A few weeks ago I went hiking with a friend in the Austrian Alps, we climbed a couple of the mountains including Klomnock, in the map below:
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This was the first time in years that I had been backpacking, and there is nothing like a trip up to 2331 Meters (7647 Feet) to make you realize how out of shape you really are. Especially if you're carrying a backpack full of camping supplies.
The trip started from a conversation over coffee a year ago with Markus. I mentioned to him that I had always wanted to go walking in the Alps, and that I was thinking of taking a trip along some of the trails in Switzerland. Markus told me he really enjoyed walking in the mountains, and suggested that we take a trip to Austria, near where he grew up.
I readily agreed, and plans were made. Over time, life happened, and plans got postponed and changed. After another lunch with Markus, we finally nailed down a date and I made a commitment in the form of booking a flight from London to Zurich.
The plan was for me to fly to Zurich to meet Markus, then we would drive to Carinthia, to start our walk. We mapped out a route that was fairly ambitious with 10 peaks during our two days of hiking. In the end we topped 2.5 instead, but it's all good fun.
This part of the Alps has an extremely robust network of well maintained trails with signs and shelters. I'm told that it's possible to hike from one end of the Alps to the other without ever sleeping rough or packing food. However, we wanted to be prepared since we weren't sure how much progress we would make. We were walking with sleeping bags, tent, cooking gear, food, and water.
In the end we never needed any of our supplies except our rain gear and our water, but it was better to be prepared then to be left wanting.
We drove to Austria, and up into the mountains. The drive, like much of this region, was obnoxiously beautiful. The roads were smooth and uncrowded, and the weather was relatively good. We hit a couple of rain showers, but nothing major. We drove through mountains and valleys, through little towns and small farms, through monumental tunnels, and around heart stopping scenery.
When we finally reached the park the roads narrowed, and we climbed, and climbed, and climbed. We started to see more cows than cars, and in fact got shocked by an electric cow gate across the road. Tip for the future: keep your window up when you drive past these things.
This part of Austria doesn't see too many English-speaking tourists, and even fewer Americans. They also have a local dialect that makes it difficult to understand. This wasn't a huge problem for me for two reasons. First, I don't really speak German anyways, and second Markus was there to translate. Mostly my interactions with the locals were limited to nodding, saying "danke", and pointing to random things on menus. We all got on well though, so it worked out fine.
Markus and I slept in a B&B the first night, it had a great view of the valley while the sun went down, and we enjoyed some dinner, and some schnapps.
The next morning we had a quick breakfast, and hit the trail. The trail started just off the road by the B&B, and as far as I could tell was nearly vertical. I looked up with a slight feeling of dread, but told myself, "this is just to get up to the trail". It was partially true, as the trail did level out about a mile later and 500 meters higher.
After the first 20 minutes I was drenched with sweat, and seriously questioning my sanity for taking this trip, then I looked to my left and saw this:
I don't know if it was the sheer beauty of my surroundings, or the fact that we had actually stopped walking for a bit, but I felt much better. We hiked on, Markus always in the lead and waiting for me. We got to the top of this first ascent, and saw that we had finally gotten to the base of the mountains. There was no place to go except up, so that's what we did.
When we got to the top of our first mountain, we saw a lot of people dressed in tennis shoes and designer clothes. I thought this was odd given that we had just spent the better part of a morning hiking to the same place. That was when Markus told me that there was a lift up to this part of the mountain, and that these people were all just coming up for a quick walk. I seriously thought about killing him at this point, but frankly didn't have the energy and wasn't sure I'd be able to get myself home from here. Instead we took a break, and watched the tourists walk around for a bit. The clouds were coming in, and it was cooling off. We decided to make our way over to our next peak.
For the next hour or so, we had some of the most enjoyable hiking I've ever experienced. The trail was gentle and rolling, the weather was cool, and the scenery was amazing. The clouds had come in, and we were a little worried about the weather, but it wasn't too bad.
The trail started to get a little more adventurous, and there were places where it looked like we might be walking right off the mountain.
Occasionally the low clouds we were hiking through would clear, and we would be greeted with the most amazing views.
The trail got steeper, and narrower as we headed to the top of Klomnock.
We also started to see more snow. It was the end of June, and I really hadn't expected to see snow on this walk. At least, not up close, but there it was. We didn't have to hike through drifts of it, but it made me feel pretty adventurous.
It started to rain while we were on the top of Klomnock, so we didn't hang around. We hiked around the top of the mountain to go down the opposite side from our ascent. That was, it turned out, the steep side. There were pieces of rebar driven into the side of the mountain making a ladder, of sorts, which we had to climb down to get off the peak. Then there were steel cables bolted to the side of the mountain for hikers to use while they negotiated this part of the trail.
Sadly, I don't have any pictures of any of this, as I was mostly concerned with not falling off the mountain at this point. You'll have to trust me when I say that this didn't really resemble a trail as much as it resembled a ropes course.
It took us a few hours to reach the bottom of the mountain, it was pretty slow going with big drops on one side and a small trail and a cable to help us cling to the side of the mountain. I actually think that this was the hardest part of the trip. It turns out that going down is much harder than going up. Also, there was a lot of careful foot placements to be made on this part of the trail, as falling would have been bad.
We finally made it to the road at the bottom of this mountain, and to a restaurant. We put down our packs and had a nice big lunch. It was great timing as about that time the skies opened up and it rained for close to half an hour. We waited out the rain, called our wives to let them know we weren't dead yet, and had some more drinks.
It had gotten very cold since morning, and the rain had made it even cooler, so we took the opportunity to add layers to our clothing. When the rain stopped we asked a local for some advice, and decided that after the two mountains in the morning (it was now about 3pm) we were going to head for a mountain hut to spend the night. All we had to do was hike over a ridge and down into the next valley.
We headed out to attack the ridge. It was steep, but the weather was clear and we were making pretty good progress. About two thirds of the way up it started to sprinkle. The sprinkle turned into rain, and the rain brought thunder and lightening.
Walking around at the top of a ridge with a frame backpack and a metal hiking stick in a lightning storm is a bad idea. So we ditched our packs and took shelter next to a bolder. We saw lightning flashes all around, and the rain got harder. The thunder and lighting were very close together telling us that the storm was pretty much right above us.
Then it started to hail. Hail stones the size of marbles pelted us for about 20 minutes, accumulating in my shirt collar, boots, and everywhere else. Once the storm passed I found about an inch of hail on top of my pack. We just covered up as good as we could and waited for it to pass.
The storm moved off into the mountains, and took the hail with it, so we took that opportunity to make for the top of the ridge before another storm came in. I've never walked up a ridge so quickly in my life. We made it over the ridge, and descended to the first plateau before we stopped for a break. It started to rain again, and the rain followed us in a steady gentle rain the rest of the day.
We found a sign on the plateau helpfully telling us that the hut we were destined for was only a 20 minute walk away. There are several such signs along the trails in the Alps. They generally seem to point in the right direction, however the time measurements (there were no distance measurements) were radically inaccurate. For example, this sign told us it would take 20 minutes to make it to the hut. In reality it took about two hours.
As Markus and I made our way down the mountain and into the valley towards the hut we speculated that perhaps the times were taken by unladen teenagers who were given some incentive to get to the next sign post as quickly as possible. We can say with certainty that they were not made by a couple of weighed down and out of shape guys walking in the rain.
When I say that we were making our way down the hill, you may have an image of a gentle slope and us walking straight down. That would be inaccurate. Instead what we were doing was scrabbling down a narrow zig-zag path on our way down to the valley floor a mile or more away and about 1000 meters below us. It was steep, rocky, and slippery from the rain. I fell once, but was lucky enough not to go rolling down the hill, which, while it would have gotten me to the bottom faster, probably would have delivered me in slightly worse shape then the state in which I finally arrived.
The first half of this decent was rocky with huge boulders littered along the side of the mountain. It was beautiful, just as the entire region was. I have no doubt that if it had been clear, then the view would have been incredible. However, we were still in the clouds, so our best view was of our feet as we made our way to the hut. We did see several cute little mountain salamanders, who had decided to come out and enjoy the rain.
The second half of the decent took us through a cow pasture, where the trail became much less distinct, and a little more treacherous. We had to contend with a field littered with hidden potholes, and also littered with cow pies. Wet cow pies. The kind that would engulf your entire foot up to the ankle if you stepped in one by accident.
We did our best, not entirely succeeding, to navigate around these hazards. Generally this part of the hike was considerably more agreeable. The rain had died off a little, and turned into more of a constant mist. There were cows in the fields, and the grass and flowers gave off a pleasant scent. The trail was still tricky, but the slope had evened out some, which made the hiking easier.
It was at this point that we first heard the cows on the move. In the mountains, the farmers put a big bell on the cow that seems to be the leader. That way, he only ever has to find the cow with the bell, and the rest will follow her to wherever the farmer is leading them. It is not the fact that the cow has the bell that causes the rest to follow. It is more a recognition of leadership.
So, when we heard a cow bell, we knew that the cows were somewhere nearby and that they were on the move. It turns out that they were on their way towards us, and what ensued is best described as a slow speed chase. It reminded me of the OJ Simpson slow speed chase, which to my surprise is a cultural reference that even works in mountains of Austria.
We decided to ignore the cows, and just make our way down the hill as fast as we could. This was, however, their home turf, and they knew it much better than we did. In no time the cows were right at our heals. I felt like the pied piper, but instead of rats I was leading a heard of about 20 cows down a mountain.
We thought that, perhaps they mistook us for the farmer and wanted us to milk them or feed them or something. That didn't explain, why the kept trying to lick us though. That, my friends, is what this scene turned into. Two grown men running from a heard of cows with outstretched necks and tongues poised for a big wet lick across the arm. We were determined not to let this happen. It one thing to be chased by cows, it is entirely another thing to be licked by them.
So we took a diversion. We saw a part of the trail that looked decidedly unfriendly to cows. It was fairly unfriendly to people as well. We scrambled our way over to and then down this part of the trail. It worked! The cows were no longer behind us, and we could hear the bell fading into the distance. We felt pretty good for getting away, and took our victory as a sign that things were looking up for us. We plunged down the rest of this steep section of the trail, only to have our victory snatched away at the base.
The cows, it turned out, had flanked us. While we were scrambling down the steep part of this trail, they had hoofed down the gentle slope, and were waiting for us at the bottom of the trail. As we ran for the fence, which was finally in reach, we had to admit that we had been bested by a heard of cows and we would never be the same.
We reached the hut about 20 minutes later and told our story to the farmer, in reality Markus told our story to the farmer, I just nodded when it seemed appropriate. He said that most likely the cows smelled the salt on our skin from all our sweating that day. They wanted to lick it off instead of walking all the way back to their salt lick by the barn. This did not really comfort me.
The hut was wonderful. It was nestled in the valley at the end of a small dirt mountain road. The next morning it looked like this:
As the afternoon wore on the hikers who had taken shelter at the hut made their way home. The rain had stopped, but Markus and I were going to spend the night in the bunkhouse, so we had no where to run off to. We sat in the kitchen and talked with the nice people who ran the place. There were three of them. The farmer, who was in charge, and a husband and wife team who had decided to do this in their retirement. They made us hot tea, and chatted. The wife even spoke a little English, and we talked about a trip they had taken to San Francisco many years ago.
Towards dinner time a mini-bus rolled up to the hut from the road. It was full of guys in their 80s from the neighboring village who were on an annual mountain hut tour. As the evening wore on, I came to understand that a mountain hut tour was much like a pub crawl in London. This was apparently their last stop, and they were pretty drunk when they arrived. They piled into the kitchen for beer and dinner, while Markus and I went outside to eat, enjoy the fresh air, and have a pipe before hitting the sack for the night.
The old guys were singing songs, and laughing. They sounded like they were having a great time, and occasionally Markus would tell me what they were singing or what they were talking about. They were rowdy, but not mean or destructive. Markus seemed a little embarrassed by them, but I thought they were harmless, and added a fun quality to the evening. It probably helped that I couldn't understand anything they were saying, we both had to admit that they were very good singers.
We ordered our dinner, and while it was cooking, some of the guys came out to chat with us. They ordered a round of schnapps and sang us a song. Of course, Markus and I had to reply in kind (with the schnapps not the song) and we continued this way back and forth for much of the rest of the evening. By the end of the evening, about half the guys were outside with us, singing even louder and telling us how this area had been during the war.
They were also really surprised to see an American. This happened all over in the region, and Markus and I decided that we could use the novelty to get more free drinks. I would say the few German words I knew, and they would laugh and order more schnapps. By the end of the evening, even I could tell that these guys were slurring their words. At one point the old guy that seemed to be the most interested in us decided that if he spoke German with an English accent, I would be able to understand. It didn't work, but it did make Markus laugh.
The guys were a lot of fun, and they left in their mini-bus a few hours after they had arrived (they did have a driver, so no worries about old drunk guys careening down mountain roads at midnight). One stayed to sleep in the bunkhouse saying that he was going to walk home in the morning.
The next morning I was up really early. I sat outside and watched the sun come up over the mountains, had breakfast and got ready to go. Markus and I had decided that we would take it easy as we headed back to the car for the end of our adventure.
We started by hiking up through the cow pasture again:
We then hiked up the valley to the place where we had started our serious ascent the day before.
We even spied a marmot on a rock making a funny little noise. We had seen a few on our hike, but this was the first one who stayed put long enough to be captured in a picture. You can see him on the rock in the middle of this picture, although you may need to click through to actually make him out.
We finished our hike by taking a different route back. We hiked over a smaller mountain, to a road, and then took the road back down to where we had started. Once we found the car, it was a short drive out of the mountains, and then through Germany to Switzerland and home. I stayed in Zurich for a night, and flew to Naples the next day, but that is a different story.