From March 17 to 19, German climber Fabian Buhl tried to not think about falling as he made the first winter ascent, solo, of the Wetterbockwand (5.14b, 350m) on the east face of Hoher Goell (2522m) in Austria’s Berchtesgaden Alps. At times, ten meters out from the last bolt, he held on to tiny edges with one numb hand, while he used the other to brush snow off the next hold he planned to use. If he slipped, he knew it would be about twenty-five meters until his solo-climbing device clattered and stopped his fall.
German alpinist Alexander Huber first climbed the route in 2013; he then freed it in the autumn of 2014. (Both the line and the wall it’s on are called the Wetterbockwand.)
This runout, ten-pitch route–with considerable avalanche danger–represented a new level for the twenty-five-year-old Buhl, a strong trad and sport climber who is relatively new to alpine conditions. While he didn’t climb the entire route free in a single push, he managed to free each section individually.
“Alex [Huber] said it wasn’t possible, but if it was, it would be very hard,” Buhl told Alpinist. Huber helped Buhl with the logistics of the climb. “Had he not gone up there, I wouldn’t have known it was possible. You are fifty feet runout and you’re [too far] right of the bolt and there’s a ledge…. I should have climbed down, but your body climbs upwards.”
“They told me this was a crazy thing. It’s about the adventure that you have,” Buhl said. “And I’m glad it’s over.” (Therein followed a short laugh.)
Buhl grew up in Oberstaufen in the Bavarian Alps of southern Germany. He was an alpine ski racer until 2006, when he took up climbing.
“I was sixteen. [Skiing] was the main sport I did,” Buhl said. “I tried to be as good as possible, but I couldn’t really handle the pressure [of races]. Like skiing, climbing feels natural to me.”
During a trip to South Africa, Huber told Buhl about the Wetterbockwand. A few months later, Buhl started considering a winter solo of the route.
In February, Huber and fellow German climber Lukas Binder helped Buhl ferry gear up the long, steep, avalanche-prone approach couloir on skis. Buhl then climbed the last 350 meters of the approach alone, which took an additional two hours.
Buhl came back on March 16 and established base camp on Wetterbockwand. For the next three days he climbed and returned down his ropes each night to his bivy.
Buhl had 200 meters of static rope that he used to access sections of the climb. The climb is bolt protected, though in typical Huber style, the bolts are few and the runouts are up to 50 feet long. Buhl also carried a few pieces of trad gear, which were practically useless on the crackless-limestone wall.
To self-belay, Buhl used a modified Grigri attached to both a waist harness and a chest harness. “After the first bigger falls I started to trust my self-belay system again and did not care anymore,” he wrote on the website 8a.nu. “Sometimes I spent forty minutes on a particular runout section, climbing back and forth, not knowing the way and searching for the path of least resistance, removing the ice from the holds or cleaning snow off the ledges.”
Buhl encountered spindrift on holds, even in the steepest sections of the route.
Twice he took eighteen-meter whippers (sixty feet). “Normal falls were five to ten meters [fifteen to thirty feet],” he said. He lost count of the total number of falls. On some of the traversing pitches, falling would have meant hitting a ledge, but he was able to avoid slipping off the wall in those places.
Buhl said he felt motivated he wanted to complete a true winter ascent on a smooth wall where he couldn’t escape the runouts because there was no option of aiding between bolts or gear.
Afterward, Buhl downclimbed the approach gully and skied out. “As soon as I was in safety after skiing down to the car, the adrenaline dropped and I was totally exhausted,” he said.
Next, he says, “maybe [I’ll] spend three to six days on [another] wall.”