A week of day walks based in the small Austrian town of Mayrhofen in the Zillertal, a large valley running north-south to the east of Innsbruck. This area is now famed for the extensive winter skiing opportunities it offers, developed from the 1950’s onwards, making tourism its dominant economic factor.
For the walker, this means almost unlimited opportunity. Eleven of the area’s main lifts run during the summer months to whisk you into the mountains, all of which are connected by a network of buses and trains and covered, in the main, by a single travel ticket, making it easy to get around.
By booking late in the season we managed to get a good deal on a package including flights, transfers, accommodation and meals, making the whole excursion cost little more than a week in the UK would have done, so great value as well. Austria is often assumed to be an expensive holiday destination. Well, it doesn’t have to be, and even in a tourist trap like Mayrhofen prices are roughly in line with those in the UK on the holiday basics such as lunches, drinks, entry fees and transport.
We had promised ourselves we would walk each day, but would mix walking with relaxing, attempting more modest day walks rather than full-on mountain outings. Some of our previous trips earlier in the year had been of the more committing and strenuous variety, so for this week we decided that we would build in some time to take it easy too.
Totals = 58.00 miles / 3180m ascent / 5880m descent
Freytag & Berndt – WK5152 Zillertaler Alpen (etc) 1:35,000
Saturday 27th August 2011
Day 1: Arrival
I sat on the bus, weighing up our situation with mixed feelings. On the one hand, we were at the start of an exciting new holiday with plenty of mountain fun to look forward to over the next week. On the other hand, the flight had been over an hour late, it was pouring with rain, and one of our co-passengers was in the process of being noisily ill every few minutes – something that was to entertain us for the entire 3-hour journey. As the song says: “Things Can Only Get Better”.
Which they did: as we pulled into Mayrhofen, the skies were beginning to clear a little and the rain finally stopped. In between the low, drifting clouds we could even see glimpses of what looked like new snow on the tops of the hills – and it was still five days shy of September.
We were dropped off at our accommodation, a no-nonsense but neat and tidy chalet-style place in the centre of town, rather like a cross between a simple hotel and an upmarket hostel. Our room came complete with an en-suite shower room and a balcony overlooking the main thoroughfare, a couple of concessions to comfort.
After checking in, we had a quick walk round to orientate ourselves, locating the nearby lifts and stocking up on a few supplies. Dinner, a communal affair, was served at 7.00pm sharp, after which we had an early night since we had been up since 3.45am.
Sunday 28th August 2011
Day 2: Long Way Down - Ahornbahn to the Edelhütte & Mayrhofen
11.25 miles / 270m Ascent / 1620m Descent
On the promise of a decent forecast, we woke early. But outside, low cloud obscured even the most moderate tops so we lingered over breakfast and packing our rucksacks, eventually getting underway at 9.15am.
Our plan was to ride the Ahornbahn gondola to the top and walk from there, so we bought our weekly travel pass and jumped on board. Moments later, we rose through the mist and into glorious sunshine! The forecast was right after all.
Stepping out at 1980m, we could see that yesterday’s rain had fallen as snow at higher levels, so the tops had a white dusting showing bright against the clear blue skies. It was also quite hot, so we adjusted our layers, applied sunscreen and set off.
We picked up the contour path towards the Edelhütte, a mountain hut just over an hour’s walk away. Despite the sprinkling of now-melting snow, the going was fairly easy on the relatively flat path and the 250m climb to the hut passed almost unnoticed, the greatest difficulty presented when negotiating a herd of goats that were blocking the path.
From the Edelhütte a number of options are possible. One would be to climb to the 2973m summit of the Ahornspitze, but lack of time and resolve meant we chose an easier alternative, opting instead for a leisurely lunch at the hut. Our favourite Austrian calorie overload – Kaiserschmarrn – was on the menu. Resistance was futile.
By now it was warming up nicely. Large gobbets of snow were sloughing off the hut roof on to the terrace – great fun to watch but not to get caught by. As we ate we devised a new plan for the afternoon, to walk back to the top station of the Ahornbahn and then make the long descent back down to Mayrhofen.
As we set off again we found were moving a little against the flow of traffic. The skies had now completely cleared and many people were looking to take advantage of the good weather. Soon enough, though, we were back at the gondola station looking out for our route down.
Today’s walk down was typical of such routes – a long, zigzagging descent following forestry tracks and woodland paths to Mayrhofen over a vertical mile below us, generally fairly steep and seemingly going on forever. Still we took it steadily, and what the path lacked in charm, the scenery more than made up for in attraction.
Part way down we passed the Wiesenhof, a beautifully situated mountain restaurant overlooking Mayrhofen and the valley. Carrying on through shady woodland, a minor knee-niggle encouraged us to keep a gentle pace as we didn’t want to run the risk of spoiling the rest of the week.
Before long, the tops of the houses began to show just a few metres below us, and we trundled into town past the gondola bottom station – a nice circuit. After a quick bit of shopping, we went back to our hotel in time for a shower before a dinner. Tonight it was Moussaka, Greek Salad and Pear tart with Ice Cream, after which we strolled up and down the main street before retiring for the evening.
Monday 29th August 2011
Day 3: Bipolar Exploration - Penken to the Wanglspitze
7.25 miles / 580m Ascent / 580m Descent
We woke to find the good weather continuing, so breakfasted promptly and took the first gondola up the Penkenbahn, the other lift in Mayrhofen. This two-stage lift rises 1300m up the hills to the west of town, accessing a network of paths above the Ziller and Tuxer Valleys.
It was already nicely warm as we set off along the level-ish track towards the Penkenjoch, again just shy of the 2000m mark. Our plan was to take a fairly easy ridge walk west of the Penkenjoch then make the 300m ascent to the summit of the Wanglspitze at 2420m, all at a gentle pace, then return to the Penken area for lunch before going back down. As today was the hotel’s day off from catering, we had free reign on choosing when and where to eat, so we opted for a more sizeable lunch at a mountain restaurant with a cracking view, saving our picnic for the evening.
From the top of the Penkenbahn we followed an undulating track along the ridge, past the knobbly summit of Knorren, and on to the Penkenjoch, an agglomeration of mountain cafes and restaurants about 30 minutes away at the top of the Finkenberg gondola. Swinging to the west, our route linked briefly with a section of the Adlerweg – the Eagle’s Way – a mostly high-level long distance route linking many parts of the Tyrol.
This holiday seemed like a good opportunity to try out some new pieces of kit. As a result, Missy G had started to refer to me as Bipolar – not because I’d become afflicted by that terrible illness of debilitating mood-swings but because I had been toting a new pair of Leki Corklites. Our last trip abroad had featured some fairly tough and committed trekking: as a precaution, I had taken two old, battered, mismatched and heavy Brasher poles which in the end proved quite useful. So much so that I decided on a new, lightweight pair for my birthday, which were this week getting their first proper airing (an initial review will appear in the “Gear” section forthwith).
It’s a steady pull from the Wanglalm to the summit. In itself, the Wanglspitze is an unprepossessing top, not especially fine and surrounded by some less-than-beautiful ski architecture. At 2420m, it is a mere pimple by local standards but it proved to be a popular destination for a bright morning. As we sat enjoying the views across the Tuxertal to the Hintertux glacier beyond, we could see a steady procession of future summiteers toiling up the steep path beneath us.
We stayed for 20 minutes or so, then headed back down. At one point we had to shoo a cow away from the path, which was somewhat easier said than done; otherwise it was an uneventful return to the wide ridge-top track. Missy G’s knee was still grumbling a little, so we took things nice and slowly.
Back at the Penkenjoch we took our time over lunch at Chrisa’s Skialm – delicious Gulaschsuppe and a cold Radler – then spent a little time looking around. On the way back to the gondola we detoured for a quick lap around a small man-made lake boasting good views over to the Ahornspitze and the Stillup Reservoir where thousands of tadpoles could be seen wriggling in the warm, clear water.
By 3.30pm we were riding the gondola down to Mayrhofen, reaching our hotel in time for afternoon tea and cake. We spent a lazy evening reading and relaxing, interrupted only by a quick walk around town to pick up a few supplies.
Tuesday 30th August 2011
Day 4: The Tightest Man In Austria – Schlegeis to the Pfitscherjochhaus
9.60 miles / 500m Ascent / 500m Descent
The forecast for the remainder of the week was for rain so, true to form, we woke to find it ……. dry. OK, so the sky was leaden and the cloud-base barely above the rooftops, but we were much encouraged, and after breakfast we made our way to the bus station to catch the 9.15am to the Schlegeis Reservoir – a very popular service that departed with only standing room left.
It’s an interesting journey of about one hour’s duration along the narrow Zembach valley, ducking in and out of tunnels and avalanche shelters along the way. A number of the valleys to the south of Mayrhofen bear the scars of hydroelectricity schemes and considerable effort has been made in order to install them. Construction of the dams must have taken quite a time: in some cases roads have been specially built to service the construction program – beyond Breitlahrner is a controlled toll road - with increased access as a result. The same goes for the skiing infrastructure – it may look ugly and is often a blot on the landscape, but it has made access to the higher levels much easier: quid pro quo?
As we disembarked at Schlegeis the rain was holding off – just. We walked for a few minutes by the lakeside to reach a small, trinket-laden kiosk at the mouth of the valley we were due to follow, where toilets were situated priced €1 on a slot mechanism.
Now I don’t know about you, but I think 90p is more than enough to spend on spending a penny wherever in the world you are. Missy G needed to go, though, so I rummaged in my pocket, found the requisite coin and dropped it in the slot. At least, I thought, I could nip in afterwards – take advantage and get a bit better value out of it. You may think that mean of me, but I have a deep-seated Northerner’s aversion to paying more than is necessary or fair. Anything else is profiteering.
Anyway, I was about to take my turn when a man who had been loitering nearby dived in front of me. At first I thought he was just trying to nip in as well and had jumped the queue, but no, he pushed the door shut and proceeded to give me a lecture about how he was the proprietor of the establishment, that he’d had these loos installed and that the €1 was a per person fee, not per group. If I wanted to go it would cost another €1.
I must admit I was a bit gob-smacked by this, so much so that I was at a loss for a suitable rejoinder. The sad bastard was on patrol! Austria, at least where we have been before, generally has a culture of free-to-use toilets in the mountains, even at huts, with the obvious benefit of cleaner surroundings. Needless to say I declined his offer, leaving him in no doubt that I most certainly would not be paying again, and we moved away, chuntering. Ultimately, this sort of attitude backfires – the drinks we bought on the way back were bought elsewhere.
But back to the business of walking: we picked up a clear, gently rising path heading into the valley, and after 20 minutes or so passed the first of a number of waterfalls that cascaded down the valley side, seemingly leaking straight from the low cloud. But somewhere up there snow and ice were melting, even on a day like today.
The valley was steep sided but flat bottomed, with an attractive stream running through it alternately steep and rushing then slow and braided. The path mostly kept close to the stream, occasionally crossing it, and the going was usually easy.
Essentially this walk comprised two longer, flattish stretches and two short, steeper sections, with the 200m climb up to the saddle at the head of the valley being the tougher of the two. After the first rise, the valley opened out slightly into a wide meadow, nestled at the base of a ring of high mountains whose tops were still swaddled in cloud.
After about 2 hours walking, at the top of the second climb, we reached a good track and crossed the border into Italy! The hut we were aiming for – the Pfitscherjochhaus (2276m) – stood perched on a rocky bump overlooking the Pfitschertal about 100m further on. It sits on the route of the Via Alpina and is part of a network of mountain huts in the area linked by high-level routes as well as via the pass. It makes a great objective for day walks as well, and we just happened to be there about lunchtime. Oh, well. Beers and Specknödelsuppe – ham dumplings in a clear broth – followed, and we whiled away a good three quarters of an hour watching the Italian weather trying to improve.
Today’s walk was a there-and-back route, so we retraced our steps to the Schlegeis Reservoir, making one short detour to follow the track down from the Pfitscherjoch, rather than taking the steep path, once again being mindful of sore knees. With two or three buses back to Mayrhofen to choose from there was no rush, so we ambled along in our own time enjoying the slightly improved views.
Back at the reservoir, we gave the “Tightwadhütte” a miss, instead settling on the much less tacky Dominikushütte for our post-walk coffee. Then we, along with many others, had a scramble for places on the bus – full as it left, with standing room only for those joining at subsequent stops. At Ginzling, two of our fellow chalet-ers got on. They’d been on an overnight trip to the Kasselerhütte – out by one route and back by another – but we had to wait till later for the full story.
We were back in time for tea and cake at the hotel, followed by a rest prior to dinner. Tonight we had Red Onion Tart, Pork & Apple Pie and Chocolate Mousse and finished with a final stroll round town before heading back to phone home and read.
Wednesday 31st August 2011
Day 5: Missing The Bus – Penken to Vorderlanersbach
9.40 miles / 360m Ascent / 935m Descent
Once again the forecast rain failed to materialise. Despite the fact that there was some cloud around, it was a fair morning so we decided to catch the Penkenbahn lift, walk along the ridge and down into the Tuxer valley.
We were in good time for the first lift of the day, which proved to be running about 10 minutes late – minutes we could have made use of later. Again, we took the two-stage lift to the top and walked along the track to the Penkenjoch at 2095m, much as we had done two days earlier. We stopped for coffee at the Penkentenne restaurant, relaxing in the sunshine and watching clouds billowing up over the glacier-clad peaks away to the east.
From just west of the summit we picked up a pretty path leading down across open pasture towards the Schrofenalm.
We had planned to have an easy day today, and a well-placed, sunny bench provided the opportunity to rest and read for a while – we had taken our books with us for just such an occasion – whilst taking in the wonderful views to the high mountains at the head of the valley. Luckily we had picked a quiet spot, for the path itself was pretty busy.
Moving on, we skirted the hillside round to the Schrofenalm where a short detour brought us to the tiny Barbarakapelle chapel.
The next stretch of path dropped more steeply through meadows and woodland towards Vorderlanersbach, an attractive village located part way along the Tuxer valley. We lingered for a while in the meadows on the upper edge of the village, a chance for a bite to eat and another read, before making our way through the outskirts of the village to the centre. A sign tempted us with the lure of drinks, cakes and ice creams, and who were we to ignore it? Soon, a couple of very large ice creams were planted on the table in front of us. Mmmmm!
Weighed down by guilt as much as by ice cream, we decided to walk a bit further – along the valley to the next bus stop – prior to heading back. As far as we could work out, we had just enough time to get there before the next bus came. Despite having to put waterproofs on against a sharp shower, we made it in time – only to find ……. no bus stop. With typical Austrian efficiency, bus stops are marked on their maps: we must have found the only one no longer in use.
A quick scout up and down the road showed we weren’t just in the wrong spot or that it’d been moved a bit. As we were looking, the bus swished past: if it was any consolation it was standing room only. So we set off in the rain back towards Vorderlanersbach to try to catch the next bus – which passed us about one minute before we reached the bus stop. Drat! Still it was a chance to dry out a bit before the third bus arrived.
Back in Mayrhofen, we caught another brief shower on the way back to the hotel. But no bother: we dried out over tea and cake – but remembered to “pass” on the cake – honest! Later, dinner was Shepherd’s Pie, salad and Bread & Butter Pudding, then we had our post-prandial stroll before turning in.
Thursday 1st September 2011
Day 6: Nearly, But Not Quite – The Ahornspitze
7.50 miles / 790m Ascent / 790m Descent
Another day with a poor forecast: another morning with a reasonably fair start. We breakfasted briskly and set off to catch the first Ahornbahn gondola at 8.30am, and a few minutes later we were standing at 1980m ready for the off. The snow of earlier in the week had now gone, but we were keeping an eye on the cloud, which seemed to be building.
The Ahornspitze is a mountain in the way that kids draw mountains – tall, pointy and prominently alone. It’s 2973m summit stands high over Mayrhofen around 1000m above the gondola top station. By the standards of the area, it is not especially high – there are reputedly 55 summits over 3000m in the Zillertal region – but it is fairly accessible and, despite a scrambly section near the top, within the compass of moderately strong walkers. For those of you pondering the inevitable mildly smutty jokes about “going to mount a horn” or such-like, sorry – it’s pronounced as Ar-horn.
Our first objective was the Edelhütte, about one hour from the gondola by the same route as before. From there, a path starts to wind steadily back and forth across steeper ground, working it’s way up the western flank of the mountain. So far, although the skies were now overcast, the cloud-base was high and views into the Ziller Valley had been relatively clear. But as we worked our way higher, a dampening drizzle began to fall and the cloud started to drift in.
The path then followed a rising traverse across a boulder field in order to reach the west ridge, the route by which the summit is achieved. On reaching the crest of the ridge at around 2750m, I had hoped to push for the summit. But a combination of strengthening wind, worsening rain and thickening cloud got us thinking twice – the ridge was quite steep and narrow, and a trip or slip could have been …. Interesting.
What sounded like a couple of distant thunderclaps sealed the deal – we were going down. After all, this was meant to be a relaxing holiday, so we adjusted our waterproof layers, had a quick snack to boost our energy, and started back.
The descent was quite easy, and just over an hour later we were holed up in the soggy warmth of the Edelhütte, along with many others whose mountain day had been truncated by the rain. Wedged into a cozy corner, doing our best to dry out, we scoffed Käsebrot and Nudelsuppe mit Wurst surrounded by the genial hubbub of the hut.
Then it was back out into the mist and rain for the hour back to the Ahornbahn. We were back at the hotel by 2.30pm, but we’d had a good day, and we weren’t too disappointed at not making the summit. The early start meant we had plenty of time for a snooze before afternoon tea and cake.
Dinner was Chicken in Mustard Sauce with potatoes and salad, and lemon posset for afters.
Friday 2nd September 2011
Day 7: Oh, Deer – Gerlosstein to Mayrhofen
8.00 miles / 250m Ascent / 1025m Descent
Once again, another fairish morning dawned, at odds with the forecast. We discussed options over breakfast and decided on an easy-looking route on the mountainside below the Gerlossteinwand.
Which meant getting a wriggle on as the bus we needed left at 8.20am, first heading north to Zell am Ziller then east towards the Gerlospass, where we alighted the bus above a series of long switchbacks at the small village of Hainzenberg, some 300m above the Ziller Valley floor. The gondola was ready and waiting so, by soon after 9.00am, we were up on the mountainside at 1650m and ready to go. There were quite a few walking options from the top of the lift, including a testing-looking via ferrata, but our route was a much more gentle affair – a contour path overlooking the Ziller Valley eventually leading back to Mayrhofen.
The first stretch was on a good, clear track, so the walking was easy, giving us chance to take in the spectacular views. After a few minutes we passed the Neue Katahorn Hütte – surely possessed of one of the most beautiful views in the area – then, a little further on, the Katahorn Alm; over 400 years old.
Beyond, we picked up a narrow woodland path. Being as we were about the first people through today, we were continually walking into dewy cobwebs. On the plus side, though, it was very quiet everywhere – so much so that we got within twenty metres of a deer resting on the path ahead of us before it became aware of us and disappeared silently into the undergrowth.
Soon we exited the woods and passed the Karlalm, another delightfully situated mountain hut. Just beyond we found a wooden bench and stopped for a few minutes to rest and read and admire the great view along the valley to the 3000m peaks at its end.
After a short level section, the path began to descend. Through pasture and flower-strewn meadows, past browsing cows and beautiful farm cabins, this, in the sunshine, was the alpine meadow at its most picture-perfect.
Next came a longish descent through quiet pine woods, with the occasional crossing of a forest track. Eventually, we came out into the open by a small farm surrounded by grassy fields near the Steinerkogelhütte, a mountain restaurant perched right on a cliff-edge looking down over Mayrhofen. Conveniently, it was about lunchtime, so we stopped for Specknödelsuppe and Radler, sitting on the terrace and soaking up the amazing views.
Afterwards we continued our descent towards Mayrhofen, aiming to miss the direct route into town so as to explore a little of Brandberg and the side valley. We had toyed with the idea of climbing part way up the far side of the valley, but it took a bit longer to get down than we anticipated and then rain began to fall, so we opted for the trundle back into town in time for tea and cake at the hotel.
We had another lazy afternoon before dinner – Italian Night – then our usual after dinner stroll prior to turning in for the night.
Saturday 3rd September 2011
Day 8: Food For Thought – Wiesenhof
5.00 miles / 430m Ascent / 430m Descent
Today was departure day, but by some quirk of good fortune we had a late flight home meaning we had a whole morning to do something with. All week we had been looking up at an attractive-looking mountain restaurant on the north-facing slopes of the Hauserberg – the Wiesenhof – that we had passed on the long descent at the start of the week. As it was about an hour away it seemed the perfect target.
Another stroke of good fortune meant it was a fine, warm morning. After sorting our packing and doing a bit of last minute shopping, we set off. At the edge of town we entered the quiet woods and followed a clear, rising track as it wound up the hillside. In what seemed like no time at all, we exited the trees and arrived at the Wiesenhof.
It’s a beautiful setting, perched on the side of the hill overlooking the valley with long reaching views northwards. We sat on the sun-dappled terrace sharing Käsebrot and Kaiserschmarrn and chatting to an elderly Dutchman, who had been living in Austria for 28 years, in our poor German. We figured out enough to know he had done some stuff in his time – some serious mountain tours and the like, including in winter – and had stood on many of the summits in the area.
Then it was time to head back. We retraced our steps through the still-quiet woods and glimpsed a woodpecker as it flitted between trees. All too soon we were back in town and, after a quick wash and brush up, aboard the bus for our transfer back to the airport. Being such a fine day, it was a great chance to admire the scenery – to plan future visits and to remember previous ones. And, God willing, there will be future visits to this fantastic country, where there is walking aplenty at all sorts of grades, and access to the higher realms is relatively so easy. All that is needed is somewhere to base yourselves, a map and a bit of imagination and away you go.
What could be easier?