Not to be underestimated!
Early this year, at the beginning of January, I finally - on my fourth attempt - did the first ascent of the "Sagzahn-Verschneidung" ("Sagzahn Corner"). On my first attempt five years ago, I already thought that I wouldn't lead those pitches again, now I've done it four times in total.
Every regular visitor on my homepage has probably come across the name Sagwand. Where else than in the Vals Valley do you find such a collection of big, truly alpine mountains near Innsbruck? The Olperer with its north face, the Fußstein with its north ridge, the Schrammacher with its over 3000 feet high north face – the "Tyrolean Eiger" so to speak - and last but not least, the Sagwand. Several classic climbs went up the face before Andi Orgler re-discovered it and climbed some impressive lines in the 1980es. In August 2008, I climbed one of my first alpine first ascents there, "Desperation of the North Face" with Jorg Verhoeven. I appreciate the Sagwand a lot, and have climbed there often, many times alone. It's a wild, repulsive wall. Especially in winter, when it transforms in an even wilder, more demanding face.
In winter, the Vals Valley is one of the coldest places in all of Tyrol. That is an obvious advantage: The frost glues the rock together, before it becomes chossy in summer. In the last years, I only climbed there in winter. In early 2013, I managed the first winter ascent of the "Schiefer Riss" ("Diagonal Crack") with Hansjörg Auer and Peter Ortner. It was one of the hardest endeavours each of us had ever undertaken, with temperatures below -20ºC - Hansjörg still considers it the hardest bivy that he has endured in the Alps.
It was around that time that I saw the corner between Schrammacher and Sagwand, an obvious and beautiful line that leads up a snowfield, before following a white trace through a steep rock face for over 200 meters. After that, the terrain eases a little and leads to the summit of Sagzahn from the back side. On my first attempt, I was with a friend from school, but I soon realized that I had underestimated the difficulties from afar. We only managed three pitches, about a third of the steep part. Two years later, I returned with a friend from East Tyrol. The first 200 meters turned out to be full-on mixed climbing. Uli and I managed everything and reached the end of the difficulties, when it unfortunately became dark. For safety reasons, we rappelled.
Since then, nothing had happened. Every winter, I was hopeful, but conditions were never good. This year, everything came together on one of the first days of January. I headed up together with Peter Mühlburger – Uli didn't want to join again. I wanted to finally finish this first ascent. To be safe, we skied to the base the previous evening, with huge backpacks. After a night in the tent we got an early start. In an hour and a half, we climbed up the snow field and roped up.
Peter led the first pitch; the next two, the hardest of the climb, were my part. The less-than-ideal rock and the wintery conditions made getting adequate protection tricky. While the second pitch led up a corner, the third traversed out right, over a roof and then onto thin ice. I moved precariously to the right and cautiously searched for spots where I could get traction with my crampons, all while removing snow blobs, making sure they wouldn't take me down with them. Twice, a foothold broke - it spooked me every time, and I saw myself falling already.
I aided the roof, because everything else would have been too dangerous. In this terrain, with this protection, and crampons on your feet, falling is not really the best option, even if it would have been steep enough.
It was exactly the way I like it. Really hard alpinism, where you have to use all your tools to get up.
Once I had passed the roof, half a hold suddenly broke. After a huge moment of fright, I had to take a deep breath. I barely managed to hold on.
After six pitches, with numerous demanding sections that I only got through by aiding, we had overcome the steepest part of the wall. It was the same distance to the summit, through a snow gully with several steep bits, but the terrain was easier and we were making good progress. By the time we reached the summit though, it was 5 pm. After rappelling and skiing back to the car, we were in Innsbruck at around 11 pm. The aid climbing - Peter and I agreed on the rating M6/A2 - requires a lot of time. In any case, the "Sagzahn-Verschneidung" is among the hardest lines that I have climbed on the Sagwand.
Of course, I would be happy if the route got a repeat ascent, but I am not really counting on it - it is extremely rare that someone repeats anything but the classics in the Vals Valley. The "Sagzahn-Verschneidung" is of great personal value to me: I have looked at it for such a long time, it took me several attempts to get it done, and every time, I underestimated the climb. Now, the first ascent is finally finished;
I don't have to lead any of those pitches again and can gaze at the route with a deep sense of satisfaction.