Frozen Rally
Frozen Rally
Media: Ice Climbing

Frozen Rally

Ice Climbing in Pinnistal, Austria

Pinnistal, Austria

AUTHORS: Guido Unterwwurzacher, Mike Mandl
PHOTOGRAPHY: Alpsolut Moving Pictures

It is not every rally in winter conditions that requires spikes and horsepower. Sometimes ice axe and muscles have to do. What remain the same are the stages and the special stage tests. These also had to be done by Guido Unterwurzacher and Christian Hechenberger. With their heart rate rev counter in the red...


January 2010. Guido Unterwurzacher and Christian 'Hechei' Hechenberger set off on their first pilgrimage to Pinnistal valley, the ice climbing paradise, to satiate their lust for cool routes. After all, this is where ice climbing history has been written. The Tyrolean climbing legend Andi Orgler made the Pinnisalm in Stubai, Tyrol, Austria, famous well beyond the boundaries of the valley with routes such as "Männer ohne Nerven" WI 5+,6/1985 ("Men without nerves") and "Metamorphose" WI 7/1991. Andi swung his ice axe higher and established some of the toughest ice routes in Tyrol at that time. It is not just the extreme classics but also the huge choice of routes that make Pinnisalm a hotspot for climbers into hacking up ice. There are around a dozen climbing areas to choose from. In addition, the elevation (1,700m) and shaded location often ensure excellent ice conditions by early winter.

So it was clear that Guido and Christian did not want to give this fine selection of the coolest waterfalls the cold shoulder. On the contrary. Guido: "What we wanted to do was climb as many vertical metres of ice in one day. But after four waterfalls we were finished. We were more than satisfied with our achievement. However, we were already talking about how awesome it would be to climb all the doable waterfalls — i.e. all the waterfalls that are climbable at the time — in just one day. Ideally that would be ten of them."

If you have ever been ice climbing, then you will know that this is something that only the top climbers — the really tough — would ever contemplate. Or the over motivated. Depending on how you look at it. Because ice climbing is difficult, exhausting and dependent on ambient conditions like no other form of climbing. Because not all ice is the same. Perhaps it is a myth that the Inuit have more than 30 words for snow. The fact is that ice climbers know at least as many conditions for ice. From brittle to hard, from soft to crumbly. Including all intermediate conditions, gradings and nuances that you only get to know if you spend loads of time on vertical ice. So that definitely includes Guido and Christian. A great plan, an amazing plan. The signal had been given for the start of the ice rally, the prologue was sorted.


Heading up the valley from the village of Neder in Neustift/Tyrol there is a natural toboggan run, probably the finest and certainly the longest in Tyrol, snaking up into Pinnistal. If it is the longest run downhill, then that means there must be a lot of uphill to get there. Not ideal if your motivation is flagging. It does help a little bit if you can drag all your stuff up on a sled. Or on a toboggan. Or on a "Becke", as Guido calls it in his native Tyrolean dialect. Whichever word you use for this ingenious invention that brings us back down into the valley on two runners with a high fun factor, Guido still seemed to be suffering from the after-effects of the flu, which had him flat on his back for quite some time before starting this stage. Sound clip: "This long approach march wasn't this tough last time."

Having arrived at the Pinnisalm they checked out the conditions: "Apart from two exceptions, it doesn't look too bad. The 'Gully' waterfall has collapsed and is therefore a write-off. And the ice on 'Magier' ('The Magician') does not extend the whole route, but otherwise all the other ice routes look great."

Ice, the moving material.
"Frozen stiff" is probably how we think of ice as a solid form of water. But ice has a mind of its own: it moves, it builds up, it collapses, it grows, it shrinks, it is under tension, it releases tension, it buzzes, it groans, it sings. When you are ice climbing it is essential you work with the conditions and not against them. Ten minus two still makes eight cool routes, starting with "Männer ohne Nerven". This 120m frozen waterfall was one of the most difficult ice routes in Tyrol 20 years ago and its reputation has ensured it remains an attractive climb; which is why there was already a team on the route. A rethink was needed: "If we want to do all the waterfalls in one day, then it has got to run like clockwork. And today it doesn't look like that is going to be the case. So we'll start on 'Vorhang' WI 5 ('The Curtain'). I start climbing and then notice what the score is. The ice is brittle, I'm not climbing smoothly, can't get into a rhythm, the quality of the ice gets worse and worse until it is not possible to set safe protection. We both know that if it continues like this, we can forget the whole thing. But we decide to stick with it."

"All or nothing" is the motto of the day. The second stage of the rally proves to be a real muscle section, so Guido and Christian need to muscle back into the game. As long as they have enough energy in their bodies they have to notch up the difficult sections, like the "Kerze" ("The Candle"), probably the best ice route in Tyrol, a perfect, steep and beautiful ice column, situated at the top end of the difficulty grading at WI 6: "Hechei quickly hacks his way up the first pitch. Then I have to handle the steep and difficult next pitch. Luckily the ice is better here, but it is also steeper as I battle my way up metre by metre. My arms pump up fatter and fatter until I can hardly hold onto the ice tools anymore. On my last drop of energy I reach the belay point. It is a while since I've been so pumped. I am completely drained, and this is only the second waterfall."

Completely pumped out. Batteries drained. Run dry. Goodbye energy. That is ice climbing. The ice sucks it out of you because there aren't many moves that are not extremely tiring. And those that are not extremely tiring are just tiring. There isn't much below that. Gradually it dawns on them, the dimensions of the challenge they have set themselves with the frozen rally. And it is time for the first special stage...


After the "Kerze" they move on to the "Rumpelkammer", the "Junk Room", so-called because in its narrow chimney any chunks of ice broken away by the leader fall directly onto the head of the climber below. The 50m of ice are quickly over thanks to virtually simultaneous climbing. And then comes the "Eiszeit" ("Ice Age"): "Now it's my turn, unfortunately. I start climbing and suddenly the pumping arms come back again. I feel as though my forearms are just about to burst. I am climbing like a total novice, can't concentrate anymore, even my brain is quitting. Hechei takes over the lead for the second pitch and by the time we get to the top we know that it is over, we can't manage more than that. Before it gets too dangerous it's better we throw in the towel now. Maybe we have bitten off more than we can chew, underestimated it, perhaps it is not even possible...

...Hechei is also no longer sure that this gig isn't a bit too much. I feel like I've been put through a mangle, we sit on the 'Becke' and enjoy the fun part of the day: sledging back down to the cars."

Climbing ice exhausted is like driving with your foot down 300hp on black ice. With summer tyres, of course. No control, no grip, no success in sight. Conclusion: back to the start!


Back to the start and yet at stage #3?

Yes, because sometimes it is the process that counts. And every serious rally is an unforeseeable adventure. On the first attempt everything was there: motivation, speed, tactics. Only the power was missing. A week later the situation was like this: "At last I feel recuperated and fit and my head feels like it is stronger and can face the challenge. Hechei and I meet at 4:30 am in St. Johann and by 8 am we are standing at the approach to 'Männer ohne Nerven'. Deep down I feel good and Hechei is fully motivated as well. We get started. I lead the first, easier pitch. Hechei climbs the next and more difficult pitch, no problem. I follow him up. We are getting somewhere. On the 3rd pitch we virtually run up it. Job done, and we rappel back down the waterfall."

An important start. Depending on the approach, "Männer ohne Nerven" is a tough one at grade WI 6. Every rally needs a strategy. Tackling the hard one first should prove to be the key to success: "We jog over to "Vorhang" WI 5-. This time the ice is much better, much softer and so I make good progress, climb the full length of the rope, then Hechei follows me up. What, already at the top? Yo! We abseil back down again and see that both the 'Kerze' and the 'Rumpelkammer' are occupied."

The 3rd waterfall, the "Eiszeit", the one we gave up on last time, is quickly sorted. Even the thigh-deep snow — which they both had to wade through to reach the upper section — was not a problem. Next up is "Chamäleon" ("Chameleon"), which at WI 5- is virtually a regeneration stage. Suddenly everything works, nothing is impossible. No, today it is not a case of all or nothing. Today it is going to be all. Without nothing. That is because the flow is there, the kind of flow that such a massive project simply needs. Because flow — the condition in which everything runs like clockwork — saves energy, conserves motivation, because the objective is in the motivation; the objective of climbing as many waterfalls as possible in one day:

"We are in full flow, everything is running smoothly. Still on a roll we move on to "Familien Sonntag" ("Family Sunday"), the easiest climb today at WI 4. Hechei starts climbing and I follow as soon as he has reached the top of the rope. We climb at the same time. At the top we look forward to rappelling back down, to our drink bottles and something to eat. It is time for the "Kerze" next."


The "Kerze" is beautiful. But difficult. This is the one that pumped out all our energy on the first time. Only, this time it rolls perfectly and I didn't get as pumped up as horribly as a week ago. Hechei follows and for the first time today we grin at each other. We both know that the chances are good that we will still go on to manage the last two waterfalls. We ran through the "Rumpelkammer" like last time and to finish off expect a more intensive battle.

"We change down a gear for a bit on this rally. To keep our wits about us." The boys have already got seven waterfalls in their limbs. Two of them are WI 6. The "WI" stands for "Water Ice": pure ice climbing without rock contact. The numeral indicates the grade of difficulty. Grade 6 means: vertical climbing for the entire pitch with no rests. The ice is not homogenous (e.g. spray ice), protection is unreliable. A very high level of technical skill is essential. There is only one grade higher than this: 7. Before the last waterfall Guido and Christian had just completed two climbs with difficulty grade WI 6. For the average climber just one of these would be sufficient to enter into the touring books as a winter highlight. Without mentioning the week you need to recover afterwards.

"Klein aber fein" ("Nice and easy") WI 6-, is the final project. It is nice, but definitely not small or easy: "At the bottom there is only a thin layer of ice. And then it is very steep further up. I start off, totally dialled, but the battery warning light is starting to flash. Never mind, now it's about fighting our way through and trusting that the tools hold and we don't run out of strength. I scrape my way up the steep section and then whoop 'On belay!', in relief. Hechei climbs up alongside me and we high-five so hard that the clap echoes around the valley. We are more than satisfied with today's achievement."

Was that intentional? Were the theatricals ironic? "Klein aber fein" was the final tour on the frozen rally, and although it was nice it definitely was not easy. That is because eight waterfalls in one day, the easiest of which is still a grade of difficulty that for an average climber would be rated as difficult, that is the Paris—Dakar with ice axe and ice screws. That is a rally that has everything that a good rally needs: challenge, adventure, excitement, a touch of madness, and a little bit of luck. Behind the legendary pioneer work invested by Andi Orgler, the ice axe has been raised another notch higher in Pinnistal. Whether it can go another notch higher we will find out next winter.That is because the next logical step is all ten!


Männer ohne Nerven WI 6
Vorhang WI 4+
Eiszeit WI 5-
Chamäleon WI 5-
Familien Sonntag WI 4
Kerze WI 6
Rumpelkammer WI 5-
Klein aber fein WI 6

Ice Climbing

In Norway

read the story>