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Wild and without signal: Dachstein mountain nightmare

Fasten yourself in for a ride – this is a good one. The events of this post take place over one year ago. The 14th September 2017 to be precise. We had planned to take a cable car to the top of Dachstein (the second highest mountain in the Northern Limestone Alps) and maybe hike the way down depending on the conditions at the top. Let us rewind to the previous night of the events and let the story unfold.

Caroline and I have been researching the hike and understood it would take about 3 hours from the top cable car station of Dachstein to Ramsau, a small village in the valley. The weather is to be clear and sunny but worsen around 3pm, so as long as we set off early we’ll have plenty of time to get down safely, even with lots of breaks and walking slowly.  The cable car to Dachstein has not been running for a week due to scheduled maintenance but they are supposed to be back on line today. Organised as we are, we booked our seats on the cable car for 9am. The next morning we wake up super early, pack our rucksacks with extra clothes, safety equipment including a first aid kit and a whistle and lots of food. We take the sardine packed bus to the base cable car station arriving with plenty of time to spare. However, as we arrive, we already see crowds of people waiting around looking somewhat annoyed and have it confirmed shortly after: The cable cars aren’t running yet.

Killing time

Maybe in about three hours, we are told. Great – this ruins our plans. We wouldn’t be able to walk down in the afternoon because of the weather. Nevermind we thought, we mostly came to explore the top of Dachstein.

To kill some time, we decide to go on a walk on one of the trails starting from the cable car station, explore the surroundings and get away from the angry crowd waiting there. An hour later, we realise that we’d already climbed quite high up and, assuming that we are on the same path (of course after consulting the map) we wanted to come down on, we decide to continue upwards since it was still quite early and we were advancing fairly quickly.

As we got higher up Dachstein the paths got steeper. There was a lot of scree crossing, zig zagging up the mountain. They were loose and eroded, must have been from all the recent rain. It was pretty snowy the other day as well.

This is around half way up where we had a quick break and enjoyed the views, the sun was burning down still!

Caroline lying taking a break around half way up Dachstein

Another hour or so of hiking up, a few more struggles. There were some completely eroded paths around a small waterfall so we had to scramble up some loose rocks which was a bit scary; there were some pretty big drops behind us. During the struggle we began to question our choices and wondered whether we should turn around. Still, we decided the best way was up as the path back down looked even trickier from above.

Then the ropes start…but we’re seemingly only a couple of hundred meters from the top so we brave it and keep going.

The Dachstein glaciers

More obstacles – shortly after the ropes we cross a melting glacier which was incredibly tricky – very slippy and the path was pretty much non-existent. There were a few breakdowns at this point. It was scary. There was lots of hand extending to help each other across, all the while hanging on to pieces of rock to prevent slipping on the ice.

Once we finish crossing the glacier the ropes begin to climb vertically and we have to climb them, there is not enough time to go down.

In retrospect this was a terrible idea as we did not have climbing gear and make no mistake, this was a climbing path, as we would later find out. Any slip here would have resulted in serious injury.

We finally make it up the ropes after lots of pep talks and we arrive to the view below and the mountain flattens out a little. The top cable car station is in sight, our destination. We are slightly relieved, but there is one more obstacle.

As we follow the path we come to a ridge – on the other side lies a 2000M sheer drop with a bit of a metal to hold onto. That was absolutely terrifying and we almost gave up there and then – but after one final pep talk (more Caroline to Aydin) we crawled along the ridge on our hands and knees holding on to the metal guides for dear life. Then the guide stops.

It has broken off – there is a section where there is no guide and sheer drops surround us. Let me reiterate, a half metre wide frozen path with no guide. 2000M down one side, some hundred down the other. This is the moment we realise we cannot finish and absolute panic sets in. We retreat somewhat and take refuge in a rock crevice where we climbed the ropes, where we are at least sheltered from the wind a little. The weather starts to change, the storm is coming.

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Hiding in a crevice on Dachstein

So – having taken cover in the rock crevice, it starts to get cold, real cold and real quick. We are engulfed in clouds and can’t see more than two meters in front of us, and there is a 50M vertical drop right in front of us. Clearly the  correct course of action is to call Mountain rescue, we can’t go up or down in decent weather, let alone the storm. We call mountain rescue. No signal.

We wrap up in emergency blankets and a tent tarp and eat the rest of our food. We try mountain rescue again. Nothing. No signal. We try one hundred times. At some point Caroline gets through and explains the situation over a terrible connection but it seems we were understood. They said mountain rescue would be in touch – we weren’t sure if we’d communicated the location properly and we were worried mountain rescue wouldn’t be able to call and find us because our signal was so bad. 

An hour goes by. We scream for help, repeatedly. Desperate pleas for help. There is no response. The panic is overwhelming at this point, all sorts of thoughts and scenarios are playing out in our minds. The storm worsens. We wrap together tighter and closer trying to preserve heat.

Did you hear that? What?! yes. Is it Mountain Rescue? Have they found us? Are we going to make it out of here??

We patiently wait as mountain rescue get to us. It feels like eternity, but we can hear them clipping on to the ropes with precision and confidence. They have a lot of equipment. After a short while we hear their voices a bit clearer. They are speaking a foreign language. It’s not German. Dread sets in. It can’t be mountain rescue, why would they not be speaking German?

It turns out they are Polish, just two climbers trying to get to the top. They understand our predicament and we tell them that is it not too far from the top and they might make it with the right equipment, they have a lot of equipment after all. One of the guys give us some hot water from their flask and offer us some food. They will attempt to climb to the top and alert mountain rescue as to our location. Our real location. 

It turns out we are not on the path we thought we were on – We’re on a climbing path. Obviously. Because there are cables and ropes and lots of life threatening stuff for people without climbing gear. 

We’re more hopeful at this point but we have no idea how this whole thing is going to end and in what shape we will get down off this damn mountain.

No passage

The polish guys return maybe a half hour later. They say it was too dangerous and we’d made the right decision. They would have to go back down. And it’s a long way, especially in this weather. 

The dread sets in again as they leave us. They assure us that as soon as they have signal they will inform mountain rescue of our location – but we could be here for hours still.

We scream for help after another hour of waiting – a desperate attempt in case mountain rescue is close by. Maybe they will hear us and find us? After a million tries to ring again without signal, Caroline finally gets through again and is able to give them the correct location. Do we have a whistle, the operator asks? Yes! The guys are close by, they’ll be with us soon. We blow as hard as we can every other minute, hoping, someone, somewhere will hear us. 

And they do. After some unknown period of time. Long after the cold and exhaustion has infiltrated every inch of our bodies. They’re coming. Mountain rescue found us. 

The whistle of life

They come down after hearing our whistle. 10 guys. 5 for each of us. They’re coming from above and surround us with ropes and straps and other equipment that we should have had anyway. We expect them to be annoyed and lecture us but after first checking we are alright the next thing they do is take a selfie. Great. Although we never did get to see it.

They strap us up. Caroline and 5 of the guys are all strapped together. Me with the other 5 guys. If one falls the other 4 will support him and can help him back to safety. There are no more risks being taken. Well, no more than necessary. 

The way is up. It’s the quickest and the safest. We will have to cross the ridge. The ridge with no cable.

This is the hardest part of the day for me, the climb to the ridge, although not far, it’s grueling. I have no energy whatsoever; to the point where I collapse. After a red bull and a cautioning that I’m risking more lives – I pull myself together and make it up to the ridge. I’m not even carrying my rucksack at this point. One of the mountain rescue guys took it. 

Crossing the ridge is complicated but not so hard. The second guy in each of the teams straps himself to the last part of the unbroken section. The first guy crosses the section with the missing cable and then straps on the other side. Then the third guy straps on to the last part of the unbroken section while the second guy passes, and so on. 

The last sections involve walking around a carved out section of the path with sheer drops all while snow and wind bombard us from every direction. The snow storm is in full force now. From this point it seems like we have to climb even further up to the very peak and then down the other side – but as we continue along the path we notice that there is a tunnel – and a huge metal door, like a blast door. It takes four of the guys to pry open the door and the second that it becomes slightly ajar, the blizzard engulfs the tunnel. The snow and wind is so strong that the door is immediately slammed back shut. Everyone takes a minute and then we try again.

The wall

We are then briefed on the next stage. On the other side of the tunnel is a ladder. A 60M metal ladder haphazardly bolted to the rock wall leading down to the last obstacle before the cable car station, the Dachstein glacier. It is my turn first. Caroline is looking at me like “holy shit, can you even do that?”, she knows what I am like with vertical stuff. Secretly I am thinking this actually looks pretty fun which I realise is ridiculous in our predicament but hey ho. We’re strapped to the ladder and the ladder, although wonky, looks solid. The climb down is fine. When we get down we’re told to step exactly in the footsteps of the guy in front, one wrong step could result in us being trapped in a cave in the glacier.

After a few steps we arrive at a snowcat. Something that resembles a tank – but for snow. Also a lot cuter than a tank – but it means fucking business. We all pile in and plough across the snow while everyone else but me and Caroline smiles and laughs. We are safe – and very thankful.

It’s hard to imagine the tunnel and the ladder – it was definitely not a good idea to be taking photos at that point – but we found another blog post (Climb and Hike) from a much more experienced couple who took photos on a much better day. I’ve attached a few here – we hope they don’t mind. You can find the original blog post here.

Back to warmth

It turns out we were about a half hour walk (in decent weather) from the top, from safety. Mountain rescue said they would have called the search off after one more hour due to the bad weather and we would have froze to death a few hours later. It turns out that there was even a helicopter looking for us. The helicopter was already out from a previous search and rescue mission so luckily we didn’t have to pay for that. In the end it was of no use due to the low visibility.

This next picture, you can see right in the middle, where the ridge dips is where we turned around and took shelter. With Mountain rescue we climbed back up the ridge and across the glacier to the top station.

This is the way down – taken the next day. We owe mountain rescue our lives (and a lot of money). They are some of the toughest, nicest guys we’ve ever come across who put their lives at risk to save others, voluntarily.

They told us we made the right decision to call them. If we managed to get to the top we would have got stuck on the glacier and froze there. Over two meters of snow fell in one hour and there were holes everywhere. With the blizzard and low visibility it was inevitable we would fall and injure ourselves.

This is the Dachstein. For scale of how massive it is – see the tiny speck in the middle, that is a mountain lodge.

So that was the story of how we almost died, one week into our travels! That night we opted for a room in the fancy hotel for one night, and went to get some pizza cause pizza = life.

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Dachstein – Third time lucky

The following day, not wanting to be defeated by Dachstein (we already tried to visit last year while we were in Hallstatt but again we were there exactly in the week during which the cable cars don’t run) we finally got on a cable car to the top and had a look around – not too far off the station, of course!

Naturally, we also met the Polish guys up there again. They were as much surprised to see us there as we them. Apparently they had once again tried to climb Dachstein – but were unsuccessful. They exclaimed they couldn’t stand the thing and were happy to leave for the Polish mountains. 

In the evening, it was Friday night after all, we celebrated life. It turned out to be more complicated than estimated though because we couldn’t find a bar. We ended up in some greb pub that apparently hadn’t even opened yet and was uncomfortably empty. After staying for a pint we left its emptiness for the weirdest bar I’ve ever been to, a mix between a hooligan pub and gathering place for locals with problems, and finally retreated back to our tent.

There is no time to rest, we need to hitchhike to Wolfgangsee via Salzburg the following morning.


How to get there

The nearest train station is Schladming. Buses are going to the Dachstein cable car station on a regular basis. Click here for the timetables. You want the bus 960 from Schladming to Dachstein. The cable car is free if you have the summercard, otherwise quite pricey, and we recommend to book it in advance during summer since it is wildly popular. You’ll find accommodation tips and more information about the summercard at the bottom of our previous blog post about the Schladming area.

Pro tip and a Thank you note

Take the cable car up Dachstein. Don’t hike up. Seriously. I mean, if you’re very experienced and prepared and the weather is good etc., go for it by all means but if you’re a leisurely hiker like we are, take the bloody cable car.

On this note, we want to say a big thanks to the mountain rescue service, Bergrettung Ramsau. Those guys are amazing, badass and incredibly kind. They saved our asses on Dachstein, and they don’t even get paid for it! Mountain rescue organisations in Austria operate on a volunteer basis. We happily paid our bill since it was a small price for our lives (and my travel insurance refunded part of it) but apparently a lot of people who get stuck and saved by mountain rescue never do. Wankers. If you want to avoid paying a bill like this, we have the biggest pro tip of them all: Prepare, research, ask and get advice from locals and professionals, and listen to them. We certainly learnt from our mistake. Happy hiking!

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