Keeping pace with a certified Austrian mountain guide is no easy task. This is especially true on steep terrain and famous peaks near the guide’s home town. Today, on a fast-and-light alpine traverse and mountain climb, I sucked it up to follow Tom Müllauer of St. Johann, Austria, on a well-known route in the Kaisergebirge mountain range of Austria’s Eastern Alps.
Müllauer, a climber and canyoning specialist, is a member of the adidas Outdoor team. He guides year-round from his base in St. Johann, a village at the foot of the mountain range. Our objective for the day, the 7,400-foot Maukspitze, is a spike of limestone that Müllauer has climbed many times. “Most clients require two days to reach the top,” he told me. Our trip — a whirlwind climb/run up a forested face from a trailhead, west a few miles on a ridge, then straight to the top of Maukspitze — would in the end be measured in hours, not days.
From the start, Müllauer set a blistering pace. (I asked him to do so!) On a steep forest trail, he led for 1,000 vertical feet without stopping once. There were sharp switchbacks and ladders. Iron pegs were hammered into the rock where it was really steep. Blazing uphill, we completed the initial 1,000 feet in less than 20 minutes. “My record is 13 minutes,” Müllauer said on top of the ridgeline. “But that was without a backpack on.”
I was breathing hard and dripping with sweat. I took off a layer despite a cool wind, stuffing the soaked top in my pack. Müllauer pointed into the sky. “That’s Maukspitze,” he said, noting a towering pyramid of limestone that jumped off the ridge a couple kilometers distant. Maukspitze, a popular climb in good weather, was streaked with snow, its apex hidden, decapitated by shifting clouds.
The next hour was a fast hike on rolling alpine terrain. Müllauer slowed the pace a bit to talk approach and summit strategy. Though it was July, he said Maukspitze could be icy on top. There were “paths” that zigzagged up its rock face. But exposed traverses, steep sections where you’re required to climb, and pounded-in handholds and ladder steps make the ascent of Maukspitze a challenge technical and physical both.
We had a rope, harnesses, and climbing gear if needed. At the base of the wall, I put on a helmet and a Gore-Tex shell. The sun peaked in and out of clouds that whipped high above.
As with the initial forest ridge, Müllauer shifted back into high gear where the mountain got steep. We made short work of the first face, a route that followed steep rock gullies and ramps to a yawning cirque below the summit spike. A scree field led to a crossing on snow. The route raced ahead out of the alpine bowl, a climb up and over a shoulder of the peak. We put our heads down for 20 minutes to crest a ridge.
Ice began tinking off my shoulders as we neared the top. Tiny balls of ice were shooting like BBs out of the sky. “From the fog,” Müllauer said. We looked up to see the top of the mountain disappear again in a curtain of gray. “10 more minutes to the top.”
Wind picked up as we crested a penultimate peak, a bump in the final ridge. Then, kicking snow, Müllauer led the final few meters to the summit, a giant metal cross marking Maukspitze’s 7,400-foot high point.
We sat for a few minutes to eat and pull on extra layers to stay warm. There was no view, just fog all around. I checked my watch: 11:48a.m., about three hours after our morning start, which was now many miles and 5,000 vertical feet below.
“Not bad for time,” Müllauer allowed. I puffed my chest a millimeter or two, happy to be on top in a storm, and also just proud to be able to stay apace with the local guide. Now, if I could just keep up on the way back down. . . .