Notes from Nature: Up, Up and (Not Far) Away

On The Town | R S Hughes | November 2011

Tired but high on nature, hikers stop for warming meals or stiff drinks, preparing themselves for the ever-changing climates at these lofty Alpine heights (Photo: Rax Betriebs- und Verwaltungs GmbH)

Until a few minutes ago, the roar of motorcyclists snaking around the hairpin bends of local roads had echoed about the valley, but after an hour or so of steady hiking, we’ve finally left the traffic noise behind.

"When you stop and listen, the silence is incredible," I say. "It’s loud."

"All I can hear is the blood pumping in my ears," quips Martin Crijns, my hiking companion and guide for the next day-and-a-half.

Martin and I are on the southern slopes of the Rax plateau, some 34 square kilometres of rugged mountain, which forms part of the eastern Alps. Along with nearby Schneeberg – the highest mountain in Lower Austria at 2,076 metres – Rax is often endearingly known by some city folk as the Wiener Hausberg, being little more than an hour’s drive away from Vienna.

Martin has been walking in this area for more than two decades and has plotted a route that will involve a total hike of around 11 hours. It will hopefully allow us to encounter the Alpine species chamois (goat), chough (bird) and marmot (furry mammal); and if we’re lucky, even more. Thankfully, it also passes five or six mountain huts for refreshment along the way. Hut hopping seems to be a popular way to cross the mountain, and if you plan it right, there can be reasonably regular well-serviced stops.

We have been hiking for three or four hours now, and have already seen our fair share of weather. The forecast was for warm climes and blue skies, but not long ago, we pulled on our hats and jackets as clouds closed in and completely obscured the view of the valley below. It seemed likely that species spotting – if not even navigation – might become difficult. Now though, we are peeling off our outer layers as the sun burns through.

As we leave dense forests of sculptural pine trees behind, we get a clearer view of the limestone of which the Rax is composed, and over to our right, kitted-out climbers scale seemingly vertical outcrops. A little further on and we get an unobstructed view of the mighty Schneeberg; its summit free of clouds.

By late afternoon, as our legs tire – despite numerous fruit spritzers and even a decent bowl of Gulaschsuppe – we still haven’t spotted any of the aforementioned species. Then, as our overnight hut comes into view (the Habsburg Haus, at nearly 1,800 metres), we spot something large on the horizon nearly a kilometre away. With the help of Martin’s binoculars, I finally sight my first chamois.

As if to reward my hard work, the animal strikes a statuesque pose and as the sun begins to set, it’s silhouetted against Rax’s 2,070 metre summit, Heukuppe. As we get closer to the Habsburg Haus, we see a whole herd, perhaps 15 strong, and some animals allow us to approach within a few metres before bounding off.

Waking up in the mountains – regardless of how many shots of schnapps you’ve consumed the night before – is exhilarating. Morning coffee on the terrace, looking down into valleys hundreds of metres below shrouded by cloud and mist, will not be forgotten quickly. And as if to help shake my headache, a flock of Alpine choughs (a yellow-billed, red-legged member of the crow family) wheels about above.

Breakfast over, the hard work begins again. This morning we descend a rocky path for a good half hour before making the final push for the summit – a long, slow ascent that saps our already weary legs. But spotting plenty more wildlife helps us along. As well as more chamois, a small flock of what look like snow finches flutter about a boggy pool and a raven basks on a grassy slope. Then something large goes up from virtually under our feet; a ptarmigan (grouse) perhaps?

After a quick rest atop Heukuppe, we make our descent via the short route. There’s still no marmot, but plenty of other wildlife. It seems, however, that Saturday is a very good day to spot large herds of red-faced, puffing day-trippers.

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