It's tough at the top

You're old. You're out of condition. And you wouldn't know a crampon from a crouton. So why not spend the weekend ascending Austria's highest peak? What have you got to lose, apart from your toes?

On the outskirts of the Austrian town of Altenmarkt, 70 kilometres south-east of Salzburg on the A10 motorway, there is a group of the long, low sheds that characterise the modern trading estate. In one of them, Atomic skis are manufactured; next door is what was, until recently, a clothing factory. There are still a few clothes in the converted building: a soiled anorak, for example, and a thermal undergarment very badly worn at the knees. There are some more peculiar objects nearby, including the top of a finger preserved in a glass bottle. While the week after I was there, part of one of Chris Bonnington's ribs was expected to arrive and to go on display.

On the outskirts of the Austrian town of Altenmarkt, 70 kilometres south-east of Salzburg on the A10 motorway, there is a group of the long, low sheds that characterise the modern trading estate. In one of them, Atomic skis are manufactured; next door is what was, until recently, a clothing factory. There are still a few clothes in the converted building: a soiled anorak, for example, and a thermal undergarment very badly worn at the knees. There are some more peculiar objects nearby, including the top of a finger preserved in a glass bottle. While the week after I was there, part of one of Chris Bonnington's ribs was expected to arrive and to go on display.

The former factory now houses a superb exhibition on the history of modern mountaineering, called Der Berg ruft! - the call of the mountains. With everything from memorabilia to movies, plus interactive displays for those with a shorter attention span, the exhibition tells the stories - tragic or heroic, more commonly both - of the 20th-century pioneers of mountaineering.

The fingertip came from the right hand of the Austrian climber and film-maker, Kurt Diemberger. He is the only man to have made the first ascents of two of the great, 8,000m-plus mountains in the Himalayas and to still be alive - hardly a lesser achievement. Diemberger lost three fingertips in an attempt on K2, another Himalayan peak, in 1986; five of the other climbers lost their lives. He happened to be at the exhibition: I shook his hand, somewhat self-consciously, but didn't have the presence of mind to ask after the whereabouts of his other two fingertips.

The underwear belonged to the British climber Doug Scott. He broke both ankles in 1977 abseiling off the top of Ogre, yet another Himalayan peak. He had to crawl down the mountain: it took seven days. Hence the state of his underwear. Chris Bonnington was injured in the same expedition, and the rib is a souvenir of his surgery.

The anorak? In my excitement, I completely forgot to take a note of its wearer. Two days earlier - when my greatest mountaineering achievement to date had been to scale the 229m peak of Plynlimon in Wales with Mum and Dad - I would have maintained my journalistic grip, and made proper notes. But in the meantime I had climbed the 3,798m Grossglockner, Austria's highest mountain. I had felt the grey-green rock, and searched for hand-holds on a Grade 2 ascent; I had worn crampons, and been roped together with the team; I had stood next to the crucifix on the summit in the driving July snow. I was a mountaineer - if not quite yet in Kurt Diemberger's class.

The first ascent of the Grossglockner, in the Hohe Tauern mountains, took place 200 years ago. There remains some doubt about the identity of the pioneer climbers, and the date of their achievement; but the commonly accepted history is that a local priest, Father Horasch, and two brothers named Klotz reached the summit on 28 July 1800, possibly accompanied by two carpenters (they drift in and out of the story). That date, at least, is accepted by the Austrian National Tourist Office, which decided to mark the bicentenary by inviting a group of ski writers to make the ascent, presumably on the basis that what comes down must go up.

Few climbing teams can have been assembled in which the dominant characteristics of the members could best be summarised in the phrase "old and out-of-condition". The three of us to whom both adjectives most clearly applied had spent much of our training period on the telephone, competing over whose new boots (stiff ones, for the benefit of the crampons) were the most painful, bickering about which of us would bring up the rear (we couldn't all do it), and sharing our anxieties over the extent to which Simon, the young and fit freelancer who was treating the climb as preparation for an attempt on Mont Blanc, would show us up.

The tourist office kindly set up our base camp in a four-star hotel in the village of Kals, where we ate our last meal with our two mountain guides, Wolfgang Nairz and Peter Bauernfeind (whose surname, he claimed with disconcerting glee, means "enemy of the people"). None of us slept well - except Simon, of course; but if we had known what we were letting ourselves in for, we wouldn't have slept at all.

The first part of the climb, starting from an altitude of 1,918m, was a stiff walk which grew stiffer as we approached the 2,801m Stüdl-Hütte, our lunch-stop. So far, so good: this was the sort of ascent we had expected, a lung- and leg-testing walk through beautiful mountain scenery, alpine flowers at our feet, marmots scattering with their bird-like cries of alarm. The tourist office's briefing - about the metal-toothed crampons that would be strapped to our boots for the final ascent, and the ropes and harnesses we would have to wear - might have made non-skiers more wary; but to those of us at least acquainted with glaciers and crevasses, it sounded more like a sensible precaution than a welcome to serious mountaineering country. Until we reached the snow-line, and began trudging across a snow-field towards the first glacier, we remained in blissful if breathless ignorance of what in fact lay ahead of us.

My own sense of security had been made all the more false on the night before we flew to Salzburg. Leaving a party early, I excused myself to the German hostess by explaining that I had to get a good night's sleep in preparation for an assault on Austria's highest mountain. Far from reeling at my courage and ambition, she smiled and said: "Oh yes, my father took me up the Grossglockner once." I should have set against this the capital letters in which the author of a book on Mountain Walking in Austria, Cecil Davies, warns that "THE GROSSGLOCKNER IS NOT A WALK IN ANY ORDINARY SENSE OF THE WORD"; but it was only while lying on my stomach on the narrow ridge leading up to 3,454m Adlersruhe-Hütte that it occurred that my ordinary sense of the word "walk" - ie going down to the shops to get a paper - probably differed from Davies'.

The ridge is, in mountaineering terms, merely a Grade 1 climb (the scale goes up to 10, although I can't imagine how). Steep and narrow, with sharp drops on either side, it has a fixed steel cable to help climbers up; nevertheless, we took so long on the ascent that the light was failing when we finally reached the hut where we were to spend thenight. I was cold, in pain (remember how thawing fingers feel?), exhausted, and very jittery - because it's alarming to be roped together with three other dangerously inept climbers. But I was better off than most of the rest of the team. Of the six journalists, four had decided against pushing on to the summit; only Simon (of course) and I would make the final ascent the following morning.

At 6.30am, tense and nervous, I made a good fist of fitting my crampons the wrong way round: but for Wolfgang's intervention, I would probably have entered the record books as the first climber to go up the Grossglockner backwards. The weather cleared momentarily, but as we set off it was through clouds and swirling snow. Traversing the glacier was exhausting, our boots disappearing deep into its snow-cover with every footfall. After almost an hour, we reached the base of the lower summit, the Kleinglockner, where hard rock replaced soft snow and fear overcame our exhaustion. Leading the ascent, Peter tensioned the rope around metal stakes or outcrops as we sought out handholds and footholds in the rock crevices; from behind, Wolfgang gave me some rather belated tips on crampon technique.

The worst part was the snow-bridge, less than 2ft wide, between the Kleinglockner and Grossglockner peaks. I was deeply grateful for the poor visibility: looking down was unavoidable here, but at least clouds obscured the view. Beyond the bridge, the summit was visible; and the final part of the Grade 2 ascent was almost enjoyable. We crowded around the crucifix, looked at the clouds and passed around a hip-flask. And then we moved off to let the next group of climbers come up for their moment of glory.

Getting back to the hut was much easier then I had imagined. And the descent of the northern side of the Grossglockner was just a long slog, across a huge snowfield and down a scree slope to the valley of the Pasterze glacier. The valley floor's Planet of the Apes landscape - half broken rock, half icy snow riven with streams rushing through deep-blue gorges - was amazing; so was the effect of global warming. The cable-railway built in 1960 to take tourists down to the glacier now stops 200m short of the ice: that is how much the glacier has shrunk. Wolfgang told me that it is now thought to be just 50m deep.

The following day, I was working my way along the wall-panels at the mountaineering exhibition in Altenmarkt when I came across a familiar name. Beyond accounts of the Mountain Wilderness organisation's extraordinary litter-collecting trip up K2 and Hans Kammerlander's non-stop, climb-up-and-ski-down Everest expedition was a panel about Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler's celebrated ascent of Everest in 1978, without oxygen. The leader of that expedition was Wolfgang Nairz, our guide up the Grossglockner.

The best approach to Altenmarkt is from Munich, reached by air from Gatwick and Heathrow on British Airways (0845 77 333 77, www.britishairways.co.uk) and from Birmingham, Heathrow, Manchester and Stansted on Lufthansa (0345 737747, www.lufthansa.de). From the airport, you transfer to Munich's Hauptbahnhof, from where it is a two-hour journey (including one further change) to Altenmarkt.

The Der Berg ruft! exhibition (00 43 6452 20130) is alongside the Altenmarkt exit on the A10 motorway. Summer opening hours 10am-6pm daily (winter, 2-9pm, Wed-Sun); entrance ASch 160 (£7.50) adults, Asch 80 (£3.80) eight to 18 years.Austrian National Tourist Office, 14 Cork Street, London W1X 1PF (020-7629 0461; fax 020-7499 6038)

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