28 years ago I did the first half of the Stubai high level route in Austria with a university friend. This week I’ve done the second half, alone. 5 days of superb mountain walking on tiny exposed paths with awesome views, never dropping below 2000m. I’ve stayed in mountain huts every night, usually the only English person there and have spoken nothing but German for 5 days. It brought back memories of my first trip here, so here’s the stories of two of the best trips of my life.
The Stubai alps lie on the Austrian/Italian border, immediately south of Innsbruck. The highest peak is the Zuckerhutl at 3,500m. The higher peaks have glaciers but these have retreated massively leaving a mess of moraine and scree and making ascents difficult. But the mountain walking is superb and some of the lower 3,000m peaks have routes up them on solid rock that while steep and exposed, are walks rather than scrambles.
It’s easy to get to the Stubai from the UK. I flew Manchester to Innsbruck with Jet2.com, then it’s a short bus ride to the Hauptbahnhof (main railway station) and another 40 minute bus ride takes you up to Neustift, the main village in the Stubaital (Stubai valley). There’s not many flights to Innsbruck from the UK as it’s a notoriously difficult airport to land at due to the narrow valley and the shear wind created by the mountains. It’s known as a “captain only” airport as only specially trained captains can land there. The last major accident was in the 1960s when a British plane crashed into the mountains killing all on board but there’s been plenty of smaller crashes since. Fortunately I’m not a nervous flyer.
I spent the first night in Neustift and then the following day got the bus to the head of the valley and then the cable car up to the Dresdner hutte, which is where we finished 28 years ago.
In August 1994 I spent 3 weeks walking from hut to hut in Austria with Margaret, a university friend. We were both 21. We started in Mittenwald on the Austrian-German border and headed east into the Karwendel mountains, a range of limestone peaks north of Innsbruck. It was a baptism of fire, with huge ascents and descents with rucksacks that were far too heavy. We crossed from Germany into Austria and back a few times and stayed at the Mittenwalderhutte, the Hochlandhutte, Karwendelhaus, Falkenhutte and Lamsenjochhutte. The walk from the Hochlandhaus to the Karwendelhaus was long and hard, so we had two nights at the Karwendelhaus and climbed the Odkarspitze and Birkkarspitze, both about 2750m.
After a week we emerged at Achensee at the eastern end of the Karwendel range. From there we got a bus south to the Zillertal and called unannounced on the Austrian lady who I had stayed with a few years previously (more on that later). Fortunately she was pleased to see us and after spending the night there we left some of our gear with her and with lighter rucksacks continued on our way.
28 years ago we had no mobile phones or Internet. I may have sent the odd postcard to my parents to let them know I was still alive. They used to work on the basis that no news was good news and that I would contact them if there was a problem. We also didn’t book the huts in advance, we just turned up and were never turned away, although some nights were a squash, especially at a weekend. We made our route up as we went along.
We continued south to Mayrhofen at the head of the Zillertal valley. From there we headed into the Zillertal mountains and did most of what is now known as the Zillertal high-level route but at the time I just looked at the map and planned what seemed like a good route. The Zillertal peaks are higher and glaciated and the rock is granite and gneiss, much more solid than in the Karwendel, but we stuck to hard mountain walking rather than attempting glaciers or roped climbing. We climbed the Ahornspitze above Mayrhofen (2958m) and then stayed at the Edelhutte, Kasseler hutte, Greizer hutte and Berliner hutte linking them all with superb high level mountain walking. After the Berliner hutte we had a wet day so we walked down to the valley and headed west over the Pfitscherjoch into Italy.
Back then there was usually a Polizei sat in a wooden hut on the border holding a gun and on that particular day he looked fed up as the mist and rain swirled over the pass. The days of the South Tyrol “problem” were not long past when many alpine huts on the Austro-Italian border were closed for fear of attacks by BAS (the South Tyrol freedom fighters).
South Tyrol (the Dolomites) was part of the Austrian-Hungarian empire until 1918. That empire was split up in 1919 as part of the Versailles treaty and all land south of the alpine watershed was given to Italy. This included South Tyrol and also Austria’s only seaport, Trieste. So started a long struggle by the South Tyrolians to be returned to Austria. They were delighted when the region was annexed to Germany in 1943 after Mussolini was deposed and angered when in 1946 the Allies once again handed the region back to Italy. The BAS was founded to liberate South Tyrol and in the 1960s there was much separatist violence and bomb attacks. In 1972 the issue was solved by South Tyrol being given a large degree of autonomy by Italy, and Austria agreeing not to interfere, but it took a further 20 years for the agreement to be fully implemented and it was only in 1992 that Vienna declared the issue to be closed. Tensions had therefore not completely been dissipated in 1994, but after Austria entered the EU in 1995 the borders virtually disappeared and today the region is very peaceful. Its inhabitants still speak predominantly German and it still has a distinctly germanic culture.
That night we stayed at the Europahutte, sitting right on the Austro-Italian border, and the rain turned to snow. We were the only guests there that night along with an English man who we’d bumped into at various huts in the Zillertal. The locals don’t go out in bad weather. Next day I used my spare socks as thick mittens and we headed down to the Brenner pass.
From there it was another bus ride, this time into the Gschnitz valley and the Stubai mountains. Another night at a B&B and then the next day the sun returned for a steep 3 hour climb up to the Innsbrucker hutte. There is a good klettersteig (via ferrata) there on the Ilmspitze and in the afternoon we wandered along to the bottom of it as I’d never seen a klettersteig before. A group of Italian men were about to start up it and seeing us look at it they asked in broken english if we wanted to go up. Margaret said no, but I jumped at the chance. One of the older Italians who seemed to know what he was doing produced some slings and karabiners from his rucksack and improvised a chest harness for me. I had no helmet. Looking back I realise how dangerous it was. Had I fallen the sling would not have been able to absorb the impact of the fall and would have snapped – that’s if I hadn’t already been hit on the head by a rock. But with all the confidence and ignorance of youth I followed the Italians up the klettersteig, not understanding a word they said to each other in Italian. At the top the schnapps was passed round and we started the long and loose descent back to the hut.
It was Saturday night at the Innsbrucker hut and it was full to bursting and it was wild. Lots of beer was drunk, people sleeping on the emergency mattresses in the dining room, and I spent the night squashed between a wall and a large, snoring German man. I remember it well 😀.
Next day we started what is now known as the Stubai high level route, but again I didn’t know that. We walked to the Bremer hutte in hot sunshine, then next day to the Nurnberg hutte in the rain. Fortunately that was a short day and we spent the afternoon sat in the hut, me trying to teach Margaret German.
When I was 17 in 1990 I was fortunate enough to spend a month in the Zillertal teaching an Austrian lady, Irma Gasser, English. I was doing German A-level and Irma knew my German teacher and asked if one of the pupils would like to teach her English. I jumped at the chance to spend a month in the mountains and for some bizarre reason my parents were quite happy for me to travel alone to Austria and stay with people they knew nothing about. As it happens Irma’s husband was a bit of a pest but in those days you just put up with it. I had a great month – I’m not sure how much English Irma learnt but I came back fluent in German and with an awful lot of experience of solo alpine walking. I also learnt a lot of Austrian history – to this day I remember Irma’s stories of growing up in Innsbruck while we bombed the city and how the water from the local reservoirs was still partly going to the Russians as WWII reparations.
Back to 1994. From the Nuremburger hutte we had one long day via the Sulzenau hutte to the Dresdner hutte. At that point we had to return to England so the next day we got the cable car down to the Stubai valley, the bus to Innsbruck and after collecting our gear from Irma we got the train back to Munich Airport.
A superb trip which until this week has probably never been surpassed. I thought nothing of it at the time but looking at the route now with its long rough days on paths marked as “Nur fur Geubte” (only for the experienced), making up the route as went along, I think as two 21 year old girls we did well. No wonder it’s taken over a quarter of a century for me to find the courage to return, alone.
To be continued…….
Copyright of all photos and text – Jane Ascroft 2022