A 4-day hike in the Austrian Alps
Things two friends said about the Alps over the years stuck with me. One called hiking in Europe very civilized, because you hiked not from campground to campground, but from lodge (Hütte) to lodge, where food and beverages are served and you can, in a pinch, get a room for the night. The other said that the cowbells in the Swiss Alps sounded like an Indonesian gamelan.
So when my wife suggested a 75-km. hike in the Austrian Alps near Salzburg this summer I was all for it. Our luggage would be driven to the next hotel every day, meaning we could take lots of junk with us. Since we, too, would be hiking from lodge to lodge most days, all we had to carry was water, sunscreen, spare clothes, a camera, a sound recording device, unnecessary knives, and rice waffles we rarely ate.
75 km in 4 days of walking breaks down to 10-15 miles per day. It is something I’ve long dreamed of doing, a long hike like that. I haven’t done that since I was a kid and went backpacking on pre-eruption Mt. St. Helens with my uncle, unless you count a month of walking around Crete with my now-wife in 1981.
This hike was along trails between about 1800 and 2100 meters high in a valley in the province of Salzburg, with some fairly high peaks along one side including the Hochkoenig that fairly well dominate the scenery and can look pretty scary when a thunderstorm rolls in, which happened only once and then when we were safe in our hotel for the night.
When hiking in the mountains, altitude hiked is at least as important when calculating the difficulty of a hike as is distance. This was news to me but quickly made sense. Since our hotels were in the valley, each hike started and finished with an ascent or descent, which sort of takes the fun out of an otherwise fairly nice, flattish hike.
Luckily this valley – we parked our car in the town of Dienten and hiked in a circle via Muehlbach and Maria Alm and back to Dienten – is a ski area in the winter so there were lots of ski lifts and goldolas into the hills, which we took when available, without exception. No reason to start your hike all tired. We still counted the altitude covered when adding things up at the end of the day and calculating how proud we should be of ourselves, because we had paid for it.
Once or twice we took the Wanderbus, the hiking bus, which I guess is what hikers take when no lifts are available.
Recalling the friend’s remark about the interesting sound of Alpine cowbells, I brought a digital recording device that I originally bought to record frogs with an expecially melancholy croaking style in the woods by the Danube where I live but have so far been unable to record because I missed the croaking season this year and anyway they sense my presence and stop croaking as soon as I turn it on.
Unfortunately, the acoustics of the Alps were not conducive to getting a clean recording, plus I may have been setting the gain for the microphone wrong somehow. The first time I tried to record, the loudest sound in the meadow was not the cowbells, it was a motorcycle speeding along the serpentine mountain road 500 meters further down in the valley, which sounded most un-gamelan-like.
The main food eaten at the lodges we encountered was bacon in various forms. I had a Bretteljause the first two days, which is kinds of bacon, and smoked sausages, and cheeses, and a pickled pepper and a tomato, and some bread and some butter, all on a board. Bretteljause means snack on a board. Board snack. I got sick of bacon after two board snacks. All I wanted was salad for lunch, and fruit for breakfast. At my bacon hunger nadir, the hotel we were staying in served only bacon and eggs for breakfast, no muesli/yogurt/fruit option, which is normally on the menu in Austrian hotels.
Otherwise our hotels were fine little 3-star hotels, with unfriendly people in Lederhosen and Dirndln running them. We did not notice this our first night, because we were taken care of by the unfriendly owner’s friendly daughter, or something. The second place we stayed at, the guy who checked us in gruffly told us to take off our hiking boots before going up to our room. Fair enough, but he was a dick about it. The third place, some woman running the dining room at breakfast barked at us and told us to sit at a different table (you are assigned tables for breakfast at these places). We gave her dirty looks and she backed down and let us sit at our assigned table. And then only bacon for breakfast! I thought about taking a picture of it, but you know what bacon looks like.
Flora and fauna of the Austrian Alps:
- Lots of cows. These generally leave you alone, as long as you don’t make eye contact, wear red or wave a flag, according to my wife. I was carring a red pack with a shirt hooked to the back so it could dry, waving like a flag, but the cows still ignored me except a couple young bulls which did notice but couldn’t be arsed to actually stand up and give chase.
- Butterflies. There were many different sorts of butterflies along the trail.
- The lodge guy. Every lodge has a guy who hits on your wife by letting her look at marmots through his binoculars.
- Marmots. Not as shy as I thought. Like to relax on rocks in the sun until you’re just about ready to take their picture, when they dive into their burrows.
- Chamois. Called Gämse in German, these shy little critters like to run back and forth on fields of snow high up in the mountains, apparently.
- Conspicuous by their absence: mosquitos. That was a nice detail.
Atop the Hochkoenig, at an elevation of 2941 meters, is a lodge called the Matrashaus. It looks like an interesting place and I bet the view is great, but we didn’t visit it because the ascent takes 4-8 hours depending on who you ask, meaning you’d have to spend the night there and we didn’t have the time. I suspect that some of the supplies there are flown in by helicopter, or they were building something and concrete was being flown in, or something else along those lines, because every time I would take out my recorder to record some especially nice cowbells, one of three things would happen: a helicopter would fly overhead, a jet would fly overhead, a motorcycle would roar past in the valley below, or a body of rapidly-flowing water would appear and drown out the cowbells. Four things. We thought it was funny, at least my wife did.
I would post rare bits of some of the cowbell recordings I made, but it would take me too long to edit them and convert them to MP3s and this post would be long-forgotten by the time I actually put them up here so let me just describe them. The cowbells I heard were tinnier than I expected, and monotonous. If it were up to me, I’d not only bell more cows, I’d bell cows in each herd with bells tuned to the pentatonic scale so no matter what they did, it really would sound like a gamelan.
This particular area reminded me a lot of Washington State. Of the North Cascades, and Mt. St. Helens and environs. We spent a lot of time up above the tree line, but also crossing mushy moors and going through forests and picking huckleberries.
When we weren’t hiking, eating bacon, noticing interesting fauna or flora, telling each other proudly how many vertical meters we’d covered or how we were right and our hotel owners were jerks, my wife and I spent a lot of time in the cemeteries in the towns we stayed in.
The graveyards were different in each town. One had two walls full of crypts for urns, another didn’t. All had two things in common, however: the graves were crowded (and consequently small, close together and sometimes with multiple occupants) and they often held people who had died at a young age. Both of these similarities are a result of being in the mountains. Not much flat land for graves, and nothing to do but drink, go to war, ski, climb mountains or fuck up recordings of cowbells with your motorcycle.
Another similarity: nearly all the headstones had portraits of the occupants. Sometimes sandblasted into the stone, usually oval black and white photographic portraits done in some sort of enamel and glued on.
On our last day was the longest. The guide (i.e. brochure) said 8 hours of walking, twice as much as the other days. Also it was hotter. But the guide also said, “if you are tired when you finish, call your hotel owner and they will be happy to give you a lift back to the hotel.” It was a long and tiring hike, with plenty of vertical meters. We looked forward to two things the whole day: the lodge at the end of the trail, where we could buy a cold drink and sit in the shade while we waited for the second thing we looked forward to: our hotel owner happily giving us a lift back, instead of us having to hike along a boring road for 2 hours.
When we reached the end of the trail, though, the lodge was closed for emergency repairs. Also, it was supper time, a hotel owner’s busiest time of day. I sensed complications but figured someone would be able to give us a lift of some sort, as they had, after all, promised.
My wife called our hotel, and got yelled at. WTF, it’s dinner time, the cook has today off, forget it, impossible, she can’t pick us up. Um, but you promise to in the description, said my wife. The hotel owner didn’t care. My wife asked her if she could call us a taxi and what it would cost. Five euro, said the owner. Fine, my wife said.
The taxi arrived quickly. Charged us €18, not €5 but we didn’t care, we were exhausted. The hotel person seemed irritated to see us, but there was no other staff on hand to check us in so she had to take a break from the kitchen to give us our key. We took that opportunity to point out that she might want to change the text in the guide so guests wouldn’t get their hopes up if they finished their hike at dinner time. It was bad timing, though, because she was all out of nerves and instead of apologizing or something along those lines, she criticized us for being slow hikers and said, when that garnered a quizzical look, “if you don’t like it, complain to the tourist board.”
I felt sorry for her. It was just bad timing. The landscape was great, the hotel was nice and clean and even had WIFI, and the food was okay. She and the staff worked real hard to make everything perfect and here she was, losing her nerves and fucking herself up. I suppose that’s what guests see in a hotel, the one wrong thing, not the 100 right things, and decided against going online and slandering the woman and her hotel.
Overall, we had a great time, it’s a beautiful region and I’d totally do it again, despite all the German and Belgian tourists. After all, they have to go somewhere on vacation too, and they’re no worse than American or Japanese tourists. I suppose we’re all irritating, wanting everything to be perfect. Maybe even Dutch tourists are eventually irritating, precisely because they try so hard not to be irritating. Who knows.
In one of the cemeteries we visited, an inscription on the headstone of a man who died in his forties read, Das Leben ist ein kurzer Traum. Life is a short dream. I think that’s what it said. I don’t think it said, Das Leben ist nur ein kurzer Traum (Life is but a short dream). I prefer the simpler version without the “but”. A simple statement of fact.
Life is a dream of hiking along an endless trail, wondering when the fuck you’re going to get anywhere. Making a speech on something you know nothing about, while not wearing any pants, and your teeth fall out, and something is chasing you and you’re moving in slow motion and your feet stick to the earth. Or it’s dinnertime and your cook has the day off and you have to cook 50 dinners all at the same time and exhausted guests call and want a ride back to the hotel.
Right now, this very second, someone’s car alarm is going outside my office window. Has been for several minutes. Cowbells, even monotonous tinny ones with helicopters, are far nicer than that.
Sometimes life is a nightmare, sometimes it’s a wet dream. Sometimes it’s a wet nightmare, maybe, whatever that is; I bet it would be unforgettable.
And sometimes, we fly.