4 mins

Walking in the Tirolean Alps, Austria

Imagine not only walking in the Alps but staying in the mountains too, with a comfy bed, a hot meal and warming schnaps – for around €20 a night. Just keep your fingers crossed for good weather...

Small houses in high mountains Alps Austria (Shutterstock: see credit below)
Chamois are crazy. In driving storms, snow and wind these creatures climb high into the Alps, teetering on precarious ledges and tightrope-walking on knife-edge ridges, all in search of food. My guide Erich Schweiger – aka Naggi – told me all about these hybrid antelope/goats as we stood on a rocky path, 1,000m above the Austrian town of St Anton, fumbling around in our rucksacks trying to find our waterproofs as rain blew in our faces. “Yep,” said Naggi, gesticulating somewhere towards the mist, “crazy.”

The irony wasn’t lost on me as we, too, continued on in the driving rain, guided by our bellies, heading to Leutkircher Hütte for lunch. In the Tirolean Alps – and in particular here in the Lechtaler range – mountain huts are spaced regularly along the trails, offering dorm beds and hot food. This means that you can stay high among the mountains, connecting walking paths to form a hut-to-hut adventure, without the need to carry heavy camping gear or return to villages for supplies. Some huts are even open in winter for emergency un-staffed use.

House in the Austrian Alps (Shutterstock)

It wasn’t winter now. In fact it was mid-July – a time free from the hedonistic crowds that descend on St Anton in ski season, leaving the granite peaks to walkers. My plan had been to explore this winter wonderland snow-free, bathed in summer sunshine, spending my days strolling from hut to hut. St Anton, it seemed, had other ideas. “I’m not saying a bad storm,” said Naggi when we’d met earlier that morning, “but – it’s the mountains, anything could happen.”

Indeed it could. The day before, I had arrived in town to find the sky overcast; the threat of thunder brewed in the air, and the clouds churned as though being stirred in a cauldron. I had taken a bus into the nearby Verwall Valley and meandered among grey cows and rows of purple and pink orchis to find Konstanzer Hütte, my first introduction to a mountain shelter. Spits of rain fell sporadically as I walked, clouds swarming around the peaks, but by the time I left the hut to return to St Anton, the sky was blue, the sun burning through intensely, forcing me to remove layers. That night I was buzzing at the thought of my forthcoming trek.

Shelter from the storm

The next morning I met Naggi and almost on cue the rain started. Trying to ignore the worsening weather we headed for the ski lifts. Walking in the mountains of a ski town offers two main perks. The first is that when places are better known for winter sports, in summer they’re much quieter and cheaper. The second is that the ski lift infrastructure makes it easier to get up into the high places to start a walk, saving your legs hundreds of metres of ascent.

We jumped in a cable car to Valluga, the highest peak in the mountain range at 2,811m. As we passed the 2,000m mark, the views of green meadows and wildflowers disappeared, swallowed by thick fog. I looked over to Naggi, who was busy humming to himself, avoiding my gaze. When we finally reached the top, I stepped out into winter. Snow lay banked up the stairs to the walking path; I half wondered if we would need skis to get down.

“It might improve as we head along the path – we’ll be descending a little,” said Naggi optimistically. We began plunging our legs into the knee-deep snow, using walking poles for balance.

Despite this rather rude winter intrusion I found the silence it brought with it comforting. No one else had ventured up here yet, so each stride was on a pristine covering, each footstep imprinted with a muted squeak. At first we barely spoke, overcome with the drama of a mountain winter. But as we lost height en route to Kapall, a food-only hut, the snow gave way to more grass, and finally we gained views down the ridgeline and over into St Anton’s neighbouring villages. “We may get good weather yet,” Naggi said hopefully as we looked out over the sun-dappled peaks.

We continued, climbing high towards the peak of Bacherspitze. The views had gone, stolen by the cloud again. The path narrowed to a stony ledge, our way marked by the red-and-white stripes of the Austrian flag.

This region may have been where skiing was born. In walking terms, however, its claim to fame is the Adlerweg, aka the Eagle’s Way. Linking St Anton and St Johann, the route comprises 1,480km of pathways that, when plotted on a map, look like an eagle’s outstretched wings. We were treading a section of that trail now, following it as it cut under rocky flanks. Every now and again we spotted chamois droppings, and Naggi would talk about the animals’ endless pursuit of food on the mountain tops.

Rain began to fall harder and faster, and my tummy rumbled in anticipation of lunch. The terrain flattened to a kind of plateau and, sure enough, the roof of Leutkircher Hütte came into view, its white walls and wooden shutters looking particularly inviting in the hail.

According to Naggi, the first mountain hut in this range was built around 1912 by the Alpine Club of Germany, who own most of the huts here today. They bought land from Austria and built hikers’ huts all over the mountains. Now, most of the huts are still German-owned but employ local managers to run them in the summertime.

Old Tirolean window (Shutterstock)
Old Tirolean window (Shutterstock)

The manager at Leutkircher was Meinhard Egger, who greeted us with a big smile and a schnaps. We headed to the main room and began peeling off our wet jackets while Meinhard lit the stove. His family were gathered in the kitchen; the hut’s been in their care for over 70 years.

“When we first arrive for the season we get a helicopter to bring in supplies,” explained Meinhard as he lavished the table with steaming soup and dumplings, hot chocolate and shots of rum. “It takes six flights to start the season then we have two more over the summer for gas, wood, food and of course beer.”

I felt the burn of the alcohol heat my chest as Meinhard talked about some of his mountain escapades and leafed through old books showing me photographs of the areas in which he’d climbed. Then he left the room, returning with an accordion to treat us to a traditional Tirolean tune.

We left hours later than we’d planned, fuelled by food, some good conversation and just a little rum. It was starting to snow heavily; the only colour came from the odd posy of wildflowers, bright against the white.

“Schnaps,” said Naggi as we passed a cluster of blue. They were enzian (trumpet gentian), which are used to make the alcoholic drink; their petals – Naggi was quick to show me – are shaped like shot glasses.

We ploughed on over snow-plastered rocks and ice-encrusted mud banks for several hours. Despite my earlier hearty lunch I began to dream about my hot evening meal. I felt crazier than the chamois, our bitterly cold pursuit of food taking us higher into the storm. By the time we reached Kaiserjochhaus, the hut where we were to spend the night, the grass was frozen in a pallid coat.

Relief swept over me as we first passed the satellite winter hut – ironically closed for the summer. By now the thought of a warm fire had me practically running to the main building. Inside, our hosts let us hang our kit around the stove as we sat and feasted on a hearty pan-fried mix of potatoes, onions and eggs.

As night drew in, more walkers arrived, driven to abandon their camping and walking by the bad weather. The air steamed with the drying of damp clothes, and faces were ruddy from the fire’s heat and the friendly conversations. It felt great to be in the thick of the dramatic mountain weather but at the same time sheltered from it. Retiring to the dorm that night, Naggi looked out of the window and muttered to himself, while I snuggled under my fleecy blanket and hoped the summer would return.

And the schnaps began to flow…

“Ten centimetres,” said Naggi as I peered outside the next morning and found my guide looking at the swirling snowstorm. Next to him a man stood red-faced and shaking. He had set off early to try to attempt the route we were supposed to tackle and had to retreat due to avalanche risk. Summer, it seemed, had never been further away.

We sat within the comfort of the four walls a little longer, our cosy refuge amid the storm, and unfolded the map on the table. “What if we go down to the village, then pick up another path to take us to our next hut more directly?” I suggested. Naggi smiled.

And so, determined to continue with our hut-to-hut mission, we took one of the escape routes and descended into the valley; the grass became green once more and the pinks of the alpine roses waved in the wind. We walked out into the pretty town of Pettneu and caught a bus to Flirsch, for the start of a path up to our final hut of Ansbacher.

The track was slick with rain and the musty, damp scent of the forest rose from the ground as we began to climb away from the houses. Alpine salamanders – curious little black amphibians – dotted the path, all seemingly heading up. “Damn,” said Naggi as he watched them, “heading uphill means more rain.”

We emerged from the trees and paused to catch our breath. An eagle swooped and dived like a corkscrew, descending to the forest. Somewhere behind me I heard the whistle of a marmot and turned to see its furry behind disappear into its labyrinth underground.

Brown cow, Tirolean alps (Shutterstock)
Brown cow, Tirolean alps (Shutterstock)

As the rain turned to snow once more we made a final push for the hut. Sheep surrounded us as we topped out above a gouged valley edged by more pointy hills; they sniffed the ground and looked unconcerned by the ice. “They have a good life up here,” said Naggi. As I looked out at the serrated surrounds, wild and seemingly never-ending, I couldn’t help but agree. We climbed up along the nose of a smaller peak, and finally reached the brown-roofed Ansbacher Hütte, tired from the ski-lift free ascent but happy to have made it.

The hut was being tended by a young family, the three children running around excitedly as we cleaned our boots. Inside I clutched a hot chocolate and leafed through an Alpine Club book, settling on the photograph of a woman who had been a member for 81 years. There was a picture of her climbing in 1905; one of her later, in this very hut; then a final one of her at the age of 100, still walking. Soon someone had the guitar down from the wall and the schnaps began to flow, while tales of walking escapades past, present and still to come were told. Outside the snow continued to fall.

Up with the crazies

The final morning started in a white cloud, flakes still drifting and the mercury struggling to rise above zero. It was time for our mountain adventure to head back down to the valley. We were bound for the town of Schnann, by way of a breakfast stop at the lower Fritz Hütte, to catch the bus back to St Anton.

As we began to descend, the powder soft at my feet and wet on my face, Naggi stopped dead in his tracks. He gestured at the mountain slopes to my right, the rocks just visible through a break in the cloud. “Look,” he whispered.

Chamois. Two of them, standing tall and proud on the rocky ledge as the snow flurried around them. They may be called crazy but, as I watched them climb higher into the mist, I reasoned that being like them was no bad thing. Because following their bellies uphill took them into the beautiful and unpredictable beauty of the mountains and that, I reckoned, made them the most sensible creatures in the world.

Snowy mountain chamois (Shutterstock)
Snowy mountain chamois (Shutterstock)

Make it happen...

The author stayed at Hotel Rundeck, located in the middle of town, close to the chairlifts. Doubles from €47 (£35) in summer; in peak winter season, doubles from €115 (£86). There are 15 mountain huts in the Lechtaler Alps. Prices vary but expect to pay from €20 (£15) pppn. Food and drink is more expensive in huts than in town (eg around €6 [£4.50] for soup and bread) – you are, after all, paying towards getting it up there. Pre-booking is strongly advised. For flights from UK, visit Easyjet.

For more information visit St Anton am Arlberg and Tyrol.com.

Main image: Small houses in high mountains Alps Austria (Shutterstock)

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