Karawanken, Austria. 8-11 September 2004

Why the Karawanken? Quite simple, really: I had never been there but had seen the impressive limestone range as a kid and always wanted to visit it. The range marks the border between Austria and Slovenia. The Mittagskogel is especially noticeable from the Carinthian plains. Access from the UK should be simple given cheap Ryanair flights from Stansted to Klagenfurt. So the proposal was made and duly accepted by no doubt inebriated AGM 2003 participants in Northern Ireland.

Reconnaissance? No time, so we’ll have to make do with maps, hearsay and internet sites! It soon turned out that there were no mountain huts or other suitable bases for the Mittagskogel, but a nicely placed hut further east, the Klagenfurterhütte (5,459ft*). So the plan was hatched. The hut warden could have us for the first three nights, but did not want to commit for the Saturday night. There would be a summit mass on top of the nearest mountain on the Sunday and the 'the devil is loose' in the hut – surely this must be a quote of the meet – due to crowds all wanting beer and lunch afterwards.

By late August there were a dozen inscriptions, but with several different arrival and departure times, promising a logistical nightmare. Basically, public transport was possible to Feistritz, from where it was about four hours' walk up the road and track to the hut. But only 1½ hours up from the road head, ie a car would be useful. For good measure, Polevault and Mrs Polevault decided to come two days early (need to drink the beer before it runs out, or pathological fear of being late? That's called retardiphobia, I just coined the word!). Be that as it may, they reached Feistritz, started walking up the road and were soon able to thumb a lift, thus saving a couple of hours' walking.

We came by car from Switzerland and settled into a Pension just south of Klagenfurt. Mad Mike and Muesli should have done the same but spent too long loading the car, started too late in the day, had to spend a night in the valley and got to the hut a day late, a fact that almost earned him the 'prick-o’-the-meet' award (it went to West Face instead, for failing to do a proper reconnaissance!). The evening before, DM³ arrived at the airport at 11pm (access from Mallorca was as usual not so convenient, and it is rumoured she spent quite some time in Frankfurt airport). We picked her up and took her to the Pension. Next day, Christina, Steve and Dave McMullan were due to arrive at the airport. I collected the first two, after having ferried Sally and Daphne up to the road head, but Dave did not appear. The airport was most unhelpful, being unable to let me know if he took the plane or not ('security reasons', although the logic of this escapes me, once the plane has landed). In fact, it later transpired that he had got stuck in traffic on the M25 and missed the flight, and the meet. So instead we picked up Hanne, coming by train from Germany, at the main station. More ferrying and we got the six of us to the road head. The Macklins had decided to come a day later. They managed perfectly but had to walk all the way in, reaching the hut by 7pm, looking remarkably fresh. They are old friends of ours from Malawi, back in the mists of time, when memories become dim and well before METHS was even thought of.

The Alpine Club hut was comfortable, nicely situated with a view of the north wall of Hochstuhl, at 7,338ft the highest peak in the range. We were all put in a small dormitory, except the Scotts and the Macklins who preferred a more cosy two-bunk room. The food was good, but with limited choice and some dishes were quite high in cholesterol. Nobody cared though, because the beer and wine was abundant and up to standard. We thought the hut would be crowded, since every place at the 6-7 long tables on the outside terrace was filled with beer-drinking 'mountaineers' when we arrived early afternoon. But as the sun set, they all drifted off down the jeep-track to the valley, leaving us almost on our own in the hut.

Thursday, 9th, was a glorious, sunny day. So were all the other days! In fact, the Polevaults were quite disappointed they could at no time don their Scottish rain gear. We broke a METHS record that first morning, by leaving the hut at 9am sharp! Of course, the attentive reader will already have deduced that Mad Mike had not yet arrived. A steepish climb up a reasonable path across a scree to the Bielschitza Sattel, 6,036ft, a col that marks the border with Slovenia. Limestone areas in the Alps are characterised by a lot of such scree below the cliffs, wherever there is no vegetation. Tedious to climb and often treacherous to descend, and good for twisting ankles. From the col, we had a short descent on the Slovenian side, then long scree slopes to the summit plateau of the Hochstuhl, 7,338ft, 2½ hrs from the hut.


Good views down both sides. We were surrounded by a hover (is that the right word?) of jackdaws that were eager to snatch up any crumbs and other offerings we left them. One or two even ate out of DM³’s hand. West Face wanted lunch, so we went down across a small hump (Kleinstuhl, 7,133ft, our second peak) to a Slovenian mountain hut just the other side, where they served goulash soup, bean soup, etc. This hut, called Prešernova koca, would have been a possibility for the Saturday night. It had stunning views down to Bled and the Triglav (METHS 1993!) but there was no way we would go up and down the screes with full backpacks. On the way down we passed Mad Mike and Muesli gallantly struggling up the scree. They did the summit and joined us for the late afternoon beer drinking at the hut. Some of us climbed the Bielschitza summit (6,426ft) from the col on the way down, a detour of some 45 minutes. Later that afternoon, the Macklins arrived, having walked all the way from Feistritz.

On Friday, we again managed to get off very close to 9am. Seven of us climbed the Geißberg, or Kosiak, 6,640ft, the site of Sunday’s summit mass, then met up with the others (the Polevaults, who had already been up, and those who wanted to go up on Sunday) on the path over to the Bodental. A few steel ropes and vertiginous drops caused some hearts to flutter, but we successfully crossed the rock promontory and continued down beautiful forest and woodland, across the Märchenwiese (fairy tale meadow) to a suitable pub (Bodenbauer, 3,464ft), conveniently reached at lunch time, that offered various cakes, goulash soup, etc, and more beer. No salads. The owner proudly told us that you don't get lettuces in the mountains (and implied that salads were most unhealthy and not consumed by real mountaineers). He also did his best to persuade us not to cut across his fields to take an alternative path back. But I was determined to take this path, so we skirted round the fields instead. It was a long way back, involving over 2,000ft of climbing.

That evening I discussed Saturday night with the warden. He no longer had any objection to our staying that evening, no doubt impressed by our purchasing power, drinking ability and general good behaviour. Indeed, he warned us off another possible Slovenian hut by saying it had burned down 2-3 years ago. (In fact, it hadn’t.)

Saturday again dawned bright and sunny. Hanne left early that day, the rest of us set off for another summit, Vertatscha, 7,155ft, reachable across the Bielschitza Sattel, with quite a descent the other side. Half the party decided to stay at the lunch stop (picnic, no pubs today), the other six continued up the steep grass slope to the summit ridge and on to the summit, together with some 150 mainly Slovenians who were also going up (having spent the night in the 'burned down' hut). I pointed out a short cut for the way down, involving a non-official path across a huge scree, and Mike, Christina and Steve took it successfully. Later, Mike taunted us with yodels from the col while the rest of us were slogging up the path some 500ft below him.

The AGM was held that evening in a separate room (minutes to follow). The hut got very lively, with several local groups trying to outdo each other as regards beer consumption and raucous singing. We tried to join in but were outnumbered. Two Scottish berets-with-wig, brought from the Highland Games, were a great success, being tried on by all the locals. A local guitarist accompanied West Face when he sang a German mountain song, his first ever public performance!

On Sunday, the Macklins and Sally went up Geißberg for the summit mass, attended by some 250 people, most of whom walked up in that morning, the rest of us descended to the car park and were ferried down to 'civilisation'. We left the Polevaults in a nice country inn at Suetschach, near Feistritz. Daphne went back to the Pension, as did the Macklins when they came down later. Altogether a successful and memorable meet!

*For incomprehensible reasons, METHS constitution stipulates that all measures be given in British (imperial) units. I can only assume that the reactionary lobby in METHS fooled drunken AGM participants into voting a constitutional amendment. To convert metres to feet, multiply by 3.28084. If your mental arithmetic is not up to this, try multiplying by 13, then dividing by 4. I am working on an even simpler method.

Participants: Christina Petzold, Verena (Müesli) Petzold, Mike (Mad) Petzold, Eric (Polevault) Scott, Valerie Scott, Daphne (DM³) Martin, Hanne Fränkel, Mike Macklin, Bridie Macklin, Steve Rainbow, Sally Roschnik, Rupert (West Face) Roschnik (leader).

© WDYFO, 2005