Nadine Wallner: Scaling the Heights


, by Charlie Boscoe

Nadine Wallner and Simon Wahli on exposed but easy ground midway through the “Jungfrau Vertical Marathon”. Credit Tim Marcour / Red Bull Content Pool

As professional skier Nadine Wallner lay in the Alaskan wilderness with an open tibia and fibula fracture, she could have been forgiven for feeling pain beyond the agony of the injury itself. Just a year before, in 2013, she'd reached the pinnacle of her sport by being crowned Freeride World Tour Champion and had backed it up with a second championship just weeks before flying to Alaska. Her ski career, which had led her from the Arlberg region of Austria to mountains, podiums, and ski films across the globe, seemed - literally and figuratively - to be coming to a painful end. The prolonged process of rescuing her meant that by the time she reached the hospital, the injury was 6 hours old, and she was in danger of losing her leg and, with it, her profession and passion. The cliché that from lemons we should make lemonade is usually little more than that - a cliché - but Nadine lived it. 

Nadine leading the way on one of the technical pitches.  Credit Tim Marcour / Red Bull Content Pool

Despite having a mountain guide as a father, she'd done surprisingly little climbing until her injuries prevented her from skiing for a few years, and she was casting around for a new sport to try. She traveled to the Kalymnos with the goal only of experiencing the rock climbing for which the Greek island is so famous, but a casual trip to have some fun while her leg healed led to a lifelong passion. The combination of sun, sea, perfect rock, and excellent food have made Kalymnos a climbing mecca, but for Nadine, the island was the start of her pilgrimage rather than the culmination of it. Despite being unable to lift her heel, she took to climbing naturally and was soon working her way through the climbing grades at an astonishing rate. Within a few years, she'd climbed 8b/5.14a - a level very few recreational climbers (including, sadly, the author) will get anywhere near. It's hard to describe just how hard climbing at that level is, but getting there so quickly is like piloting the International Space Shuttle a few years after you thought you'd give flying a try.

Nadine on the lower part of the route, still waiting for the first rays of sunlight to hit the wall.  Credit Tim Marcour / Red Bull Content Pool

As she puts it, her newfound rock climbing skills also had the benefit of making her "not a newbie at climbing" (an exceptional example of Austrian understatement), which in turn enabled her to train and qualify as a mountain guide. However, just when it seemed that she'd gone from an elite operator in one sport to two, she hit a snag. "I made really fast progress in my climbing and training, which is not normal, and with the fast progress came some finger injuries because the ligaments and joints normally need so much longer (than I took) to adapt to the strain." As a result of the nagging injuries she was still able to climb but not at the level she'd initially reached. Her focus turned to doing longer, "easier" (all things are relative) climbing routes in the mountains.

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Despite her meteoric rise through the climbing grades, doing longer but technically easier routes in the mountains actually fit Nadine well, as she explains: "I love to be in the mountains, I love to be challenged, and I love endurance. The leg injury brought me to climbing, the finger injuries brought me to mountaineering." For someone who has the fitness to move all day and the technical capacity to climb much harder routes, taking on long routes in the big mountains makes a lot of sense. 

And it was a trip to the Bernese Alps (a place Nadine describes as "like Disneyland for mountain sports," which led Nadine to the "Jungfrau Vertical Marathon" - an informal challenge created by linking together two rock climbs (Stägers Bürtblätz (350m, 7a+/5.12a) and Fätze und Bitze (300m, 7a/5.11d)) with a long and serious ridge - the Rotbrättgrat - and a lot of hiking to provide a truly huge mountain day. Several teams have completed the trip over multiple days, but doing it in a "oner" - starting from Stechelberg (in the Lauterbrunnen valley) and climbing all the way to the summit of the famous Jungfrau peak (4158 m/13641 ft) without stopping is a truly elite achievement.

At 3:45am on the 23rd of July, 2023, Nadine began the journey to the Jungfrau with her climbing partner Simon Wahli. The initial hike in and the lower route went smoothly enough, but, as Nadine puts it, "We got our asses kicked on the upper wall." A combination of altitude, fatigue, questionable rock, and the fundamental challenge of climbing a route that is still extremely hard by "normal" climbing standards slowed the pair down, but they still hit the summit of the Jungfrau 16 hours and 20 minutes after leaving Stechelberg. The pair had contemplated taking small paragliders (Nadine is a paragliding pilot, too) to speed up their descent, but 50kph winds meant that even if they'd taken their wings, they wouldn't have been able to fly off. A trudge down the Jungfrau and across to the Jungfraujoch train station rounded off their extraordinary day.

Simon and Nadine on the summit of the Jungfaru.  Credit Tim Marcour / Red Bull Content Pool

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