Mount Großglockner and the Großglockner High Alpine Road

Birgit Stegbauer


Mount Großglockner ranks second among Austria's most popular tourist destinations with an estimated 900,000 visitors per year, topped only by Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna. Mountaineers account for only a small percentage of this number - only about 5,000 climbers conquer the 3,798 m high rocky pyramid each year. Most visitors drive up the Großglockner High Alpine Road to Kaiser-Franz-Josefs-Höhe (2,369 m), from where there is a unique view over the Pasterze glacier to Großglockner's peak, with marmot sightings guaranteed!


The fascination of Mount Großglockner has remained unbroken ever since it was first ascended in 1800, which is astonishing considering that for a long time it wasn't even Austria's highest elevation. Until 1919 this was Mount Ortler (3,905 m). Or considering that it wasn't the first high alpine mountain ever to be climbed in Europe. That honor falls to Mont Blanc (4,810 m) in 1786. However, the publication of the expeditions to the Großglockner in 1799 and 1800 and the lordly members of the expeditions - among them the Prince-Bishop Franz Xaver Salm-Reifferscheid - were the best adverts: from that time on mountaineers and scientists have conquered the summit.


To begin with, only the mountaineering village of Heiligenblut on the Carinthian part of the Großglockner profited from the booming alpine tourism. Then, in the middle of the 19th century, additional ascent routes were found, starting from Kals in the Tyrol. With the construction of the Großglockner High Alpine Road between 1930 and 1935, the province of Salzburg also gained tourist access to the region of the Großglockner.


Approximately 50 million people have driven the road since its opening. The 48 km long scenic toll road, with its smooth design and 36 hairpin bends, is also known as a testing ground for car manufacturers and as a venue for car and (motor) cycle races. Therefore, it may not come as a surprise to you that one of the exhibitions at the visitor center of the Kaiser-Franz-Josefs-Höhe is dedicated to the history of the automobile.


But sadly, this is also the place where one can study the negative effects of global warming, clearly spelled out even for the (driving) amateur. The Pasterze, the 8.4 km long glacier at the foot of Mount Großglockner, is losing mass: the tongue of the glacier retreats by an average of 10 meters per year. You may not believe it, but when the Glacier Railway was built in 1963, its bottom station was situated next to the end of the glacier's tongue. As a matter of fact, since measurements started in 1856, the Pasterze's volume has almost halved!


It was apparent that the Großglockner's and the Pasterze's unique landscapes were in need of special protection early on. In 1918 the first areas on the Carinthian side of the Großglockner were acquired and handed over to the care of the Alpine Club. Further areas on the Tyrolean side followed in 1938. The Carinthian part of the Großglockner and the Pasterze form the heart of the High Tauern National Park, established in 1981. The park now covers an area of 1,836 km2 on Carinthian, Tyrolean and Salzburg territory and is the largest nature reserve in the Alps.


For the Großglockner High Alpine Road website please click here.


For information regarding the High Tauern National Park - click here.


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