when ice climbing entered my mind (you’ll excuse the exaggeration) as something I wanted to do but it got in all the same and Malta, however unlikely it sounded, was the nominated location for my debut. It was later on I realised that Malta was in Austria and was in fact freezing cold. I resigned myself to my fate and got packing.

Bar the occasional inquiry about the trip there was no great interest so Conor, Carl and I were the entire contingent. We’d elected to fly to Munich and rent a car there and take the autobahn (that doesn’t mean ‘no cars’ by the way) to Austria. Don’t know if anyone out there has ever rented a car with snow chains before but I’d advise you to check you’ve got the right ones before you leave the airport and I don’t care if it’s not snowing in the carpark!

About three hours on roads where lane driving isn’t something you say to scare the kids and we found ourselves at Haus Hubertus, which was to be our home for the next eight days. It’s a lovely place to stay and Claus and his wife are excellent hosts. Claus even checks out the various icefalls in this ‘Valley of Blue Ice’ as it’s called, so he can give people firsthand info on what’s in condition.

You can rent all the ice gear you need so we stocked up on axes and screws. I don’t know that going ice climbing on the Sabbath is Kosher or not but there’s always time to repent. Well at least that’s what we were telling ourselves as we made our way up to Supermax, the first icefall. Hardly fifteen minutes from the car this climb turned out not to be half as tasty and tempting as its name would suggest. Generally speaking I would consider myself safe when tied in at the base of a climb … never again. The lower pitches weren’t really in the best of conditions and as Conor climbed on increasingly gingerly axe and crampon placements I realised just how bleedin’ safe I actually was.

The term dinner-plating (when the ice shatters in dinner-plate-sized circles around each axe stroke) had popped into my head. Now of course it was happening for real and the huge chunks coming down were about to leave a dull impression on my mind, literally. It felt like I was stuck in the Baileys ad and I was relieved when Conor finally shouted ‘SAFE’. Of course now it was my turn.

Ice climbing gives you a much freer rein than rock climbing in that you’re not restricted to following a particular line. Once you have the inclination to go a particular way just place your axes and you’re away in a hack. Bar the initial head wreck of not using your hands to hold on it’s a real buzz and I was well chuffed with myself for putting up my first few leads, however unimpressive they were. One thing I would say though is go where there is plenty of choice so you up your chances of finding climbs in condition and if possible move quickly on a rope of two to avoid getting too cold.

I hadn’t been climbing anything in an age but I found the leading fun. You certainly get to know which ice screws to use in a jam. If you’re planning any steep stuff at all may I recommended you beg, borrow or steal as many Black Diamond screws as you can get your gloved hands on. Why? Simply because they have beautiful little fold-out handles which make screwing them in much easier even single-handed. They are well deserving of the nickname ‘panic screws’. They are to shitty unprotected, collapsing stances with disco leg in your front points what border collies are to fire drills for sheep – a Godsend.

Anyway, moving swiftly onwards … our next outing was doomed to failure. We drove confidently up to where the road became really iced up and stopped to put on the chains. They looked like the real McCoy but the size was a tad wrong. After lots of pulling and dragging I gave up, Carl directed and Conor persevered. They were on at last and we were on for it so we figured we’d give it a try. The chains however had other ideas and promptly fell off. We were slagged by locals, before resolving ourselves to reversing down the icy road and going chain shopping.

Most days we had a nice breakfast at the guesthouse, more or less skipped lunch and headed to the local hotel in Malta for our evening vittels. At first the warm friendly surroundings seemed inviting. Good food, pleasant service and some of the local brew was enough to lull us into a false sense of security …

BUT THEN … (a horse whinny and some thunder and lightning should be imagined now) … we all got food poisoning. I felt like Heuston Station what with all the coming and going. The real pain in the ass (sorry, it, er … just slipped out) was that we didn’t all get sick at the same time.

Whatever about the ice I knew I wasn’t in condition but none of us wanted to lose any more time unnecessarily so we spent the next couple of days on Ritterfall and Strannerbach. Both excellent falls to start leading on, except maybe for the final pitches. Having the correct chains meant we were able to drive right up the valleys and reduce the walk-in. Locals have an unwritten rule that the use of chains is for wusses. I was quite happy to be a wuss if it meant I didn’t have to slide down the mountain in someone else’s car. Maybe I’m just weird.

Unfortunately, our physical decline took a turn for the wurst and Carl became the second casualty. Our incapacitation was complete when Conor succumbed on what should have been our last day climbing. The rest as they say is just plumbing.

Despite our misfortunes we enjoyed ourselves and without doubt Malta is a top spot to go to in winter. Even if you get fed up with the ice-climbing you can head up the valley and go skiing not to mention the mountaineering possibilities or even the Porsche Museum.

Useful Information

We flew with Aer Lingus to Munich. We bounced in Heathrow, which is worth avoiding if you can. Flying direct to Austria is possible. RyanAir have flights to Graz, the nearest sizeable town, and also to the slightly further away Kleggenfurt but I spelled it wrong.

Car Rental
Check for hidden insurance charges and that you have the right chains.

Tried and tested: Pension Hubertus Tel & Fax: +43 4733511

As regards climbing, everything we needed to know we found out from Conor who had been there before. He found out directly from Klaus or from his website at www.planetmountain.com. It should be fully translated for next season. Don’t forget the Black Diamonds.

Visit the Café Konditorei in Gmund and if in doubt about anywhere else bring sandwiches.