Main Alpine Divide. Section 07. Otztal Alps

February 9, 2022

Day 48. Solden to Gaislachalm. 6 Km. 2.5 Hrs. 640m up. 20m down. I did not sleep well. Perhaps it was lack of exercise or the pizza I ate at Gusto, or perhaps it was something worse. When the alarm went at 0530 I struggled to get up and lingered for a bit. I had already bought the constituents for breakfast and lunch today but they needed making up so by the time I was finished it was already 0730. I had a long day today so I was a bit anxious about the slow start. However, it was a beautiful day with not a cloud in the sky. I walked south through the town for about a km until I got to the bottom of the main gondola lift which was called the Gaislachkogelbahn. It confirmed what I thought of Solden in that it was a tourist hotspot living off its skiing in the winter and biking and hiking in the summer. It had managed to create an aurora that it was a cool place to be also, so there were also a fair few people visiting just to dine and shop, neither of which seemed cheap. 

The ski lift was already operating with an empty gondola departing every 15 seconds. I presume soon the mountain bikers will turn up to take the lift up some 1500 metres and then spend a few exciting hours coming down one of the many trails The Bike Republic had created back into town. Then an hour of two later the more sedentary will arrive and take the lift up to the top station where there must be a restaurant. My route up the mountain started right at the bottom of the ski lift and zig-zagged up under it for about half an hour. I could see my path often overlapped with one of the bike paths coming down the mountain, but I was too early to meet anyone descending and the gondolas going up were still all empty. At the end of this steeper climb I got to the southern end of a developing hamlet called Wald, where there were lots of chalet style hotels basking in the morning sun, while Solden in the valley below was still in the shade. It looked a more relaxed place to stay rather than in the self-important cut and thrust of Solden. 

325. Heading out of Solden having climbed up under the ziz-zags under the ski gondola and now heading towards Gaislachalm above Ventertal valley

The route I planned climbed a bit further above Wald on zig-zags and then left the grassy strip and headed south on a gravel road which I think was a piste in the winter months as it had floodlights. Beside the road were wide grassy strips and then the forest beyond. It was a pleasant walk with the sharp mountain of Nederkogel, 3163m, straight ahead across the Ventertal valley, which is a side valley to the main Otztal valley. Occasionally the clunking of cow bells heralded a group of mothers and the bullocks who were ripping the grass from the verges or lying in the shade under the trees chewing cud and flicking their ears. This easy jaunt lasted for about 2 km until the route left the track and climbed into the woods. 

326. Looking back down into Otztal valley and the town of Solden from the path half way between Solden and Gaislachhalm

In the woods followed a small path which I shared with mountain bikers. I noticed that there were regular rescue signs, perhaps every 200 metres, with a location reference number and the emergency phone number put up by The Bike Republic. There must be frequent callouts to rescue crashed bikers on these rough paths with the solid forest trees just beside. Again I saw no bikers at all so never had to stand aside. Often the bike trail and the hiking trail would be a few metres apart. After half an hour I passed some meadows and signs to Loplealm which was just above me. I did not go through it but continued on the path to a junction in a meadow where I could see a nice chalet called 2000 Sonneck. I had only been going 2 hours and had climbed some 600 metres from the day’s total of 1900 metres and had 8 hours remaining. 

327. One of the sun darkened alm houses at Gaislachalm. Over the decades the sun slowly darkens the logs into a rich dark golden colour

My lungs were feeling a bit irritated by the dry air, in the same way as I feel when I am inhaling very cold air of -30 or so, and I was feeling a bit lacklustre. The thought of going another 8 hours did not appeal and I was still two days ahead of schedule. The chalet of 2000 Sonneck had sowed a seed and I had seen signs for Alpengasthof Gailachalm which was in another 15 minutes. By the time I had walked past some gorgeous alm houses and a short track through a meadow which had been cut the seed was already growing.  Gaislachalm was a big building with a large sunny terrace. It was only 1000 but I went in to enquire. Yes they had a room and it was cheap and I could have it now. There was nothing else en route  until Breslauerhutte in 7 hours apparently.  It seemed obvious to me I should take it and within 5 minutes I was standing on my south facing balcony with a great view up Ventertal valley hundreds of metres below me. The older couple who ran the place were very welcoming and easy going.

328. Looking SW from the balcony of Alpengasthaus Gaislachalm up the deep narrow Ventertal valley who valley floor was only winde enough in a few places to allow agriculture.

With no washing to do and very little blog to write I had a morning siesta which extended right through to 1600. I got up and discovered the Alpengasthof was quite busy with perhaps 20 overnight guests. They all seemed to be middle aged couples who enjoyed walking. There was a good track to the gasthof and most seemed to come by car. They based themselves here rather than the busy Solden and did day walks. It was not a mountain hut by any means but half the price of Solden with a much calmer clientele and great view. By then evening I was feeling a bit better and if I was coming down with something it was not serious. After dinner the host gave me one of his homemade Zirber Schnapps made from the young cones of the Arollo pine soaked in schnaps. It was delicious and the offer was also very nice. Gaislachalm had been very good to me. 

329. Alpengasthsus Gaislachalm was in a cluster of 3 guesthouses at the start of Ventertal valley. This one had a well stocked trout pond.

Day 49. Gaislachalm to Breslauerhutte.18 Km. 7.5 Hrs. 1530m up. 610m down. The next morning I was not feeling much better. I had a sore throat, heavy lungs and a slight headache. However I did not feel so bad I needed a day off. So after a great breakfast I set off at around 0830. I passed the trout pond and headed up the grassy track past a menagerie of animals. A few hundred metres after the Gaislachalm Gasthof was the Silbertal Hof. It was newer, larger and looked more upmarket, but not as homely. There were loads of haylofts up here beside the wide grassy path and many meadows which had recently been cut. The path climbed very gently and before knowing it I had ascended 200m over the course of 2 km. Far below me to the south was the deep V shaped Vent valley. There were a couple of small hamlets on the narrow valley floor, one with a church which had an onion shaped tower. I had asked at the Gaislachalm about walking up the valley floor but they said it was not a nice route as it was mostly on the road and with tunnels. 

330. Thistles lines the grassy track after Gaislachalm and every one was covered in bees, beetles or flies trying to burrow into the flowhead to the sweet nectar beneath

The path I was following was really a lovely route. It rose very gradually, almost contouring the hillside, and was easy underfoot as it was wide, grassy and constructed. It must have been a historic route for farmers to access the high pastures or drive their livestock up and down. However my legs felt heavy and I was plodding along with a tired gait, while usually I would skip like a young spaniel dog. Above me the mountainside continued up to a barren slope of reddish boulders and then crags above them. I knew there were higher peaks above but the bulge of the slope blocked the view, however I could see the high peaks across on the south side of the valley and with each step the views got more spectacular. 

331. Looking back to the Stubai Alps from the track above Gaislachalm. The mountain to the right of the largest glaciier is Zuckerhutl, 3507m, the highest in the range.

After an hour or so the inevitable happened and the path now veered up the hillside climbing much more steeply. I was panting now and my legs felt heavy as I climbed up the good path between large red boulders and between outcrops. The sun beat down and the atmosphere felt dry and arid. Then I reached a lush damp meadow with the stream meandering across it, called Petznersee. It was once a lake when the glacier receded from here, perhaps 250 years ago but maybe longer. After the ice went it was rapidly filled with silt from the glacial stream which now flowed across it nourishing the grasses. It was just the visual tonic I needed.  The path continued to climb beyond it and I could soon see the glaciers appear  above me on the mountain tops ahead. However in no time I walked over the ridge into a very disappointing sight. 

The tentacles of the Solden ski development, which I had originally thought were much less destructive and ugly than the Stubai Gletscher, had extended here. There was a road from Solden up the side of the mountain to the west of the town to a large parking place at the bottom of the glaciers on the north side of this main Otztal range. I thought I would have escaped this development but there was a tunnel from there to here under the range at about 2700 metres and it emerged from under the mountain here. There was a huge parking space, an artificial lake, two gondolas and a restaurant and public buses which were disgorging day trippers by the wagonfull. Most it seemed were shuffling to the gondola to continue their effortless sightseeing. A few adventurous ones were embarking on the same route I was taking and would then branch off and take the path down to Vent and return to Solden by bus 4-5 hours later.  Thankfully I only had to walk 10 minutes before this vandalism was behind me and forgotten. 

I could see why this was such a popular day trip as for the next 8-9 km the easy well constructed path contoured across the mountainside, between the deep valley below and the high mountains above, many still with small glaciers which would be gone in a decade or two. It was across a hillside strewn with red boulders where the recent ice age had left them. Occasionally small streams would tumble down between the boulders. After a good hour the path contoured round into a cirque where there was a shallow silt filled lake fed by a couple of milky glacial streams. This was a popular picnic spot and there were at least 50 people having their lunch here. Many were in groups of 10 with a self-important tour leader with a T shirt announcing their qualifications. I joined them as I was not hungry but thirsty, and my throat felt as if I was inhaling shards of glass. Two apples helped sooth it slightly. After my picnic I continued my laboured walk, keeping ahead of the groups but being overtaken by all the eager couples, who must have thought I was out of my depth up here plodding along. At last the path split and my faint track continued to contour while the other made a gentle traversing descent to Vent. A tour leader tried to correct me saying “this is the way” pointing down. I replied in a rasping crackling voice “not for me” and she looked perplexed.  

333. An eagle soaring below me seen from the balcony path above Ventertal valley between Gaislachalm and the Breslauerhutte. The raging glacial torrent below is the river in the Ventertal valley

Once I was away from the day trippers I continued to contour. I was now well above the others who were heading down to Vent when I spotted an eagle below me. It was actually circling above the walking groups but none seem to have noticed it despite its shadow rushing across them occasionally as it circled. I watched it for 10 minutes and got some pictures but it was perhaps 500 metres away at the nearest. The town of Vent looked very pretty in the valley but there were perhaps 25-30 hotels or large chalets down there each with say 20 bedrooms. However they were all within an alpine style. There were about the same in smaller houses or farms but this valley was just too steep to have many large farms on the valley floor, even at Vent where two side valleys met. There was a church here with an onion shaped tower also, in contrast to the other Tyrolean churches I had seen. Vent also had a very modest ski lift with no gondolas but a 4 in a row bench to hoist the skiers up. I could not guess if Vent was a struggling resort unable to develop further or if it was very exclusive and confident in its lack of shallow glamour. 

332. Looking from the balcony path high on the sunny north side of Ventertal down onto the town of Vent and up the alpine Neidertal side valley beyond.

As the path continued to contour towards the modest ski lift the view across the valley to the south east was quite mesmerising.  There was one enormous ridge which started where I did this morning opposite Gaislachhalm and continued all the way well beyond Vent to the Italian border and probably well beyond. This ridge had about 7-8 prominent peaks, all well above 3000m, and between each one was a large cirque whose ring of cliffs were covered in north facing snow slopes feeding a large crevased glacier. This view had been with me all day but it has got progressively more impressive as I walked. I looked at the stream emerging from the bottom of each large glacier as they cascaded down the mountain into the valley. Any of these streams would fill an olympic size swimming pool in an hour and it was all coming from the melting glacier. Admittedly each glacier contained many hundreds of thousands of olympic sized swimming pools of ice each and they would lose no ice in the winter, but in the summer they would lose perhaps 5000 pools each. In half a century they will be gone, and then the climate will become much more arid and desert-like with forest fires gradually eliminating the forest Californian-style. 

I passed under the lift and then saw Breslauerhutte on a ridge above me. I was pretty tired now, my legs were wooden and my chest full of chilli powder. With a final effort I slowly climbed the last 200m to the hutte as a high altitude climber might trudge up the final slopes on a 8000m peak. I went in and explained I had a booking for tomorrow and it was for 2 but I was just one now. Sometimes they are flexible and other times not so much. On this occasion they were quite flexible but demanded a deposit of 20 Euros for the missing booking – which they would allow me to pay online! I got a small sweet wood lined room with two beds with yellow linen. It reminded me of the type of room an American pioneer might have on a homestead. Dinner was soon after and I had that on a table to myself in an alcove and then went to bed at 1830. I fell asleep at once. 

334. Looking south across Ventertal to Schalfkogel, 3540m, and the Diemferner glacier

Day 50. Breslauerhutte to Hochjochhospiz. 11 Km. 3.5 Hrs. 240m up. 670m down. By the time morning had come I felt much better. I had the window open all night circulating air in the cabin type room. I went down for breakfast at 0730. I helped myself to the buffet and then sat alone in my alcove again. By 0830 I was leaving Breslauerhutte having hardly interacted with anyone at the hut except at check in. It was not the huts doing, but all mine, as the hut was a very sociable place with many climbers coming and going from Wildspitze, 3774m, the highest of the Otztal Alps and groups of walkers.

Todays route was one of the easiest on my whole trip. It was about 11 km with only 240 metres of ascent and all on an easy path. There were a few groups ahead of me on the overcast morning and I let them keep their distance by walking slowly and taking photos. It is amazing how long a photos takes and even a simple one with the compact camera costs 100 metres. There were plenty of sheep around beside the path as I headed west and they were very blaise  about hikers going past and never missed a beat as they sat and chewed their cud. 

335. Looking up Rofental valley, another of the side valleys meeting at the town of Vent to Hochjoch pass on the right and Fineilspitze, 3516m on the left, where Otzi was found.

I had hoped to get more of a glimpse of the big glaciers of the Otztal Alps today, which I knew were just on my north but frustratingly the bulge on the mountainside obscured them, and all I saw were huge slopes of the rusty red boulders sweeping down from the heights to roughly the altitude I was contouring at, where the first grasses and thistles would appear. As these slopes descended it would get greener and greener until it reached the deep valley floor which was now treeless and too high for agriculture. 

338. A field of the yellow thistles growning in damp rocky grouns beside the glacial torrent of the Vernagtbach stream just below the meteorological station

It was only when I rounded a spur to veer into the alpine side valley of Vernagtal did I catch sight of these giant glaciers. However I was too far down in the valley to see their true size and could just guess at it from the map and the size of the silty torrents crashing down the red boulders of the stream beds beneath them. I was surprised to see a large lodge here, The Vernagthutte, 2775m, which looked as big as Breslauerhutte and I had missed in my planning. From the map it looked to be at the hub of many glacier ski mountaineering routes which radiated from it like spokes to the passes between the peaks surrounding the hut. As I crossed the bridge I caught up with the group of 7 hikers who were sitting just outside my alcove at Breslauerhutte and must have though I was unsociable loner. I struck up conversation with the back marker and soon the whole team stopped and we chatted for 5 minutes. They were all from a hiking club in Bavaria and were also heading to Hochjochhospiz so I promised to talk to them then. I blamed my antisocialness on food poisoning from Solden because if I said chest infection they would have fled as if I was a Biblical leper. 

336. Entering Vernagtal side valley where the Vernagthutte and the meteorological are with the dark Keesselwandspitze, 3414m, rising above all.

339. Looking back up the Vernagtal side valley to the Grosser Vernagtferner glacier and the 3400-3500 meter peaks around it

As I walked past herds of sheep grazing among the stones in the Vernagtal valley the view behind me got more and more impressive as more of the glaciers and peaks appeared. I felt I had not really seen the full magnificence of the Otztal Alps yet and began to wonder whether I should have gone on the north side of the range passing the very head of Pitztal valley. As that thought was festering I rounded the spur and a magnificent vista slowly unfolded in front of me, growing in grandeur with every step. It was of Wiesskugel, 3739m, the second highest point in the Otztal Alps. It’s east side was covered in glaciers which streamed down the ridges emerging from it. One glacier in particular, The Hintereisferner, was the biggest I had seen on the trip so far (although the mist obscured ones on Grossglockner and Grossvenediger which might have been bigger). It snaked down from the summit in a river of crevassed ice some 5 kilometres long and its snout was just below me up the valley. By now the threat of rain which the morning threatened had completely vanished and most of the sky was blue so the glaciers sparkled. 

340. Looking up the 5 km longg Hiinterferner glacier from above Hochjochhospiz hut. Weisskogel, 3739m, the second highest Otztal mountain is in the distant centre.

I got to a junction here and saw there was a path up the mountain, initially beside one of the glaciers until it ventured across this glacier for a good kilometer to reach Brandenburgerhaus, a hut at 3272m right on the main Oztal ridge. There were people going up this path and they did not seem overly equipped to walk on a glacier, so perhaps this route to the lofty hut is considered an alpine “hike”, rather than an alpine “glacier crossing”. From the contour lines on the map this kilometer crossing looked very flat so perhaps the glacier was known to be safe here in which case it would make a wonderful circuit as one could go down across another flat glacier into Rauhekopfhutte, 2731m, on the north side in Pitztal. I chatted with a few people here as I took photos before I made the quick 15 minute descent to the Hochjochhospiz, 2412m, to complete a much needed beautiful, scenic and easy day.

The hut was very busy and the terrace was busy. A group of 10 people were practicing rope skills on the metal fire escape outside. However inside it was quiet but welcoming. I checked in with the minimum of fuss and was told to take room 24. After leaving my boots downstairs I found room 24 had a bunk bed with the lower bed right beside the window. I assumed I would be in here on my own unless the hut gets swamped. I then went downstairs, had 2 coffee and found a quiet alcove where I could write. I spent the next 4 hours writing up the last 2 days. I finished at 1630 just as the group who I had chatted with earlier in the day arrived. They had gone a different and much more scenic way than me. While I had contoured round the spur they had gone over it and up two smaller 3100 metre mountains, called Gustarspitze. It was all on a marked path also, and when I saw it I knew I had missed a trick, as the views would have been fantastic. 

Hochjoch Hospiz was run by a young couple from Vent just down in the valley. They were very easy going yet seemed to cope well with the influx of people in the afternoon. They roped their son into serving the meal and he would have been 6 years old and quite a comic. He had a few tables laughing out loud with his antics. The prices here were comparable to the other huts in the last month, but here everything had to come by helicopter and he explained to me it was 40 Euros a minute and it took 16 minutes to do one load with a maximum of 500kg. Roughly it cost them a euro to get a kilo up here, so you could not consider them overpriced or greedy for the services they provided.

 Day 51. Hochjochhospiz to Oberetteshutte. 18 Km. 8.5 Hrs. 1640m up. 1360m down. I did not sleep well but I think it was the lack of exercise yesterday as the walk was easy and short. When the alarm went off at 0530 I could have slept more but there was an early breakfast available at 0600 and I needed it for the long day ahead. Indeed it seemed everybody turned up for the 0600 breakfast. But then why not as the sun was already shining on the tops. I had a quick breakfast and was away at 0630 heading down to cross the bridge across the glacial torrent just above its Y shaped junction with the other torrent. The rising sun chased me down the hill to the bridge but I managed to stay in the shadow. The torrent was much smaller than it had been last night when it was raging after a day’s melting under the sun. It would rise again later today and quadruple in size. The valley itself was U shaped but the stream had carved a narrow trench in this where the abrasive torrents continued to eat away.

341. The Hochjoch Hospiz hut in the early morning sun sitting on the north side of the Rofental valley

On the south side of the torrent which came down from the Hintereisferner, the path started to climb up the ridge for about half an hour in the warming early morning sun. It was going to be a beautiful day with not a cloud in the sky and the contrails from planes disappearing at once. After half an hour there was a junction with a fork going down to a bridge across  the other glacial torrent. This was the route many of the people at the hut last night were taking and it went up a rocky spur over the glaciated ridge and down to the Martin Busch Hutte in the high valley on the other side. My route however continued up the valley to the north of this ridge. 

It really was a magnificent walk. The path followed the valley keeping on a flatter balcony 100 metres higher than the torrent. On the other side of the valley were a series of peaks all around 3400. Between each peak was a large cirque with one or two glaciers in it. They were gleaming white in the low sun, with the mountains whose sides facing me were still largely dark in the sun and above them the deep azure sky. I could see my path went up to a very shallow saddle at the head of the valley some 3 kilometres away. I sauntered up the path feeling great now and empowered by the view to the south with its very alpine landscape. The red rocks here and the gravel they produced created a soil in which the Mossy Saxifrage, Saxifraga bryoides thrived and there were healthy clumps of it everywhere. I saw an eagle circling above far up the valley, perhaps a couple of kilometres away and when I got to the spot later I heard the jingling of sheep bells and saw a large flock of sheep grazing happily. Obviously the eagle had been looking for something here, possibly carrion, because an eagle could make short work of all the large lambs and easily puncture their lungs with its talons, as they do with adult reindeer in Lapland. As I went up the valley I pulled level with the biggest of all these mountains, Fineilspitze, 3516m.  

342. The Mossy Saxifrage, Saxifraga bryoides, thrives on the south facing rocky slopes of the upper Rofental valley and there were clumps of it everywhere  

This mountain was on the border between Austria and Italy with its southern flank being Italian. In 1991 two young climbers were going up the east ridge when they found a corpse. They went back to the nearby Similaun Hutte and with the hut warden then went up and tried unsuccessfully to hack it out of the ice. They alerted the police, who saw it was not recent at all, and they in turn contacted various archaeological institutions. What they had discovered was Otzi, a 5000 year old human who was mummified and then buried in ice. It transpired Otzi had been injured and had an arrowhead buried in his shoulder. Since he was found there has been huge analysis on his clothing, what he was carrying, his DNA and body and a wealth of information has been obtained. Otzi caused some political tension also as he was found 92 metres inside Italy in the South Tyrol and area which considers itself, and was once, Austrian, so the Austrians also claimed him. Now Otzi lies in cold storage in a museum in Bolzano, the capital of South Tyrol. 

343. At the Hochjoch pass, 2861m, looking east across the siltly lake to Fineilspitze, 3516m on whose upper glaciated slopes the 5000 year old Otzi was found.

I continued to climb up the expansive open alpine valley for another couple of kilometres passing above a turquoise lake in the moraine. The silty outflow from this lake would soon reach Solden down the valley and eventually the Black Sea. Just beyond was a very solid stone hut which was the old customs post. It now looked like a small private retreat. After some 50 days in Austria I was now leaving it for good and stepped into Italy. There was no sign or any indication I had crossed what was really just an artificial boundary. However soon I came to a small stream and this would eventually reach the Mediterranean Sea. Just 15 minutes later I approached a mountain hut, The Schone Aussicht Hutte, 2842m, and on the terraces I overheard a few people speaking Italian. I stopped here for a drink and some apple strudel – as it would be a long afternoon. 

344. Lookiing west from Hochjoch pass towards the 3400 ish meter Saldurkamm ridge which radiates south from the Wiesskugel massif. In the left valley is Kurzras and centre right is the Bildstockljoch pass, 3097m. The second pass of the day.

I tried to decipher where the afternoon’s path went over the col across the valley but could not work it out. The 2 small glaciers I could see did not match up with the 2 small glaciers on the map. Then someone explained to me that the glaciers I was looking for were hidden behind a ridge and showed me where the rocky pass was. I still could see no sign of it. I set off on the long descent down the very good path towards Kurzras in the valley far below, passing under a ski lift. It was heartbreaking but I had to lose some 800 metres. I stode out down the path hopping from stone to stone with agility again. I descended from the high alpine zone of glaciers and moraine to a grassier alpine zone with flowers thriving on the rocky turf and finally entered the upper forest which was Arolla Pine and larch. Just before I reached the valley floor where the ski lift emanated beside a hideous architecture designed hotel complex, there was a small path through the upper forest which was a short-cut. 

This path was hot and the forest was dry and arid. I could feel my throat getting parched again. It soon left the forest and followed a moraine ridge up, dropping down the west side of it to cross a glacial torrent. The water was very murky and not at all drinkable, but just beyond were some cool, clear well-aerated brooks tumbling down the mountain and I had a long drink here. I think the damage was already done to my inflamed throat and trachea. A kilometre to the south of me was a chairlift and I could see it disgorging people at the top station where there was a restaurant called Lazaunhuutte. There was a stream of diners and day trippers heading down the zig-zag track from it back to their cars at Kurzras near the ugly hotel. My route kept well to the north of this and headed up into a wild boulder strewn cirque with a silty glacial torrent emerging from a tongue of moraine above, and then flowing down through the rusty red boulders lining the cirque. Although the cirque was arid there were a few alpine pastures here and a large flock of about 200 sheep, whose bells were ringing around the hillside. 

345. Looking west from the top of the fragile Bildstockljooch pass, 3097m, after the 1000 meter climb. In the far distance are the Ortler and Livigno Alps and Piz Bernina very distant almost lost in the haze

At the top of the rocky pastures the real climb started and it was quite relentless. It went up the ridge of moraine for a good 400 metres. I just put myself into low ratio gear and plodded up. As long as I did not go too fast I did not sweat and did not need to stop. It took a good hour in the fierce heat of the afternoon with the sun concentrating in the cirque and heating the rocks. The glacial torrent was beside me but its muddy waters did little to soothe my soul. Eventually the path veered to the south where I met a couple coming down very slowly. I stopped and chatted and they were local. They said just in front of me was a tricky bit where the path had been obscured by a big rockfall and I had to clamber over boulders. Soon I was into the thick of it. I could not see where the rocks had come from, but it was obvious it was recent and serious. It was perhaps 300 metres wide and the route traversed right across it with newly painted markers. It must have been very recent as where the rocks had smashed into each other there was still dust lying which a heavy rain would have washed away, and there was one 3 weeks ago. I did not stop and carefully picked my way across the jumble of new, sharp and often unstable boulders for 10 minutes to reach the other side. The path returned again as it now contoured under the jagged arete to the pass. Just before the pass was another much smaller area with a recent rockfall but the dust had been washed off these boulders. It seems that the small peak on the ridge is quite fragile at this point. When I reached the pass, called Bildstockljoch, 3097m, a great view opened up to the west with the peaks of the Ortler and Livigno Alps, where I would be next, and the huge Piz Bernina, a 4000m glaciated massif, beyond them.

346. The steep descent down to the Oberetteshutte from the fragile Bildstockljoch pass had some trickier sections but all well protected with cables where necessary.

The descent down the otherside was initially a bit confusing. I thought I was dropping down southwards to a high plateau where there were a number of green fringed blue lakes nestled in small depressions in a large shallow cirque of red stones. I could even see the path on the west side of this bowl. However this was not the case and the path headed north now skirting round the rim of this bowl under the shattered fragile ridge I had just come up the other side of. The lakes looked refreshing and inviting but I did not go near them as the path continued west to the rim of the bowl where a spur came down from the fragile ridge. I came across a herd of sheep here but there was nothing save occasional saxifrage flowers for them to eat. Just beyond the sheep on the spur was a notch which the path went over to begin a very steep descent down the craggy north face of this spur. This steep descent was almost half an hour as care was needed on the steep zig-zags in the gullies and also in the narrow ledges on the buttresses which I had to walk across to go from one gully to the next. There was a couple below me and I had to be careful not to dislodge stones which might roll down to them. Half way down this descent Oberetteshutte revealed itself. Once the crags had finished the path made a gentle sweeping descent across the moranine filled bowl beneath the Oberettesferner glacier to reach the hut. The Oberettesferner glacier was only recognizable from the map which indicated a kilometre long sweep of ice. In reality this curve if ice had all but melted and it was now buried under a complete blanket of red moraine and fallen boulders so the ice, if it still existed was invisible except for a small smear at the very top. 

347. The very friendly Oberetteshutte sits on a spur to the west of the Wiesskogel-Saldurkamm ridge at the very head of the Matschertal valley

I was glad to get to the hut and was tired. The steps up to it were taxing and I sat on a bench outside in the shade and gathered some strength before going in. The staff here were exceptionally welcoming and friendly and nothing was a problem even though they were very busy. I had a cake and shandy to restore my energy and then settled into my 6 bed room getting the bed by the window. The hut warden was very local from the village of Matsch in the valley just below and it was his happy relaxed persona which allowed him to recruit such good staff. I wrote a bit later that afternoon but the hut was just too busy to find a quiet table and then suddenly dinner was upon us so I packed it in. At dinner I sat with a very bright mother and son with the mother having just retired as a special needs teacher and was now working in this hut, but had a couple of days off as her cool son from Berlin was visiting. Also with us was a witty middle aged couple from Bolzano who were going to climb up Weisskugel tomorrow. They all made an effort to speak English for my benefit. It was a great end to a long hot day.

Day 52. Oberetteshutte to Malles. 22 Km. 6 Hrs. 60m up. 1670m down. I did not sleep well in the 6 bed room. Despite having the window wide open and being at 2670m it was still warm. The first breakfast for the climbers was at 0430 and the couple from Bolzano took that, but I had the 0730 breakfast as I was just walking down the valley. I left an hour later and took the shortest way which went pretty much under the hoist to bring supplies up from the valley floor. The path went down in a series of easy zig-zags past a large mixed herd of sheep. I noticed there were about 10 Scottish Blackface sheep here, among the majority of the tall alpine droopy eared sheep which were about twice the size. The Blackface seemed to keep together and were not scattered like their alpine cousins. After a short hour I had dropped the 500 metres to the shed at the bottom of the hoist where the track up the valley ended at the treeline. The sun was just starting to reach the bottom of the valley now and the heat was building quickly, but soon I was into the beautiful mixed Arollo Pine and Larch forest following the track. 

I could make good time striding out down the gently descending smooth track. I even packed my walking poles away as they were completely unnecessary and slowed me up by 5, or even 10 percent. After a good kilometre I came to a large meadow which was almost busy with cows. There must have been about 100 in the extensive field right across the valley floor. The clunk of heavy cow bells rang out as nearly all the bells were sounding as the cows grazed or even chewed cud. On the north side of the valley floor here was Matscher Alm which is the dairy for those cows here who were to be milked. It also had a restaurant for daytrippers and cyclists who came up the forest track in the valley from the parking place at the end of the road at the lovely hamlet of Glies, just a couple of kilometres further down. When I got here I had to walk down the asphalt road for a good kilometre wondering how my pre planned route would take me off it. 

348. The meadows of Innere Matscheralm where ringing out with cowbells from at least 100 cows on the lush valley floor

The answer came very soon at the point where the asphalt road crossed the growing stream over a bridge to its south side. Here a small grassy track continued on the north side. It was flat and level and overflowing with wild flowers and insects. Angelica was thriving here and its large flower heads were crammed with insects of all shapes and sizes from butterflies to horseflies. There were perhaps 50 on each flower head with hoverflies making up at least half of them. I cleared and smelt a flower head but there was no strong sweet, or indeed any, scent so I wondered what attracted so many insects. Above the flower lined track was a large meadow with water sprinklers sending huge arcs of spray across the meadow. They were getting water from pipes inserted into a steep cascading stream, tumbling down the mountain side. Above the meadow was a lovely old looking farm called Thanei, which I think did accommodation also. 

349. Looking up the Matschertal valley from my level footpath beside the irrigation channel whch ran along the north side for about 6 km

When I reached the cascading stream by a small waterfall I saw half of it was diverted into a channel while the other half went under the grassy track and into the main stream in the valley. This water channel then started to flow beside the track, nourishing the flowers even more. Up to now the morning had been pretty easy with the steep descent from the hut to the valley floor and then 4 relaxed kilometres mostly down the track with a bit of asphalt. But now for the next 6 kilometres it became utterly idyllic as the virtually flat foot path followed the downhill  bank of the small irrigation channel. I followed its curves in and out of the hillside as it contoured down across meadows rising higher and higher above the valley floor. The sun was hot, but with the clear water flowing gently on my right hand side it made it very bearable. Sometimes a farmer had placed planks across the channel so he could get his motorised scythe across to the uphill side to cut the grass in the meadow above. There were a few haylofts above the channel but most were below, between the channel and the farms beside the road below. Not only was it an effortless walk but the views got better and better especially down the valley to the Ortler Alps straight ahead with their glaciated crests gleaming under the bly skies above the emerald green forests. As I neared the large village of Matsch with its few churches I could see the channel would pass just above it and it would probably irrigate the fields around the town. More and more farmers were tapping into the channel with pipes which flowed down the hill and ended in gravity fed sprinklers until in the end the channel became quite small and then vanished into a building. I think it piped the remaining water down to a hydro plant below in Matsch bringing an end to my delightful amble. 

350. The beautiful village of Matsch as viewed from near the end of the irrigation channel with the Ortler Alps glisteniing in the background the otherside of the enormous fertile Vinschgau valley

As I neared Matsch I could hear music and wondered if there was band playing. I thought I could also see a cafe, the Pleier. It was a short detour so I went down into the characterful linear village of modern houses and old farms jumbled together on each side of the road. The cafe was open so I went in for a drink and ice cream and noticed lots of people in dirndls and lederhosen. When I came out I wandered down the main street towards the music and saw there was a large festival here with about 20 long banquet tables across the street under awnings and canopies. Waiters and waitresses were busy carrying 4 beers in each hand and huge trays of food to the tables from a massive central grill where many animals were being barbecued. The smell of cooking flesh and smoke filled the air, palling under the canopies before it leaked through into the air. At the end of the tables was a small stage where a band of 10 played with many brass instruments and a large harp. The music was rousing and I could see that as the afternoon wore on and more beer was drunk and inhibitions ebbed away the atmosphere would become very lively and rowdy. Matsch knew how to throw a party. I wandered through the tables which extended for about 100 metres down the street looking at all the familes and friends tucking into food and drink. Everybody was having great fun and all were in traditional costumes, even young children. It was the annual Matsch Dorffest and it must come at a significant part of the farming year, perhaps as a celebration for finishing the main hay harvest. I would loved to have sat down and joined it but I felt quite self conscious in my sweaty clothes and rucksack so I carried on to the end of the street, past the band and into the deserted road again on the other side, climbing slightly to get back to my route after the exciting detour. 

I still had about 8 km to go but the route was now on a forest track in the same vein, but without the irrigation channel. The forest track continued the contouring theme descending very slightly. I followed it for about 4 km along the hillside through an easy forest of pines which were now a 2 needle species, probably Pinus nigra. I noticed many had scorch marks with browning tips where they had probably been stressed by drought. This had allowed the processionary caterpillars to establish themselves in silk thread tents and the trees did not have the necessary sap resources to repel them. When trees get this dry they are also susceptible to forest fire as the humidity in their branches and twigs falls.

351. Looking NW down to the town of Mals sitting on the floor of the arterial Vinschgau valley with its fields and orchards

After 4 km the route had reached the end of the Matschertal valley it had been following all day, as it entered the enormous Vinschgau valley, one of the Alps great arterial trenches. The valley floor here was a few kilometres wide and covered in fields and orchards with towns scattered about quite densely as the agriculture could traditionally support a greater population. The town I was heading for was Mals and I could see it appearing just to the north of me on the valley floor. It had a number of churches and towers, and a large grey gothic monastery on the hillside above it. The route continued to follow the hiking path down with the forest giving way to meadows and then the meadows giving way to apple and cherry orchards. The path also became a track and then an asphalt road and quickly I was walking into town, and it looked like a lovely old mediaeval town, with heaps of character and charm.

352. The centre of Mals in the Vinschgau valley had a medieval feel to it with its old churchs, towers and huge monastery on the hill above it.

I walked through its narrow shaded streets to the Finka Hostel where I was booked in for 2 days starting tomorrow. I hoped they could squeeze me in today also. They could and even better with the same rooftop room. The guy who ran the place Sacha was very helpful and had also received a resupply package from me 2 months ago with maps, a new shirt, toiletries and other consumables. Finka hostel was part of a cooperative which employed some 60 people, which by law 30% had to have a disability. Some worked in the hostel and others in various projects around the town. The room was fantastic with a sunny terrace and the place had a washing machine. All my clothes, clean and dirty went into the machine and then onto the sunny terrace where they dried within the hour. I then wrote a bit until I started to get tired around dinner time. Sacha recommended a pizzeria called the Lampl so I went there. It was very friendly but the pizza was less than average and the tiramisu was poor. However, it was cheap and cheerful. By the time I got back it was dark and I was ready for bed. The room was still warm after the hot day so I slept with doors to the balcony wide open and even at 0400 in the morning it never got cold. 

Mals. 2 Rest Days. 0 Km. 0 Hrs. 0m up. 0m down. I arrived in Mals a day early but luckily the Hostal Finka could put me up for an extra day. The manager Sacha was extremely helpful and a very enthusiastic positive person. He was instantly likeable and made me feel very welcome and gave me a great room with a sunny terrace with hammock on it. It was just what I wanted to recuperate from my chest infection. 

I spent much of my first free day writing up the blog, sorting out the photos and posting it online. It always takes longer than I think and I reckon I must spend about 20 hours a week on it, and about double that walking. As soon as It was posted one of my ornithological friends commented on the photo of what I thought was a Golden Eagle. It was not and she enviously pointed out it was Bearded Vulture, an extremely rare raptor and a twitchers dream. There was a programme to reintroduce them to various parts of the Southern Alps where they are virtually extinct and this must have been one of those as it was a young specimen. 

I went for a small wander in Mals in the afternoon and was really growing to like the small town. In the evening I went to a busy restaurant called Forst for a large salad and some steinpilz (porcini) tagliatelle.

On my second day I packaged up my ice axe, crampons and a few more bits of clothing and all the clothing which came in the box like spare overtrousers and a smartwool top. I thought the original ones I had would be worn out by now but the fact was I only used my overtrousers once and the original smartwool top had been returned 4 weeks ago. I received new maps, batteries etc in the supply box and put the maps for the last 4 week in the box. I then took it to the post office to send to Magali in France. I still had my sleeping bag and tent but I think now my rucksack was just 7-8 kilos all in. 

353. One of the large farms in the middle of Mals with its tower, which might have belonged to a church of a status symbol for the farm.

With all my chores done I could go and explore Mals. It was a lovely place full of rural charm. I guess there were about 400 houses in Mals altogether and most of these were old. Scattered amongst these houses were some 30 or 40 farms, all with large barns with integrated haylofts. The cows were outside the barns in the adjoining field and the whole vicinity of the farm smelt of rich comforting manure. It permeated the town slightly and gave the place an air of authenticity. Near many of the farms were either churches or defence towers and the town had about 15 of them in addition to the remains of the castle with its large round tower. All the farmhouses, and indeed all the houses, were covered in rows of geraniums in balcony and window boxes. 

354. The old round tower of the fortification is still solid but the castle walls are in ruins. Beside it is the main church and to the right a tower on attached to a farm

Yet the old centre of Mals also had some high quality shops. There was a good bookshop, a library, many delicatessens selling local wares, a great pharmacy and sports shop and there seemed to be a prominent music school. It seemed to punch well above its weight culturally with book exchange booths in the pedestrian street and an open air concert venue. In addition to the Hostal Finka there were 3 or 4 other 3 star hotels and a 2 star hotel. On the main square, attached to one of the 3 star hotels was a busy cafe with a large terrace. There were also 3 well stocked small supermarkets. While the town had a beating agricultural heart with both dairy farms and fruit farms it also catered for tourists, and cycle tourists in particular.

I went to the cafe and got a seat on the shaded terrace overlooking the square. The ice cream was Italian and the coffee, roasted by Alps Coffee of Schreyogg, was the nicest I have ever had in a cafe. Sitting and observing the coming and goings in the square I realised this was perhaps the nicest town of the whole trip so far. It had everything local or tourist needed and was so calm and modest, yet it was sophisticated and rich in culture.

355. The long terrace of the cafe overlooking the main square of Mals. Here they servered the best coffee I have tasted.

After my coffee I went down beside the small clear stream to the main church which was open. It was wonderfully cool inside and the earthy yellow pastel coloured paint gave it a very peaceful atmosphere. Altogether there was room for about 500 people if all the 50 pews were packed. 

I got some yoghurt drinks at a supermarket and went back to the Finka Hostal and just relaxed on the enclosed sun terrace for a couple of hours until I got a bit bored. It is not often I had a few hours spare and it was the perfect way to use them. In the evening I tried to go back to the Lampl pizzeria but it was busy so instead I went to the Fantasy pizzeria. It was run by a couple of Punjabi’s and had white formica tables and a self service fridge of sweet drinks. It made no pretence to be sophisticated and had no atmosphere but the pizzas were better than at the Lampl. That pretty much brought my sojourn in Mals to an end. It was a lovely town, honest and down to earth and yet culturally rich. 

I had enjoyed the Otzal Alps where I had been for the last week really but could not help feeling I had not seen the best of them. They had the largest glaciers of the trip so far but I had been on the wrong side of the mountains to see them. If I come back here in the future I will definitely try and get more into the heart of the Wildspitze and Weisskugel massifs and stay at the Brandenburger Hutte. Maybe then they would be comparable to or even exceed the Zillertal Section which at the moment remains the best so far.  


Section 07. Otztal. 75 km. 28 Hours. 4110m up. 4330m down.

Section 07.  Otztal. 13 July to 18 July 2022.

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