Into the (Austrian) Wild
A weekend through the Ybbstal Alps with the Alpine Club Vienna
"Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves." – John Muir
My alarm jangled me awake at 6:30: I had set the jungle tone and light intensity higher than normal. I wanted to be on time.
It was a Saturday morning. I tied my slightly-too-small hiking shoes and grabbed the backpack I had prepared the night before. The weather forecasts had called for rain, but as the sun poked out between the clouds suggesting another nice summer’s day, I rolled up my jean shorts (just one of a series of my misjudgements and fashion errors) and headed out of the door.
I was on my way to a two-day hike through the Ybbstal Alps with the Alpine Club Vienna (ACV), the English-speaking branch of Austria’s Alpine Federation, OeAV, and one of the most active branches with over 353 people representing 40 different countries on the mailing list. The ACV was founded in 1999 and this month, is celebrating its tenth anniversary. The aim of the club is for English speakers in Vienna to "get outside and get involved" in Austria, bringing together Austrians and others eager to speak English. It is a common language and a common love of the outdoors that hold this club together.
Meetings are scheduled for the first Monday of every month at the Section Austria Alpeinvereinhaus in Vienna’s 1st District, led since 2006 by Jack Curtain, a native Chicagoan and former head of the Chicago Mountaineering Club – an amazing club I was told, in spite of Chicago’s flat reputation! The meetings consist of slideshows and presentations, a lottery and door prize, and an overview of upcoming events. These events are organized throughout the year, and include bike tours, ski trips, rock climbing and hiking excursions.
I met Jack Curtain that Saturday morning and set out on the two-hour journey to Lunz am See, the group meeting point. I had been drawn by the call of the wild and a new experience with new people. As the rain started to dance on the car windshield, I was distracted by good conversation and a sense of friendship, an indication for the great weekend to come.
Upon arriving at our meeting point, I met the rest of the group. We were ten in all, a motley crew of six different nationalities, younger and older, highly experienced hikers and more novice nature lovers. Under heavy clouds we set forth, a rainbow of anoraks, fancy boots, rainproof pants and heavily loaded bags penetrating the lush nature.
The Ybbstal Alps are a limestone mountain range belonging to the Eastern Alps. Dürrenstein, at 1,878 m, is one of its main summits, only slightly lower than its neighbour peak, Ötscher. Its reputation, apart from being the cold spot of Central Europe – having recorded temperatures at -52 degrees Celsius – is that of fairy tale alms, splendid views, rocky slopes, mountain lakes and caves, and host of the last primeval forest in the region.
The Steinbach route up to the Ybbstaler Hütte on the first day took us through a landscape of forest, well-fed creeks and a valley littered with curious cows. The group split up, each keeping its own pace. Finding the path was easy even for my untrained eye, a matter of spotting the proudly painted Austrian flags, like a game of connecting the dots nationalist style.
Over the three hour ascent a natural euphoria set in, the joy of simply being outdoors and the formality of new relationships faded into a familiarity of good friends. We traded stories of being foreigners in Austria and being Austrian among foreigners; of recent trips and upcoming holidays; and of course, Deliverance-inspired tales of hiking horrors.
Sweat and rain joined forces against us. Soaked to the bone, we finally arrived at our destination for day one, the Ybbstaler Hütte. In the entrance I wrung out my shorts, shoes and inspected the extent of the damage. Camera and phone – broken, tomorrow’s lunch – soaked, sleeping bag – moldy. With some Schadenfreude, I looked at the Italian and Austrian girls next to me, also wringing out their boots, and realized that at some point "waterproof" becomes irrelevant.
A man with a bush of unkempt blond hair came out to greet us with his Golden Retriever, Sam, who sported a bandana with the words "Nicht füttern" (Don’t feed) and a similar hairdo to his owner. Both seemed happy for the company and were entertained by the sight of their frazzled guests. The man, who I later learned was Herr Forstner, lit up the wood stove and helped us hang our belongings out to dry.
Cozy, clean and newly renovated, the lodge is run by the Forstner Family. From June through October, they offer dining and sleeping accommodations, from four bed quarters to communal bunks, as well as a discount for all OeAV members. They serve a pumpkin soup and hospitality second to none.
On a full belly and long night’s sleep, the next day we headed from the Ybbstaler Hütte to the Dürrenstein summit and then followed a longer, four-hour descent back to Lunz. Heavy clouds seemed to follow us wherever we went, but the diverse alpine landscape compensated for the lack of a view. I was feeling great, although the offering of food, sweaters and hiking gear by my fellow hikers had me questioning my appearance.
By 3:00 pm, the sun finally won the day, and on our last stretch through a waterfall-lined forest trail, I basked in the warmth and reminded myself of the lessons learned: Jean shorts and cotton pyjama pants do not easily dry, hiking poles and a backpack with an integrated water shield are highly recommendable, and most importantly, that good company matters most of all.
All in all, it was a magnificent weekend. The Alpine Club Vienna has made the Austrian wilderness accessible to those without cars, without the German language and without a group, and asks only for gas money and a sense of humor in return – a very generous exchange.
Alpine Club Vienna
1., Rotenturmstraße 14
Sept. 7 – Monthly meeting
Sept. 25-27 – Three day hike through Slovenia’s highest peaks
Sept. 27 – Easy hike through Vienna’s vineyards
Oct. 3-4 – Camping trip in the Low Tatras