Previously published in the Austrian Alpine Club -UK Branch Newsletter, June 2014.
We Yanks tend to be a self-reliant sort, inclined to pack our minimalist gear on our backs and set out for the untrammeled wilds, where we can pitch our tents where we choose and mingle with no one other than the wildlife. However those who’ve had the good sense and good fortune to trek among the excellent huttes, refugios and gites of the high Alps often return again and again. While I’m one of those who relishes those solitary mornings and evenings outside my solo tent by a remote mountain lake, with no one else within 100 kms in any direction, I can certainly see the appeal of the opportunity to haul less gear weight over the Schartes and Spitzes, to enjoy a beer or hot mulled wine with good company at the end of a long trail day, to relish a hearty meal and a bed with a sturdy roof overhead every night along an extended trek. And the distance achievable in a realistic day becomes that much greater when one need not establish a new camp every night.
Our group of hardy trekkers from the Pacific Northwest of the USA experienced the best of these advantages, amidst crags, glaciers and high mountain views paralleling the best of our local Cascade mountains, during a September 2013 visit to the Zillertal Alps. The eleven of us belong to the Mountaineers, a Seattle-based outdoor adventure club of approximately 10,000 members and featuring volunteer-led skills courses and activities ranging from Alpine climbing and scrambling to hiking and backpacking, sea kayaking and backcountry skiing, as well as nature, conservation and photography. We set out to complete an 11-day circuit of the Zillertal Rucksack Route, which many in the AAC-UK chapter well know as a 70-80 km highlight reel of challenging hut trekking over high passes among some of the tallest peaks and largest glaciers of the Austrian Tyrol. Alas, as so often happens on high mountain adventures, the weather gods had other ideas for us, and our original plans were foiled by a sequence of early-season snowstorms punctuated with rain squalls and only the occasional sunbreaks. Still, the unique proximity of the high peaks and fine huts of the Zillertal to villages, roads and transport services allowed us to visit five of our originally planned eight huts (plus a bonus visit to a private hut that turned out to be a favorite!), and to see most of the summits, glaciers and stupendous views of our original route, even if we couldn’t experience them in close proximity on foot. And the facilities afforded by the huts we visited, if a bit curtailed by the late season conditions, certainly didn’t disappoint and were a fair sight better than a nightly ritual of snowy wet tent setup, ever-damp gear and camp-stove meals.
What were the Zillertal memories that most stick with me now that I reflect back?
The achingly gorgeous reflection of a morning sun off of snow-dusted crags and evergreens, offset against crystal blue sky and feathered clouds, as we descended from Karl von Edel Hutte.
The stunning blue waters of the Schlegeiss reservoir with the Grosser Moseler and the Hochfeiler, the tallest peaks in the Zillertal, rising high on both sides of its inlet.
Brilliant salmon-fuschia-violet sunrises over the Italian Tyrol from Pfitscherjoch Haus, and over Grosser Moseler from Furtschagl Haus.
Expansive dining-room views and friendly, curious sheep at Olperer Hutte, and a descent from Olperer through a whiteout.
Scenes of verdant meadows, tumbling waterfalls, contented cows and tidy pastoral countryside along the valley walk from Breitlahner to Berliner Hutte, and from Greizer Hutte to Ginzling.
The savor of well-made Gluwein from the deck of the Berliner Hutte with views of two enormous glaciers and their moraines spread out before us, and its warm welcoming porch lights as the evening fell.
A fun, exciting descent from the Moerchen Scharte on steep rock aided by fixed cables, with a vertiginous drop to the river ahead and the faintest speck of Greizer Hutte clinging to the wall across the valley.
The wild taxi ride, eleven of us strapped into an eight-passenger van negotiating the gravel road up the Floitengrund (our trip leader stashed in the very back with the gear). The jovial brothers Sigi and Helmut, hailing from nearby Mayrhofen, and both hut wardens (Edel and Greizer respectively).
And the strudel, OH the strudel. Multi-layered or single-layered, apples chopped or chunked, fillings cooked soft or firm, doused in custard or sprinkled with powdered sugar, even a poppyseed version (my personal favorite). It became a focus for our group to sample and rate apfelstrudels wherever we could find them (I think Edel Hutte’s was the group’s ultimate favorite).
So, while this was not a solitary or totally self-supported experience, and a steadily deteriorating weather forecast finally drove us out of the mountains three days early, there was so much to treasure from our eight days in the Zillertal. And plenty of wild, stark mountain beauty and challenge to go around. Even we Yanks know when we find a good thing. I think we’ll be back!