Main Alpine Divide. Section 04. Hohe Tauern Alps

February 9, 2022

Day 029. Bad Gastein to Naturfreude Neubau. 17 Km. 7 Hrs. 1400m up. 310m down.  It seems I might have wandered through the old salubrious part of Bad Gastien which was becoming rather faded to the worst bit of it around the railway station. However, should I have walked on for another 10 minutes  yesterday,  I would have been on the southern outskirts on the flat pastoral valley floor which was much nicer and I am sure I could have found somewhere to stay here. I followed the gravel track on the west side of the large stream up the valley floor heading SW for nearly an hour until I got to Bockstein. This looked like a very nice place with lots of historical connections. Given the elaborate nature of some of the buildings and the round church on a knoll I would guess this is where the Hapsburgs would have based themselves. 

202. Looking down into the bowl around which Bad Gastein is build with its large condominium style hotels with alpine style

203. The walk up beside the large stream between Bad Gastein and Bockstein was surprisingly rural given its proximity to Bad Gastein

As I walked up the track beyond Bockstein I chatted with an older Austrian couple. It seems a lot of people come to Bad Gastein to cure their range of ailments with Radontherapie. I had seen signs for places offering Radontherapie everywhere including the infirmary masquerading as a hotel where I stayed last night. Even here in the forest there were adverts with healthy couples in white robes reclining on slatted boards in cave where natural radon radiation occurred. There was a whole industry here based on well marketed conjecture to naive people who would grasp at anything to help with their ailments. 

After passing an outdoor resturant at Astenalmen, which you could park near once you had finished your hard mornings Radontherapie,  the route continued into a gorge where the large stream flowed. The gorge was warm but as I slogged up the track it seemed to become very hot with the sun beating down onto the pale grey rockwalls and reflecting down to the bottom. It was an easy route apart from the warmth and there were plently of mountain bikers cautiously coming down its sometimes steep gravel surface. About half way up I passed a good waterfall in the gorge by a bridge built by Russian POW’s in the First World War. It took another hot hour from the bridge to climb out the top end of the gorge just above the wispy white mares tail of the Schelerfall waterfall. 

204. From the parking place at the end of the in Sportgastein the route went up the Siglitztal valley and then up the steep headwall beside the cascade

The gorge opened up into a wide stretch in the valley floor with a huge carpark, a restaurant called Valeriehaus, and a dormant ski lift, all in an area called Sportgastein. I was parched so had a drink at Valeriehaus which was rammed full of Sunday drivers and then escaped to the west up a small valley with a waterfall at the end of it. The clouds had begun to gather now so it was a bit cooler but the afternoon’s work lay before me with a view up the steep headwall of the valley and just to the side of the magnificent cascading waterfall. The path zig-zagged up here for well over an hour, often steeply and frequently with cables or even hand rails for protection. It led me to lovely grassy slopes, interspersed with bowls full of melting snowfields, which fed the cascade. These grassy slopes were a very pleasant interlude after furnace of the gorge and the steep climb up the headwall of the valley below. The slopes led up to the ridge where the Niedersachenhaus cabin sat right on the apex. It was closed as I knew it would be.

205. The final grassy slopes up to the ridge on which the Neidensachsenhaus cabin was sited

I could now see the days’s destination below at Naturfreunde Neubau, a cabin which lay some 300 metres lower than me. There was a small path which sidled across the hillside descending slightly for 2 km. There were some slightly exposed buttresses to clamber over and 5 reasonably steep, 30 degree snowfields to cross over with gullys full of a strip of snow which descended in a broken streak a few hundred meters down the mountain. A slip here would not have been fatal but probably very sore, so I got my ice axe out to cross them. As I approached the hut I thought it was closed but luckily the door was not locked and I was soon inside. 

There were 2 Belgiums and a Dane already there. They were doing the walk from Salzburg to Trieste crossing over the alps for about month. I then learnt than one of the young Belgiums was actually walking on of the E routes from Belgium all the way to Greece for 8 months. After Trieste he would head down the Via Dinarica of the West Balkans to Albania. I had heard much good of the Via Dinarica, a 1500 odd km hiking route down the length of the limestone rich Dinaric Alps. I chatted with them all evening as we moved from the bar to the dining table. They were a very easy bunch to chat to and very bright, alert and easy going. I did not bother with the blog as I knew tomorrow would be a short day and could do 2 days worth then.

Day 030. Naturfreude Neubau to Zittelhaus. 4 Km. 3 Hrs. 890m up. 20m down. The forecast said rain and possible thunder in the early afternoon so the 4 of us had an early breakfast. It was a parsimonious breakfast with a small basket of bread, cheese and jams. It cant cost much for a mountain lodge to go a bit further and provide more, rather than saving a few cents and leaving the customers feeling short changed. The miserly theme was continued when I paid. I had already made a deposit of 10 Euro each for 2 of us. However because Fiona was ‘kranken’ and could not come 10 Euro was forfeited. “Your vife did not come so 10 Euros is for me” Technically I suppose she was right but in the 5 other huts where this had happened they reduced the bill by 20, and not 10. I looked her in the eye and smiled. Then I said goodbye to the Belgiums and the Dane switched on my tracker and headed up to Zittelhaus cabin which I could see on top of the Hoher Sonnblick mountain nearly 1000 meters above me.

206. Leaving Naturfruende Neubau cabin and heading up the grass and boulder slopes towards the main ridge line of the Hohe Tauren

The first quarter of the climb was a delight as the path wove up between boulder fields on grassy patches. The view to the north down the Raurisertal valley was long as it almost disappeared into the haze. However far to the north I could see clouds forming where I was sure there were none before. To the south however it was a spectacular alpine view with many glaciated cirques below the jagged skyline of the east Hohe Tauern. It was only just after mid June and I was shocked to see so many patches of blue ice on the glaciers. I think the lack of snow, Foehn wind and warm weather meant the snowfields were perhaps 6 weeks ahead in the melting process than usual. 

207. Climbing up the boulderfields and looking across to the Goldbergkees glacier and the mountain of Schareck, 3123m, in the distance

The next quarter went into one of these bowls where 100 years ago there would have been a glacier, but now it was just a snow filled valley. For the first time I had the sense to put my gaiters on so I would not fill the rim of my boots with snow when I post holed. The snowfields alternated with rocky sections and where the two met I sometimes went through, and was thankful for the gaithers. I climbed up level with the bottom of the Goldbergkees glacier when I noticed a small cabin on the ridge above me. It was the Rojacherhutte and I had forgotten about it. I clambered up the boulders to get to it and then realized how tiny it was. It measured 6 by 4 metres. Downstairs the kitchen and dining room and bar was crammed into the only space while above in the attic there were 10 mattresses on two benches. There was a young hut warden who was still at university and was doing this as a summer job. I stopped and chatted with him for half an hour with him speaking fluent English. 

208. Clambering up the boulders to reach the tiny, but over 120 year old, cabin of Rojacherhutte

The next quarter was quite steep with the well marked route going up the ridge which quickly went from being a broad shoulder to a narrow arete with the steep, rocky north side of the mountain dropping off immeadiately while on the south side the increasingly steep remnants of the Goldbergkees glacier descended down to the main mass of the glacier. A lake was forming as the ice withdrew exposing the depression. Soon the arete  became steep and I had to clamber up the odd outcrop some of which were protected with cables. By now the sun had completely gone except towards the south and all the peaks had a layer of mist on them which was descending fast. 

209. Above the Rojacherhutte cabin the ridge up to Hohen Sonblick started to become much steeper

The final quarter was all in the mist so I could not tell if they were exposed sections or not. I suspect there were, but I could only see 10-15 meters. The route went up frequent areas where iron bars or steps had been drilled into the rock to aid on scramble up the steepest bits. The arete was now very narrow and I was alarmed at how fragile it was. It would not take much to step carelessly on a boulder and tip it so it descended down the northside or rolled onto the snowfield to the south and out of sight. At one place there were steps on a large boulder which had detached itself after the steps were installed, crushing the steps. For the last half km I must have reached the top of the steep narrow spur and the path seemed to level off and the ridge became at least 10 meters wide. It was an easy saunter until the Zittelhaus cabin and the weather station suddenly appeared out of the fog just 15-20 metres in front of me. 

211. High up on the east ridge of Hohen Sonnblick with the steep snow fields one side of the arete and the north wall of the mountain on the other

There was a nice Austrian couple already there and the manager and a Nepali waiter. The manager seemed a bit rough and I suppose many cabin managers go a bit feral in the summer season without social norms constraining them. I chatted with the Austrian couple until they left and then I wrote all afternoon. 3 other people turned up later, a pair of Austrian friends and a lone German who arrived after a 10 hour walk along the main Hohe Tauern ridge from Wallackhaus to the west. The Zittelhaus cabin was 100 years old and it was probably built initially to house the meteorologists who worked at the weather station next door which was also built 100 years ago. 

The Hoher Sonnblick weather station was built against all odds on top of the 3100 mountain. It must have been quite a feat to build the cable way to get everything up here. It then became an important observatory measuring climate, pollution, radiation and many other natural patterns. It has become nationally very important and is often quoted on the national weather forecasts. The wealth of data it has collected over the last 100 years now forms an important part of the scientific theory about climate change.  This mist did clear momentarily in the afternoon for 10 minutes to reveal a spectacular landscape before it enveloped us again and then the forecast drizzle arrived and kept up for the latter part of the afternoon.  

Before dinner one of the meteorologists came through from the Sonnblick Observatory next door and offered the 4 of us staying in the hut a guided tour. I understood very little of what he said but what I assumed earlier about it being a weather station totally undervalued it. It was a cutting edge, world leading, scientific monitoring station. It was built in 1886 and has contantly been up developed. In the last 25 years instruments have been placed all over the vicinity to measure anything and everything to do with climate. Monitors of the roof pick up everything else. All this data goes into banks of computers and onto display screens. Sonnblick is one of the 30 something networked weather stations around the world which mointor aerosols, radiation from power plants, airborne insecticide particles etc. It is instrumental in providing data to politicians to address Ozone layer issues, or levels of radiation from Fukishima. It was a fascinating tour.

Day 031. Zittelhaus to Heiligenblut. 13 Km. 5 Hrs. 60m up. 1840m down. It was a beautiful day when we woke at for the 0600 breakfast for the 3 of us. The hut warden provided an truely excellent breakfast for 3, each one laid out on our own table with everything we could have wanted. The other two were going east and I was going west. However the German guy had come from the west yesterday, from Wallackhaus, along the main ridge for 10 hours and he was singing its praises and relative ease and was suggesting I try it, or at least do half of it and bail out to the south and Heiligenblut. It was very tempting and Hocharn, 3254m, looked magnificent in the morning sun. However rain was forecast for midday in 5 hours time and it would have been demanding with my 12-13 kg rucksack, so I dismissed the thought and opted for the original plan. 

213. Looking east along the main ride of the Hohe Tauern past Goldbergkees glacier on the right and the mountain of Schareck, 3123m, highest on the left

We all left just after 0700 and I lingered at the Zittelhaus cabin beside the Sonnblick Observatory and took many photos before I headed down to the remnants of the glacier which were still covered in deep snowfields. The hut warden had pretty much said “follow the tracks”, but there were no visible tracks. The route was quite obvious though and once I was on the snowfield I kept high up towards the bottom of the buttress on which the hut and observatory sat, and then along the rocks at the bottom of the arete. Sometimes when a glacier pulls away from a steep rockface it leaves a gap called a bergschrund. But in this case the bottom of the rockface was not steep and much of the glacier sitting on top of it were static, isolated smears of ice which were slowly disappearing over the decades, and I could see boulder fields appearing between them. In a century perhaps marmots will live among these same boulders. 

212. Looking west across the Kleinfleisskess glacier from Hoher Sonnblick, 3105m. The route across it goes into the V shape of sun and then to the left over the bulge

About ½ a km from the cabin these snowfields on the ice patches reached a buttress and on the other side of the buttress the arete formed a razor thin saddle called Pilatusscharte, 2905m. Its south face plunged steeply into the ice which was much thicker. I was sure there would be a bergschrund here and veered out onto the glacier where there was also a post to mark a route. Just before I ventured onto the glacier proper I stopped to put my soft shell jacket and gore-tex waterproofs on and got my ice axe out, just incase there was an incident. 

I could just see another large pole a good half kilometre away so roughly headed towards that. There were perhaps 20 narrow crevasses to cross which were 20-30 cm wide and full of snow. They were more the crevasses you get when static ice settles and cracks, rather than when different parts of the glacier move at different speeds and a faster lower portion pulls away from a slower upper portion. The latter crevasses can be a few meters wide and about 30 meters deep. These large crevasses are dangerous, especially at this time of year when they could be invisible and covered by a thin snow bridge. The bridge could collapse as you go over it, leaving you wedged in a narrowing icey slot 25 meters down 3 seconds later. Although I was confident in the route and the nature of the crevasses I tip-toed over the cracks quickly and was thankful the snow was firm after a near frost last night.

214. Looking east back up the Kleinfleisskees glacier to Hoher Sonnblick on top of the pyramid in the center. There are crevasses in the glacier but on the usual route down they are very narrow.

It took about half an hour to cross the glacier and reach the newly exposed bare beige-coloured rock at the bottom. I was well to the east of the marked route but this left the glacier in a area of patchy snowfields and boulders where post holing in the snow was inevitable. Once on the path I followed down the old lateral moraine ridge which was deposited perhaps 250-150 years ago in the mini ice age when glaciers surged for 100 years before withdrawing again.

Pretty soon I noticed the first of the yellow patches of the Map Lichen, Rhizocarpon geographicum. This lichen grows very slowly at a rate of about 0.5mm a year. Knowing this and the time it takes for the lichen patch to initially colonize a surface after exposure, then glaciologists can determine how long it has been since the glacier retreated and exposed the rock.

The path continued down the moraine ridge for a good half hour before it came to a track. Before me I could see far down into the valley where Heiligenblut lay. I looked at the track zig-zagging backwards and forwards as it climbed up the valley with perhaps 30 hairpin bends. Then I looked at the map and saw there was path which cut across all of them and thought it was the quicker option. However it was steep and loose and zig-zagged a lot itself so after a careful half hour I abandoned it and followed the track which I could stride out down without considering where to delicately place my feet. I should have taken the track as soon as I came across it higher up.

215. Looking west down the side valley from the end of the Kleinfleisskees glacier to the main valley of Molltal where Heiligenblut lies at the bottom with Grossglockner centre right looming over it.

The track zig-zagged down to the first of the larches and then entered the firs where there was a converted alm at Alter Pocher. It was now a  guesthouse with a large gold mining exhibition with a few working water wheels driving rock crushing hammers. There were perhaps 10 small cabins all with a theme on gold mining. At the bottom, below the water wheels, was a modest visitor centre and perhaps 20 children all panning crushed rock from the water wheel hammer. I walked through this 200 metre long exhibition and gleaned that the quartz-rich mountains around here had been mined for centuries and there was a rich mining history, in a more plucky pioneer artisanal way rather than modern industrial methods.

From here the track became a road and dropped quite steeply for a few hundred meters through the firs. I plodded down it with my walking pole tips sinking into the sun warmed soft bitumen where the road cracks had been repaired. A few cars passed in the half hour it took to reach the a T junction with the first of the old valley farms in a lovely hamlet called Wolkersdorf, which was slightly ruined by a bigger road passing through it. 

From Wolkersdorf the route followed a series of paths through old farm buildings for a good half hour. It was a fascinating walk looking at how all the ancient barns were being repaired and how old farming implements were used as decoration under the massive eaves. There was a lot of farming culture here and the locals were proud of it. Half way along this series of paths Grossglocker appeared and from this angle it looked like a slightly milder version of the Matterhorn as it towered above every thing and was covered in glaciers. Eventually I reached Heiligenblut and the guesthouse, The Trojerhof, I was booked into in two days time. There was no one about so I sat outside for 10 minutes while the very tall church tower clock rang out midday. 

216. Approaching the small town rural alpine town of Heiligenblut with its scatter of old farms on the valley sides under the gaze of Grossglockner, 3796m, the highest mountain in Austria

Eventually I heard some sounds and went in. The young owner had just arrived from a mother and child event and greeted me in a dirndl. There was absolutely the minimum fuss about checking in at midday and I was given a large room with a balcony facing Grossglockner. Just then the forecast drizzle started and the mountains vanished under mist. An hour later I was washed, shaved and had all my washed clothes out on the large balcony with its line of geranium boxes. The balcony was sheltered by a huge eave, some 2 stories above me, which protruded 2 meters over the whole front facade of the building. 

Later I went into the small town centre just a few hundred metres away and had a few salads and a plate of cheesy dumplings for my lunch/supper. It was small and historic enough, and in magnificent surroundings, to maintain its charm.  However there was a mountain pass nearby over the Tauern Range at 2500 meters and the road up to it went up numerous hairpins on each side. So the town also had its fair share of lardarse middle aged bikers, mostly men with bellies or women with hefty bosoms. Both the bellies and the bosoms would have given the eaves on my Pension Trojerhof some competition. I was two days ahead of schedule and had been walking  every day for nearly 2 weeks now waiting for wet day to have a break. It is forecast to rain tomorrow and this would be the perfect place to watch it fall, either from my balcony or from under the awning of a coffee shop.

Heiligenblut Rest Day. 0 Km. 0 Hrs. 0m up. 0m down. Breakfast was at 0800 and I tried to have a long lie but still woke at 0530 with the daylight flooding into the room. After the great breakfast the Trojerhof provided I went upstairs again to write. However the early awakening and the large breakfast made me drowsy and I lay on the bed and suddenly it was midday. 

The forecast rain never materialized until mid afternoon and even then it was light drizzle. I had hoped for a real downpour to justify my day off and not feel too guilty. I walked into town and had a look around and had a snack and a coffee and then went back to the Trojerhof to finish all my digital duties. I also had to rearrange the next 3 places of accommodation, bringing them forward by a day and letting them know it was just one coming and not two. It was fairly straightforward with a few emails and an awkward phone call. By 1700 it was all done. 

217. The tall elegant church in Heiligenblut is about 700 years old. It lords over the valley from the prow on which it was built

I could not remain in the hotel room much longer with boredom starting to drag me down so I went for an hour and a half circular walk around the few hamlets which make up Heiligenblut (The Holy Blood). There were some farms but the vast majority of the scattered buildings seemed to either be private residences or tourist facilities, with a 50/50 split. Wherever I was the church was in view sitting proud on a spur looking over the valley in a protective paternal way. I returned via another cafe having a small snack in keeping with my lazy day. I had not really enjoyed my day off that much. It was a bit of a forced stop and I was bored quite quickly.

Day 032. Heiligenblut to Lucknerhaus. 19 Km. 7 Hrs. 1490m up. 830m down. The Trojerhof laid out a superb buffet breakfast as one would expect from a good guesthouse. However, it did not start until 0800 so after having my fill I did not set off until 0900 by which time the sun in Austria, being so far east for its time zone, was well up. I wandered back through the town and then down to the bridge over the Moll river at the town’s NW corner. It was a a nice town but I had seen it reasonably empty. I am sure the when it is busy it is a bit more chaotic with campervans, coach parties and motorcyclists, all milling around the main square looking for something to do, which would inevitably involve eating and looking at the church. Unfortunately the view up the valley was clear but Grossglockner itself was covered in cloud and I could just guess at it’s spectacular shape from here.  

From the bridge the road went up the west side of the river for a kilometer, in a very rural setting with meadows and farms between the forest of tall firs. Then it left the road and started to climb up a track. It was already 1000 now and the day was warm and I could feel myself starting to perspire in my newly laundered shirt. I passed a lovely waterfall, Gossnitzfall, which cascaded down the side of the valley for 20-30 metres into a clear plunge pool. The track now started to zig-zag up through the firs, climbing for a couple of hundred meters. I caught up with an older Austrian couple and passed much of the ascent chatting with them until our ways parted and I continued on through more sparse trees now, which were largely larch, to reach the meadows of Trogalm. There were cows here, lying in the grass chewing cud and endlessly swishing their tails to deter the flies to no avail. The cabin at the alm was however closed. Just beyond it was a bridge over a small stream which emerged from a deep valley called Leitertal.

218. Looking back down to Molltal valley where Heiligenblut lies from near Trogaalm. In the distance is the Kleinfleisskees glacier I cam down from Hoher Sonnblick a couple of days ago

I crossed the bridge and started to follow the stream on a meter wide path which I thought was a drove road to the pastures further up the Leirtal valley. It turned out it was both this and a path to a small dam and hydro intake. The path was occasionally hacked into the side of the mountain and there was a steep drop down to the river which a human, cow or sheep would tumble helplessly, which a goat would manage and a chamois would relish. There small fence posts with electric fence tape just to deter the animals going too close to the edge. The slope on which the path was hacked into was south facing and quite dry and houseleeks, saxifrage and other more unusual plants thrived here and made the walk interesting. Once I passed the small dam, which must have had an underground tunnel to funnel the water down to a turbine, the valley opened up. 

219. The small steep drove road hacked into the side of the ravine at the entrance into Leitertal valley

220. Saxifrage growing on the dry south facing rocky ground in the alpine Leitertal valley

The first feature of this higher more open valley was the old summer farm at Leiteralm. It was mostly constructed from stone which formed the walls and a log roof which was covered in long wooden shingles. I think now it would be damp and inhospitable inside now. The flowers continued to flourish as I went up the valley with masses of veitches, both red and yellow, and thousands of buttercup species. In the stonier patches there were also a lot of Mountain Avens, Dryas octopetala. These Mountain Avens are a arctic and alpine plant which thrives in harsh conditions and even has a geological timeframe named after it, The Younger Dryas. The Younger Dryas occurred roughly 13,000 at the end of the Pleistocene epoch (multiple Ice Ages) to 11,500 years ago at the start of the Holocene (current warmer epoch). It was a reversal in the gradual warming of the earth due to a shift in ocean currents and it plunged the earth, especially the Northern Hemisphere, into a new mini ice age which allowed these plants to thrive for 1500 years. Hence this timeframe is named after them. 

221. Mountaain Avens, Dryas octopetala, thrive in colder alpine and arctic climes and has a geological timeframe named after them corresponding to a mini ice age of 1500 years.

As I continued up the valley huge grass covered slopes soared up each side until bare rocky mountains took over. On the north side of the valley they culminated in Schwerteck and Schwertkopf, two 3000m+ peaks which would have been significant mountains were they not the foothills of Grossglockner. From these steep mountains or the slightly lesser ones on the south side there had been some enourmous avalanches over winter and the stream ravine was still full of snow under which the stream flowed. Further up I reached two cabins,verdant pastures and plenty of cows at Ochsnerhutte. There must have been at least 100 cows here. Many were sitting on top of breezy knolls chewing cud with the wind keeping the flies at bay. This area was also teeming with marmots who had great pastures and soft earth to dig their burrows. The burrow entrances probably led down through the earth to the boulders underneath where the marmot’s chambers would be located. 

222. Ther upper Leitertsl valley was a hidden Shangri-la with 2 cow pastures and cabins. It was teeming with marmots

Just above Ochsnerhutte the path split with one branch continuing up this valley to Salmhutte and the other going up a side valley to the SW and on to Glorerhutte cabin. I had to take the later and it led me into a alpine Shangri-La which a beautiful open valley floor covered in short flowers and wetter areas and surrounded by high peaks. I saw a hiker coming towards me here and we stopped to chat. He was perhaps 65 and Austrian, called Frank. He was just finishing a 10 day hike called “Hoch und Heilig” (High and Holy) which started in the south and looped up to the Hohe Tauern before finishing at Heiligenblut. His English was understandable and he was very enthusiastic about his hike. Half an hour later I finished my near 1500 meter climb at the Glorer Hutte. 

223. Frank, another longer distance hiker who was juust finishing the “Hoch und Heilig” trip which last about 10 days.

The Glorer Hutte was on a saddle, almost on the divide between the Austrian regions of Karnten and Osttirol. The view down the other side was a bit obscured by the dull light in which everything was in the shade and a couple of lower ridges which blocked my view to the higher glaciated mountains beyond. I had been on the go for a good 5 hours so stopped here for a beetroot and horseradish dumpling and a cheese dumpling. Both were delicious but I am looking forward to a brief interlude into Italy in a few days time where I hope they have something else. 

The descent was unmemorable as the path went down some 400 meters across open grasses until it met a track which it followed down past numerous zig-zags and a couple of small alm cabins and cows for another 300 metres. At the bottom of this perhap 90-minute descent the larch trees appeared as I dropped into Kodnitztal valley. It was very deep with a huge rock face on the west side and I am sure one on the unseen east side too. The valley headed to Grossglockner and it seemed to be the main way up. When I neared the floor of the valley I could see a huge parking place and also the large Lucknerhaus, a alpine lodge and a bit more upmarket than a mountain hut, where I was booked in. 

224. Descending the 700 meters from Glorer hutte to Lucknerhaus lodge. In the middle of the picture much firther down is the town of Kals

Lucknerhaus was more of a hotel although there seemed to be a lot of people here celebrating an ascent of Grossglockner. It also had sunny terraces and parasol awnings for those who just wanted to park and eat. It did not feel anything like as authentic as Glorer Hutte and had I known it was this shallow and upmarket I would have spent the night up there. However it did have masses of hot water for a clothes wash and good wifi to post the blog, and I have saved myself a 90 minute 700 meter descent tomorrow. The meal was quite ordinary but the carnivores around me in the large busy dining room were wolfing down their schnitzels with gusto.

Day 033. Lucknerhaus to Matrei. 21 Km. 8 Hrs. 1080m up. 2000m down. When I woke at 0500 the sky was clear and there was a great view through my small bedroom window up the valley to Grossglockner. I will photograph that later I thought and went back to bed. When I got up for breakfast mist had descended over the entire valley and everything had vanished and there was to be no photo. It was a buffet breakfast and so I helped myself with some measure of revenge for the poor dinner and pocketed a couple of apples for lunch.

There were two ways to get to Kals. One is down the valley along a path and track beside the road which was certainly quicker but not as scenic and the other was over the southern spur of Figerhorn and involves an extra 300m up and down and is maybe an hour longer but with better views. I had already planned to do the latter and hoped the mist would clear and I would be rewarded with great views for my extra effort. 

I had just gone up the small footpath for 10-15 minutes when I came across some thistles which were starting to form flowerheads. The thistles were Great Marsh Thistle, Carduus personata and they were already a meter tall. When I looked closely I could see the stem just under the developing thistle heads were covered in plump black aphids. There were perhaps 300 on this stem alone. Then I noticed the usual forest ants which I see thousands of every day were crawling around on top of the aphids. I thought they might be killing them and taking them back to the nest of pine needles, but they were drumming on the aphids with their front legs. It then occurred to me that the ants were milking the aphids – which I had heard about. After some later research I found out that the ants were indeed farming the aphids for a sweet secretion  they produce called honeydew. They would tickle the ants in order for them to release a secretion of honeydew which the ants would lap up. In return the ants would patrol the aphids and ward off the aphid’s predators, like ladybirds or certain beetles. It was almost the same as a shepherd milking his goats and also protecting them from predators like wolves. It was a wonder to watch this symbiosis in action. 

225. This Great Marsh Thistle,
Carduus personata, was remarkable in that black aphids were being protected by ants who were milking the honeydew they produced. The ants were farming the aphids.

As I continued up through the thinning larch trees the mist cleared in occasionally. I was lucky that in one small glade a few hundred meters away I spotted a roe deer. It watched me intensely and then turned momentarily to do something before watching me again. It did this 4-5 times so I was sure it was warning a fawn. Sure enough a fawn soon stood up, barely taller than the grass and the two of them looked at me before the doe led the fawn off into a small copse nearby. Doe will often deposit their fawns, hidden in the grass, while they go off and forage. There are lots of notices informing hikers not to disturb a resting and hidden fawn if you stumble across one. Dogs seem to be much more controlled in Austria than in the UK and frequently there is a duty to put the dog on a lead. One can see how it is necessary in such circumstances. 

226. The European Roe Deer, Capreolus capreolus, with a fawn in the long grass where the fawn was hiding

The mist returned as I neared the top of the 300 meter climb to the treeless meadows at Griebichi, 2247m. Here I came across a field of Spotted Gentians, Gentiana punctata They were about 30cm high with 2, or sometimes 3, tiers of very pale yellow flowers with flecks of red on them. They were a small version of their large cousins the Yellow Gentian which can be 3 or 4 times the size but I haven’t seen any of them yet. It is from the root of the latter that they make Angostura bitters. 

227. The.Spotted Gentian, Gentiana punctata, was becoming more and more prominent as the summer unfolds. Here the wasa field of them at Greibichi between Luckerhaus and Kals

The descent down the other side soon took me into the larch trees again. Because the larch trees are deciduous and their summer foliage of needles is not so dense it means plenty of light gets to the forest floor and there is always lush grass in their forests. The plentiful light, the green grass and the rich almost luminous green needles of the trees give a very comforting green hue to the woods and they are exceptionally pleasant places to wander through. Eventually as you descend the firs, Picea abies, start to appear until about 1700 meters they take over. The forest floor in the fir forests are much more barren as the firs take a lot of light but I was noticing now how a large leaved Aster, Adenostyles alliariae, were beginning to dominate the fir forest floor, covering vast areas and sending up their purple inflorescence. 

Occasionally I got a glimpse through the trees of the valley heading north, called Dorfertal, it headed straight into the Grossglockner massif draining some of the glaciers on the west side of it. However there were no views of the mountains today but some atmospheric glimpses of the foothills which tickled the imagination as to what lay further. Soon the foot path became a track as it neared the valley floor. Beside the track were thousands of the purple spotted orchids. Indeed even higher up the mountains different species of orchid were flourishing too. This seemed to be the prime time for them. 

228. Coming down out of the mist from Greibichi there was an atmospheric view up Dorfertal where the big mountains of the Glockner massif remained hidden in the mist

There was a strong smell of slurry in the air as I neared the valley floor. I had been smelling it the whole way down. It meant the farmers of Kals were keeping their cows in barns at the moment (unless they had stored the slurry for 2-3 months to use now), and were practising a more intensive type of farming. This avarice paled into insignificance when I saw the development on the other side of the valley. There was a vast hotel complex called the Gradonna Mountain Resort. It had perhaps 150-200 modern chalets and a blackened glass tower block about 10 stories in the middle of these modern chalets. It put me off Kals for life.

I imagine that Kals always played second fiddle to Matrei, its bigger brother up the adjacent valley. In an attempt to catch up or even surpass Matrei the people and committees of Kals seem to have prostituted their beautiful tradition valley to resort developers. They cut much of the forest down on the west side of the valley and built a number of pistes, chairlifts and this huge resort. The chalets were cubic and made of timber, and with a nod to blending in even had sedum roofs. I am sure the architects thought and persuaded the local worthies that they were creating something really special rather than the eyesore it is. However there was no such excuse for the tower block in the middle which looked like it could house an oil industry service company in Houston. This was a disgrace and the people of Kals let their greed blind their decision. I hope they don’t think selling their heritage has brought them some parity with Matrei.

For the next half hour I had to cross the valley floor and weave through the hotel complex until I got to the bottom of the pistes. I then spent a good hour and a half climbing up a narrow forest path which kept to a strip of forest which had not been felled. It was quite a steep climb and I could not help thinking the pistes were very steep and certainly not for beginners. I should imagine they have giant slalom competitions here every winter. At the top of the climb was the Glocknerblick (Glocknerview) restaurant but it looked very quiet as the ski lifts were not running and it would take a special effort to get the motorists out of their cars and up here for a schnitzel. 

Beyond the deserted restaurant the path climbed a bit more up the piste and then escaped the desecrated mountain as it made a high traverse across beautiful steep grasslands at the top of the treeline towards a saddle called Kal-Materier-Torl. This traverse was lovely as the weather was fantastic and there was a cooling breeze after the sweaty climb up beside the pistes. The bowl it contoured round was slightly south facing so it was full of flowers, especially orchids and there were perhaps 6 different varieties thriving up here. Far down below me in the valley I could see the small town of Kals which was not desecrated to the same degree as the hamlet of Burg, just upstream, which was sacrificed to the developers. There was a  very friendly cabin on the pass with a few working men inside drinking beer and even smoking at the bar. The jolly macho innkeeper revelled in the mischievousness of his clients who were not from the hiking fraternity at all but farmers, foresters and construction workers. 

229. A selection of orchids which were plentiful on todays walk. Each different orchid thrived under different conditions with many overlapping each others prefered domain

I now started the 1200 descent down to Matrei which I could see in the valley far below me. Beyond it was the Virgental valley with the town of Pragraten in the distance. It would be the walk for the day after tomorrow, after a rest day in Matrei. The clouds were hanging about the mountains around Pragraten which was a shame as they were all the 3000 plus meter peaks of the Venediger massif, which I will be among in 3 days.  The larch forest started just about straight away after the pass and I enjoyed my saunter through its calm light. Then the firs started and the terrain got a bit steeper. For the next hour I cautiously picked my way down the path which was a bit damp and the roots and stones were greasy. There were huge patches of the asters here also in the damp. As I descended rain approached and eventually just before the mountainside farm of Presslab I had to stop to put on my rain jacket as my shirt was getting soaked.

230. Heading down from the Kals-Matreier-Torl towards Matrei in the valley far below. In the distance is the Virgental valley and the clould covered peaks of the Gross Venediger massif

Presslab was an interesting farm and it looked like it had no road to it until very recently. Everything seemed to come up on an ariel tramway. It was full of old traditional buildings but the owner was building a new concrete house here too. He came to greet me and he was the biggest man I have seen for a while, perhaps 2 meters high with an enormous belly, like a South African second row rugby player gone to seed. He was wearing nothing other than a ripped T shirt, a loose pair of boxer shorts, hardly containing his tackle swinging about like a breeding bull, and a pair of wellingtons. Either he had just got out of overalls or he had gone feral in a way which Lennie from Mice and Men might do if he moved to Georgia’s Deliverance. He kept Highland cows and when he heard I was from Scotland became very passionate about them and their taste. “Beautiful flesh” he said. I would think he could eat two in a sitting. 

231. The farm at Presslab is one of many high up on the hillside above Matrei.

Below Presslab farm the route became much steeper for half an hour across the fields where the Highland cows were being fattened up and then through the fir forest which was slippery after the rain. At last I reached the stream on the valley floor and crossed it on a log bridge to reach a track. I followed this track down into the deciduous woods for less than an hour and it led me right into Matrei. The stream all the way down was regularly dammed with huge walls which held back a lake of boulders and silt on which the stream flowed to pour over the stone wall. I think this construction was to try and hold back the torrent if there was a biblical deluge which might spill into the town below.

232. The Gasthaus Obwexer is a very friendly family run guesthouse in the heart of the pretty town of Matrei

Matrei was a beautiful, calm, colourful town and I was seeing it at its best. The sun was out when I walked beneath hundreds of window boxes full of geraniums and petunias on sun darkened wooden balconies. There were many hotels and guesthouses here and I can it is a popular destination with hikers and cyclists and it success would have made the Kals council committee jealous. My lodgings were on the main square and it was a family guest house called the Obwexer and run by the Carrer family. They had been very helpful and received a supply package for me and agreed to send a package further on Monday as the post office was closed until then. They made me feel very welcome and gave me a lovely room with a south facing balcony and west facing windows also. Beneath the balcony was the stream now between two huge walls to channel any torrent down and massive floodgates to prevent it entering town. I found a cafe which did great Italian food with a wood fired pizza oven so was spared dumplings. I was going to enjoy Matrei.

Matrei Rest Day. 0 Km. 0 Hrs. 0m up. 0m down. I had a few things to do in Matrei other than saunter around the town, drink coffee and enjoy some local snacks. The first thing was to recycle the box I received my supplies in, and send stuff to my friend Magali in the south of France where I would collect it in 3 months. I had been going 33 days now, a third of the whole trip and I have never used my down jacket once. I had only used my pot and stove once while camping and I could now eat my dehydrated food cold if need be. I did not intend to use my tiny thermarest mattress again and a host of other small items like hat and gloves. My repair and first aid kit had also not been used at all. I had not even undone the zip on it since Vienna so I went through it and took out a few things and packaged the rest to return. In the end I packed about 3 kilos into the box of stuff I would probably never use. I will keep my tent and sleeping bag as together they are just over a kilo but their continued journey with me is on thin ice. They might well get shipped out at my next resupply in 20 days along with my crampons and ice axe which I will ship out after the Stubai massif. 

233. The church in Matrei was solid with a modest tower but had a lavishly decorated interior and fabulous organ

I packaged everything I was shipping out now into the box, taped it up, put on the address label I had in the supply box and walked a kilometer with it to the post office. It was closed on Saturdays. So I walked all the way back with it. Mrs Carrer at the Gasthaus Obwexer saved the day when she suggested I give her the postage costs and she will deal with it on Monday when the post office reopens. I was eternally grateful for her proactive help. 

There was a hairdresser nearby so I had a set of clippers run over my scalp to take off the unruly 5 cm long hair which was growing at every angle. Then I went for a small lunch in the main square. After lunch I went up to the hotel room to write, but here I was overcome with tiredness and had to have a siesta. I then managed to write for a couple of hours and get completely up to date with my blog and other emails. 

234. One of the many pretty houses in Matrei. There seemed to be a local pride in keeping the town beautiful.

Once they were done I went for a walk around the town. The solid church was open so I went in. Someone good was playing the organ, which had a very powerful sound and filled the church. I think it was slightly amplified also as it would have drowned out even 100 singers at that wholesome volume. In the vicinity of the church were many residential houses all with pretty balconies and colourful gardens. There was nothing flash in Matrei but it was a very classy town. Two teenagers walked past me, one with a cello and one with a woodwind instrument and this underlined the confident culture of the town. I had not delved into it as much as I wanted but I was glad I spent the day here even if I had squandered perfect weather. In the evening I went back to the pizza restaurant for a repeat of last night.

Day 034. Matrei to Pragraten. 17 Km. 6 Hrs. 710m up. 350m down. Gasthaus Obwexer farmed out its breakfast to either a bakery if you wanted a very early breakfast or Hotel Hinteregger after 0700. Hotel Hinteregger was just across the square and it was a 4 star hotel with a breakfast to match. As usual I ate for the day and had a good 2000 calories before returning to the homely Obwexer to gather my stuff and thank Maria Carrer for the stay. I was in two minds as to which way I should go to Pragraten but Maria said the Iselweg was the best as it followed the Isel River but that I should not miss the Obermauern church if I wanted to make a small detour. 

235. Some of the farmhouses with the adjacent barns on the valley floor below Matrei at the confluence of the Isel and Tauernbach rivers

After listening to Maria’s recommendation, and looking at the map, and the route I had already planned I decided on a mix of the riverside path for the first half the day as far as Virgen, and then a walk through a cultural landscape for the second half from Virgen onwards. It was a stunning day when I left and headed west down the road crossing first the Tauernbach river which drained the Tauerntal valley to the north and then the Isel River which drained out of the Virgental valley to the west, passing just north of their confluence. There were some lovely old farms here with the huge barns adjacent to the large, chalet-type wooden houses, both with big eaves. Once on the south side of the Isel I found the Iselweg and followed up up the south side of the river on the very quiet asphalt road. It took me through the hamlet of Ganz and past more beautiful big old farms which have probably been farmed by the same family since the Black Death, with each generation modifying it a bit. 

A little after Ganz the asphalt road finished and a forest track continued as the fields and pastures stopped and the fir forest took over. It was cool and shaded in the forest on what was already a warm morning. The track contoured across the hillside keeping well above the river. Between the track and the river were a few hay meadows, all with an old log hayloft located somewhere on them. I could frequently see across the river to the other side of the valley. The section opposite Ganz did not look interesting but as I went up further I could see rows of very old haylofts and barns which formed an interesting looking hamlet at Zedlach, high above the valley. The track contoured in and out of every gully where small becks trickled down to water the meadows below and then join the roaring Isel River. Beside the path I noticed many thistle type plants all of which were preparing to bloom and I inspected a many for aphid colonies which ants farmed. There were quite a few with differing aphids and ants on different stems. 

The track then went down to the river just below the hamlet of Mitteldorf on the north side and there were signs for the Iselweg to cross the river here, which I did over to the north side. For the next half hour I followed a footpath beside the roaring river through a deciduous jungle which was erupting into summer. Especially prolific were the elders, some of which were still in full flower but most had past that stage and the withered flowers were giving rise to tiny berries. The roaring river was very powerful and certainly a human could not have crossed it. It reminded me of the rivers you find everywhere in the Hill Region of Nepal with slightly white silty water crashing down over boulders. 

After a kilometer on this riverside track I had to make the decision to continue beside the river or head up to Virgen. I chose the latter and it was a short climb up pastures and a track on a route called Weg de Sinne, to reach the large old wooden farms on the periphery of Virgen below the main valley road. Virgen itself was a stunning town, full of charm, character and oozing rural culture. As I headed up past the church I saw many women in their finest dirndls and men in traditional brown leather shorts and green jackets and I assumed they were going to church. It seemed someone was blaring traditional Austrian music out of a guesthouse which I though seemed inappropriate on a Sunday morning in a god fearing town. However as I passed the church the town square appeared and there seemed to be a festival. All the townsfolk were here in their finest and many people in official clothing like the mayor in a very Hapsburg uniform and also the volunteer firefighters in their dress regalia. There was a small stage and about 10 musicians were playing and filling the square with foot tapping sound. It seemed like a very jolly occasion and I watched it for about 10 minutes. I would have liked to have joined in but I would just be an awkward social misfit in this company. However the joy and energy of the occasion inspired me. I loved the town of Virgen and this festival added icing on the cake. 

236. The central square of the lovely small town of Virgen where there was a local festival and band

I left full of joy and found the small lane which would take me up to Obermauern, a short half hour away. It was a delightful rural walk past meadows and haylofts with a few scattered smaller farms festooned with gerainiums. I had expected Obermauern to be a small pretty hamlet. It was much more than that, and nearer a living museum. The houses in the hamlet were fantastic, old wooden houses, dyed golden by the sun and perhaps some preserving oil or resin. They were quite modest, chocolate box houses but were covered in window boxes which lined every balcony. There must have been thousands of plants adorning the hamlet. The church was also modest and solid from the outside but inside it was beautiful decorated and painted with perhaps 50 murals from biblical scenes. There was the smell of hot wood and cut meadow grass which permeated the hamlet. Obermauern was a very special place and I would have loved to have explored more of this cultural masterpiece. 

237. A few of the older houses and the church in the gorgeous hamlet of Obermauern, which was like a living museum

From Obermauern I followed the track west between the mountain and a large knoll called Burg, where farmers were turning grass in the meadows with old red tractors. When the track petered out I found myself on a marked footpath which contoured round the side of the steep mountain high above the river which was still roaring some 200 meters below me in the bottom of a gorge. It was a lush wooded and dry hillside and I saw a lot of juniper bushes between the firs and deciduous trees. Quite soon I turned a corner and I could look straight up the upper part of the Virgental valley to the hamlet of Bobojach and the the small town to Pragraten beyond on the wide green valley floor some 3 km away. Beyond Pragraten was a ring of jagged mountains, some with glaciers on. It was a Shangri-La, a hidden mystical heavenly valley which stretched out before me.

238. Looking up the upper part of the Virgental valley towards the town of Pragraten spreadout on the valley floor beneath glaciated peaks

I tried to keep above the main valley road on a series of footpaths which were often faint and seldom used and occasionally difficult with windfall trees to squeeze under. I would probably have been better on the valley road with the cars, but I insisted I kept above it. In the end my tenacity paid off and I was on a rural track through farms where the whole families were out turning the cut grass in the meadows with pitchforks and rakes. This track led right into the quiet town of Pragraten. It too was a delightful place full of charm and character but there seemed to be a lot of new holiday type chalets on the south side of the town. It was a heartwarming meander through the lanes past large farms and chalets to reach Feriehaus Enzian pretty much in the middle. It was run by an extremely thoughtful and calm young Dutch couple who moved here for the lifestyle. I can easily see the appeal. It was only 1500 but I was soon on a sunny balcony watching the swallows come and go from their nests under the eaves just above.

239. One of the old farms in Pragraten. The farm in the valley here were often one huge building with the house at the front and the barn at the back, all under one roof.

After I wrote I went out to find somewhere to eat. There were only two places, Pedro Pizza and the Gasthaus Grossvenediger. I went to the first as it was the closest. However, it was quite rowdy and the owner was joining in with a table awash with beer bottles and overflowing ashtrays. I did not go in as I did not want anything uncouth tainting my otherwise perfect day. Instead I wandered back through some lanes in town to the 100 year old Gasthaus Grossvenediger and had a simple healthy salad and pasta. It seemed to be the place where the more gentle folk ate. On the way home I noticed a lot of people in traditional dress with the men all sporting Tyrolean hats with 2 white feathers. I followed them to the town square where there was an orchestra with about 40 musicians. They were just about to give a concert. I stayed and watched for half an hour but the music was more classical than the foot tapping brass band of Virgen this afternoon. It was a fitting end to a cultural day. 

240. In the evening there was a local band playing in the town square of Pragraten also. Many people donned traditional clothes to come out and enjoy the entertainment which was more classical than footstomping.

Day 035. Pragraten to Clarahutte. 13 Km. 4 Hrs. 850m up. 110m down. After a great sleep I had a fabulous breakfast on the terrace with the sun already warming the day,  which was a perfect temperature. I chatted a lot with Joeren, the owner of the Gasthaus Enzian over breakfast and tried to learn things about the valley. He really enjoyed living here and I could see it suited him with his young active family perfectly. Joeren explained to me that it was the farmers who had the political voice in the valley and they were traditional and conservative. They had been talk of various developments, including a large ski development, but the farmers would not allow it. The farmers of Virgental were not going to sell their valley to developers like the people of Kals, and for that they have to be applauded. They did have a ski lift here, but of the small local recreational type, like a local swimming pool, which pulled families up over a couple of snow covered winter meadows beside the town. 

I left about 0900 after getting some advice about the best way to go. It seemed the nicest way was to go back down to the river and follow the Iselweg again. As I walked through the town it was in full swing with farmers driving old red tractors and one family guiding a herd of some 20 milk cows through town from one pasture to another. The farms and the chalets for holiday accomodation were interspersed in this town, which added to its charm. I walked past the pizza place looking very quiet compared to last night when it was full of exuberant locals and then managed to overtake the herd of milk cows and get to the river. 

241. As I walked through Pragraten I met a herd of milk cows going from one pasture to another.

The milky white waters were still crashing down but the river seemed smaller. Often they are at their smallest in the morning and biggest in the evening when the day’s maximum melting has had time to flow down. The Iselweg was easy to find and it initially went up the north side on a track before it crossed to a track on the south side. It was a beautiful walk on this sunny morning and there was enough shade from the trees to keep cool. Across the river there were some fantastic old farms, with a barn and house under the same roof. The house end with two or three storeys of balconies dripping in begonias and petunias and usually facing south. In these hamlets there were often very small chapels to serve the farmers. The hamlet of Hinterbichl was especially nice, but it also had a motorhome campsite and the 50 or so camper vans parked up in the field, many with awnings out, diminished the rural scene a bit. 

242. One of the gorgeous farms of the upper Virgental valley near Hinterbichl

Well after Hinterbichl the track crossed to the north side of the valley on a footbridge as it started to form a gorge. Just below this footbridge was the parking place at the end of the public road on the northside. The sides of the valley became much steeper and rockier now and the river had carved a deep ravine. There were a few places where one could look down into the chuning foam as it thundered down the valley. Soon the track levelled off and reached Islitzeralm. It was the requisite 20 minute walk from the parking place to make it a motorists perfect rustic, rural restaurant. Along this track I noticed a few plants I had not seen yet on this trip and one was a beautiful alpine lily. I saw small clusters of this plant about 10 times today. At Islitzeralm, near the restaurant, there was a bridge over the Isel to the south side of the river.

244. The Martagon Lily, Lilium martagon, was growing in clusters beside the track in the upper VVirgental valley


The track now climbed much more steeply as it went up the side of the ravine. There were frequent detours to platforms to view the various waterfalls as the Isel crashed down the bottom of the gorge. Although it was an arid day there was a slight mist of spray hanging about the bottom of the gorge with so much white water tumbling down. The vegetation was typical for a moist  place with plenty of ferns.The most spectacular of all the falls was the Umbalfalle which was more of a series of large steps rather than a single fall. There were lots of hikers here and I noticed that many were over 60. In fact there were probably more hikers over 70 than under 30, but it was not holiday season yet. 

243. The Umbalfalle waterfall on the Isel is the biggest in a series of impressive waterfalls in upper Virgental valley

At the top of the series of falls the valley remained a deep V shaped slot but was much more level now. The track crossed to the northside and dissaperared into a footpath. It was an easy hike along the footpath but it was warm on the still sunny day. The flowers were thriving along here and in the drier sections there were drifts of the Lifelong Saxifrage, Saxifraga paniculata, with its elegant stalk of delicate flowers coming out from a small rosette of leathery leaves. The Isel River was getting murkier and murkier as the tributaries of clear streams diluted it less and less, leaving the original flow a muddy brown torrent of grinding paste which eroded ever deeper. 

245. The loft glaciated peak of Rodspitze, 3496m, dominated the valley on the walk up to Clarahutte cabin.

After a couple of kilometres there was a great view of the towering Rodspitze mountain, 3496m, and its high cirques filled with glaciers, many of which were showing large patches of bare ice under the melting snow. I had seen the mountain grow in stature all day but now it stood before me with untainted magnificence, rising straight up from the valley floor. I would be going over a high pass to the north of it tomorrow and it was still hidden from view. At the last minute Clarahutte appeared some 300 metres away. The first thing I noticed was the large water wheel which produced enough energy to power the hut, up to 15 Kwh apparently. The next unusual thing was that half the hut was buried on the uphill side and under a grass roof.  This was so the winter snows or avalanches did not collapse the roof. It was certainly an unusual hut. 

246. The wonderful Clarahutte had a waterwheel just out of the picture to the left to power it. The bedrooms were all on the right under the grass bank

However it was staffed by the most friendly and happy Slovakian crew of Jurai and Karin who were a young couple. They paid rent to the Alpenvereining for the building. Karin was exceptionally welcoming and friendly and had a fantastic joie de vivre . She went round joking and chatting with all the customers in perfect German or English. She also spoke fluent Slovak/Czech, French and Russian. Together with a Slovak friend of theirs they did a great job running the cabin and it was very atmospheric and cosy inside  with good food. It was supplied by helicopter at the beginning of the season with the main non perishable supplies, but then the crew would walk down to below the Umbalfalle waterfall, a good hour and a half away, 3 times a week to get fresh vegetables and carry them up in their backpacks. As the afternoon unfolded and the clouds slowly covered the sky more people arrived. There was a couple from California and they were bright, well informed, West Coast Americans  who are always a pleasure to chat with. I ate with them outside on the terrace and then we talked until it got dark. Karin, the hut host, came out to join us for half an hour as the other 10 guests had gone to bed.  

Day 036. Clarahutte to Prettau. 18 Km. 7.5 Hrs. 960 m up. 1580m down. Breakfast was quite early at 0700. Considering everything fresh had to be carried up I was amazed at the real milk, yoghurt and fruit salad. It was a much better breakfast than I had hoped for given the access, and better than most huts which had a road them. Half way through Karin took the guitar off the wall and played about 10 songs. Her voice was very clear and pure, and I am sure if she ever needed another job she could find a career as a singer/songwriter. We were all impressed and the Americans were blown away. 

I said goodbye to virtually everyone at the hut. It had been a cosy socialable stay and much of that was due to the way the hut was run and the ambience in it.  I set off well before 0800 and headed up the east side of the river. There was cloud stubbornly hanging around the tops and the morning breeze was bringing moist air up the valley which was cooling as it rose, filling much of the upper valley with mist. I hoped and expected it to burn off as the morning unfolded revealling yet unseen lofty peaks clad in sparkling glaciers. The valley above the hut was very lush and small streams poured down from the peaks above watering the valley sides and the V shaped valley floor. I could see springs gush out of the steep rockfaces where water permeated down in the mountain and hit some impermeable strata. The valley opened out a bit as it reached a bridge over the silty torrent. 

247. On the way up the valley above Clarahutte there were many spieces of saxifrage, such as this Lifelong Saxifrage, Saxifraga paniculata

I crossed the bridge and almost immeadiaty the path started to climb slowly up the west side of the valley. The flowers here were rich, especially the saxifrages and I think at least 10 varieties were prolific. As I climbed the mist lifted slightly but then dropped again and the clouds on the peaks lingered. Occasionally I got a glimpse to the snout of the Umbalkees glacier where the murky Isel River rushed out of. Well below the snout noticed a large plain of flat silt with the braided river running across it until it got to a narrowing between boulders and then it poured down a small fall. I suspect previously this plain would have been a lake when the glacier retreated revealing it, but it quickly filled up with glacial sediment. In 50 years when the glacier has gone this silty plain will be a fertile meadow. As I climbed towards the Kliner Phippip Rueter Hutte the mist partially cleared so I got a glimpse across the valley to the rocky peaks but not up the valley to the glaciated peaks.

248. From near the Kliner Philipp Rueter Hutte I got some tantalizing view across the valley to some of the lower mountains in the Grossvenediger massif

There were marmots all around the stone cabin when I arrived and they all dissapeared underneath its foundations. It was a tiny cabin, a bivouac really with cramped sleeping for 8 and an old enamelled Neff log burner which doubled as a cooker. However there was no wood. What it lacked in comfort I would say it would have certainly made up for in views, but with the mist obscuring the mountains I could not vouch for that. There were a few ruined stone cabins nearby and a large flock of sheep so I think these must have been old shepherds cabins. They were built on a slight prow and had natural protection against avalanches in the winter. 

249. Heading up to the pass out of the Virgental and into the Ahrntal valleys. The pass was called Vordere Umbaltorl at 2926m.

The final climb from the stone cabin to the pass at Vorderes Umbaltorl, 2926m, was not really a path at all. There was a painted route through boulders, many unstable and newly fallen from the gneiss crags above. There were also some shallow snowfields, which were easier to go up than the boulders. As I neared the top the mist cleared and I got a great view up to the pass. However across the valley I just got some tantalizing glimpses of the summits of the glaciated peaks but nothing else. The final 50 metres up to the pass were quite steep and a bit muddy and I am sure a tad slippery in the wet. Once my head had cleared the final boulder I got a great view to the huge ridge on the other side of the Ahrntal valley below which made up the main crest of the Zillertal Alps. It would be my next section. 

250 Looking west at the Vordere Umbaltorl Pass. 2926m, down to Lenkjochhutte, (slightly centre left) and upper Ahrntal valley beyond on the rghht and the Zillertal ridge far right.

I had expected the path on the other side to be much steeper, covered in steep snowfields and with even more unstable boulders than the climb up. However, I had just entered Italy and the Italian Alpine Club had made a superb path down from the pass. It traversed across the boulder field under the west face of the small Ahmerkopf 3051m to a ridge and then descended the ridge. The traverse and the descent were on newly positioned boulders and rocks which formed a very rough but stable pavement and then rough steps.  It was very easy on the legs to descend and I made it to the small glacial tarn in the bottom of the cirque in less than half the time I predicted. The tarn was almost already silted up and the glacier above it was just clinging on to life. It was brown and dirty and covered in rockfall. I dont think it will be moving anymore and will just shrink until the stones cover it. I had to cross two isolated remnants of it near the tarn and I could see the bare blue ice below the heaps of boulders covering it. Both these will be totally gone in 10 years and then the stones will finally settle and get covered in gravel, earth and turf. Once the turf forms marmots will colonize the area and make burrows between these very boulders which once embedded in ice. 

251. Looking up to the greatly diminished Rotkees glacier which I had to pass under as I crossed the cirque to reach Lenkjochhutte

The excellant path traversed round the bottom of the cirque quite easily and then climbed a short slope to reach the ridge on the south side, which separated it from the adjacent cirque with its retreating glacier. On this ridge was a saddle, with the cluster of peaks I had just been on culminating in Rodspitze on the east side, and the isolated Rainhartspiitz on the west side. Right in the middle of the saddle was the grey Lenkjochhutte lodge which was not one of the prettiest in the Alps had a great view up the glaciers to Rodspitze from its terrace. I stopped here for cheese and bread and a drink and also chatted with a young, lively charismatic guy who I assumed was the warden. His English was good and he had been to Edinburgh which he loved. I picked his brains on the best descent for I could either go down the cirque I had just dropped into and traversed across, or go to the one to my south. He said there was little to choose timewise but the southern route was nicer and it would take me to Prettau without having to go on the road at all. He said I should stop there. But I explained I wanted to go to Steinhaus. He said it was a long way and rain was coming. I said I am from Scotland so am used to rain and he laughed. 

252. Just before Lenchjochhutte I manage to photograph a White Winged Snow Finch, Montifringilla nivalis, who work in groups to snatch insects from the higher alpine plants.

The route in the southern cirque was a delight. It was a very short easy descent to get down into it where there was a larger shallow tarn which was also filling with silt from another glacier coming down the flanks of Rodspitze. I could see rings on the tarn where rain drops were landing on it. When the rain did arrive I did not even put my jacket on. I had noticed the rain in the forecast was often exaggerated.

253. After leaving Lenkjochhutte I went down the lovely Rodtal valley, which is a hanging valley above Ahrntal. This is the view from the valley over the glacial tarn to Rodspitze, 3496m.

For the next hour I slowly descended a series of meadows with the stream beside me growing quickly as foaming rivulets tumbled down the rocky hillsides from snowfields and dissapearing glaciers far above.  The flowers were abunbant and the grass was lush and green. Eventually the valley veered enough to the west so I could see down to a huge meadow with the stream meandering through it. At the end of this meadow was Rotalm, a 2 storey barn, dairy and summer farm under one roof. This meadow was surely once a lake also which had filled in, like the one this morning, but perhaps 50 years earlier and its surface was now covered in grasses and flowers. I had a look in the barn and there were stalls for 10 cows in here- but no sign of any here recently. However, above each stall someone had lovingly written the name of each cow which occupied the stall. It reminded me of the lovely Zauneralm some 3 weeks ago where Franz cherished his milk cows.

254. The beautiful Rotalm was at the end of a meadow with the clear stream meandering through it. In the background is Rodspitze mountain.

Below Rotalm the path dropped down into the larches. There was another shower of rain and some distant thunder. As I descended the thunder grew more frequent. The whole of the Zillertal ridge in front of me was soon enveloped in clouds which became quite dark in places. Then I saw an isolated flash of lightning high above one of its obscured peaks. But I was soon preoccupied with some old mine workings. It seems there was a vertical seam of copper ore here which was discovered in the 16 Century. Initially it was mined here where the seam appeared at the surface. However as the mine developed tunnels were cut from the path I was descending to access the seam. Initially they were just 50 or 100 metres long in the 17 century but then they were 500 metres and even a kilometre in the 18 Century and 2 Kilometers long, right from the Ahrntal valley floor at Kasen in the 19 Century, before it was all abandoned when easier places were discovered. 

As I descended down through the evolution of the mine over time the larches got bigger and bigger but I could still see through them to the Zillertal ridge where it now seemed a full scale electrical storm was developing. There were flashes of lightening every 30 seconds and then thunder 10 seconds after each one. Then there was one behind me probably on Rodspitze where I had been 2 hours ago. As I entered the more protective firs there was another bright flash and I started to count. I would not even have got to half when there was a deafening clap right above me. I was glad I was in the forest and assured when I passed a herd of cows just after who were still sitting in the long grass chewing cud. 

Prettau appeared in the valley below about half an hour away and the rain returned so out came the jacket again. I just got to the edge of the pretty town when the half hearted rain got a bit heavier. As I walked through the upper eastern half of the town the rain got heavier and heavier until all the gutters were overflowing. My shorts were soaked and water was running down my legs into my boots. It was getting almost Biblical and soon there were sheets of water flowing down the road and waves in the drains sweeping all the spring debris before them. I saw a shop with a foyer, so I went in looking like a sewer rat. The first person I saw was the hut warden from Lenkjochhutte, who had come down the other path on a scrambler motorbike. I sheepishly told him we don’t have rain like this in Scotland. He said it would probably be like this all afternoon. I decided to bail out and asked him if there was a guesthouse nearby and he pointed up hill and said they was the Pension Knappenhof just 2 minutes away. 5 minutes later I was in a lovely room with a balcony throwing my sodden clothes into the shower cubicle ready to wash while the deluge continued.

I was the only guest at the Pension Knappenhof, and I suspect she was probably closed but took pity on me standing in the rain. She said she could do an evening meal which meant I did not have to venture out again. I spent the rest of the day writing with 2 hours off for the simple delicious 3 course meal. The rain came and went through the rest of the afternoon and early evening and by late evening it had stopped and static patches of mist appeared hanging over the washed valley, which was quiet and still, with everyone indoors. 

Day 037. Prettau to Steinhaus. 14 Km. 3.5 Hrs. 250 m up. 700m down. When I woke I could hear the occasional clap of thunder, even though it was still dark. It did not bode well. Throughout breakfast I could see the rain pouring down outside. I had little choice but to don my waterproofs and set off. It was the first time I had used my waterproof trousers in 6 weeks. I only had to walk the reasonably flat 14 km to Steinhaus, which I had intended to do yesterday, but cut the day short due to the Biblical rain. Right beside the very nice and exceptionally cheap guesthouse was the small Prettau church with its distinctive steep pointed spire covered in red tiles. 

255. The stricking church at Prettau was similar in size and architecture to the ones in St Peter, St Jakob and also Steinhaus. They were nothing like other churches I have seen in Tyrol and unique to the valley.

Initially I walked down the quiet road in the rain for a couple of km. It followed the river which was a furious trashing of water, erupting in roosters tails and deep eddies as it hurled down the valley. There would be no escape in one fell in it as it was going at running speed and very powerful. Well after the end of Prettau, perhaps 2 km into the walk, the road went into 2 consecutive tunnels, but the old road continued between the tunnel and the river for a km. It was a deserted lane with no traffic at all. But then I was back on the road again for another half km until it entered another tunnel. This time there was no bypass lane and there was no pavement either. It would have been dangerous to go in and certainly more dangerous than crossing a small static glacier. However there was a footpath at the side of the road which climbed up the hillside above the tunnel and it was the only option. 

The footpath was infact a godsend as it slowly climbed above the road which descended into a gorge and I could see from the map it went into a series of tunnels. It would have been very unpleasant. The footpath in contrast countoured across the hillside through very green fields for half an hour to reach a lane and the hamlet of St Peter on the northern slopes of the valley. It also had a church very similar to the one at Prettau with its steep red tiled spire. At the small hamlet there was a large chalet being built and the massive concrete foundations and ground floor were completed. One of the visiting workers vans had got stuck on the verge with a tyre bogged down in the mud. It would have taken 3 men to push it out, but it had turned into a melodrama with perhaps 10 men, 4 tractors and a lorry with a Hiab crane all jostling for their opinion. Even a local council, following its own pedantic protocols, would have done better. 

The lane descended slightly towards farms for half a km and then my route turned uphill on another lane towards a beautiful old farm with a waterwheel. Just above the farm was a path called the Arhntaler Sonnenwege (Arhntal’s sunny path) as it was on the north side of the valley facing south. I knew this path would take me contouring along the north side of the valley for about 3 km through meadows and forest. It also took me through a few farms high up on the valley side. Even if it was pouring rain it was still a enjoyable walk peering into the open barns as I went past or admiring their huge stockpiles of neatly cut wood, which would surely see the farmers through many winters. After a good hour the path descended a steeper section in the firs and then entered the hamlet of St Jakob. It too had the typical Ahrntal church with a sharp spire covered in red tiles. 

256. On the Ahrntaler Sonnenwege between St Peter and St Jakob as it passed through meadows, fir forest and beautiful old farms

Just below St Jakob in the hamlet of Woolbachgisse there was a wooden bridge over the raging Arhntal river again to the south side where there was a walking and mountain bike track beside the river. I followed this for about 2 km and it led me through dripping decidious woods and some farms and then to the easternmost houses of Steinhaus. I crossed another wooden bridge over the torrent and was pretty much in the centre of Steinhaus. I noted a couple of pensions as I walked through town but did not see anything else open until I got to a 5 star health resort on the westside with people in white dressing gowns on their balconies. It was not for me so I turned back and went to the Neuwirt Hotel which was still 3 star, a star to much for me. However he gave me a one star price for the room of 25 euros without breakfast. It was a great room with a south facing balcony overlooking the torrent. 

It was only 1300 so I showered and washed everything as usual and then went to the shop to buy tomorrow’s breakfast and lunch as I will have an early start for the big 2000 metre plus climb over the main Zillertal range to Kasseler Hutte. This pretty much brought an end to Section 04, The Hohe Tauern, which I had been walking through for the last 10 days since Bad Gastein. It had been a great cultural experience, especially the fantastic Virgental valley, which must be one of the nicest in the entire Alps. However from a hiking perspective it was a bit tame except for the journey up and down to Hohen Sonnblick.  Were I to plan this tour again I would have added a couple of days to this section and gone a slightly more demanding route taking me closer to Grossglockner and Grossvenediger, neither of which I really felt I had touched on or even seen close up due to the misty days when I was in their vicinity. I hope the Zilltertal with restore the mountain perspective. 

Section 04. 136 km. 51 Hours. 7690m up.  7740m down.

Section 04. Hohe Tauern. 19 June to 29 June 2022. 

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