Tour dates: 09 to 18 July 2009.
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This trip was planned as a hut to hut journey, using seven huts in the south of the Hohe Tauern. These were strung out in an East to West fashion and we would have returned to base by bus.
Six of these huts are fairly elavated (2032m to 3025m) and would be in fairly cold territory. However we had some information that suggested the route would not be on snow and certainly a lot of the paths were on the south sides of mountains. As a result we did not take ice axes or crampons and we just had one ice axe between us (for cutting the odd step or two).
As you read on, you will find that this was a mistake. We should have had an ice axe each. So, we accomplished very little of our planned route and we were turned back below the first high col.
That meant finding something different to do. Happily we had good weather and comfortable places to stay, so we did at least have a pleasant walking holiday.
We flew out from Stansted to Klagenfurt. A frequent bus service took us a short journey to the railway station (with one change of bus). From there we took a train to Spittal an der Drau with a change at Villach.
We had been recommended to seek accommodation at the Sport Centrum, near the Seilbahn. It proved to be a happy choice: a new building, well-equipped, with good food and cheap too! Not the prettiest of surroundings, but a good choice for the evening and night.
After a good buffet breakfast we set off by bus to the Maltatal, with a change of bus at Gmünd. At this stage we still had several alternative plans, with the favourite being to go to Malta and hire a taxi to take us as high as possible on the toll-road. The bus driver advised us this would not work as Malta is too small to have a taxi service of its own, so we opted to stay on the bus to the Pflüglhof at the highest point of the bus service. It proved to be a single hotel building with a loop of road outside and just the bus-stop. From there we set off to walk up to the Gmünder Hütte, signposted as 2hrs.
The attractive path followed through woods alongside the river. We were rather surprised how little use it seemed to have got. Higher up it crosses the river by stepping stones which start with a wobbly plank and no handrail; the rest was easy. That put us on to the tarmac road for some distance and there were now a number of warning notices to say that the path was closed higher up the valley!
We were soon at the start of the toll road and found notices that pedestrians were banned from the road. However there was a woodland path that led up the valley from the tollbooth. Near the start of this path there are several beehives and area with a dozen or so information boards about bees. Some of this proved to be very interesting, especially some hives with glass windows in the back. We spent some time in this area before continuing our walk up the valley.
It was a hot day and when we were well on the way to the Gmünder Hütte we stopped at an alm for drinks and, in Rosemarie's case a mushroom omelette, for which addiction she is becoming well-known. The path onwards was an attractive one with waterfalls and traditional roofed bridges. The final section to the Gmünder Hütte was along the vehicle road and as we arrived through the car park we were met by a youth who rushed to tell us that the hut was closed since the Hut Warden had just died! This is something of an unusual problem, to put it mildly. However the people in the hut rang ahead for us and made a booking at the Almrauschhütte (a privately-owned alm). They also warned us that the deceased warden was also the registered warden of the Hagener Hütte, further along our route, so that would be closed as well!
We now had an awkward task. Two hours up the road. No pedestrians allowed. Several road-tunnels. Footpath on other side of valley closed. Not inviting!
In the event we walked some way up the road and found a footpath that took us past one of the tunnels. Then along another section of road to find some cars waiting for a green light to go through a single-track tunnel. We got an offer of a lift and then a second offer and we all travelled up by car to the Almrauschhütte. It transpired that the two vehicles were linked. One was to be used to ferry the passengers of the other vehicle back to the start of a proposed route through the mountains. So we had been rescued by a group of locals on their own hut to hut walk.
The hut was more luxurious than our norm and we had two bedrooms for the four of us. The meal was quite good and the rest of the space was taken by 17 motor cycle riders.
Today the task of walking up the road subsided to something quite manageable. Yes there were some sections on the tarmac road, but the traffic was light. Soon there were pieces of the old unsurfaced road that had been left from before the current road was built. In one place we walked through a single-track tunnel. It was not exactly forbidden to enter it and there was a more onerous path signposted by-passing it. However we did some 100m or so in a tunnel against a counter-blast of air.
The old road led us to an unmanned building with the look of a power station situated directly below the dam of the Vorspeicher Galgenbichl (a sort of minor reservoir below the main one - but still big). There was a steep path up on to the dam and a path cross the dam. We had been expecting another "path closed" sign on the footpath going up the west of the reservoir, but it did not happen. That said, the path was overgrown and little-used but it had good hand-cables on some sections and was in fairly good condition. The ground was steep, so it took us a while to negotiate this section. We then stopped for a while under the main dam - a gigantic affair some 200m tall. There was a mobile crane on the dam and we watched bungee-jumpers enjoying themselves before we took the more demanding plod up to the level of the upper reservoir.
We now had the almost horizontal path alongside the reservoir to take us to the Osnabrücker Hütte, still some 2hr walk away. First we sat-out some rain showers in a cafe before walking on. There was a gate on the path where the Kleinelendbach flows into the reservoir and there was a cluster of goats on the far side. One of the smaller ones managed to escape through the gate, but happily we managed to catch it and put it back.
The Osnabrücker Hütte was small and well-run with most impressive washrooms and a fiercely hot drying room. We relaxed after a slightly dampish day and had a good meal.
We set off for the the Hannoverhaus without any awareness that the day would alter all our plans. The first part of the route was a plod up the hillside where we were overtaken by a larger party from the Manchester area who had been in the hut last night. Thye were also heading for the Hannoverhaus.
There is a waterfall tumbling down a big cliff and that is passed by a steep path on the right. It was OK apart from a couple of small steps on crumbly ground.
Above it were coarse scree (block?) slopes still holding many patches of snow. This did not look too good for us since our planning had assumed little snow on the south-facing slopes and we had only one ice axe between us. Mostly we stayed on the loose blocks but there were two snowfields we had to cross. Joan had neither ice axe nor trekking poles so we gave her a security rope up the first snowfield, which was completed easily.
The second snowfield needed a diagonal ascent and again we gave Joan a security rope - although it was the full length available. The snow was a little soggy and I had two footholds crumble as I ascended. I was belaying Joan as she started up the snow. She came off low down and I had the alarming sight of my wife penduluming out of sight behind a bulge in the snowfield and seeing the abseil-weight rope snagging on an outcrop of boulders.
There was not much I could do but maintain the body belay and wait for Joan to re-establish herself on the snow. This went on for much longer than expected and a message was shouted up that she was lying face-up and trapped by the tight rope. Again it seemed best to wait until she worked out a strategy to deal with the situation. At this point Rosemarie and Peter moved up to help Joan and then continued with her up the rest of the slope with neither of them belayed.
At least we now seemed to have overcome the obstacles and almost reached the scharte to cross to the other side of the ridge. A bit of climbing showed that this was sadly not the case. In fact there was a dip to cross and the scharte was beyond it, quite a bit higher and would need the crossing of two more snowfields to attain it. We watched as two figures came down the lower snowfield in quite a cautious manner.
There followed a debate as to what we should do. We were short of ice axes and one of the snowfields looked bigger than the length of rope available. The hope would then be that the far side of the ridge was sunnier and would be free of snow. That would be nice, but how about the rest of our planned route which gained progressively more altitude as the week unfolded?
It did not seem like a good idea to continue so sadly we began our retreat. We were soon back at the diagonal snowfield and we began descending this one at a time while protected by a top rope and using the one available ice axe. This meant that the ice axe had to be retrieved for each person. This foundered at the first try and the ice axe snagged on the rock outcrop mentioned earlier! Peter went down to it without being tied-on to the rope and continued with the axe to the base of the snowfield. This time we offset both the top and bottom positions of the rope before hauling up the ice axe and it worked OK. Now it was Joan's turn to descend and, with the steadying influence of the ice axe, she managed it perfectly.
While I was belaying Joan, the two people we had seen earlier came down behind me and watched wordlessly until Joan got to her destination. They were locals and confident on the snow, on which they were using trekking poles for balance. The man pulled out an ice axe and offered it to me. That saved the task of pulling up our own axe and we were quickly down the slope before handing back the axe to him.
The other snowfield was much easier, although I did give Joan a top rope. After that it was just a plod back down to the hut with us all feeling rather deflated. We asked the warden to notify the next hut so the Manchester party would know we were OK. All our damp gear went in the fierce drying room and we settled down to an evening meal and a replanning of our trip.
Reversed the decision of last evening - to stay another day in the area. Decided to go to the Kattowitzer Hütte, which we had been unable to include before.
So we reversed our two-hour walk back to the dam, this time visiting the elegant little building dedicated to the memory of the 40-odd people who died during the construction of the dam. We did also have a quick but very expensive drink near the dam before beginning our ascent to the Kattowitzer.
After the first short section the path became really quite hard work as hut paths go. It was always full of ups and downs, tree roots, bogs and boulder fields. Whilst the ascent was slightly more than 400m it felt like at least double that. This is not to say it lacks charm. It has charm in abundance, but it is never easy. About half way the path crosses a big grassy bay dominated by a waterfall and there were a few cattle grazing there. One presumes they got there by a different route from us! Then the route steepens again with no forward view of where it leads. When we finally got a forward view it was of a rocky ridge in our way. This had fixed ropes and was quite secure and it lead to a thin path which traversed out of sight round a steep hillside bulge. The path was easy to start, but then it changed to an alternation between boulder-fields and patches of bog. These lasted right to the door of the hut.
Joan was getting quite exhausted in the latter half and we were going very slowly, while Rosemarie and Peter had gone on ahead. Rosemarie was at the hut nearly two hours before us and she had booked us in for accommodation and dinner. The hut looks quite big from the outside but has quite a cosy air without the second dining room opened through.
We had planned to spend an extra night at the hut and there were two paths both heading up the wide valley above, forking from the initial path in that direction. Rosemarie and Peter set off with some determination and I followed in a gentler fashion after seeing Joan installed on the hillside above the hut with a book to read.
I was fascinated by the local sheep. They were all standing or lying on snowfields. It looked rather chilly, but I guess they found it more comfortable than the spiky boulder-fields which covered the area. At the fork I took the right branch (NE) and continued on a path that soon became non-existent on the ground, although marked by faded paint signs from time to time. This path certainly lacked charm. The hillside was frequently nearing the limit of adhesion and had no discernible tracks. The near view in all directions was the same. Eventually I gave up and returned to join Joan on the sunny hillside.
However a conversation with some descending locals suggested that Rosemarie and Peter had followed the left (N) branch of the path. Later this was confirmed when they returned. Their route was more interesting, since it was better marked and involved some scrambling and fixed ropes to reach a rock ridge. The information was too late for me, unfortunately.
I took a couple of photos of the hydro-electric generator system above the hut. Nowadays most of the more remote huts have them and they provide electric lighting, heat, hot water, cold beer and hot drying rooms. (For those of you who take these for granted, could I just remind you that absolutely none of these things were available in the nineteen- sixties when I first started going from hut to hut in Austria)
Today were heading for the valley since we could find no suitable routes taking us on from our present position and Rosemarie had some suggestions from her experience of leading Ramblers Holidays groups in the area. We set off down the hillside, debating as we went as to who milked the small herd of cows in the initial area. The path eventually lead to a minimal track that could be tackled by 4wd vehicles (although only one belonging to the hut probably did so). We followed the track downwards until the steep footpath down to the Gmünder Hütte branched from it.
This path initially descended through woods and then disgorged itself on to the fall line of a very steep groove. This was blocked by a boulder choke of many tons of loose rock, with the rest of the path following a very steep line below the choke. If nothing else, I have improved in common sense with the passing of the years, and we decided to plod back up the path and follow the meandering forestry roads to reach the valley. It was a good decision in other ways since the little-used roads had a charm to them and at one point we had a remarkably close encounter with a large Chamois which crossed the road near us.
Once down to road level we were back on the route we had followed some days previously. It was certainly not a case of "familiarity breeds contempt", but we had had a very awkward incident soon afterwards. While descending though woodlands, Rosemarie and I stopped a few metres past a fork in the path to make sure that the others did not take the wrong one. They should have been with us in a matter of seconds and when they did not appear we went back. Amazingly they seemed to have vanished into thin air!
Rosemarie stayed back to cover the path and I went back up the hill. I went quite a distance since I could only think they had returned to search for something dropped. After I had gone more than far enough I returned down the path feeling thoroughly mystified. There was a steep drop-off and I kept my eyes skinned for flattened grass or broken twigs that might indicate a fall. It was not until we were within a few metres of our initial stopping-off place that we spotted a high arrow on a tree pointing to a side-branch of the path that we had not seen. The ground was rocky and the notice high, so anyone with their eyes on the path could easily miss it.
We bombed on down the path and felt quite relieved when it opened on to the toll road and crossed it. Still no sign of Joan and Peter, but there was a Jausendstation just along the path. To our horror they were not there. Luckily some customers eating lunch there had remembered them and said they had carried on past. We continued on quite fast and eventually overtook them more than a kilometre further on: still merrily heading on down the path.
This did create some tensions, but we were now back together and thirstily headed on down past the "bee exhibits" to reach the start of the toll road. We decided to stop at the nearby cafe and have some thing to drink. It was then that we pulled out the bus timetable and realised that, not merely would we fail to reach the Pflüglhof before the last bus from there went, but we would also fail to reach the final one of the day when it left from Malta, much further down the valley. We were numbly absorbing this dreadful information when it dawned on us that there was a tourist bus that went right up the toll road on Mondays and Wednesdays. A check on a nearby halt gave us the good news that we could catch it when it went past in quarter of an hour. Minutes after this we saw the damned thing draw into the empty bus stop and then, as we sprinted after it, begin to pull out again! We ran like hell and just managed to catch the driver's eye and he waited for us. I have rarely felt so relieved.
We travelled back to Spittal an der Drau. There was a change of buses needed and the heat and humidity of the valley was so oppressive that we were glad to get into the air conditioned bus. Eventually we got back to the place at the Sports Centre and we enjoyed a long shower and a change of clothes before dinner.
Our over night stop was less than 100m from the gondelbahn station. Joan and I took a lift to the top and Rosemarie and Peter went to the middle station to explore another bit of the hillside. From the top station we walked up to the peak (Goldeck?) across grassy slopes more suited to skiing. Once there the onward path to the Goldeckhütte looked to be more fun with a steep rocky descent to smaller footpaths traversing the hillside. All too soon we arrived at the hut. We were surprised not to see the others and it took some while for them to arrive. Apparently the signposting from the middle station had been minimal and they had taken a much longer route than necessary.
The day was sunny and hot and Joan decided to spend time sitting nearby. I went with Rosemarie and Peter to the next peak along, where they set off to explore a new area and I just went further along the ridge and then back.
After I got back to Joan, we were surprised to see the others soon afterwards. Rosemarie had taken a fall from a slippery tree route and had a bloodied arm. She had nearly got away unscathed, but a single sharp stone had made a partial-thickness cut nearly 30cm long on her arm. Luckily it was shallow and cleaned up well.
After that we settled for sitting on the hut terrace looking at the valley below us. The hut is tiny and very quiet after the lunch time trade is finished. The hut warden's mother does the cooking and she persuaded the three carnivorous members of the party that a traditional meat loaf with embedded egg and served with bean salad would be good, and so it was.
Nearing the end of our holiday now. We took an early lift down from the middle station so we would have time for a walk in the afternoon. We left a lot of baggage at a room in the Sports Stadium and set off, via a visit to some attractive buildings in town, on a footpath (the Liesersteig) that tracked above the river and road to Seebach. From there we walked to and along the Milstaetter See where we sat at a cafe in the heat of the afternoon and watched the swimmers (a trifle enviously). Then a bus back to "home".
In the evening we decided to have a change of restaurant and we walked out (further than expected into the suburbs) where we wended up at our intended target. This proved to be a slightly scruffy establishment that obviously catered for a few local drinkers and us! The menu had a touch of the ordinary (no fish, but fish fingers on offer) but it proved to be quite palatable and was served in a friendly fashion.
For Rosemarie the day started early: 3:30 if I remember rightly. She had to take a train across the border to Ljubljana in Slovenia, where she had to collect some twenty-odd clients and bring them back by minibus for a holiday locally.
We had a leisurely breakfast and then walked to the train station where we took a train and Peter took a local bus to the Ramblers hotel to wait for Rosemarie. It rained today, almost for the first time in our holiday. When we got to Klagenfurt it was pouring with rain and we wasted our last few hours in Austria just sitting around the railway station. From there it is only a short bus ride to the airport.
It was at the bus stop that we met up with the party from Manchester who had completed their journey to the Hannoverhaus on the day we turned back. If we had had any regrets on our decision, they were dispelled by their description of more snow, even on the south-facing slopes, and of endless boulder fields to cross. Also they were not able to go to the Hagener Hütte since this was licensed to the warden of the Gmünder Hütte (who you will remember, had just died).
All that then remained was to fly back to Stansted and drive ourselves home again.