by Trevor Claringbold
It was a shrill electronic version of ‘The Hills Are Alive With The Sound of Music’ that woke me rudely from a deep sleep. Adding it as the ring-tone for my phone’s alarm had seemed like a good idea whilst en-route to the Tyrol, but unsurprisingly at 4.30am the novelty instantly disappeared.
I quickly forgave the annoyance when the first glimmer of daylight reminded me why I needed to wake at such a time. I hadn’t closed the curtains – well, nobody is likely to overlook you in a hut at the top of a mountain – and I was pleased to see that it was a clear, cloudless morning. In just over half an hour the sun would rise and once more breathe life across the Alps. It would be one of the highlights of my trip, as I would be witnessing it from a magnificent viewpoint at the top of the 2000m Kitzbuhelerhorn mountain.
The previous day our small group had been introduced to Englebert, our super-fit mountain guide, in the small village of Aurach. He wasted no time in leading us up a network of well maintained tracks, past tall fir trees, even taller waterfalls, and no small number of cows. The iconic sound of the cowbells would be one that would follow us throughout our trip, echoing across valleys day and night.
The mountain paths are rugged, occasionally steep, and slippery in places, but certainly not beyond the ability of most fit and healthy hikers. Clear yellow signs mark the many different routes, giving both the trail number, the approximate time to various waypoints, and even directions to various facilities along the way.
The plan was to reach three different peaks, and use the excellent system of ‘mountain huts’ to stay in each night. These simple, but well run, hostels are ideal for those who want to stay up on the mountains, rather than head back to the hotels in the valley each night. They are an experience in themselves, usually set in memorable locations, with a real feel of an Alpine adventure. Sit on the terrace as the setting sun casts ever changing shadows on the surrounding peaks, a glass of local wine, and the crisp, clear mountain air… and you’ll be smitten. If you were still in any doubt, the aroma of the freshly cooked, pan served meal, and a glass of schnapps, will convince even the most hardened traveller that there is simply no better way to experience life in the mountains.
After a long day’s walking, requiring an endless stream of superlatives to describe the views, we took the Horngipfelbahn cable car to high on the Kitzbuhelerhorn. The short but steep walk to the summit, combined with the thin mountain air, had all except our guide puffing and panting. We reached the marker at the highest point, and what a reward. A full 360 degrees of breathtaking views. Valleys twisted off in all directions, their bright green floors a sharp contrast to the dark green of the trees on the lower slopes. Countless other peaks are visible from here, each unique, mysterious, and captivating.
It was a slightly surreal experience, with an almost whispered excitement. Perhaps because it felt impolite to disturb the perfect silence, or maybe it created a feeling of humbleness in the same way that standing in a magnificent cathedral does.
After we had soaked up every ounce of atmosphere, and committed every vista to both film and memory, we headed carefully down the winding path to something completely unexpected. A few hundred metres from the summit is the Alpen-Blumen Garten – a well-maintained public garden, complete with ponds, pretty paths, and a vast array of alpine flowers and shrubs. Each is properly labelled, and neatly displayed in rock-bordered beds, and there is even an alpine vegetable patch. It may not be Kew Gardens, but it was a curious and strangely comforting diversion from the strenuous hike.
With the sun beginning to dip, Englebert led us along the last part of our days trek. As we scrambled over a craggy ridge, the welcome sight of the Hornkopflhutte greeted us. The Austrian flag was flying proudly above it, although the red and white stripes could just have easily been black and white check – as it felt like we had finally crossed the finishing line!
Our rooms offered just a bed, chair, and washbasin, with shared showers and toilets along the corridor. But that was plenty. It was clean and friendly, with excellent food and staff that welcome you as though you were family. They also seemed particularly keen on ensuring you had ample quantities of beer and schnapps, which was perhaps not the best plan when we had to be up so early for the sunrise.
But up early we all were, and by 5am we were at our enviable vantage point. Slowly, very very slowly, the solar rays began to get brighter behind a perfectly pyramidal peak on the horizon. Reds and ambers danced around on the surrounding mountains, and the distant snow capped summits looked positively warm. After what seemed like an eternity, the sun finally broke cover and bathed us in instant warmth. Suddenly the colours around us changed, flowers appeared amid the now olive green grass, and the cows turned from murky shadows to three-dimensional animals.
I’ve seen the sun rise in many places, but this was something magical.
We lingered a while to make sure we didn’t miss any last little moment, and then headed back to our hut for a couple of hours sleep before breakfast.
Across the mountain, the first cable car of the morning was ascending, with a group of hikers who were to join us, and Englebert, for part of the day. The first planned hike was not too strenuous, predominantly skirting ridges and maintaining a steady altitude. There were some fairly steep inclines, but not as severe as the previous day. The landscape remained constantly impressive, as we headed for Lammerbichlalm – a small farm complex nestling on the side of the 1888m Stuckkogel. The farm was visible from a good distance away, and as we traversed small, perfectly clear streams, it was interesting to note how they had been diverted to flow into large hollowed out logs, thus providing clean drinking water for walkers.
Lammerbichlalm maintains a dairy herd, and a small terrace offers tables to sample some of the excellent cheese and yoghurt they produce. With barely time to finish our drinks we were off again. And this time it was definitely upwards. Our target was the summit of Karstein, more than 400m higher than we were now. The paths were mostly good, but this was certainly considerably steeper for the majority of the journey. The route was prettier than before too, with small ponds, stiles, and masses of colourful mountain flowers to line our way. It was a tiring hour and a half later when we finally posed for the inevitable photographs alongside the cross that marks the summit. The little sign states simply ‘Karstein – 1922m’.
The peak here is small, and the group rested with some quite sheer drops around. The rest was much needed, but even so there was a sense of mild relief when we began to gingerly pick our way back to the path, and head down again to Lammerbichlalm for a meal. A platter of the farm’s own sublime cold cheeses, followed by apfel strudel and a cold beer, slipped down beautifully.
The choice of routes is huge, from simple gently undulating walks, to long and fairly strenuous hikes that take in peaks and ridges. Similarly the range of huts is impressive, and offers differing levels of facilities, and some exquisite locations. Guides are available from the local tourist offices for both the walks and the huts, and the services of tour leaders, such as Englebert in this region, are free.
Our days in the mountains were exhilarating and awe-inspiring, and will leave a lasting memory. Every route is different, and you never tire of the constantly changing panoramas. Our next hike saw us climbing the 1700m Hochetzkogel, before descending through forested areas and open grasslands that in the winter forms some of the best ski-runs in the Alps.
That evening we arrived at the delightful and well-appointed Gasthof Oberaigen, in the village of the same name. Once more, sitting on a traditionally styled Tyrolean terrace, we reflected on the days’ sights and high points. As the sun set, the lights in the valley below twinkled into life, and we tucked into our hearty, well earned meal. I remember thinking how lucky we were to be experiencing such a trip, but even more questioning why more people don’t try it. It’s comparatively inexpensive, unfailingly impressive, and leaves you not only with lasting memories, but also a real sense of achievement. Life in the mountains? Yes, I could get used to this!