FROM THE CORKSCREW Corniches of the Cote d’Azur to Amalfi’s clifftop roads, Europe has its share of iconic routes, but none can match the Grossglockner High Alpine Road for mountain splendour. Winding for 30 miles through Hohe Tauern National Park, it’s Austria’s highest, most hair-raising drive. More rollercoaster than road, it veers and dips, curls and swerves. It swings round switchbacks and plunges through tunnels. Fog, rockfalls and belligerent mountain goats are routine hazards. From November to April, the route is closed, sitting under several metres of snow. Even in summer, the weather is unpredictable: the altitude means one section can be swathed in cloud while another basks in sunshine.
For most people, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime journey, but for park ranger Konrad Mariacher, it’s his daily commute. He lives in Heiligenblut, an old gold-mining town near the road’s southern gate. He’s driven the Grossglockner in all weathers, but even he can sometimes be caught by surprise. ‘The road has a mind of its own,’ he says, parking his truck at a viewpoint off the road, overlooking the five-mile-long Pasterze Glacier. Below him, a plain of shattered rock and grey ice extends along the valley. ‘When the cloud rolls in, one curve looks exactly like another, so you have to take care. But the real danger here is the scenery. Every year, many cars come off the road because the driver is paying more attention to the view than to the asphalt.’
He looks up to where the road loops through long, arcing curves towards the Hochtor, a mountain pass that’s been in use since before Roman times. Beyond here, there’s a spur that leads up to the Edelweiss-Spitze, where a panorama encompasses more than 30 peaks over 3,000m, including the mighty Grossglockner itself – Austria’s highest mountain at 3,798m, and the summit after which the road is named. The road itself was the brainchild of a group of entrepreneurs who wanted to capitalise on the new-fangled pastime of motor-touring in the early 1930s.
At a cost of more than 55 million euros in today’s money, it seemed a madcap project, but today, some 900,000 people pass through the Grossglockner’s toll-gates every year. On this morning’s ascent towards the Edelweiss-Spitze, a veil of cloud hangs over the mountain, obscuring everything but the next bend and the headlights of the car in front. But the Grossglockner gloom doesn’t last long. As the road weaves upwards, the weather unexpectedly breaks. The mist thins and dissipates. Streaks of sky appear overhead. Yellow pastures appear by the roadside.
On the far side of the Hochtor Tunnel, it climbs over a final ridge and a chain of peaks looms along the horizon, like soldiers standing to attention along a castle’s battlements. The summit of the Grossglockner itself appears, an icy spike towering above silver cloud. Suddenly, the boom of engines cracks the silence like cannon fire, and a phalanx of leather-clad hikers races past. They’re the first motorists of the day on the Grossglockner. but they certainly won’t be the last.