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An amazing adventure

Auf Den Spuren Der Ersten

The Lure Of Gravity

A fascinating new Austrian ski film that explores generational change, climate change and the enticement of the steepest slopes.

By Chris Cummins

The Hochfeiler, the Zillertal’s highest peak, is one of Austria’s most spectacular mountains. The 50+ degree snowfield that plunges down its North Face proved an irresistible draw to the pioneers of steep skiing. In July of 1980, three Tyrolean ice-climbers Michael “Much” Leuprecht, Otti Zipser and the late Emil Wachler, who had become entranced by the mountain’s magnetic beauty, became the first skiers to descend from the peak. It was a hair-raising adventure on skinny skis and touring boots.

This spring, 37 years later, the free-ride skiing duo Matthias “Hauni” Haunholder and Matthias Mayr followed in those ski prints and have produced a poetic, nostalgic and spectacular film “Auf den Spuren der Ersten” or „In the Tracks of the First“ that premiered on Wednesday 11th October in Salzburg.

The descent down the North Face

Auf den Spuren der Ersten

The film, in which the descent down the majestic Hochfeiler plays a central role, includes interviews with the surviving members of that first descent. It’s an elegiac cinematic rumination on the past, present and future of steep skiing in an era of technological and atmospheric change.

Different Generations, Same Philosophy

The interesting thing about sitting down and chatting with the steep-skiing pioneers, says Mayr, is finding how much they had in common. “You always imagine you are so different to the past generations but it was interesting to find out how similar our outlook on life is. When they were young, they wanted to try stuff out and see what they could do. Just like we do.”

But they did it using significantly more challenging equipment, which Haunholder and Mayr try out in the most entertaining segments of the film, climbing in pre-Gore Tex clothing and jump-turning on the heavy narrow touring skis of four decades ago.

„It is almost impossible to ski on these things.“

“If you are used to skiing with all the assistance modern technology gives you, it is almost impossible to ski on those things,” laughs Mayr. “It gives you a huge amount of respect for those guys.”

If the technology has changed, so have the Alps – terrifyingly so, in fact. Haunholder and Mayr made their attempt on the Hochfeiler north face two months earlier than their predecessors because climate change has totally transformed the Alpine region. “The Hochfeiler has long been a famous ice-climbing route, but much of the ice has melted now” says Hauni. “Our project is about comparing the ‚Then‘ with the ‚Now‘.”

Old school skiing

Auf den Spuren der Ersten

„Hundreds of metres of ice have disappeared“

Later, heading up to the fearsome Pallavicini Rinne on the Großglockner, which was first descended in 1971, they hike past the Pasterze Glacier, there is a melancholy feeling the duo hike past signs of where the tongue of the ice-sheet used to lick but now there is just pay rock and pools of water.

“We all know that there is climate change in the Alps," says Mayr, "but when you see that hundreds of metres of ice have disappeared in just a few years it is truly shocking.”

The descent down the Rinne itself is heart-stopping to watch. The team has to abseil over a hundred metres of rock where once there was ice. The melt has loosened the rock face, so Haunholder and Mayr are pelted with falling stone. In the chute itself, they notice a deadly change. In the 1970s there was thick grippy snow, now just a few centimetres seperate their skis from the sheer ice below. Skiing doesn’t get more hazardous than this.

„We never set out to make a film about climate change,“ says Mayr, „but that is just the way it turned out.“

Rock hit Matthias

Auf den Spuren der Ersten

Mayr is pelted with rocks which have been loosened by rising temperatures.

It’s a new sort of film from the duo; refreshingly reflective. They’ve been working together for ten years on projects that have taken them to the frozen tundra of Siberia and a wind-smashed northern Pacific Island. This locally focussed film moves slowly with long passages of climbing and bivouacking and includes a tense section at the peak of the Hochfeiler where Haunholder struggles with a technical issue, which made my stomach knot in anxiety just watching.

“I think it is our best film so far,” says Mayr, “because there is a real story arc.”

„It’s all about concentration“

The focus on steep skiing is interesting in itself; an almost nerdy meticulous reply to the widely available free-flowing powder ski porn. If you make a less than perfectly executed turn on wind-hardened slopes that are steeper than 50 degrees, you can lose control very quickly.
We watch Haunholder and Mayr make tentative wobbly turns on the perilously icy upper slopes of the Hochfeiler. “It is all about concentration. You can’t afford to make any mistakes,” says Mayr.

Haunholder says, he loves the frisson of nerves that he feels at the top of a steep slope, and you feel that in the film. But he says, that once he drops in, the fear is gone, replaced by intense concentration. While skiing these steep faces he lives entirely in the moment, relishing the sense of unleashed gravity, yelping with joy towards the end.

A very steep climb

Auf den Spuren der Ersten

Haunholder describes the highly technical sport of steep-skiing as the latest evolution of his free-ride career, because the level of foresight and precautions needed is incomparable with any other form of the sport. The duo planned the Hochfeiler descent for months, making multiple inspections and waiting until conditions were exactly right before launching the descent.

“Auf den Spuren der Ersten” is a wind-swept, reflective film that gives its subject space and where, along with the themes of heritage and friendship, Austria’s highest mountains, in all fearsome majesty, are allowed to play the starring role.

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