Recently, I finished reading Kev Reynold’s Walking in the Alps, which was acquired while creating an article on the Pyrenees and the Alps for the travel section of this website. Given the size of the European mountain area in question, it only ever can make a starting point for any explorations. More detailed guidebooks are need for further planning.
Still, an overview has plenty of uses and I wonder how well I consulted the volume in question before my 2015 trip to Switzerland and the 2016 one to Austria that is the subject of this post. The fact that the Alps cross many borders to be in France, Italy, Germany and Slovenia as well as the principality of Lichtenstein means that a lifetime of exploring scarcely could scratch the surface of what is to be found among them. Thus, only seeing a little may have to do. So far, there have been memorable days doing just that.
My Austrian trip verifies this thought in many ways. It was a weekend visit, albeit with two added days, that left me torn between so many possibilities. Basing myself in Innsbruck meant that so many groups of mountains were nearby that I struggled to decide between them. A four day encounter never was going to be enough to even sample a little of everything that is close at hand.
Spending a week there would do the Tirol more justice. There are mountains looming all around Innsbruck and I only got to the Nordkette, leaving the likes of Patscherkofel for another time. Of all the surrounding valleys, Zillertal got a visit while others like Stubaital needed to left aside. It was a choice between spending more time between fewer places and hopping from one to another, making any visits very short affairs. The former always appeals more to me so I left many reasons for a longer return trip should the opportunity arise again.
Meeting with a Mixture of Weather
By going at the end of May, I was hoping to avoid the elevated temperatures of the high summer season. As a form of reassurance before the trip, I was checking an Innsbruck webcam and weather forecasts in the hope that sunny scenes would greet me but mixed weather meant that grey skies often were to be seen. The run of such weather was not to halt on my arrival but it did nothing to stop me coming away with nice photos and good memories.
There was a brief encounter with Bavaria on my way to and from Austria. My time in Germany on both Friday and Monday saw periods of clouds and warm sunshine. The necessity of onward travel meant that there was little time to savour the places that I passed on my way but the sights of evening sunshine lighting up the neat pastoral countryside over which the plane the past on my way home remain with me.
Austria’s weather was very mixed when I was there. Friday afternoon was a sultry scorcher as I made my way from train station to hotel. Thickening cloud cover cooled things for some afternoon and evening strolling but eventually brought heavy rain with thunder and lightning when I was retiring for the night. The time at which the latter came down from the overhead mountain tops where it had been in the preceding hours thankfully meant that I avoided a soaking.
Saturday was brighter than Sunday so the former was a better day for photography. Morning sunlight accompanied more strolling around Innsbruck prior to a journey to the heights of the nearby Nordkette. While there, a mixture of clouds and sunshine gave way to rain for a time before drying up again. Heavy rain punctuated the time after my return to Innsbruck before it too departed.
The trend for Sunday was one of continued deterioration from a dry period with some sunshine to rain and wind before a return to the former later on in the day. That did nothing to halt my trip to Mayrhofen in Zillertal for some exploration. Sunny spells turned to rain and then that changed to teasing momentary spouts of sun on nearby slopes and tops. Rain returned later, this time with wind, towards the end of my stay in Zillertal but there was enough satisfaction to make the possibility of returning a pleasing notion.
Monday saw a rain-accompanied departure for home. Final saunters around Innsbruck needed the umbrella with which I had furnished myself, both on a walk to the Tyrolia bookshop and then to the train station. The sentimental might be tempted to call this a tearful goodbye but it was yet more reason to be thankful for any spells of sunshine that I had enjoyed; this need not halt thoughts of a return.
Sauntering around Innsbruck
The weather may have offered something other than what I had in mind but my time was short so I was not about to allow it to confine me to a hotel room in a pretty part of the world. After all, Innsbruck is laden with buildings of pleasing antiquity dating from Austria’s imperial times. That was enough to lure me out and about in spite of any elevated temperatures or spells of rain.
Thus, I spent Friday afternoon and evening pottering about the place getting my bearings. Thunder could be heard at times as the day grew ever cloudier but temperatures cooled too. Wandering about the city centre’s grand boulevards preceded a trip to a branch of Bauhaus, a hardware store, for some duct tape for fixing a hole in my holdall made by an incorrectly placed adapter plug. There were other shop calls before then such as the Tyrolia bookshop and the city’s main tourist information centre. After that more strolling took me along the banks of the River Inn as well as by the funicular railway station that I would using the following day and through the Altstadt, Innsbruck’s Old Town.
More ambling was to top and tail a visit to the Nordkette on Saturday. Some of this gained me sights along the River Inn in morning sunshine instead of the prevailing gloom of the previous evening. Other such opportunities were to prove irresistible for some photography.
Not much of Sunday was spent around the city where I based myself but it was noticeable how few shops were open that day. Something leaves me with the impression that Sunday trading is limited in Austria and my time in Zillertal did nothing to challenge this though Innsbruck’s train station offered a chance for shopping that was absent elsewhere.
Monday morning saw me head to Tyrolia to peruse some books and maps before I went back to the hotel for my luggage before going to the train station to start on my way home. Most were in German, a language that I reckon that I should learn more. For one thing, enough knowledge of the tongue would open up a world of walking guidebooks that are unavailable in English and not just for German speaking parts either; Scandinavian explorations would become one beneficiary.
Maps had been acquired before I left home but others can tickle your fancy and shop at Munich Airport had shelves full of Kompass maps covering parts of Germany, Austria and Italy. Tyrolia was equally endowed and had maps from other publishers like the Austrian Alpine Club (Alpenverein in German) and Freytag & Berndt. The selection should have been enough for anyone’s needs though I then decided that adding to my collection would need to await another time since it was near the end of my stay in the Tirol. A return visit could bring more needs that would need addressing and knowing where to do that could have its uses yet.
Pottering about the Nordkette
Views of the Nordkette were unavoidable from the first time that I arrived in Innsbruck so I suppose that made an ascent of their flanks all the more likely. Using the services of a funicular railway and cableways made any ascent less arduous and it was good to escape any heat for a while. In a landlocked country like Austria, I suppose that this is one way to escape high summertime temperatures. Following high level trails around the Alps could prolong the escape while others flock to large inland lakes like islanders go to their coastlines.
Having never travelled in a cable car before, I never realised how unnerving such an experience could be. Two different ones are need to reach Hafelkar with the first going as far as Seegrube. It was that one that I found a bit foreboding. Rising at a steep angle above the ground with just cables to hold you adds a feeling of vulnerability that a cog railway never will. There is something to be said for feeling attached to the ground under you.
Nevertheless, the views from over 2000 metres above sea level were worth any sense of ardour. The sight of rocky pinnacles streaked with snow acted as a reminder that we had entered another world and there was little sign of any greener valleys lying below them. Also, there was no sign of the effects of the altitude of 2269 metres experienced at the top of Hafelkar Spitze like what I felt on the final approach to Kleine Scheidegg in September 2015. However, it has to be said that the required exertion was less. There was one aspect of commonality though in that they both retained wintry feel. Clouds came and went as did any sunshine while I pottered around the cross at the aforementioned summit.
Though map perusal had alerted me to the idea, there was little relish for wandering too far around these lofty pinnacles so I restrained myself before descending contentedly on a cable car as far as Seegrube. This was not that hairy an experience and I stopped for some much needed food and drink. As I enjoyed my meal, the weather deteriorated with the onset of a spell of rain. In spite of this, I decided that a downhill walk was in order and it avoided the more daunting of the cable car journeys too. What I realised later was that I had left sunglasses after me but they were not much needed during that wet start anyway and soon were replaced. Time was short and money could address that.
Conditions grew drier as I strolled around the zigzags of the downhill track with walking poles used to moderate the speed of travel and share the strain on my lower limbs. My GPS receiver was pressed into service for progress tracking since it had Alpenverein maps loaded on there and it was a chance to see how good their data were. If I remember correctly, the hike took around two hours with periods of sunshine allowing good views through the surrounding trees once the rain stayed away. Once back at Hungerburg, it was over to the funicular railway to carry me the rest of the way to Innsbruck under grey skies that were to bring rain.
While waiting for the rain to abate, I got to chatting with some Americans who were on a whistle-stop tour of Austria after not having been there for quite a while. It often feels that if you hear English being spoken overseas, the accompanying accent is American. It might be a numbers game or that Britons are less chatty. Both supposed reasons are plausible.
The approach followed by my American interlocutors differed form my own. They were happy to sacrifice depth of experience for added breadth while I was after the reverse. On the Nordkette, I got enough depth of exploration to whet my appetite for more. There may have been less solitude at the top but we all can share and there were plenty of quieter moments on the downhill hike that provided ample compensation.
A Day in the Zillertal
After the preceding pleasures of the Nordkette, another day around mountains was sought. The forecast may not have been as promising as I would have liked but I chanced going to the Zillertal anyway. In contrast to the day before, this was going to be a much quieter excursion on a day laden with an out of season ambience.
That extended beyond Innsbruck to Mayrhofen and even to the mainline train station at Jenbach. The latter was just as since a problem with a card reader and my own limited grasp of German, made the operation of buy return train tickets a longer task than otherwise might have been the case. Nevertheless, no train was missed and I achieved what I was setting out to do.
On arrival in Mayhofen, I strolled on for where the cable car stations were located. Maybe it was just as well that the Ahornbahn was not in operation given my feelings on its Nordkette equivalent the day before and it added to the out of season ambience that I was perceiving. My plans needed changing and I opted for the Penkenbahn instead even if this provided its own tests. Gaining height while the ground fell away on the crossing over Asteggertal introduced its own sense of edginess.
If I was hoping to enjoy a midday meal once I had finished with my upward cable car travelling, then disappointment was to be my lot unless I made time to use the only one that was open. That was around Penkenjoch and it was time to consider my next moves by then. The hike that far had followed a wide track for much of the way from Penkenalm and was use it for the return trip too. There had been diversions like a stroll around Speichersee while assessing the effect that all the infrastructure of skiing had on the landscape. It was easy to why Kev Reynolds thinks this kind of development to be desecration. In truth, I find it hard to disagree with him and I also got the grey day that made such idle installations appear even more miserable.
Though skies remained grey and scenes largely were monochrome, there were delights on show too. Any tantalising hint of sunshine was enough for me to see it an enlivened picture could be captured. Looking at the above photos, you may think otherwise but there is a certain majesty to those lofty pinnacles all the same. Though they are colour images, you might think them to be black and white affairs and I have not resorted to such a unneeded conversion.
There were other sights too in the form of a valley reservoir that I consider to be Speicher Stillup. Looking at a map as I write these words, I wonder why I went high among the paraphernalia of winter sports instead of a valley saunter. My guess is that I sought some lofty views even if it felt as if it meant being surrounded by the detritus of what I might consider to be extrovert overexhuberance. Those narrow defiles do offer possibilities for future excursions that may take me into wilder surroundings. It is only when there has been a first visit that new opportunities can be identified.
That is not to say that I was not blind to such things on my day around Zillertal. My way back from Penkenjoch had me walking downhill from Penkenalm to Bergrast so there was added walking before I got the brainwave of walking all the way back to Mayrhofen. In fact, I thought better of it after going as far as Gschössalm and returned hurriedly to the nearest cable car station before they stopped for the day. It was all uphill though so I was glad to make it in time. What convinced me of this course were the timings on signs that I found; the whole excursion could have made me late for the last train back to Jenbach.
The weather turned for the worse too with wind and rain battering the cable car on the way down. It did not help that the cable car in which I was travelling stopped dead after going perhaps a little too fast. Feeling the wind blowing against the thing and the rain lashing the windows, this got me wondering about phoning for a rescue if I was left suspended in midair. Things soon enough got going again and it happened that staff were coming down on one of the following cable cars anyway. It was good to learn that these machines can be stopped and that there were brakes on them. Such are the lessons that help to contain unnecessary fears and, with my feet back on terra firma, there was time to potter about Mayrhofen in the rain before leaving to catch my train back to Jenbach where I met with another that would take me to Innsbruck.
More Experiences Await
Any delay in returning to the Tirol for more exploring has less to with meeting wet weather and searing temperatures or any disquiet at cable car travel than other things happening in my life. For now, I am conserving money during a career break but a return to income earning will change circumstances. Until then, I am contenting myself with day trips around England, Wales and Scotland and these have brought me so much satisfaction that it is not as if I am being denied that much.
Once trips overseas become feasible again, there is much around the Tirol that would lure me into returning. Having made a metaphorical toehold from added knowledge, venturing to other corners becomes more plausible. Other sights around Innsbruck await and there is more to be found among the Tuxer Alpen, Stubaier Alpen and Zillertaler Alpen. After those, there is Achensee and its surroundings. Even if all these were to be exhausted, such is the nature of exploring that yet more possibilities would be brought to my notice.
Returning to that book that I mentioned at the start of this post, it taught me that explorers of the Alps tend to fall into one of two groups: “centrists” and “ex-centrists”. In truth, I have been one of the former and may continue in that vein for a while yet. Basing myself in a single location and fanning out to other places feels more comfortable than the alternative: place to place trekking. The latter is the “ex-centrist” approach and I marvel at how anyone can plan an entire walking holiday from afar. Even with guidebooks, it seems scarcely possible given the intrusions of everyday life.
The other side of all this is that I like my explorations to have an air of serendipity about them. Only by visiting a destination can you learn unexpected things about the place and that is how I tend to operate. Finding something new often embeds a lasting memory into my mind so I would not want to overdo planning to a point where this cannot happen. Too much focus on an objective can cause its own blindness.
The May 2016 trip to Tirol revealed much and going deeper into alpine valleys has much to reveal yet. Finding a quieter corner to relish in pleasing sunshine is a moment to seek and treasure so I hope to return one day. Not knowing the future, I cannot know when such an opportunity should present itself but I am not one to turn down such a thing.
Flights between Manchester and Munich. Return train journey between Munich and Innsbruck. Return train journey from Innsbruck to Mayrhofen.