The First Asent of the GrossglocknerFinds prove that people sometimes crossed the alpine passes as long as 5,000 years ago. But until into the 17th century hardly anybody other than hunters, poachers and adventurers seeking gold or other precious minerals dared to enter the mountains. Only at the beginning of the Enlightenment did the inquisitiveness of natural scientists overcome the widespread fear of the mountains and daring explorers took off into an unknown new world – without maps, marked climbs, route descriptions, refuge huts, adequate equipment or competent mountain guides. The first ascent of Mont Blanc in 1786 was a tremendous sensation. This event moved the enlightened Carinthian Prince-bishop Franz Xaver Graf von Salm-Reifferscheid (1749 – 1822) to organise the first attempt at the Grossglockner. Not only was the highest peak in Austria, at 3.798m, to be conquered, scientific knowledge was also to be sought. Salm thus formed a “party so numerous and select that every department of natural history and physics had a man present.”
In the spring of 1799 Salm ordered that “several mountain dwellers” were to explore the apparently easiest route on the Grossglocker through the Leiter Valley and to “built a hut at about the half-way point” (the Salm Hut stands today near the original location). In August 1799 thirty persons with thirteen riding and pack horses set off from the then remote Heiligenblut, which was described by a doctor three years later as: “A Gothic church, two brick-built houses, eight to twelve wooden huts and fifteen cherry trees.”
The first expeditionThe first expedition failed due to heavy snowfalls. Six men were only able to climb the Kleinglockner (3,783m). Despite great applause from science, this performance was insufficient for Salm. For the year after he ordered “everything brought to ease the journey on the Glockner and the entire ascent.”
On 26 July 1800 the second expedition set off from Heiligenblut: 62 persons, including twelve “dignitaries” (Salm and his scientists) as a “riding party” and sixteen horses. Due to favourable weather, almost all of the “dignitaries” reached the Eagle’s Rest (3,434m) within two days and five men actually conquered the Grossglockner and erected a summit cross.
The expedition’s chronicler, visibly impressed, described how Salm celebrated this victory at the wooden hut in the Leiter Valley: “The prince honoured the Glockner climbers with a good meal. One would believe that with the supplies of victuals, including peaches, figs, melons and pineapples that one was more at a royal table in the capital than in an alpine hut. Champagne, Tokay and Malaga flowed as if they were pressed from the nearby glacier.”
The scientific yield offered a special opportunity for celebration. Together with the geographical length and width of the peak, its height was also barometrically and trigonometrically ascertained at 3,761m – although 37m too few, but less inexact than 1799 at 4,216m. The Problem: one may well have been able to measure exactly the altitude difference between Heiligenblut and the peak, but not the altitude of Heiligenblut over the far-distant Adriatic. New knowledge was given by, among other things, series of tests with snow melting, boiling points of water, humidity and pulse and respiratory frequencies. And a barometer was erected next to the summit cross, which returned data for 52 years.
The total cost of this undertaking was somewhat vaguely given, rather than declared, in the expedition reports. But we know what the wages, prices and travel costs were at that time, when a ride in a stagecoach cost almost as much as an overland journey in a taxi today. According to the currency value of 2005, the wealthy Prince-bishop Salm spent at least 50,000 euro for both Glockner expeditions.