By Matt Johanson – www.mattjohanson.com
In the middle of Europe, the mountainous Austria is a land of milk and honey for outdoor enthusiasts. Especially the region of Tyrol impresses with its mighty mountains, where you can ski on an icy glacier, hike the peaks of Zillertal and explore icy caves – all within a distance of 20 kilometers. Matt Johanson is no stranger to navigating in the nature and facing tough challenges, but the California native still found himself under strain when looking down the steep slopes of the Alps with only a couple of planks under his feet. Follow Matt as he takes us with him on his Austrian adventure:
Skiing on an icy Alpen glacier
Years of cross country skiing should prepare a reasonably fit person for a half-day on downhill terrain. So I thought, anyway. Actually, the steep slopes of Austria’s Hintertux Glacier daunted me and my prior alpine experience seemed a distant and unhelpful memory. And to be honest, the slopes weren’t even all that steep.
More adept skiers shot by me right and left. There was no choice but to follow, or at least try. Yet the icy Alpen glacier felt far faster and less forgiving than California’s “Sierra cement” which I know better. Each time I turned my skis downslope, I sped beyond my ability to control and struggled to turn. I made a number of unplanned stops, which sounds better than admitting I fell several times.
Fortunately, a young Austrian ski instructor came to my rescue. Fraulein Kathy coached me to commit my weight to my lead leg as I turned, which I should have known already. With her guidance, my technique slowly improved. By the end of our session, I nearly matched the prowess of kindergarten-aged skiers gliding easily down the mountain. Jawohl!
A recent visit to Austria’s Tyrol region broadened my horizons in more ways than one. Though I had passed through the mountainous area decades before, my college-age summer of backpacking between youth hostels had faded in memory. I had given Tyrol virtually no thought since then and had only a vague idea of what it had to offer.
Hiking in Zillertal
That started to change with a hike through High Mountain Nature Park Zillertal Alps. Roughly the size of Lake Tahoe (422 square kilometers, or 104,000 acres) and with an elevation range similar to Yosemite (1,000 to 3,500 meters, or 3,300 to 11,500 feet), Zillertal offers 1,400 kilometers (870 miles) of hiking trails for all ability levels.
Wildlife enthusiasts can view interesting species including chamois and ibex. Climbers can ascend 72 peaks over 3,000 meters (9,800 feet). But everyone can enjoy the magnificent scenery and hospitality for which the Alps are known. Huts throughout the park offer both lodging and food that would make U.S. backcountry hikers salivate.
One such refuge called Edelhütte attracted my group of friends while we hiked from the town of Mayrhofen. Using the gondola, we trekked to the hut (standing at 2,238 meters or 7,300 feet) in about an hour as we admired the surrounding grand peaks. Awaiting us was a hearty lunch of Gröstl, an Austrian dish of fried bacon, onion and potato topped with a fried egg. A round of beers improved the atmosphere even more. Prost!
For our afternoon objective, we chose the modest summit of the nearby Filzenkogel mountain. A well-maintained trail made for a smooth ascent of 250 meters or about 800 feet from the trailhead. That manageable climb rewarded us with the best views of the day, including Mayrhofen, the Zillertal river valley, and especially the park’s picturesque mountains. The hour-long detour paid off handsomely though I’d recommend climbing first and indulging at a hut later, instead of reversing those activities like we did.
The Zillertal park boasts enormous potential for those who enjoy both outdoor pursuits and creature comforts. Cyclists will find no shortage of trails, and by using gondolas, can devise countless rewarding routes with minimal uphill. Hikers’ huts make multiple overnight options possible, including the coveted Berlin High Trail. This popular weeklong outing forms a 73-kilometer / 45-mile loop and offers numerous summit opportunities. Established trails lead to the summits of peaks including Ahornspitze, Dristner and Gigalitz; technical climbers will find hundreds of other adventures.
Into the ice caves
Back on Hintertux Glacier, a different kind of adventure awaited us at Nature Ice Palace. Only a few years ago, Austrians discovered an entrance to a spectacular ice cave just a short walk from the ski area’s highest lift station. Since then, they have developed paths, stairs and ladders which let visitors wander through tunnels within the cavern. I have enjoyed spelunking in wild caves elsewhere, and I’ve climbed a few glaciers, but I had never explored an ice cave within a glacier before. “Windows” allowed viewing of vast rooms filled with beautiful icicles. A guide capped our visit by leading us on a raft across a small subterranean pond. The remarkable experience felt like stepping into a timeless natural wonder, which it is.
One could ski from the ice cave all the way down the glacier, and maybe someday I will. But after a long day, we opted instead for an easy gondola descent on our way to another decadent meal in the village of Tux. A rich dinner of garlic soup, dumplings, käsespätzle (similar to macaroni and cheese, but far better), spare ribs, and much more filled every belly and then some. Tyroleans know how to both cook and eat, so if you visit, better plan to start the diet after your trip.
This California native has plenty to do near home, including a large portion of the Pacific Crest Trail to hike and seven more “14er” mountains to climb. But on my visit to Tyrol, Austrians reminded me that one must also branch out sometimes. When I return, I’ll try downhill skiing again, but I’m packing my cross country gear, too. Auf wiedersehen!
If you go
- Speaking German is not necessary as virtually all Austrians involved in the travel industry speak English quite well. But any effort to use the native tongue will please locals and help make friends.
- Hintertux Glacier welcomes visitors 365 days a year with 544 kilometers (338 miles) of downhill slopes and 460 kilometers (286 miles) of winter hiking trails for cross country skiers and snowshoers: https://www.hintertuxergletscher.at/
- High Mountain Nature Park Zillertal Alps offers guided nature walks and services from May through October: https://www.zillertal.at/
About Matt Johanson
Matt Johanson writes about the outdoors for California newspapers and magazines. His books include “Yosemite Epics,” “Yosemite Adventures,” “Sierra Summits” and “California Summits.”
Matt’s writing has won awards from the International Center for Journalists, California News Publishers Association and National Outdoor Book Awards Foundation. Outdoor Writers Association of California honored Matt as “Outdoor Communicator of the Year” in 2022.
He lives in Castro Valley, California with his wife Karen. Check out his website www.mattjohanson.com where you can read more about his latest lecture “Tales and Trails of California’s Mountains”.