So, barely five months after leaving Mayrhofen on a sunny Saturday afternoon in September, here we are trundling up the Ziller Valley once more. Our summer trip had been very enjoyable, and we were impressed by the variety of walking on offer and the interconnectedness of the transport system – bus, train and gondola – providing great access to the mountains.
This time, though, it’s the middle of winter, and the ski season is in full swing. When we were considering a winter break, Mayrhofen had sprung to mind not simply because we had been there recently but because we knew it to be a prime winter destination. We’re not here for the skiing, or even the après ski, but to indulge in a week’s worth of winter walking, along with some comfort eating, plenty of reading, a little bit of R&R, and an escape from that four-letter word that’s been driving us crazy – work!
Sunday Jan 29th – A Wiesenhof Wander: “Achtung! Da kommt noch einer!”
7.51 miles / Ascent = 460m / Descent = 460m
We had arrived the previous evening in darkness, our transfer from Innsbruck having been somewhat delayed. As we approached Mayrhofen, the villages in the valley – picked out by pinpoints of light and the occasional floodlit hillside – were gearing up for late-night skiing, so we had no real idea of the weather or snow conditions until the Sunday morning when we woke to low cloud and mizzle.
Undaunted, we set off on a route we had remembered from our last visit – one that we hoped would be passable in winter conditions. And so it proved: after walking through town to pick up a bus timetable and a handy map of winter walking routes, we followed a track up through the woods towards Wiesenhof, a mountain restaurant perched at 1058m on a nearby hillside and clearly visible from town. We had eaten there before and knew it to be good, so it made an ideal objective on our first day.
As we made our way up the hillside, we soon came alongside the ski run that descends from the top of the Ahorn gondola some 1300m above us, quite busy even this early on a gloomy Sunday morning. Shortly before reaching Wiesenhof we had to traverse the slope, crossing one at a time to present a smaller target to any errant downhiller.
Lunch, as anticipated, was excellent. We both opted for Specknödelsuppe – large ham dumplings served in a clear broth – and jolly good it was, too.
After chatting to the owner for a while it was time to move on. To make a circuit out of our walk we took a slightly longer route back. As we were admiring a beautiful log cabin situated prettily amongst the trees we were stirred into swift action by a shout from behind. “Achtung!” came the call, as two lads flew by on sledges, “Da kommt noch einer!” We kept to the side, and sure enough a third came whizzing past.
Back in town, we did a little more fact-finding before returning to the hotel. Needless to say, at this time of year it’s busy with skiers and boarders, and the main street was thronging with people waddling along with that peculiar ski-booted gait.
That evening, we went to the Welcome Meeting. There was plenty of info available for skiers, with lots of suggestions for money saving ideas and things to do by way of après ski. We just wanted to find out about the buses, though, many of which were for use by skiers only. Having sorted everything out we took our leave, reluctantly resisting the temptation to “throw some shapes on the dance floor” at the Schnaprès Ski event later on.
Dinner consisted of a melon starter, consommé with Pancake Strips, Roast Duck and Strawberry Soup with semolina dumplings, all of which was delicious. Then it was back to our room for a read.
Monday Jan 30th – Finkenberg & Astegg: Strudel And A Stroll
10.30 miles / Ascent = 771m / Descent = 1025m
Today we decided to venture slightly further afield, and took an early-morning bus to the next village, Finkenberg.
Although only about a 15-minute ride away, Finkenberg is situated on the edge of a hanging valley and by the time we had zigzagged our way up from Mayrhofen we’d already reached an altitude of about 850m.
Our chosen route to Astegg and back took the form of an elongated ellipse – out on the lower road and back via a higher-level track. This was our first experience of the area’s prepared winter walking routes, and we began by following a narrow road out of Finkenberg that rose gently as we traversed the hillside.
Pretty soon we were above the level of the rooftops, with a clear view back over Mayrhofen and the Ziller Valley. After a misty start conditions were improving, and before long we were approaching the hamlet of Astegg. We crossed a number of frozen streams on the way, a reminder – if one were needed – that the nights were cold enough to freeze cascading water solid.
Although still quite early, we couldn’t resist the lure of the Gasthof Astegg. Before we knew it coffee had been ordered, and Apple Strudel materialised in front of us. It was delicious and unnecessary – methinks we did protest too little.
Suitably fortified against the cold (!) we carried on, soon doubling back on to the higher-level route. A couple of steep switchbacks had us puffing for breath a bit, then the route levelled out again, and it was an easy walk through pine woodlands on gently graded forestry tracks. We spotted a Greenfinch to add to our earlier sighting of a Jay. It was beautiful and quiet, and the sun was even trying to come out - for a while, we had winter at its picture perfect best.
We chose a different path back into Finkenberg: again cleared, but this time a steep, narrow path descending at the outer fringe of the village. Our Yaktrax – anti-slip devices that fitted over our boots, a little like simple crampons – came in very handy.
We had intended to finish our walk back at Finkenberg, but we had a bit of time to spare and it was such a gorgeous afternoon we decided to walk all the way back to Mayrhofen. A network of narrow paths led between the houses before a final riverside saunter brought us into town.
We felt we had earned our dinner – a Sauerkraut starter, Bean Soup, Stuffed Courgette/Chicken Fricassee and “Rabbit’s Ears” & Ice Cream. Even so, we popped round the block for 5 minutes before retiring to our room for coffee.
Tuesday Jan 31st – Hintertux & Bichlalm: You Can’t Take Chances With Avalanches
7.21 miles / Ascent = 510m / Descent = 462m
Buoyed by yesterday’s success with both bus and map, we set out after breakfast for Hintertux, a hamlet at the head of the Tux valley. Ringed by high peaks, skiing here is possible all year round due to the heavily glaciated nature of the surrounding mountains.
A fine-looking morning had persuaded us to make the longer journey, while bright sunshine and a cloud-free sky reinforced the decision to head for the heights. There is only one circuit of some 30 minutes from the top of the Ahorn gondola, whilst the area at the top of the Penkenbahn shows little in the way of prepared routes at all. From the top of the Hintertux Gletscherbus, however, was a prepared path that contoured round from 2100m to the Bichlalm at 1700m, just right for a decent there-and-back walk with lunch in the middle.
So, armed with two tickets for the gondola at a cost of £18 the pair, we rode to the top, kitted up and made our way round to the start of the path. Even with our rudimentary German, we understood what “Geschlossen” meant – closed!
Still, you can’t take chances with avalanches, so we hung about for a few minutes watching the skiers and making the most of the fine views, then headed back down to put plan B into operation – a walk up to the Bichlalm from the valley.
Despite our initial disappointment it was still a beautiful day, with temperatures nudging positive Centigrade values thanks to the sunshine. The going was straightforward and the route clear, and after a fairly easy walk up we reached the Bichlalm just in time for lunch on the sun terrace – Goulash Soup/Specknödelsuppe and a refreshing Radler. In fact our timing was excellent as it busied up soon after our arrival.
Afterwards we pushed on a bit further, hoping to walk a little way towards the top station of the gondola. But the contour path was closed at this end, too, so we turned back and made our way down to the valley. Despite the sunshine, it was still cold enough (even in gloves) for our hands to get quite chilly: once you’ve stopped walking it can take a while to get warmed through again – something that takes a little longer still on gentle downhill slopes.
We were down in the valley in time to catch the early bus back to Mayrhofen. In spite of our earlier disappointment we’d had a good walk, so decided to spend the rest of the afternoon reading and relaxing. After dinner we went out for a wander round town, where our down jackets – too warm for hiking during the daytime – proved ideal for an evening stroll in sub-zero temperatures.
Wednesday Feb 1st – Gasthof Mösl & Rastkogelhütte: Missed Objectives
7.18 miles / Ascent = 720m / Descent = 699m
Another reasonable morning dawned, so once again we opted for an escapade slightly further afield; this time starting from the Gasthof Mösl high on the valley-side above Hippach. In theory, this was a two-bus journey – one to Ramsau and a second to the Gasthof Mösl, split by about an hour and a half. In practice, we overshot the first bus stop and had to backtrack by train – slightly embarrassing and additionally expensive, but at least not to the detriment of our original plan. Indeed, we still had time to pop into the local café in Hippach for a coffee where, miraculously, large helpings of Apple Strudel also appeared. Good job walking in the snow is hard going.
Our ultimate objective for the day was the Rastkogelhütte, a mountain restaurant situated at 2124m below the minor summit of the Kreuzjoch. With the Gasthof Mösl behind us, we began to climb the road up into the mountains. In summer, this is the beginning of the Zillertaler Höhenstrasse – a high-level motoring route between Hippach and Reid; in winter, though, it is snow-covered and closed to through traffic.
By now it was a beautiful morning, relatively warm and with plenty of sunshine. Although the gradient was steady, over the next two hours we treated ourselves to a stiff, strudel-powered aerobic workout, and gained altitude swiftly. Ahead we could see some of the higher summits hereabouts, including the Rastkogel itself at 2762m. These would have to wait for a different day; a future summer visit, perhaps?
The only downside with the day’s plan was that there was a limited amount of time between buses in which to walk. We had made good progress through the morning and could see our intended target on the horizon, but, being mindful of the time limitations we were under, we opted to turn back some way short. Not to worry – we’d had a great walk anyway, and still topped out at over 2000m.
By now, the clear conditions of earlier in the day had dwindled, and the views across the valley to the Ahorn had closed in. As we made our descent, the weather gradually worsened and it began to snow lightly, and we felt vindicated in our decision to turn round when we did.
In the end, we were back down in plenty of time; time used wisely to pop into the Roswitha – a warm, cosy restaurant with a traditional interior – for Goulash soup and beer.
Well, it was several hours since we’d had that strudel!
Rosy cheeked from the outer cold and the inner warmth, we spent the remainder of the afternoon in a drowsy slumber. However, we did rouse ourselves in time to catch the late bus back to Hippach. The bus ride itself is worthy of note; zigzagging as it does back and forth across the mountainside in a series of hairpin bends with plunging views into the valley. This time we managed not to overshoot our stop and timed our connection with the train perfectly, making the short journey back to Mayrhofen amongst a multilingual hubbub of skiers and boarders.
That evening, dinner comprised a Tomato and Mozzarella starter, Beef Consommé, and Pork Kebabs. For desert, we chose one Tiramisu and one cheese board, but we were so stuffed that we liberated the cheese for use in tomorrow’s sandwiches.
Thursday Feb 2nd – Brandberg & Gasthaus Steinerkogel: Fog On The Stein.
7.50 miles / Ascent = 240m / Descent = 744m
In contrast to the last couple of days, the weather this morning was claggy once again, with a fine, powdery snow falling and visibility down to just a few metres. After a fairly full day yesterday (both in terms of walking and food) we opted for a lazy start, and spent the first part of the morning reading and shopping for supplies, waiting to see whether the weather would improve.
However, we didn’t let that deter us. Instead, we caught the 11.10am bus to nearby Brandberg and walked up the road towards the Gasthaus Steinerkogel where we hoped to get lunch.
It was quite an eerie experience walking through such a snowy, winter landscape in such thick fog, and oddly enjoyable as well. All the sound and colour seemed to be leached out of the world, and from time to time trees or buildings loomed spookily out of the clag.
The walk up took us about an hour. Due to the later start, that delivered us to our destination – the Gasthaus Steinerkogel – right about lunchtime. Perched on a rocky promontory at the edge of a 600m precipice, there are normally magnificent views to be had from here. Today, in the gloom, there was barely even a hint of the huge chasm located beyond, just a grey void.
We opted for Specknödelsuppe and Kaiserschmarrn, a meal that didn’t disappoint – although the owner seemed a little nonplussed that anyone at all had bothered to turn up on such a rotten day.
After lunch, we started back down. Despite the glum conditions we were having an enjoyable time, so we decided to walk all the way back into Mayrhofen. Doing this involved a lengthy stretch of walking on the main road, but the road was quiet and it turned out to be reasonably pleasant.
On reaching the mouth of the Brandberg tunnel, we left the main road. To the east, the Zillergrund valley stretched away into the hills, but we turned west and followed a minor road towards town. Here and there the valley closed in, and the steep sides were festooned with icicle formations – quite spectacular, really.
The last half-mile walk into town passed easily enough. Once again we were back in good time, but having clocked up over seven miles we felt we had made good use of an indifferent day.
Friday Feb 3rd – Vorderlanersbach & Geislerhof: Chill On The Hill.
8.85 miles / Ascent = 426m / Descent = 435m
A relatively early start today saw us alighting the bus at Vorderlanersbach at around 9.00am, the plan being to take a leisurely walk up to the Geislerhof restaurant for lunch.
After using the facilities at the bottom station of the Rastkogelbahn, we soon left the hubbub of the village behind. Keen-eyed observers amongst you will recognise the name Rastkogel – indeed, it is the same mountain we were on the flanks of a couple of days ago, but this time approached from the opposite side.
We began by zigzagging steeply beneath the gondola, quickly rising above the village before gaining more gentle gradients. After a misty start, the sun was beginning to burn through, and the landscape – fresh with new accumulations of snow and frost – looked at it’s wintry best.
It was colder, too, we noticed. Temperatures seemed to have been steadily dropping as the week went on, and today were noticeably cooler – the display at the gondola station recording -10°C as we left, and -19°C at the 2100m top station. We found out later that an intense cold snap had been affecting wide swathes of Europe – we must have been just on the fringe.
The cold, sunny conditions made for excellent walking and beautiful views, and it seemed like no time at all before we were closing in on the Geislerhof. As was becoming the norm, lunch was a leisurely affair. It’s funny how every day seemed to trump the one before, and today proved no exception – Missgy had Käsebrot (bread and cheese) and I had an epic Tyroler Gröstl (a fried concoction of meat, onions and potato chunks with a fried egg on top, liberally sprinkled with parsley for the health-conscious amongst us) both of which were superb.
Afterwards, we returned by the same route. On reaching Vorderlanersbach, we stopped for a quick coffee then caught the bus back to Mayrhofen. Being as it was the last full day at our disposal, we needed to do some present shopping, and it was with a tinge of regret that we cut an excellent day a bit short. However, we made up for it later on with a stroll round town to walk off our dinner.
Saturday Feb 4th – Wiesenhof Revisited: Mercury Falling.
7.51 miles / Ascent = 460m / Descent = 460m
One of the advantages of the arrangements we had made was that of a late flight back home. As it turned out, we were not due to be picked up until mid afternoon, leaving us with a good portion of the day in which to do something, and a repeat of last Sunday’s trip fitted the bill perfectly.
So, for the second time in a week, we made our way through town and up through the woods to Wiesenhof for lunch. It was colder again this morning, -14°C if the thermometer was to be believed, and with the ice coagulating in my beard who was I to contradict it!
For once, I can’t remember what we had to eat, but whatever it was we enjoyed it very much, and we had a good chat to the owner who remembered us from a few days earlier. It was a lovely way to round off the fun part of the week.
Back at the hotel, we changed and finished packing, then got on the bus for our transfer to the airport. In the end, there were issues at check-in and we were a bit late taking off. Then we were re-directed en route to Cardiff: we had been aware of the threat of snow in the UK, and it seems we only just managed to leave Innsbruck in time – many airports in the Midlands and the South East were closed and we were lucky to get through. Fortunately, coaches were laid on the return us to Birmingham, but we were hours late, had an awkward journey along the M6 and got the car stuck in snow half a mile from home – by the time we got to bed it was past 4.00am.
Still, for our week – and a bit – in the snow, it was all worth it.
Totals for the week:
56.06 miles / Ascent = 3587m / Descent = 4285m