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Hiking the Austrian Alps

or trying to

sunny 58 °F

I was standing on a precipice of sorts. To my left was a sheer cliff, more or less, below me and above were very steep slope, and to my right was another steep slope I had just scrambled across. Climbers of all sorts (mountain, rock, tree) will tell you that it is always tougher or more dangerous to get down from somewhere than get up. I never seem to remember that until I’m already up there. And now I was stuck.

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“How did I get here?” I asked myself. The real answer were a string of foolish, cocky decisions that I’ve found can be typical of me when I think that my abilities exceed those of others. I was on Untersberg Mt in the Austrian Alps. In truth, the answer to that question can be traced either to my trip to Neuschwanstein Castle, when I first set eyes on the Alps and couldn’t wait to do some hiking, or to the night before when I set my sights on my destination. Surfing in Munich with a great guy originally from Buffalo, I was trying to figure out where I could do some climbing. The problem with Bavaria and the Alps is that there are sooo many options. The other thing that blew me away is how easy these climbs are to get to, even without a car. You’d never be able to take a train or city bus to a trailhead in the US. After much debate, I had chosen to cross the border to Austria, Salzburg (90 minute train) and climb Untersberg, which was described as the most challenging hike you can find with easy accessibility from Salzburg. As a bonus, after a 2 ½ - 3 ½ hour hike to the peak, there exists a restaurant and a cable car at the top. I was more excited about the cable car because as I mentioned above, it is always easier going up than going down, but in the case of mountains, that’s mostly because of the strain on your KNEES on the way down. Considering the trouble I had had in the past year, I thought it might be a great idea to hike up and cable car down.

After having a train delay, I was getting a later start than I had hoped, and when the bus dropped me off at what I was told was the trailhead, I encountered 2 immediate problems. The first problem I noticed was that the cable car was closed for renovations/repairs for the month of April Disappointed about the cable car, but not dissuaded, I took a look at the map. That’s when I noticed the second problem - the cable car and the trailhead were not in the same place. I had read that it was popular to drive to trailhead, hike up, and then cable car down, so I had assumed that those 2 things were close to each other, plus the information desk at the terminal directed me to this bus after I said that I wanted to hike the mountain. Turns out, the proper trail that I had read about was a 5 km hike from the cable car. Looking at the map, there appeared to be another trail that was much closer to the cable car, so thinking that I could figure it out as I went, and I headed off to find that one.

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The cable care is at the bottom-left of the line labeled "UNTERSBERGBAHN", with the proper trail in red all the way to the right. I saw another possible trail much closer to the left, so that's what I went for.

In retrospect, I definitely should have found the main, most popular trail, but the other ones seemed to go to the same place, and it wasn't my first hike (though I like to think of myself as more experienced than I actually am), so I thought I could handle it. I’m not sure if I ever found the proper trail, but I did find a trail about where it should have started, and it was going in the right direction - UP - so I set off. The first 45 minutes were smooth, though certainly uphill, going. I noticed that the trail didn’t seem to have trail markers, as I was used to, but it was a nice, wide trail and who knows, maybe they don’t mark their trails well in Austria. Then, very suddenly, my nice wide trail just disappeared. After pausing to try and pick up the proper trail, I went with my best guess and knew a couple of points that the trail would go by, so I was sure that I’d come on the correct trail soon enough. I had a brief moment of hope when I found this marker, thinking that a path must have led to this.

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Without finding any path, I continued upwards, the only direction I was sure I had to go. That worked well for about 20 minutes and then the terrain started getting very steep. With real trails, they will have steps or switchbacks to go up particularly steep parts, but my wandering line just gradually got steeper and steeper. I stopped a few times and debated turning back, but I kept telling myself that if I can just get to that next ridge, I will maybe be able to see the trail. This continued until I found myself on the precipice.

To be honest, my situation wasn’t as dire as I make it sound in the first paragraph (but it grabbed your attention, right?). I had scrambled to that point, but only by digging my walking sticks into the ground to haul or brace myself as I climbed. After evaluating my options, I just decided to retreat and get down off the mountain as safely as possible. To descend it was maybe 60% sliding on the slippery leaves, 20% going from tree to tree to stop my momentum as I decended, and 20% digging my walking sticks into the ground to keep myself from sliding down and traversing sideways to a relatively less steep area. I never did find that original trail I was on, but I found another trail eventually, which was such a relief. Even if it was roundabout, finding a trail meant a safe way down the mountain instead of pulling these antics as I was.

Once I was on the path, I made it down the rest of the way quickly and without incident. Disappointed, but not feeling like I got a full day of hiking in, I decided to walk thru this small town and eventually walk all the way to the actual trail on the other side. The town, Grodig, was very quiet and quaint, and I kept being astounded by the fact that there could exist a legitimate town so close to a mountain this size. The way that the mountain suddenly juts skyward from otherwise flat terrain was amazing. A sight that I haven’t often come across.

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I spent an hour walking thru the town, including a brief kebab stop, and eventually found my way to the proper trail entrance, some 4-5 kms from where I had been chased off of the mountain already. 2 friendly girls kindly pointed me towards the real trail entrance, but by then it was about 3.5 hours since I had started walking, and I did not think I would make it all the way up at this point before it got dark out. Maybe that was a blessing, because the girls were concerned that I was thinking about going to the top, telling me that it was still winter, and that I would be the only person crazy enough to do that now.

Knowing that, due to my little detour, I wouldn’t have time to go all the way to the top and back down before it got dark, I figured I could go a decent amount of the way up and at least get some nice views. As soon as I hit the trail, I saw many beautiful things that I hadn’t on my other “trail”

Like signs!

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And markings!

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And stairs! Oh my!

All of which were a welcome sight after my off-road adventuring. The irony was, despite the high quality of the trail and the actual hike, I couldn’t help but thinking that it was just a little too easy after the wandering and scrambling I had been doing all day. Actual marked trails that ran by streams, waterfalls and beautiful, scenic overlooks - it’s tough to say it with a straight face, but it felt like there was something missing, like it made it too easy, haha.

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I continued up the trail until I was a little more than halfway up. By this time, I had been walking/hiking for about 6 hours and I was looking at a sun far past its prime, making the slow but steady walk to bed to turn out the lights for us all. If the cable car had been running, it would have been a different story, but not wanting to hike down this challenging hill in the dark, I turned it around and headed back. Happy with my day, but disappointed that I didn’t reach the peak, I turned back down the mountain, toward civilization, and eventually back to Munich.

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Happy with my day

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But sad I didn't make it to the top

Final tally for the day:
6 hours, 53 minutes
13.34 miles
Total guess of 1800 meters in elevation (30% up once, 60% up the 2nd time)

Posted by danza 02:05 Archived in Austria Tagged hiking austria alps off_roading

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