16. December 2022

The Hochblaser: this mountain & me were not meant to be

View to the Hochblaser, Styria

There is the Hochblaser, that’s the bugger that beat me


If you are going to engage in the entirely pointless but extremely satisfying sport of mountain climbing, then you should be aware of the axiom that mountains are in charge of man and not the other way around. And that therefore, at some point in your mountaineering career (and you are kind of obligated to have one of these on some level if you are going to live in Austria), a mountain is going to defeat you and drive you off it, disappointed.

The people who do not believe in such humility before nature and their own limits tend to be the ones who end up needing mountain rescue. Or end up pinging off the mortal coil entirely. At the end of the day, everyone is much better off if you keep your ego in check and know when to call it a day. Just give up on the summit dream and come back down to the valley.

That day came for me in summer 2021 when we attempted to climb the Hochblaser, a mountain close to the old Styrian mining town of Eisenerz in eastern Austria.

Looking back, I should have known that this day was not going to be crowned with success and a smiley-but-sweaty photo next to the summit cross. The weather forecast for Vienna was a roasting 34°C, which led us to believe that heading out to the mountains in search of cooler air was the right thing to do. And that is usually true…if you spend your time in said mountains lounging around in the shade and swimming in lakes, that is. In truth, it’s not that much cooler outside the city. And climbing a mountain in 30°C is infinitely more strenuous than sitting stock-still in your apartment in 34°C.

Yet, somehow, we manage to forget this as we speed from Leoben towards Eisenerz in our rental car. The clear mountain air slowly going to our heads.

As soon as we get out of the car at the bottom of the Hochblaser, I start to wonder whether this expedition might be a tad ill-advised. Even at 9am, the sun is extremely strong. Usually (and probably to every dermatologist’s abject horror), I hold off applying sun block until about an hour into a hike. We always start out early and I like to soak up a bit of sun before creaming/covering up. But today, I can feel the burn of the sun straight away on my skin and don’t waste any time splashing on the SPF 50.

From the carpark, we have an excellent view of the Hochblaser and the challenge we are about to embark on. Dear God, it is a sheer wall of rock that we will be taking on today. The path description we’d pulled off the internet didn’t say anything about needing ropes or harnesses — and yet this looks unbelievably steep. How can any normal path lead up there?

Well, the only way to find out is to do it, I guess. So off we go.

Very, very quickly, it becomes apparent that — while the path does not require any climbing equipment — it is meant for experienced mountain climbers. In Austria, that means the people who grew up doing this and still spend every weekend ascending peaks as a kind of light, pre-lunch exercise. Often wearing flimsy running shoes. Or sandals. That is the Austrian hardcore for you.

Well — we didn’t grow up anywhere near mountains. And we certainly don’t do this kind of thing every weekend. Or even every other weekend. We do it a few times in summer when both the weather and our other plans conspire to allow it. The path up the Hochblaser is unforgivingly steep with passages consisting of loose stones which mean that, for every step taken forward, we slide a good way back. Not funny at all when sliding back could well mean going over the path’s edge and falling who-knows-how-far down.

And the HEAT! With no hut along the path, I’d brought what I thought would be enough fluid for the day. But we aren’t even a quarter of the way up this mountainside and I’ve drunk half my water already. There is no real shade and the sweat is running off me in rivulets and into my eyes. Having your eyesight compromised on a risky mountain path? Not a good plan…

View from the Hochblaser
View from the Hochblaser to the Leopoldsteinersee and the Reichenstein (Katharine Eyre © 2021)

The compensation for all of this is the view. We’re not that far up and yet we are able to admire this magnificent panorama, taking in the Leopoldstein Lake and the surrounding mountainscape. It’s beautiful. In Austria, we are truly, madly, deeply spoiled by Mother Nature.

On we struggle until we reach a critical passage where the path falls away and climbers have to leap across the gap. Getting your footing wrong here would mean a significant fall and likely serious injury — if not death.

I’m accustomed to challenging moments during climbs. And I feel well able to cope with most of them, because I am experienced enough on mountains to be able to assess the risk and whether our own abilities are sufficient to counter/manage them. But this makes me feel sick to my stomach. Even if I get it right — what if we carry on and discover at a later point that I want to turn back after all? We’d have to do the same dicey hop-skip-jump in the other direction. Getting it right the first time, okay. But a second time? What if my luck runs out?

Listen to your gut feeling, it could save your life

As I am standing there, sizing up the path — I realise that my entire instinct is telling me very clearly to terminate this project and get the hell back down into the valley. Any other mountain climbers reading this will recognise the situation: when the very notion of continuing feels totally, inherently wrong. And you know that ignoring your gut feeling would lead to very bad things happening. For non-mountain climbers: it’s like meeting a date and knowing on the spot that it’s going to be really, really bad. The only way of proceeding is to get the bill at the earliest possible point and scarper.

And so it was here. I tell The Other Half how I’m feeling and he immediately agrees to quit the climb. A good mountain climbing partner will always understand and refrain from pushing another who is worried. Pressuring someone to go on despite their obvious lack of comfort is a violation of good mountaineering conduct and you should never go out again with someone who has done this to you. It shows that their ego is more important to them than your safety and wellbeing.

I have never been so happy to see the end of a path. Our descent was no less hair-raising than the ascent, involving a lot of sliding downwards on our bottoms on loose, sharp rocks, trying to hold onto steel handrails which the sun had heated up to fizzling. By the time we get back to the carpark, we are covered in sweat, dust and filth and I’ve got at least 3 cuts on my hands. They are superficial, but I need to disinfect and dress them nontheless.

Boy oh boy — that mountain had comprehensively, royally kicked my arse!

It is rubbish that we have come all this way only to be disappointed. Not to worry though — the area has ample compensation to help us lick our wounds. The tear-shaped Leopoldsteiner Lake at the base of the Hochblaser has a path all around it, which is flat and shady. Oh yes – bring on that flat path! There are little stony beaches and coves where you can go for a swim or paddle. And that is exactly what we do. Nothing like wading into icy alpine water to refresh tired feet and cool off on a hot summer’s day.

There was even time in the late afternoon to fit in a trip to the Grüner See (“Green Lake”). This hidden jewel close to the small village of Tragöß was a favourite spot for Austrians for years before gaining world fame when the US actor Ashton Kutcher posted pictures of it on social media.

The emerald-green waters invite walkers and picnickers to spend time contemplating the breath-taking alpine surrounds. In the springtime, when the snow melts and there’s enough rain, the water level can climb by up to 10m. The surrounding shores become flooded, offering scuba divers the chance to engage in some impressive Atlantis-style dives.

Grüner See, Styria
Grüner See, Styria

Since we are here in summer, the water has sunk back to normal levels, and we are able to stroll around the lake and take photos before finally heading back to Leoben and home to Vienna.

A memorable day in all kinds of ways!


Related articles:

The Soleweg – my 2007 hiking adventure

The hike of my life – climbing the Gehrenspitze, Tyrol

18 years living in Vienna…some thoughts on a very special anniversary

My Via Claudia Augusta adventure – cycling solo across the Alps