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      Maria Kittl in the Zwerchwand

    The 89-Year-Old Rock Climber

    Maria Kittl from Upper Austria scales steep rock faces multiple times a week. She’s 89 years old.

    Maria puts on her helmet and steps into her bright blue harness. With quick, experienced hands, she tightens the belt and hooks up her carabiners. Behind her towers the Zwerchwand rock face, a steep wall featuring multiple climbing routes suitable only for experienced climbers. Maria looks up and smiles broadly. “When I see a steep wall, my heart starts to sing”, she says.

    "When I see a steep wall, my heart starts to sing."

    Maria Kittl
    Maria Kittl

    Rock climbing at 89

    If a passing hiker happened to see Maria and her companion, mountain guide Christoph Hüthmair, at that moment, they might do a double take. Maria doesn’t quite look like the typical mountain climber – she is 89 years old, 1.50 m tall, her hair under the helmet white as cotton wool. Then again, is there really such a thing as a “typical climber”? For Maria, like anyone else, concentrating hard as she positions her shoe on the next foothold is pure joy. “The first reason I climb: for my mind”, she says. She is on to something: Not only does the precarious nature of free climbing keep you alert in the moment, a study from the University of North Florida found that the specific characteristics of climbing could significantly improve a person’s working memory and other cognitive functions. This is because it involves balance, muscle coordination, and spatial orientation simultaneously.

    Maria Kittl with her climbing equipment

    Climbing partners – and friends

    What are Maria’s other reasons for climbing? “Second, the climbing itself”, she says. “And third, for the company. I always have a mountain guide with me. What’s better than that?” In the last years, Christoph, who could be Maria’s grandson, has become much more than just a mountain guide; they are friends. Friends who have spent weeks-long climbing holidays in places like France, Croatia, and Spain. “She has this ability to always adjust to new situations”, Christoph says about his travel partner. “At her age, something or other might ache or be painful, but she always finds a solution. That’s impressive.”

    250 climbing days in one year

    What Maria achieved in her eighties is truly impressive as well. “In the past four years, I’ve thought to myself, ‘I want as many climbing days as possible.’ So I did 250. In one year”, she says. 150 to 200 days of climbing – something many of us aspire to – is just a regular year for her, now that she is approaching 90. In her younger days, she was a state champion in skiing and dressage riding. She also explored some of the most difficult climbing routes with her husband Robert, a well-known alpinist. With mountaineering and climbing still firmly considered a men’s domain in the 1960s and 1970s, she was the first woman ever on many of those routes. The mountains have not always been kind to her: In 2008, her husband was killed in a climbing accident on Dachstein mountain, and her son died at age 17 while paragliding.

    "There are only two options - giving up or becoming stronger."

    Maria Kittl is securing her helmet
    Maria Kittl

    “There are only two options – giving up or becoming stronger.”

    But giving up on being active was always out of the question for Maria. The full-body workout that free climbing provides suits her just fine. “When I was 70, I said: If I keep on climbing, I’ll make it to 90. I basically trained my own subconscious, and here we are!” she says, smiling. She plans on climbing for many years to come: “There are only two options – giving up or becoming stronger.”

    Maria Kittl - a person full of joie de vivre

    One of Maria's favourite climbing locations:

    Maria Kittl in the Zwerchwand


    • Altitude
      1,341 m
    • Location
      Western Totes Gebirge, Bad Goisern, Upper Austria
    • Closest Airport
      Salzburg (1.5 h), Linz (2 h)

    Zwerchwand in Bad Goisern, Upper Austria

    Located in Austria’s lake district in the province of Upper Austria, the Zwerchwand is an insider’s tip for rock climbers, featuring routes with varying degrees of difficulty. Tours are between one and five rope lengths. The rock face runs from East to West, with a width of approx. 400 m and a wall height of up to 100 m.

    Learn more | Find a route

    What is Free Climbing?

    Free climbing is a form of rock climbing where the climber uses physical ability to move over the rock via handholds and footholds. When free climbing, like Maria does pictured above, climbers use a rope and are protected by gear at all times. Free climbing is sometimes confused with free soloing, where climbers climb without ropes, harnesses, or other protective equipment.

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