Chapter 35 (Part 1) — Adventures in the Austrian Alps

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Majestic Zimba — on the way towards Königersteig and Saulajoch from Lünerkrinne.

Introduction

We had a bright idea in the early spring of 1980 after we had sold our little fermette in l’Indre. Also, we had already enjoyed a bit of mountaineering in the Colorado Rocky Mountains during our almost unbelievable tour of the United States in 1979. We would probably enjoy going hiking in the Austrian Alps.

In our first year in Austria we tried both Vorarlberg and, after that, Tyrol, probably mainly

Majestic Zugspitze  (2962 m seen from Lermoos (Great thanks to friend Jürgen Doll for photo.

because our long-time friend Jürgen Austrian/Parisian, came from Lermoos in Tyrol, where his family have a big hotel and restaurant, Sporthotel Loisach.

We did not stay at that fancy hotel, but at a Gästehaus in Ehrwald, but we did have dinner there a couple of times though. We got to know the old Saint Bernard dog who usually slept on the floor in the restaurant lobby. Even Jürgen can’t remember her name any more.

So after Brand we drove to Tyrol and Lermoos-Ehrwald, where we spent a short week under the imposing Zugspitze  (2,962 m), which towers over the valley.

We found that there was a far greater choice of walks in Brandnertal, for different levels of stamina, length and difficulty. We walked to a couple of Almen (which is what Alpen are called in this region). Beaityful, but our most memorable  walk was to Coburger Hütte,

Afternoon tea in Mittelberg, Siv, Ruth, Ruth’s mother and father

 where we had a spectacular view over the valley and surrounding mountains — even though, as we well remember, it was really chilly up there, and there was a wipping wind.

After Tyrol, we even went to Mittelberg, Austria, to meet with our friend Ruth’s parents.in their summerhouse. 

Repeated trips to India came after the turn of the century. In between, however, there were two spectacular summer vacations in Lapland, northernmost Sweden, and then three wonderful tours of the Scottish Highlands, east, center and west, to the ‘Mainland’, which is the main island of the Orkney

islands with spectacular archeological sites, and also, out west, to the scenic Inner (Skye, Mull) and Outer Hebrides (Harris and Lewis).. Also, in 2012 we made a most memorable photo safari trip to Tanzania, where we got to know lions, cheetahs (with cubs), antelopes, zebras and giraffes firsthand. 

Ireland had already been the site of a fascinating visit in 1997– what I was known to call a historic and prehistoric tour 1, Newgrange being very much prehistoric, dating from circa 3,200 BC. as well as several other prehistoric sites. 

Brandnertal

Now back to 1980 and our first visit to Brandnertal and Haus Kella-Egg, which John had found out about at the Austrian tourist bureau in Paris. The town looked delightful on the map he brought home and there seemed to be a great variety of walks. Plus, it was at the end of the road — no through traffic with trucks and speeding cars. And no nightclubs  We decided to try it. That was the beginning of twenty summers at Haus Kella-Egg.

A large number of walks began at the Lünersee at an altitude of 2000 m. You reached it by a Seilbahn (funicular or aerial cableway), or, quite a few years later, by climbing up on Böser Tritt, a fun but not easy 400 m. climb up, even though a bit boring when you reached the end of the rock climbing, which we liked a lot.

There were of course other walks as well, Amatschonjoch, Sarotlahütte, and several others, where you started out from the valley or with the Niggenkopfbahn, a chairlift on the western side of the valley.

I will relive here a few of the most striking hikes we made during these twenty years when we regularly spent close to three weeks in the summers at Haus Kella-Egg, hosts Gerti and Sepp Königer, who became dear friends and not just hosts. Their son Günter (English teacher in Bludenz) and his beautiful wife Lisi have now taken over running the house, and I do hope that Gerti does not make beds any more. There are three grandchildren, Manfred, Jessica and I forget the name of the third one, a boy. And young and beautiful Lisi has become a grandmother — Jessica has a little girl. It seems almost unbelievable.

We also made friends with Fritz und Renate Lange the very first year. As we emerged from Saulajochsteig and the walk down to Heinrich-Hueterhütte, we ran into Fritz and Renate who were also staying at Haus Kella-Egg. They were eating Kaiserschmarren, an Austrian egg-and-flour-and-raisin specialty, which our very good friend Ruth, German-Parisian, had also recommended. It was delicious and we were to eat Kaiserschmarren many times during those twenty summers in various Hütten in the area.

Todalphütte as we saw it our first year in Brand. It was going to undergo many enlargements during our 20 years.

The walk that I remember best from the first year, 1980, was to Totalphütte, from where we later took many different walks further up after the altitude of circa 2000 m. qt Lünersee and Douglashütte. What amazed us this first year was the amount of snow there was up at Lünersee and above in the middle of the summer. We never saw that much snow in any later year, even though in 1981 when there was again a lot of snow above 1500 m. altitude. In 1980 kids were sledding down the slopes next to the hut on big pieces of cardboard. Anything goes.

In spite of the masses of snow, however, we saw some of the most exquisite flowers we would ever see in the Austrian Alps. And that is saying a lot. John very soon became a fellow flower lover. That, for a man who until then had only known the names of tulips and roses was a noteworthy change.

Ranunculus glacialis on the way down from Todalphütte

In German the name of this anemone (right) is Gletscher-Hahnenfuß; isranunkel in Swedish (ranunculus glacialis). In English it is Glacier buttercup, a direct translation from German.

We saw the same sweet little anemones on our first walk to Saarbrückenerhütte from the Montafon valley east of Brandnertal, in 1981.

We had wanted to try out the neighboring Montafon valley as well, but we did not at all like it as well as Brandnertal. We were snowed in at a Gästehaus in Gargellen in 1981, and I called up Frau Königer (whoo verys soon became Gerti to us) and asked if we could come one day earlier than we had reserved for. We could. I remember there was snow up to our knees in the Gargellen forest.

Lindauerhütte

In 1981 we went on a long trek to the Lindauerhütte, setting out by walking to the southern end on Lünersee and taking the path towards the impressive mountain next to Schweizertor.

Lünersee, at an altitude of approximately 2000 m. is the center of a huge number of walks, in all directions, and in our twenty summers in Brand, we have probably taken them all.

We had planned on spending the night there and coming back the next day. Sepp Königer told us that there would be no problem getting sleeping places, if we referred to him, saying we were Königer guests. Wrong. We arrived in the afternoon on this gorgeous sunny day after a very interesting but fairly tiring walk. The mountains bordering on Switzerland on our right. we had a good meal on the terrace in the sun, BUT there was just one  Matratzenlager left. If we could spend the night, the two of us on the floor on one mattress, it was all right. We decided we could not. The host (Hüttenwirt) said we could ‘just‘ walk to the village 8 km away, to the railroad that would take us to Bludenz, and from there we would get to Brand. It would be just a short walk he said and no problem. Right.

We walked and walked and walked, through a forest and through fields on some kind of path, then along a sand roadway by a stream. Our feet got sorer and sorer. We had not yet learned to put a pair of thin inner socks inside the woolen ones. However, we made it, a bit the worse for wear, to the railroad, and we took the next train to Bludenz. From there, we took a taxi to Haus Kella-Egg. We had had it with what we call ‘strapatser’ in Swedish — hardship. I don’t remember if we got anything to eat that evening, but I am sure we got something, if nothing else, Gerti would give us a sandwich or something as we arrived pretty exhausted and pretty late. And with sore feet!

Saulajoch –  Saulakopf – Saulajochsteig

The ‘path’ (if that is  a proper word for the rocky things you balance on here) that we very likely took the most often of all the high mountain paths, was Saulajochsteig (Steig = steep path) from a distance looking like a somewhat lighter colored line on the side of the mountain. The very first time we took the Seilbahn up to Douglashütte and Lünersee, I saw with great fear the line on the mountain to the east and said famously “There I will never walk. That’s for Gemsen (mountain goats) only.”

From Douglashütte at the top of the Seilbahn we many many times walked east towards Lünerkrinne and from there on to the gorgeous beloved Saulajocch. On the way we took the shortcut via ‘Königersteig‘, so named by the Langes who claimed that Sepp had found the path and inaugurated it. However that may be, it was not a path for small children and alpine beginners. In the middle of the path, for quite a long stretch, the mountain comes right down to the ‘path’ and more or less does away with it. I always put my hand on the side of the mountain to feel more secure and where there was no path you just had to try  and find a rock that would hold your foot. (The path to Südschafgafall (Gafall = slope) where we also went several times, was pretty much the same on a short stretch.) We got very used to ‘Königersteig‘ though’,  and it did not seem hairy any more after the first time or so.

Views from Südschafgafall — the sheep welcome you on your way up.

Then, after Königersteig, came the glorious opening up of a vast valley, which is called Saulajoch since it actually is a Joch (a pass from one region to another). The absolutely fabulous flowers that we saw in this fairy-tale valley is impossible to describe. There were masses of Alpenrosen (wild azalea) and endless carpets of Silberwurz (Sw. fjällsippa, mountain avens – Dryas octopetala)). Also, not to be forgotten, we would always see the far more rare Feld Kleinenzian (wrongly called ‘purple gentian’ by us) and the delicate Troddelblume (Soldanella alpina, a primulaceae flower), which might just be my favorite ever of all the gorgeous flowers we got to know and love in the Alps.

The masses of wonderful flowers made for a huge part of our love of the Alps. There was more to it than just the gorgeous scenery and the fun walking and climbing. The incredibly wonderful flora in the forests, meadows and on the stony areas high up with no grass — Totalp being the best example of this — played a big part in our desire to come back year after year. John got to be as great a lover as I was of blooming meadows, all the various gentians higher up, and the deep purple Akelei and big bluebells in the lower forests. Akelei is columbine in English, and we had seen some in the Colorado Rocky Mountains in ’79.

Then came the Saulajochsteig back to Lünersee. I have said enough in the captions to the pictures about ordinary walking conditions. So here comes the BIG story. 

John on Saulajochsteig in 1980, our very first year in Brand. Many many more walks that way were to follow.

On John’s birthday August 8, 1984, we took the Saulajochsteig both ways, since it was the shortest way of getting to Saulakopf, the first mountain we climbed during these twenty years.We were not yet hardened mountain climbers, and I was as tense as can be when I held on to one boulder and climbed forward-upward  with great care. Wherever there were cables, I of course felt a lot safer. There is a sign in the valley pointing to the path to Saulakopf telling hikers and climbers “Nur für Geübte. Trittsicherheit erdorderlich, Bergschuhe und Schwindelfreiheit.” No problem, said John and Siv.

 

Saulakopf is the mountain to the north of Saulajoch, which serves as background to a lot of pictures from Saulajoch. The way up to the peak of Saulakopf, after a pleasant zigzag climb over a grassy hillside, then got to be nothing but huge boulders. John was much more fearless than I was. He wrote in our Tagebuch though, that “there were cables in some places and other places where there should have been. I must have missed my footing once since I actually scratched up the inside of my right hand some, and John — ever the perfect gentleman — tied his handkerchief around it.

We made it to the top, however, and it was the most gemütlich group of people we have ever met on a mountain peak. John had run out of film, and one fellow gave him a roll. Also  some fearless youngsters were sitting on the edge of the mountain top, their legs dangling over the void. I was NOT broken in yet as a mountain climber and after this day I had the sorest leg muscles I have ever had in my life, mainly due to my tenseness while climbing through the huge boulders, both up and down. I could hardly walk up and down the stairs in Haus Kella-Egg for a couple of days..

As we got down, we saw heavy clouds gathering in the west and we got out our rain tents that we had bought in Norway in ’82. We always carried those in our packs. We were ready for heavy rain. Little did we know what we were in for.

We met a family in the valley by the sign where the path takes off to Saulakopf. The man had a polaroid camera and after we took a picture of him and his family, he took this picture of us (below) in our Helly Hansen rain tents. We were all in a good mood, thinking that we were now in for a good rain and a bit of an adventure. Well, it got to be a bit more dramatic than we had counted on.

It was raining now, a normal shower, as we were getting close to the Saulajochsteig. 

John and Siv in rain tents at the spot where the path takes off to Saulajoch. (Polaroid photo)

Then came the cloudburst. And it was not just an ordinary cloudburst, it was a deluge. We got wet from our knees down into our boots and at least up to our elbows from clutching the cables, getting our hands right into the frequent mini-waterfalls. And yes, there was heavy thunder and lightning too. It was not very different from walking under a waterfall. (Yes, I have been under a waterfall, in 1950 when sister Gun and I took a shower under a waterfall in Lapland in 195– to cool off on our two-week trek around Sarek.)

Saulajochsteig, which we had already on the way out found somewhat hairier than we remembered, had now been transformed into a narrow stream. A man we met saw a stone falling and warned us that there would be more. There were, a minor rock slide, caused by the unusually heavy storm. John was out of the falling stones, but I had to hide under a rock (says our Tagebuch), a detail I had completely forgotten. Rock slides are not to be taken lightly, but this was not a big one. What I do remember vividly was all the waterfalls that had formed wherever there was a small opening in the mountain wall on our left. We put our hands right into the waterfalls, I with my bandaged hand and all. There was no other way to get through this storm and get safely to Douglashütte. It’s odd how, in a situation like this, you don’t even think of being afraid. All you think of is getting ahead.

After we got to the end of the ‘Steig‘, there was this boring and very tiring walk up on an ordinary path across the steep and grassy slope up to Doulashütte.

We reached Douglashütte, with totally soaked lower arms and legs. The hut was filled with other “drowned rats” (says John in our trip-book) who, like us, were seeking refuge from the storm. They had clearly hurried to shelter from any of the multitude of walks that start at the Lünersee. From here there was now only the Seilbahn left and the drive down the valley to Haus Kella-Egg, which is a few hundred meters lower than the beginning of the funicular.

Rarely have we been so pleased to sit down in a warm place, even if Douglashütte had never been one of our favorite huts. I suppose though that, after this harrowing experience, we celebrated coming to third base with some Jägertee or, more likely, a glass of Obstler. That is what Austrians most often drink as Schnapps — after the meal, not before, which is a habit John and I find bizarre.

When we finally got back to Haus Kella-Egg, we found that the Königers had worried about us. They knew of course where we were and that there was a ferocious storm going. Weather not recommended for mountain climbing. They were relieved to see us, soaking wet but in good cheer.

_________________

Our last summer in Brandnertal (Brand valley) got to be the year 2000 when we said farewell to a number of our favorite hikes. Until then we had spent every summer vacation in Brandnertal except in 1990, the year we went to Argentina.

In the year 2000 we rediscovered the wonders of what was probably our most unforgettable hike, to Gemslücke (Gemsluggen, or alternative spellings in old Swiss German) on the very border between Austria and Switzerland. 

Also in the year 2000 we were the subjects of an Ehrung at Haus Kella-Egg, after we had spent twenty summers in Brand. There was a speech by a man from the tourist agency, and we got a trophy, a medal and a nice picture book about Brandnertal.

Continued: Chapter 35 (Part 2)

  1. I return to Ireland, or Dublin rather, in Chapter 36.