Uh-oh. Somehow I thought that when we got to the top of that snow field and crossed the ridge, we would see a snow-free path below. But, peering over the edge I see more snow — STEEP snow! — and a rope fixed in place, no doubt, by some ministering spirit from the hiking club. Stefanie goes down first, saying it’s not so bad. I follow, wobbly-kneed, and decide it’s not so bad either. Snow that has left it’s icy winter’s edge behind and softened to the summer sun. Further down, we discover we can “ski” a few feet at a time, using a hiking pole to aid balance and sliding on our [snow] shoes. This is fun! Then, it’s down some more — endless zig-zagging trail, some narrow spots fitted with cable for the fainthearted, and at the very bottom a 25-rung ladder. Looking back later in the journey, we can’t help but be a bit awed at the route — a 1200-vertical-meter-descent from that patch of snow way at the top right, down along the wavy ridge, down that sliver of a ladder (takes a bit of imagination to see), and across a stream, the ice-cold water refreshing on our bare feet.
In July I traveled west for three things — attending an opera in Tyrol, catching up with a friend in Vorarlberg, and enjoying a hiking tour. More on each below!
Erl is a village tucked away in the Tyrolean landscape of farmland, scattered towns, and mountains. It’s been home to a passion play for 400 hundred years (not unlike its more famous counterpart in Oberammergau, Germany) and now also boasts a new opera house. Besides the novelty of the setting, I hadn’t ever gone to an opera in which a friend was singing one of the main roles! (Actually, it was just a 2-voice opera.) It’s really a dark story, but intriguing (and the set and costuming interesting, to say the least). The text was in Hungarian, but thankfully there were super titles. Needless-to-say, it was a huge privilege to have a really nice seat (gratis) to take in the full experience. Congratulations, Marianna!
Wolfurt and the Bodensee
At the western end of Austria, countries pack close together. Austria, Germany, and Switzerland each claim their part of Lake Constance (Bodensee), and Liechtenstein nestles nearby. Last spring (cold and wet enough to feel like winter yet) I visited a friend in Wolfurt (a tiny Austrian town a few miles from the lake), and last summer Hannah and I visited friends on the Swiss side.
This year, Inge and I enjoyed better weather for enjoying the sights. In addition to lots of good conversation, a substantial amount of time spent concocting tasty dishes in the kitchen, and reconnecting with acquaintances at the sister church of my church here in Vienna, we enjoyed several outings.
…A movie, which I was glad to mostly follow in German. (I found myself thinking it didn’t fit the Hollywood stereotype or my image of European productions. I found it greatly amusing to discover at the end of the film that it had been produced in Utah by Brigham Young University — hence being remarkably free of objectionable material and promoting a decided moralistic message, as clear in dubbed-over German as in the original English version.)
…An afternoon sunning by the lake (a bit chilly for actually swimming).
Hiking the Zillertal Alps
A hiking trip has been on my agenda for this summer since Hannah’s and my terrific experience last year. Some time last spring I ran across a description of the Berliner Höhenweg on the internet and haven’t been able to forget about it since. Although I decided to tackle just half of the entire route, it was long enough to drink in the stillness and grandeur of the alpine surroundings and to enjoy five days of hiking with a friend. Grand!
Getting there was the first task — an early bus from Wulfurt, then a train to Jenbach, then a quaint (even if not totally environmentally friendly) steam train ride to Mayrhofen. There Stefanie met me via her own multi-stage journey from the Vienna area. With a minute to spare, we grabbed the next bus for the half-hour ride (including a really cool, super long, one-way tunnel) to the trail head.
By early afternoon, we had hoisted our heavy packs and were on our way. First stop: Berliner Hütte. (Just in case your geography is feeling a little foggy, we weren’t anywhere near Berlin — really just a hop-skip-and-jump from Italy. However, the hiking trail is maintained by the Deutscher Alpenverein (DAV, or “German Alpine Club”) and the huts — remember, think “mountain lodge” — are named for places in Germany.) The first day’s hike was mostly up a gravel road, branching off to a proper trail about half an hour before the hut. Our first impressions were that the hut was huge! Very nice place, well-built and ornamented, with room for 180 guests and dazzling views of mountain peaks and glaciers. Having fought an off-and-on head-ache all day, I found myself more anxious than excited about the coming days’ adventures, but we still enjoyed the summer evening before a early bedtime, a stream outside our room prattling in the dark. (Note: One of the best things about hiking in the Alps is the wonderful hours one keeps — to bed even before 10:00, and up by 6:00 or 6:30.)
Day 2: Destination: Greizer Hütte. Estimated hiking time: 7 hrs. Actual trail time: 9 hrs. The next day we were up and out early. Climbing comfortably, we were slowed down a bit by a group of lazy cows who were using the same path. After passing an icy lake, our path got steeper, and we met our first snow field (above). Coming to the pass, we were shocked to see that the descent wasn’t going to be such quick going (or else, if we slid, a bit too quick). Thanks to a well-placed rope, we headed over the edge, glad of the footsteps other hikers had made for us to follow. We knew that at some point during the day we would meet some cables to help us out, and I think we both took pretty good advantage of any assistance given.
A good ways down we ran into a Finnish couple coming the other way. The guy tried to point out the Greizer Hütte to me — “across the valley, near that snow field, left of the waterfall.” But, there were lots of snowfields and waterfalls, and I couldn’t see the apparently obvious. Only farther on down did Stefanie and I both finally see it — a tiny green patch (the roof) apparently plastered to the side of the opposing mountainside.
Curiosity 1: From our perspective, it really looked like there could be no flat space wide enough for a building. (In the picture below, you can see a light spot about an inch above my head, which is the hut.) Curiosity 2: Oh, dear. You mean we have to hike way to the bottom of the valley and back up? Well, yes. …Finally we made it down to the stream, found a way across, and started the ascent. Arriving, we were delighted to take off our packs and satisfy our appetite for some mountain fare. A brief storm blew threw, but we were snug and dry.
Note: This crazy hat I’m wearing is worth a story. Since I don’t own a hat here, I’d asked a friend if I could borrow one. What do you know! She offered me a hat (oh, that wonderful orange color) from our Alma Mater, the University of Tennessee. I was a bit embarrassed by how bright the thing was, but I thought my family would get a good laugh about it.
Day 3: Destination: Kasseler Hütte. Estimated hiking time: 5 hrs. Actual trail time: 7+ hrs.
We had thought about taking a rest day or enjoying a summit hike, but with grand weather predicted at least through Saturday, we figured it was better to keep going, particularly since the next stretch was a bit shorter. And, over breakfast, we enjoyed getting trail hints from a couple who was hiking the opposite direction and could fill us in on the train conditions.
Well, it might have been a shorter hike, but not exactly a walk in the park! (Considerably more fun, admittedly.) Another hike to a mountain saddle and descent into the next valley. However, this time, to our relief, we didn’t have to hike all the way down and back up to our next hut (which we could again see for more than half the day, taunting us with the idea of how wonderful a suspension bridge or flying fox would be to whisk us over the valley and straight to our night’s lodging). Instead, we made a huge semi-circular loop around the valley, more-or-less staying on the elevation of our destination. A beautiful waterfall, cables along a narrow ledge, a tricky spot where we wished for some extra hand/foot-holds, snow fields, a flock of goats….
Why you should go to Kasseler Hütte:
The views. (If we’d had interest and equipment for a glacier hike, we could have been in Italy in just a few hours’ time. However, we were quite content to stay in stunning Austria.)
The Hüttenwirt (“hut innkeeper”). Once we had fulfilled the first priority of getting boots off and the second priority of ordering something to drink, the hut innkeeper sat down with us to find out what we wanted for dinner, give us tokens for showers (3 minutes of bliss), and tell us which bunks were ours for the night. After dinner, he gave a lively weather report for the next day (we were blessed to enjoy good weather — it rains about 50 of the 100 days the hut is open, if I remember correctly!) and a description of the trail in either direction.
The food — dinner served outside and enjoyed with fellow hikers. By this time in the trip, we were getting acquainted with a few folks. Progressing from polite hellos, we were now exchanging laughter and grimaces about sore muscles as we pried ourselves up from comfortable benches. …Back to the dinner — wonderful sausage with a huge heap of Sauerkraut and plenty of mustard and fresh-grated horseradish, followed by a superb dish of Kaiserschmarren flambée (fluffy pancake-like batter with raisins, fried in butter, chopped in bite-sized pieces, and served with apple sauce — don’t worry: we split that big dish!). …And in the morning (I decided to splurge), a true Continental Breakfast buffet!
Day 4: Destination: Karl-von-Edel Hütte. Estimated hiking time: 9 hrs. Actual trail time: more like 11 hrs. Length: 14 kilometers.
Our last full day was a long one. Our path undulating along the mountainside — always a rough ridge line to our right, the valley and layers of mountains to our left, boulder fields (I’m quite a fan of these!), and 7 small ridges to cross before a final dive to the last hut. Along the way I caught sight of a very fat Murmeltier (marmot), who got away before I could take a picture; and we also saw a beautiful Alpenschneehuhn (“alpine snow hen,” or rock ptarmigan), whose plumage would be all white in the winter.Three spots got a little exciting; but by this time, we were getting pretty good at rocky bits fitted with cables and footholds. The last ridge boasted a gentle grassy ascent before a precipitous leap into the next valley. I took a little jog out to the highest point at that end of the ridge before we plunged over the other side. The descent wasn’t just steep, it meant stepping over a ledge! Very gingerly, I led the way, holding on for dear life. It was okay doing it myself (despite the pack that made me feel a bit unbalanced), but it was awful watching someone else do it! (If you look closely, in each of the next three pictures, you can see the yellow trail marker showing hikers where to descend.)
Our last evening proved to be lots of fun. We joined a whole table-full of fellow hikers for a fun dice game (similar to Zilch, for those of you who know it). Everyone who gathered around to play or watch we’d met repeatedly over the past four days…the brothers from Germany, the 4 young people from Berlin, a German couple, and an Austrian couple. It’s funny how without evening learning everyone’s name, we had a little bit of shared history and didn’t want to say good-bye!
Day 5: Destination: Ahornspitze. Estimated hiking time: 4 hrs, round trip. Elevation gain: 738 meters (2421 feet).
Over breakfast, Stefanie suggested that we fit in a peak before heading back to Vienna. Neither of us really wanted the hiking tour to end, and a night’s sleep had somewhat molified our protesting feet. So, after morning good-byes, we started out. More up, more snow, lots of rocks. To simplify things, we discarded our packs behind a rock part-way up — freedom!
It was a lot of up, but totally worth the views.
A kind German family gave us a ride back to the train. The whole trip got rather delayed, as it turned out. A thunderstorm erupted, and we suddenly found our train slowing to a stop. Several bright flashes (not lightning) alerted us to strange happenings. Apparently, in the strong winds, a tree had fallen on the track (or on the engine?), damaging the engine’s power connection. After about three hours of waiting, we got hauled into Salzburg, fitted with a new engine, and were back on our way.
So ended a wonderful trip, with many varied adventures! To finish off, some of the 25-30 varieties of flowers we saw, plus some of the best views:
“‘…If God cares so wonderfully for wildflowers that are here today and thrown into the fire tomorrow, He will certainly care for you'” (Matthew 6:30, NLT). “For the LORD is the great God….In His hands are the depths of the earth, and the mountain peaks belong to Him. (Psalm 95:3.4, NIV). Your unfailing love, O LORD, is as vast as the heavens; Your faithfulness reaches beyond the clouds. Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains, Your justice like the ocean depths…” (Psalm 36:5,6, NLT).