Karl “Charly” Gabl is the unsung hero behind many successful ascents in the mountains. He's the highly reliable meteorologist whose predictions of the best time to go for a summit have been used by climbers such as Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner, Reinhold Messner and David Lama. We talked to Charly Gabl at the Mountain Film Festival at Das Kino. Here, he explains the art to a good forecast.
How have you become the go-to guy for mountain weather?
I have garnered a reputation among world-class mountaineers. I may have a practical advantage by being a mountain guide and having befriended [8,000er collector and Kaltenbrunner’s husband] Ralf Dujmovits in the 1980s.
My clients appreciate talking to me on the phone, as I also tend to bring a personal note to my analysis. That’s a bit of a mental boost, which they need in these exposed and dangerous places.
What’s been the biggest change in the weather business?
The computer, without a doubt. Before that it took three months to predict the weather for the next day. The computer can process masses of data in ten minutes, and bring global developments into the equation. High and low-pressure regions span thousands of kilometres.
So we're better at forecasting then?
Now, we have a result reliability of easily 80% for a 5-day-prognosis. Especially when it comes to predicting the movements of the jet stream, a bundle of fast-flowing, narrow air tubes. The prediction of the jet stream movement is around 95%. It used to be around 60-70%. In the 1950s, only 12% of mountaineers going for an 8,000er were successful, today it’s over 35%.
David Lama rates you highly.
I’ve advised David many times – and once, so did Austria’s President Dr Heinz Fischer! He wanted to visit me and see how I work. So the presidential limousines arrived and I ran downstairs and told him: “Mr President, we have to hurry, in ten minutes David Lama will be calling from Patagonia and you have to give him the weather forecast!”
He enthusiastically agreed. We went through precipitation columns and wind graphics, he took some notes and at 5:15pm on the dot David called and President Fischer personally gave him the weather report.
Do you get emotionally involved in the expeditions you advise?
I often get up in the middle of the night to check on a balloon’s position or if everything is working according to my calculations, yes. I’m officially retired now, but continue to advise mountaineers who are mostly my friends. It was dramatic and nerve-wracking even for me in Innsbruck when Gerlinde climbed K2’s North Pillar. It took her 13 hours for only 300 meters in the last section!
Are you still an active climber yourself?
Today I still like climbing, skiing and hiking. I have done almost forty 5,000ers and I’m flying to Nepal in two days for a low-key trekking holiday.
What’s the hardest place to predict?
Patagonia. Since it’s in the Southern Hemisphere with much less land mass, storm fronts move much quicker over vast distances because there is less friction for the clouds than if they were moving over land.
And the Himalayas?
All the ultra mountains are hard to forecast because weather models are not precise at those heights. I have made misinterpretations concerning predictions of snowfall, or lacking high winds to blow the fresh snow apart. Thirty centimetres of powder instead of three in a place like K2’s north face can slow down an expedition to a point where the time schedule just doesn’t work out anymore. Never mind the obvious danger: avalanches.
Is the job rewarding?
These athletes search for adventure, but they are extremely cautious as well. I don’t take money for my advice and to me the most valuable reward is when my clients get back down safely – whether or not they have reached the peak!