High altitude swimming, Matscherjochsee, Alps, South Tirol


For a few years, myself and Thomas Kofler had discussed a possible swim in Matscherjochsee, the highest lake in the Alps, situated on the Matscherjoch (Matscher pass) at 3190m above sealevel, in the Otzal alps of South Tyrol, Italy. Finally we agreed to attempt it on the first week of August this year. Thomas made a preliminary trip to the lake a few weeks before and confirmed that it was indeed difficult to reach, being on the opposite side of the valley from the nearest mountain hut and over 1300m above the parking place at Glieshof….

I trusted the assessment of Thomas seeing as he is not only a highly successful long distance and winter swimmer but he is also Tyrolian and in the past has summited some big mountains.
After a short discussion we opted to start from Glieshof and then ascend to the Oberettes Hutte (originally the Carlsbad hut, built by the Prague section of AV in 1882) at 2670m on the other side of the Matsch valley, spending the night there before continuing to the lake the next day. The group consisited of myself, Thomas, Paolo Chiarino of Italy and my club colleague Ivan Petruzela of the Czech Republic.The weather was fine, warm and sunny with only a few clouds and no wind. Day 1 went well as we reached the hut in time for dinner at 7pm. We discussed the itinerary for the next day and opted to try the traverse at the end of the valley rather than descending and then ascending to reach the pass and thus the lake. We had good navigational aids in the form of map/compass and also 2 GPS units with tracks already saved. We have compiled this list of best spin bikes, in order to help you with picking the best performing indoor spinning bike at home. Alternatively you can read out these rowing machine reviews and start doing rowing activities indoor.

We set out at 8am and soon climbed to 3000m where we were treated to a view of the snout of the Matscher glacier and on the other side the Matscherjoch which was partially obscured by clouds. The traverse proved to be demanding and we had to cross a canyon and then ford the Matsch river at our lowest point of 2600m before beginning the steep climb to the pass. As we looked at the rocky ridge at the top of the pass it was hard to imagine athat there was a lake nestled behind but that is the reality of nature, it is capable of anything and works in a way that is somehow above us. The last part of the ascent was tricky due to slippery rocks and scree, combined with clouds and drizzle. I opted to veer to the left as I saw a route to the top. This put us a few hundred metres off course but we soon put that right and arrived at the lake.

The weather was not terrible but equally it was not good – clouds and light drizzle. The beauty of the glacier and the friebrunnerspitze peak overlooking the lake were obscured, only visible for a short every few minutes as the clouds moved around. We confirmed the location and that we were 3190m above sea level. The air was around 6c and the water on the shallow edge of the lake on the opposite side of the glacier feeding the lake was 4.9c. The lake itself looked much longer than we anticipated and was a banana shape and we all agreed that this was clearly a lake and not a tarn. We found a good place to base ourselves with an entrance to the water that which was more sediment covered and less rocky. I rolled out a karrimat to provide some respite from the sharp stones and that was the technical preparation done, all we had to now was get our trunks on! Soon we were ready and Thomas began chanting “warm, warm, warm” as he did some stretches. He attribute this to Adam (oceans 7) Walker. In a comic scene of “after you because you are local/older/faster, etc” finally (and I don’t know why) it was me who stepped in first. I immediately exclaimed “oh it’s warm”, which was a complete lie because within 30 seconds I could feel a glacial shiver running from my head through my neck into my back and shoulders. The water was really cold and it was a humbling and powerful experience. A usual with this kind of “wild” swim there is always a split second where you get a really powerful feeling of being engulfed by powerful nature and it came as floated on my back. Soon Paolo, the Italian Ferrari was freestyling his way to the other end of the lake so we followed his lead and went on an exploratory swim, staying to the middle of the lake where it was at its deepest. Mostly rocky it was a few metres deep at most. We negotiated the clouds and arrived back at the starting place. It was noticeable that we were over 3000m above seal level, for breathing during the swim was more laboured than usual. Personally I found it an interesting addition to the encounter with powerful nature. It is hard enough in cold water but add altitude into the equation and it becomes even more of a test. We had been in the water for between 4m30s and 5mins. We were unable to obtain a reading from the middle of the lake but we all agreed that it was colder than on the edge. (4.9c) As usual it took some time to get dressed, drink tea, talk a little nonsense and get back to normality, before we set off on our return journey to the hut. Swimming in the Matscherjochsee was a truly wild experience, it is not easy to get to and is seldom visited by hikers and mountaineers, let alone swimmers.

Our return journey to the hut was tricky but not as difficult as we chose an easier descent/ascent rather than the traverse. I took a moment to reflect on the day and I was sure that this was an extreme, not only I terms of our swimming but with regards to the location and access. I recommend a visit to the Matscherjochsee but it is not an easy trip and the Matscher valley traverse route is rated by Alpenverein as “difficult” compared to the ascent from this valley of the big peak Weisskugel which is only “medium”.
We were satisfied and the next day we managed to visit the stunning Saldurseen lakes, with another swim at 2900m, but that is another story, summed up by saying that it was quite beautiful, slightly longer and aesthetically pleasing but that the Matscherjochsee eclipsed it for excitement, remoteness and the innate power of nature.