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Senior Fell-Walking Club in the Austrian Alps (1954-1973)

'On the morning of Wednesday, 31st July, the rather humdrum atmosphere of Manchester Piccadilly Station was broken by the appearance of over a dozen prospective mountaineers carrying heavy rucksacks and lethal looking ice-axes.  Two weeks later, in the evening this time, the event repeated itself, only now the party was a good deal more stained and weary, and also a good deal more physically fit'.  Such was the opening of the Boltonian report on the 1968 trip to the Stubai Alps, but it depicted a very familiar scene experienced by many School 'mountaineers' during the fifties and sixties.

The 1968 expedition was heading for the high Alps (the Hochstubai), south of the Inn Valley on the border between Austria and Italy, but the earliest expeditions, in the fifties, looked to stay in the hilly country to the north of the valley, and closer to the Bavarian border.  The first trip, in 1954, was a large one of 36 boys and 5 staff (Harry Slimming, Pip Porter, Albert Birch, Michael Sefton and the Headmaster, Richard Poskitt, will be names still familiar to many).  The pattern for this, and the next few trips, was quickly established.  The village of Lermoos became the base for the first week, in various farmhouses in 1954, but then in the newly-built and steadily expanding Pension Edelweiss, until 1960.  That first week was spent fell-walking in the local hilly-wooded area, with the Sonnenspitze (2,750m) being a regular conquest, and the nearby Zugspitze (2,963m), the highest mountain in Germany, a frustrating failure, until it was finally climbed by Bill Brown’s 1958 party.  Cultural visits were included where possible.  The 1954 party visited Oberammergau and Schloss Linderhof, while the 1955 and 1956 parties spent three or four days in Vienna as guests of Dr Brunder, headmaster of our link school there.  The 1961 party stayed a day and overnight in Venice.

The second week of these early trips was something of a mountain hut tour.  The mountain huts varied in quality and facilities.  Some of the higher ones were little more than refuges, and quite primitive, but the bulk of them were more like well-appointed inns, with decent sleeping arrangements and a high standard of meals.  The first party (1954) crossed the Inn into the Stubai Valley and, by stages, climbed to the Franz Senn Hut (2,147m), which was tucked in just under the snow peaks on the Italian frontier.  The 1955 party went to the Niedere Tauern, the hills to the south-east of Salzburg, while the 1956 party ventured into the Hohe Tauern, where they almost scaled the Große Venediger (3,660m), only to be beaten by a blizzard.  Having completed the first Bolton School ascent of the Zugspitze, the 1958 party moved a little way east to the Karwendel mountains, and climbed the highest mountain there, the Birkkarspitze (2,750m).  In 1960, Bill Brown and Robin Mathieson chose the western Dolomites for the party's second week, and then in the following year, along with John Blakey, they decided to spend the whole two weeks in the central Dolomites, near Covara.  Under the direction of a local guide they scaled the highest peak in the area, the Marmolada (3,343m), and several other peaks of around 3,000m.  In a change from the experience of some earlier trips, they had almost continuous sunshine and the clearest of visibility.  It was the Dolomites again in 1962, this time to the north-east in the Sexten area.  The Monte Popera (3,046m) was the main objective and, after several misfiring attempts, it was finally climbed by a select group of boys.  For much of the final week, it was reported that 'the hot fine weather made life comfortable and a pleasure, but discouraged strenuousness'!

1964 saw some change of emphasis in the trips, as the parties concentrated more fully on the glaciers and snow peaks of the Silvretta, Ötztal and Stubai Alps, well to the south of the Inn Valley.  That meant adding ropes and ice-axes, crampons and karabiners to the load of tins, jars and packets of provisions already being carried by each party member.  References in Boltonian reports to heavily-loaded rucksacks and awkward equipment were made with feeling!  Robin Mathieson was joined by Colin Hamer and Howard Northam on the first of these trips, to the Silvretta, and travelling from hut to hut, the party eventually made its way up a long glacial valley to the Jamtal Hut, perched just on the edge of the Jamtal Glacier.  A degree of instruction and practice was needed, on both this and all future expeditions, in the basic skills of snow and ice-walking: how to rope up in teams of four, how not to let the rope between each walker unfurl and drag along the ground, how not to step on the rope with crampon spikes, how to get a team member out if they fell into a crevasse (nobody ever did – well, not fully!).  Another important 'technique' was the ability to wake and get up early enough in the morning so that the walk/climb was over before the morning sun turned the snow and ice soft and mushy, especially if there were snow bridges over crevasses to negotiate.  The party climbed the local peaks, the 3,156m Jamspitze (twice) and the 3,225m Augstenberg (once).  The two trips up the Jamspitze provided a salutary lesson.  Most of the party climbed on the first attempt, found good crisp snow for step-making on the steeper parts of the glacier and made comfortable progress both up and down.  The remainder of the party made their attempt the next day, but found the glorious sunshine of the previous afternoon had left no snow to be re-frozen overnight, so they were faced with something of an ice-wall where it had been a kindly snow slope the day before.  Crampons really were needed – but all finished well.

The early start in the morning and return to the hut by midday did have its drawbacks.  If the objective was a nearby peak, then early meant 6 am, but a long glacier walk and climb could mean 5 or 4 am (or even earlier), and so the body clock protested.  Then the early return left a large gap to be filled over the afternoon and into the evening before the next big event – suppertime!  Thoughts of food soon became an insistent urge, especially if poor weather confined everyone to the hut.  When will the hut staff put out the afternoon's apfelstrudel for sale?  How many slices can be afforded?  What to choose this time from the evening’s menu? Whether to order a meal early and then get hungry again watching others eat later, or eat later and have the early starters gathering like vultures around the plate?

David Shaw joined the party in 1965, with the Ötztal as the chosen destination.  The village of Obergurgl provided an initial base, before heading high out of the valley to the peaks and glaciers straddling the crest of the Alps beyond.  Along with peaks such as the Ramolkögel (3,550m) and the Weißseespitze (3,526m), the party made two further successful attempts on Similaun (3,600m) and the Wildspitze (3,770m), the two highest mountains in the area.  The Similaun expedition provided much excitement, when the 'triumphant' party marched into the small Similaun Hut, just below the summit, looking for refreshment, only to discover it had suddenly become an Italian army machine gun post, set up to protect the frontier against Austrian nationalists who had developed the bad habit of blowing up electricity pylons in the Italian valleys below!  Passport identification was demanded – (who carries passports on a climb?) – and the party seemed destined for some form of internment.  But the party was obviously British – mad and harmless – so all was well.  The Wildspitze, the highest mountain in the whole Tyrol, provided a stunning walk: a long glacier approach, a steady climb up the final snow peak, and then a dramatic walk along a heavily-corniced knife-ridge to the slightly higher twin summit.

1966 was the year of the World Cup in England, and some naive scheduling saw the Senior Fell Walking Club booked for a fortnight in the Hochstubai for the critical weekend of The Final!  However, a loyal nucleus of returnees and a band of keen first-timers ensured a full party.  Low cloud and snow are always a gamble in the high mountains, and the first week saw plenty of these conditions, but there were high-level walks between the huts and a couple of wet and misty summits, such as the Wilder Freiger (3,324m).  The main climbs came in the second week.  From the Sulzenau Hut, perched some 2,000m up the mountainside on the lip of a hanging valley and tucked in just below the intimidating ice-fall of the Sulzenau Glacier, the party climbed 500m up the edge of the ice-fall, traversed the flattish bowl of the glacier and hauled themselves up the near vertical snow ridge to the summit of the Zuckerhütl/'Sugar Loaf' (3,500m).  The weather remained fine and sunny all day, but the snow got softer and softer.  It was a long day.  Crossing later to the neighbouring side-valley, and the Dresdener Hut, the party completed its hat-trick of big peaks by climbing the Schaufel Spitze/‘Shovel Peak’ (3,333m).  The Dresdener Hut was a real pearl – a long way from ‘civilization’ – masked from the valleys below by wooded slopes – a charming old-fashioned stone and timber building – a relatively flat glacier above but even more tucked away – and a satisfying peak of rock and snow for serious scrambling and extensive views.  Sadly, the growth and intrusion of the skiing industry would soon change all this.

The 1967 trip followed much the same itinerary as 1964.  The Konstanzer Hut, Scheibler (2,988m), the Jamtal Hut, the Jamspitze (3,156m) and the Augstenberg (3,225m) were all re-visited or climbed, and time was found to move on to the Wiesbadener and Saarbrückner Huts.  Two successful climbs were made from these bases:  the Dreiländerspitze (3,197m) and the Sonntagspitze/'Sunday Peak' (2,882m).  An attempt on the higher Piz Buin (3,312m) had to be abandoned because of the rain and low cloud that dogged much of the trip, but in the circumstances a lot had been achieved.

In 1968 it was back to the Ötzal and, unfortunately, the uncooperative weather.  Peaks such as Similaun, the Weißkugel and the Bliggspitze were not even attempted in the heavy mist and rain, while the Wildspitze and Hochwilde were almost climbed but conditions prevented final push to the summits.  There were periods of fine weather and the Ramolkögel (3,550m) provided a heartening climbing success, and the staggering views from some of the high huts, and the trails leading up to them, were more than enough for a good photographic record.  Jim Moseley and Gordon Tatlock (now Old Boys but seasoned members of past trips) had travelled with the party for a final excursion, bringing with them invaluable experience and companionship.

John Newton was one of the new leaders in 1969, along with Old Boy Peter Noblett (another regular past member).  Following the cycle of destinations, the party returned to the Hochstubai.  Some changes were in the air – most noticeably the Arlberg Express no longer had a breakfast car, denying the party its usual leisurely and scenic early morning ride through Switzerland and towards Innsbruck.  The Wilder Freiger and Zuckerhütl were successfully climbed, though mist again blocked views from the summits, and then, after a transfer to the much-liked Dresdener Hut and more snow and mist, the party finished the programme on top of the Schaufelspitze.  A narrow-gauge railway trip from the valley village of Neustift down to Innsbruck (the Stubaitalbahn) made for an interesting descent.

It was another four years before the Senior Fell Walking Club reconvened.  Terry Butterworth had gathered a good nucleus of middle-school fell walkers in the intervening years, and they helped to provide (with others) the numbers needed for a viable party.  It was to be a return to the Hochstubai.  Things had changed, however, and inflation and a weakening exchange rate caused costing difficulties.  In the mid-sixties, £1 would buy 72 Austrian schillings and the trip could comfortably be costed at £35 a head.  By the autumn of 1972, when this new trip was being arranged, £1 had slipped to 55 AS, and the individual cost had to be set at £60.  Then, in the month before departure, the rate suddenly dropped to 48AS, and the individual cost had to be raised to £70, double the amount of a few years earlier.  These seem very small amounts forty years later but, relatively speaking, it was a lot then and the trip was nearly cancelled.  The determination, however, was to go, and a £3 refund at the end of the trip was quite a relief!  The programme followed the 1966 pattern, by now very familiar and (weather permitting) usually successful.  The weather, however, was variable, and the successes were mixed with some failures.  Familiarity with the area also led to some rude shocks:  narrow roads in the valley widened, roads being driven over wooded mountain tracks, a large cable car from the valley floor up to the 'isolated' Dresdener Hut, the hut overshadowed by a larger oblong wheel-house and terminus, a ski lift across the 'quiet' glacier above, and skiers all over the place rather getting in the way of serious walking and climbing!  At least the Schaufelspitze's summit ridge and peak were clear, and the last climb was a success.

The Austrian mountaineering trips came to an end here.  The rapidly rising costs and the take-over of favourite areas by the skiing industry (the Schaufelspitze is now described in one guide book as 'a very nice, significant mountain if it was not located in the centre of the Stubai ski circus') brought an end to twenty years of alpine experiences.  But it was good while it lasted.