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August 8th 2022

To the waterfall of the Suldenbach brook and across the moraines of the Ortler glaciers

Yesterday morning I left Mals and arrived after a short trip by train and bus in Sulden. Ich checked in at my trusted Hotel Nives. Again my room was very nice – with a view on the Ortler which was hiding behind some clouds in the afternoon – the weather hadn’t not quite improved yet, but it was pleasantly cool ‘though. In the evening the sky got a peculiar shade of purple – quiet a stunning sight! Today the sun was shining again and enlightened the Ortler – the promise of a beautiful day.

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Sulden am Ortler: view from the village on the eastern mountain slope of the Ortler (3.905m)

For today I had planned a hike along the Suldenbach brook to the Hintergrathütte hut situated at 2.661 metres at the foot of the Ortler. After a very tasty and nourishing breakfast I left at 09.30 hrs and went into the direction of the cable car. The Suldenbach brook carried a lot of water: the result of the rains of the past days, but probably also of the inevitable melting of the glaciers… The water also had a greyish colour because of the transported silt.

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In the meantime I had passed the alpine animals again, which have been carved in wood, but now I was able to follow the road that runs higher on the slope and that had been closed in winter. There I passed a Golden Eagle sitting on its eyrie, while another bird of prey came floating from a nearby larch! On an information panel the differences were explained between the two largest birds of pray in the Alpes, the Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) and the Bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus). Besides the colour of their feathers (mainly brown as opposed to white/orange body and brown wings) it is especially the way of hunting in which the birds differ. The Golden Eagle catches its prey (rabbits, mountain marmots, squirrels) after a long volplaning, as the Bearded vulture mainly lives of bones of hoofed animals (ibex, chamois), which it eventually smashes from great heights on the rocks. It especially uses thermal for floating. I thought here we were dealing with Golden eagles – it just gave a nice impression!

This time I followed the educational walk EVOPÄD. Last time I got lost in the labyrinth: that represents “the ancient humans” and focusses on resolving problems of life through balance and by connecting our strength with our feelings. In that way one can build up one’s identity, one can find one’s position in life and the ability to take responsibility… Back then my inner balance didn’t improve by it! Now I passed “the Mammal”, a round revolving platform on which one had to move like on a treadmill, while clutching to a fixed wooden block on top. This was supposed to train one’s emotional perception and one’s ability to interact with others. I tried – but it wasn’t easy… I noticed that walking backwards on that wooden platform was easier than walking forwards. On the information panel no explanation was given for this situation… I had a good laugh about myself!

Last March I had been in Sulden already. Then I went on March 16th for a winter hike to the middle station of the cable car. Near the large waterfall of the Suldenbach brook I had spotted a large, frozen waterfall, of which I hadn’t any memory the last time (on August 13th 2019) when I took the cable car up the mountain on my way to the source of the brook. That also was a reason for my today’s hike. There are several ways to reach that point. The easiest way is to follow the wide road from the cable car uphill (like in winter) and than to cross the Suldenbach brook by the suspension bridge. Another possibility is to hike the narrow path on the left bank of the brook (avoiding the suspension bridge…). I chose the last option and ignored the valley station of the cable car.

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On the way to the Hintergrathütte Hut above Sulden am Ortler: view on the large waterfall in the Suldenbach brook and to the left the suspension bridge and to the right the steep slope where there is another waterfall in winter

It was an impressive sight to see the water that threw itself with a roaring sound from the high cliff in the south into the depth. But: where had the waterfall gone that I had seen in winter on the slope I was about to climb? Vanished without a trace…

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On the way to the Hintergrathütte Hut above Sulden am Ortler: view in winter from the wide road on the right bank of the Suldenbach brook on the steep slope with the frozen waterfall (right) and the suspension bridge (left)

While climbing it occurred to me why there had been a waterfall in winter and no waterfall in summer: I could see several tiny water streams running from that rock. In the beginning of winter the water will freeze, but at first new water will run over it, which freezes in turn…! My choice for the narrow path on the left bank just meant that I had to go on a kind of mule track: the friendly wining path along the brook turned into a steep path, that at some places had been cut into the rock and that sometimes had been equipped by chains of metal steps. And practically up in a vertical way…! I accepted the challenge – and with me may others!

When I had achieved the first part of the ascent I reached the suspension bridge. That bridge I would have had to cross if I had chosen the wide road to the middle station in the first place. For me it would result in watching how other hikers crossed the bridge: from the look of it not everybody was enjoying himself, but a dog was frolicking light footedly across it, holding on to a wooden stick…

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On the way to the Hintergrathütte Hut above Sulden am Ortler: view from the western slope near the large waterfall in the Suldenbach brook on the narrow, 44 metres long suspension bridge

Here the water in the Suldenbach brook is flowing fast – it still has the impetus from the waterfall. It has the same colour as the pebbles in the brook bedding ‘though. I had seen further downstream how the greyish silt had formed a wrinkly deposit on the banks, while the water was flowing on in high speed.

It wasn’t easy to bet a good view and picture of the waterfall: the sun was standing right above the rock of which the water came thundering down. The sound was echoing around. The mist of water was refreshing.

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On the way to the Hintergrathütte Hut above Sulden am Ortler: view on the lower part of the large waterfall in the Suldenbach brook where there was no backlight from the sun

The higher I climbed on the steep slope I didn’t only get a boost about the progress I made on that mountain, but I also got a better overview of the landscape : the valley of the Suldenbach brook, through which I just passed, the wide road I had taken in winter, but also the suspension bridge that indeed looked narrow (1½ metres) and long (44 metres). From this point especially the vegetation stood out: everything still seemed very green, but from nearby it had been looking quite stoney.

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On the way to the Hintergrathütte Hut above Sulden am Ortler: view on the valley of the Suldenbach brook, the suspension bridge, the wide road on the right bank and (Inner-)Sulden below

The view upwards was also promising: I was able to see the Hintergrathütte hut on the ridge of the mountain. The building seemed to disappear against the backdrop of the mountain due to the colour of the bricks that had been used. Only the symmetric gable roof showed that it could not be a rock! I also knew for sure that the trip would be a tough one: I couldn’t discern a path from the point where I was standing straight on to the hut…!

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On the way to the Hintergrathütte Hut above Sulden am Ortler: view from the steep slope above the Suldenbach brook on the Hintergrathütte hut (upper right corner)

Although the peak of the flowering season was over by now, there were still some treasures in bloom. A small spruce had been able to develop on a even spot on the mountain slope – very tiny compared to the links of the chains that could serve to our grip. It was standing in a bed of Mountain avens (Dryas octopetala), a small alpine shrub that belongs to the rose family and of which the little flowers meanwhile had faded. The fluffy seed heads were glimmering in the sun. Higher on the mountain the branches of the Blue green saxifrage (Saxifraga caesia) stood proudly in the cushions with indeed bluish fat small leaves of this succulent. The white petals had already gone. A species that still flowered abundantly was a subspecies of the Common yarrow (Achillea), that is called in German “Clusius-Schafsgarbe. It was funny to see from very close-by that some of the stalks were chopped off: had it been an animal that had topped it off or had it been a human who had picked them?

Finally I had conquered the steep slope in slightly over half an hour and I arrived on a small plateau at the same level as the middle station of the cable car. Then it occurred to me that I had rather complicated matters for myself: I could also just have taken te cable car… Nevertheless I am glad I didn’t do that: how I had seen really nice things! From here I also could see how the water of the Suldenbach brook arrived quite calmly before throwing itself into the crevasse.

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On the way to the Hintergrathütte Hut above Sulden am Ortler: view on the middle station of the cable car, near the waterfall of the Suldenbach brook

Now a relatively flat part of the hike followed. From this point the Hintergrathütte hut was already more visible and seemed te be quite close by. It also was possible to look further into the valley near Sulden. Just a moment of quietude!

The plateau on which I went was covered with light grey boulders in many sizes. Apparently this formed a ideal habitat for the Broad-leaved helleborine (Epipactis helleborine). Large plants were growing there, with their ripe purple capsules glowing in the sunshine – quite a surprise and a nice gift!

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On the way to the Hintergrathütte Hut above Sulden am Ortler: on the slope above the middle station the Broad-leaved helleborines (Epipactis helleborne) have faded and carry large purple capsules

Another surprise was an ancient larch tree that researchers have roughly estimated to be from the 7th century! Under a cover greyish pieces of wood and a truck were laying which together still formed a tree. On an information panel is stated that in 1996 this tree has been found during preparations for filed work for the University of Stuttgart and that in the same year it has been dug out by students of the course Dendrochronology of this University. This European larch (Larix desidua) has appeared at the melting of the Sulden-glacier. The same glacier had already damaged the tree in 639 AD and finally “run over” around 834 AD, after which it has taken the tree along. About 750 AD a period started in which the formation of glaciers increased – this cold spell took until midst of the 19th century. On the panel some years from world history were mentioned, like the year 700 when the Alto Adige became part of the Franks Reign, the year 800 when Charlemagne was crowned Emperor, and the year 843, when the Alto Adige became part of Austria after the Franks Reign had been split up. It felt special to be standing there anno now and to watch a tree that has been existing for such a long time! The cover that has been built in 2005 by the Forstamt (Forestry board) Prad am Stilfserjoch, looks lie an average open shed from this region, covered with wooden shingles and beams to prevent snow to shift, made heavier with rocks. Nevertheless it is protecting something very special: a very ancient European larch! This is a pioneer tree, that is able to reach water in lower layers with its long taproot and therefore being “storm-proof”. Because it loses its needles in autumn it can better cope with loss of fluids by frost.

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On the way to the Hintergrathütte Hut above Sulden am Ortler: in an half-open shed on the slope above the middle station of the cable car an ancient larch is lying that has been overrun by the Sulden glacier and that has been discovered in 1996

From this point another (very) steep part of the hike started. Here the panoramas were beautiful once again – and different: the high mountains with their large glaciers in the beginning of the valley of Sulden came into sight. After threequarters of an hour I could just spot the middle station, lying deep down (about some 300 meters I guessed!). Also the wide plateau with the greyish boulders just before the Suldenbach brook reached the waterfall, was standing out. Together with me may hikers made this steep ascent, only a few were descending. Although the climbing up was quite exhausting, I was glad that I didn’t need to make the descent: quite a disaster for one’s knees and toes… I happily spent the many short pauses in order to regain my breath on looking around and enjoying myself!

At the point where the narrow stoney path turned around a sharp rock towards the west I had another wonderful view: the mountain station of the cable car and somewhat lower the Schaubachhütte hut were lying on a mountain ridge like tiny cubes in a wild rocky landscape. Behind that the mountains were towering. The sides of the mighty moraines of long gone glaciers looked as if they were cut off with a knife.

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On the way to the Hintergrathütte Hut above Sulden am Ortler: panoramic view on the mountain station of the cable car, the Schaubachhütte hut, the mountains in the south of the Suldenbach valley and the moraines

When I took the cable car in last March downhill from the mountain station and I had a look on the landscape round the Ortler I must have seen the Hintergrathütte hut – what a difference between winter and summer!

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In the cable car of Sulden am Ortler between the mountain station and the middle station: winterly view on the mountain slope to the west of the Suldenbach brook, the Ortler and the Hintergrathütte hut

A few moments later the view changed again: the Ortler came in sight! The path followed the green mountain slope at the northern side and the highly stacked gravel of the Sulden glacier at the southern side.

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On the way to the Hintergrathütte Hut above Sulden am Ortler: view on the Ortler (right) and on the impressive moraine of the original Sulden glacier (left)

All of a sudden there was a small mountain lake, the Untergratsee lake, where many hikers took a break. Some were standing with bare feet in the water to cool down, because it was very hot! There were also sheep lying on the slopes – their bells could be heard from afar.

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On the way to the Hintergrathütte hut above Sulden am Ortler: view on the Untergratsee lake with the Ortler in the background

I saw the beginning of a building – or just the end of it, a ruin, that at first didn’t even stand out: the stacked stones had clearly been taken from the large pile of stones in the background. Later I would read that here until 1915 the first Hintergrathütte hut had been standing, which has been destroyed during the fighting in the First World War.

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On the way to the Hintergrathütte Hut above Sulden am Ortler: near the Untergratsee Lake is a ruin, probably of the old hut (until 1915)

After another short climb and after turning the next corner the Hintergrathütte hut came in sight! What looks like a small building with a gable roof seen from the steep slope near the waterfall turns out to be a large hut with three stories. In the summer season (mid June to mid October) there are sleeping places for 70 visitors: these are hikers who would like to climb the Ortler via this route. During the day it especially is a resting place for hikers like me and many others. There is an inviting terrace with “Ortler-Blick“, but chairs have also been places at the south side of the hut. The panoramic views from northeast though the south to the west is overwhelming! In Italian the hut is called Rifugio alto del Coston or Rifugio del Coston: “Hintergrat” and “Coston (di dentro)” have the same meaning. At the outside wall plaques of marble are hanging, i.e. commemorating the fist ascent of the north face of the Königspitze by Hans Ertl and Hans Brehn on September 5th 1930 and of the north face of the Ortler, again by Hals Ertl but this time with Franz Schmid, on June 22th 1931. The plaque has been unveiled on August 2nd 1981. The long, ascending road I had taken uphill which continues further into the direction of the top of the Ortler is named after Hans Ertl (1908–2000). He was a German mountaineer and cameraman who had served during the Second World War under the command of a. o. General Rommel. After the war he went to Bolivia, where he initially made some nature films, but where he finally turned to farming.

A short history of the hut is described on its website. The first ascent of the Ortler took place in 1805 via the Hintergrat ridge. Therefore Josef Pichler who was the first to ascent the Ortler, had already created a small shelter, which was situated a bit further uphill than nowadays’ hut. He was ordered to do so by a civil servant, Johannes Gebhard, who had been sent by the Archduke Johann of Austria (1782–1859 and then governor of Tyrol). This hut was named after this civil servant and was the first shelter in Tirol. This shelter fell into disrepair because for a long time this routing to the summmit of the Ortler had not been used anymore. When at the end of the 19th century the number of ascents of the Ortler increased Karl Bäckmann, a Russian diplomat from Poland financed the construction of a new hut. This Bäckmannhütte has been opened on August 27th 1892. It was however situated lower at the slope: on 2.611 metres near the Untergratsee lake. The hut was that popular that it had to be expended within three years. Bäckmann donated the hut to the Guild of Mountain guides of Sulden – in return a memorial was dedicated to him, which is standing along the Kultur- und Geschichtenweg (Cultural and History Trail) in Sulden. During the First World War the Austrian troops used the hut as a basis, after which the Italians destroyed the hut in 1915 by grenade fire. The mountain guides from Sulden have built the new hut near the Obergratsee lake between 1920 and 1922.

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Near the Hintergrathütte hut above Sulden am Ortler: the hut at 2.661m comes in sight!

I found a seat on the terrace and ordered in the cosy dining area a large bottle of mineral water to begin with. A cast-iron stove with a large crate with wood in front of it ( and a fire extinguisher next to it), which will probably be lit in the evening. Besides the standard dishes available in mountain huts, they also served “Hirschwurst, Kraut und Knödel” (venison sausage, cabbage and dumpling) – which had been written on a sign outside. That’s what I took for lunch! The sausage was delicious, the stewed cabbage even more so. The Knödel was slightly dry, but provided good energy for the rest of the hike.

I enjoyed the water and the lunch, but especially the view on the three mountains with which it seems that I was standing at eye level: seen from the southwest to the northwest the de Königspitze (3.851m), the Monte Zebrù (3.735m) and the Ortler (3.905m). The large, greyish moraines which lay like deep furrows in the landscape clearly showed to which point the glaciers had once been expanding and the force with which they have moved downhill… The people on the terrace and in the surroundings of the hut seemed just very tiny in comparison with these mountains radiating so much energy-at least that was how I felt it. I guess also that I am just to much in awe for these mountains to feel the urge to climb these summits… But then I haven’t even mentioned the lack of physical skills!

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At the Hintergrathütte hut above Sulden am Ortler: view from the terrace on the Königspitze (3.851m, left) and the Monte Zebrù (3.735m, right)
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At the Hintergrathütte hut above Sulden am Ortler: view from the terrace on the Monte Zebrù (3.735m, left) and the Ortler (3.905m, right)

After a break of more than half an hour it was again about time to move on: over the initially easy Höhenweg along the slopes of the Hintergratkopf mountain on the way to the mountain station of the chairlift of Langenstein and from there back to Sulden. After a short climb I reached the footpath: there I was treated with a nice view towards the north till far into the Obervinschgau. In the distance the light blue water of the Reschensee lake was glimmering.

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Between the Hintergrathütte hut and the mountain station of the Langenstein-lift: view towards the north on the mountain slope and the Höhenweg mountain trail
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Between the Hintergrathütte hut and the mountain station of the Langenstein-lift: view towards the north over the mountain slope of the Hintergratkopf and into the Alto Adige and the Reschensee lake

The Trail Nr. 3, the Morisiniweg (named after a mountaineer from Vienna) was level and easy in the start, but that changed not long afterwards: there were passages across boards and along steep parts of the mountain wall to which cables had been attached. In this rough environment with the many boulders appeared all of a sudden a small group of House leeks (Sempervivum): the tiny rosettes of leaves and the pink starlets of the flowers looked quite vulnerable.

The views continued to be beautiful, also into the depth, into the valley of the Suldenbach brook. From this altitude is was quite visible how the area around the middle station of the cable car had been polished barren!

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Between the Hintergrathütte hut and the mountain station of the Langenstein-lift: view on the higher part of the valley of the Suldenbach brook with the middle station of the cable car and the rocks that have been polished barren

Later on the landscape turned even more wild: the steep slopes were covered with rocks in several sizes., but all of them in a reddish and rusty colour. Sometimes the path wasn’t clearly visible – I had to step from one stone onto another. At one point, when I got the Ortler in sight again, hikers of all ties had built some cairns, not tiny ones, but colossal cairns. They had a view across the glaceir moraines on the restaurant of Langenstein and even on the Obervinschgau! I pulled a flat piece of stone somewhere out of the soil and put it in the top of one of the stone beacons. My contribution!

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Between the Hintergrathütte hut and the mountain station of the Langenstein-lift: one of the cairns has a wonderful view on the mountain station of the Langenstein-Lift and on the Alto Adige in the distance

From the cairns the path descended to the gravel of the moraine of one of the Sulden glaciers: I had to cross it in order to reach the mountain station of the chairlift of Langenstein. That restaurant with its characteristic gable roof seems close-by, but it took me still almost threequarters of an hour to arrive there…

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Between the Hintergrathütte hut and the mountain station of the Langenstein-lift: view across the moraines of the glacier on the mountain station of the Langenstein-lift

The descent over the large boulders (to begin with) and later over the loose gravel lying on the moraines was slightly slippery. At a certain moment the sun disappeared behind a large cloud. Then there was a complete change in atmosphere: it seemed as if someone had thrown a dark veil over the landscape, turning it bleak… Luckily it only took a short while!

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On the way to the Hintergrathütte Hut above Sulden am Ortler: view on the change from large rock boulders underneath the Hintergratkopf mountain and the loose grid on the road to the chairlift

When I had almost arrived at Langenstein I turned around once more: the steep north face of the Hintergratkopf seemed quite green and easy compared to the grey scar in the landscape caused by the moraine of the former glacier. The skiers and snowboarders in winter will not have any idea about what the landscape looks like in summer and how different the colours then are! The descent will be far more smooth compared to the efforts hikers have to make when there is no snow…!

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The wide road that I had already expected earlier on, appeared when I reached the mountain station of the Langenstein-chairlift. Now I chose a quicker way downhill and I didn’t go to the restaurant: I postponed my drink until I would be down in the village (the Hugo Nives, with lemon balm, in the hotel is very thirst-quenching!). As I saw a sign with the indication “Martl Madonna” I remembered with joy my wonderful hike to the statue of white marble of Mary at the foot of the Ortler, that I had made on August 14th 2019! While I was silently floating down to Sulden I could enjoy the views, also to the valley of the Obervinschgau to the north of Mals, which I saw in the distance. From here the Reschensee lake wasn’t visible anymore…

Still long after I had got solid ground under my feet again and I could look at König Orlter from my hotel room again I had an utmost pleasant impression of this heavy but also very nice hike. It also occurred to me that my hike hasn’t been made possible by the endeavours of the pioneers of tourism in the 19th and 20th century, but also by generations of shepherds with their sheep, goats and cows and chamois hunters over the centuries: they have collectively enabled us to “relax” so easily in this mountain world! For this we should be grateful and we should cherish these privileges…