At 3,798 meters, the Großglockner is not only Austria’s highest mountain, but also one of the highest peaks in the Alps.
For as longs as time has existed, mankind’s encounters with mountains have always brought danger. Difficult weather conditions and the lack of secure trails have made traversing the mountains unthinkable. However, traces of ancient trails testify to human courage. Relics such as pre-Celtic bronze knives, Celtic jewelry, a Roman statuette of Hercules, a bridle from the middle Ages and chains from 17th Century galley slaves attest to the fact that humans have been crossing these mountain passes for almost four millennia. Prior to the 17th Century, the Großglockner pass was the third most-traveled trade route behind the Brenner and Radstädter passes and accounted for nearly 10% of all trade in the eastern Alps.
However, not only danger was found in the mountains, but also fascination. The first ascent of Mont Blanc was a tremendous sensation and also brought forth brave men here at home. But only the second Glockner expedition in 1800 led to success. Victory and failure also accompanied other expeditions. The Pallavicini Gully was named after Margrave Alfred Pallavicini, who died on the Glockner in 1886.
With the building of the Grossglockner High Alpine Road, the majestic peak acquired a new dimension. As a popular excursion destination it is the epitome of an impressive natural experience for many people: size and power can be felt here, one is subject to the fascination of the eternal ice and the elemental force of nature.
The First Ascent of the Grossglockner
Finds prove that people sometimes crossed the alpine passes as long as 5,000 years ago. But until into the 17th century hardly anybody other than hunters, poachers and adventurers seeking gold or other precious minerals dared to enter the mountains. Only at the beginning of the Enlightenment did the inquisitiveness of natural scientists overcome the widespread fear of the mountains and daring explorers took off into an unknown new world – without maps, marked climbs, route descriptions, refuge huts, adequate equipment or competent mountain guides. The first ascent of Mont Blanc in 1786 was a tremendous sensation. This event moved the enlightened Carinthian Prince-bishop Franz Xaver Graf von Salm-Reifferscheid (1749 – 1822) to organise the first attempt at the Grossglockner. Not only was the highest peak in Austria, at 3.798m, to be conquered, scientific knowledge was also to be sought. Salm thus formed a “party so numerous and select that every department of natural history and physics had a man present.”
In the spring of 1799 Salm ordered that “several mountain dwellers” were to explore the apparently easiest route on the Grossglocker through the Leiter Valley and to “built a hut at about the half-way point” (the Salm Hut stands today near the original location). In August 1799 thirty persons with thirteen riding and pack horses set off from the then remote Heiligenblut, which was described by a doctor three years later as: “A Gothic church, two brick-built houses, eight to twelve wooden huts and fifteen cherry trees.”
The first expedition failed due to heavy snowfalls. Six men were only able to climb the Kleinglockner (3,783m). Despite great applause from science, this performance was insufficient for Salm. For the year after he ordered “everything brought to ease the journey on the Glockner and the entire ascent.”
On 26 July 1800 the second expedition set off from Heiligenblut: 62 persons, including twelve “dignitaries” (Salm and his scientists) as a “riding party” and sixteen horses. Due to favourable weather, almost all of the “dignitaries” reached the Eagle’s Rest (3,434m) within two days and five men actually conquered the Grossglockner and erected a summit cross.
The expedition’s chronicler, visibly impressed, described how Salm celebrated this victory at the wooden hut in the Leiter Valley: “The prince honoured the Glockner climbers with a good meal. One would believe that with the supplies of victuals, including peaches, figs, melons and pineapples that one was more at a royal table in the capital than in an alpine hut. Champagne, Tokay and Malaga flowed as if they were pressed from the nearby glacier.”
The scientific yield offered a special opportunity for celebration. Together with the geographical length and width of the peak, its height was also barometrically and trigonometrically ascertained at 3,761m – although 37m too few, but less inexact than 1799 at 4,216m. The Problem: one may well have been able to measure exactly the altitude difference between Heiligenblut and the peak, but not the altitude of Heiligenblut over the far-distant Adriatic. New knowledge was given by, among other things, series of tests with snow melting, boiling points of water, humidity and pulse and respiratory frequencies. And a barometer was erected next to the summit cross, which returned data for 52 years.
The total cost of this undertaking was somewhat vaguely given, rather than declared, in the expedition reports. But we know what the wages, prices and travel costs were at that time, when a ride in a stagecoach cost almost as much as an overland journey in a taxi today. According to the currency value of 2005, the wealthy Prince-bishop Salm spent at least 50,000 euro for both Glockner expeditions.
Pioneering by High Dignitaries
The first chapters of alpine history around the Grossglockner were written by clerical dignitaries. Salm accompanied his second Glockner expedition in 1800 as far up as the Eagle’s Rest, his vicar-general Count Sigmund von Hohenwart (later the first bishop of Linz) overcame in 1802 his openly admitted fear of the airy notch between the Kleinglockner and the Grossglockner, and at the age of 57 achieved the hotly covered peak victory. The next generation of mountaineering clerics was led by the Salzburg Cardinal Prince Friedrich Schwarzenberg, who studied theology at Salzburg and had undertaken several first ascent in the Limestone Alps. Schwarzenberg later served as the Archbishop of Prague. In 1841 he achieved the risky first ascent of the Hohen Tenn (3,368m) and followed this exceptional performance with the climb of the Wiesbachhorn (3,564m) from Ferleiten over the 2,400m east flank – in a single day, there and back.
Clerical dignitaries also later undertook some daring performances: the Franciscan Corbinian Steinberger achieved in a solo climb in 1851 “with a pint of wine and a piece household bread” the Glockner tour from Heiligenblut in a single day, there and back. The Heiligenblut priest Franz Francisci made the first ascent in winter in 1953.
But then secular dignitaries turned their attention to the Glockner Group. It began in 1856 with the “highly honoured visit of his majesty Emperor Franz Josef to his crown-land (Carinthia)” in Heiligenblut. The 26-year-old monarch hiked in four hours from Heiligenblut up to the terrain level, which has since been known as the “Kaiser-Franz-Josefs-Höhe”. His imperial wife “Sisi” was satisfied with a ride to the Elisabeth Rest, which was named poetically after her.
Pallavicini2019s Triumph and Tragedy
To ease the stage of 2,500 altitude metres from Heiligenblut to the peak of the Grossglockner, in 1876 the Alpine Association erected the “Glocknerhaus” at a select location at 1,700 altitude metres to ease the ascent, and soon 3,000 visitors were counted annually. Shortly after the consecration of this base, a man spent the night there who with a challenge offered by fate was to excite special attention: the 28-year-old Margrave Alfred Pallavicini, said to be “Vienna’s strongest man”. With three mountain guides he dared to undertake the ascent on the Grossglockner from the Pasterze through the 600m-high and 52°-steep ice gulley, which has since borne his name. With bravery in place of sufficient safety – ice picks were first invented in only 1924 – a guide undertook the cutting of steps in the ice. The ice cutter was to have been relieved after a while.
But this was unsuccessful due to the steep ice and the man continued cutting – 2,500 steps in seven hours, almost to the point of exhaustion, but still to a peak victory. This performance can be judged by the fact that it was twenty-three years later that someone dared to enter this ice gully. In 1886 Pallavicini took on the forbidding Glockner face with three companions. Just below the peak, a snow drift broke off and tore this roped team from the face. Only Pallavicini survived the fall. He wandered through a confusion of crevices down into the valley. He was found a week later cowered at the edge of a glacier crevice, dead, an out missing and his nose completely shattered. Pallavicini was put to rest at the church wall in the graveyard of Heiligenblut, opposite the metal book, which bears the names of the victims of the Grossglockner for posterity on its pages.