High-Altitude Euphoria

The Austrian Alpine Club marks 150 years on the mountain top

Top Stories | Roxanne Powell | May 2012

"Four hours," a German colleague had said. A strapping, beer belly-free 30-something, he clarified: "You’ll need about four hours to reach the Pühringerhütte," a hikers’ hut nestling above a clear lake at 1,638 metres.

Well, it took us over six hours and some copious sweating in the July heat, what with iron ladders to be climbed and steel ropes to be held while scrambling across rocky outcrops, heavy rucksack and all. The prize: a stone-and-beam 1920s hut overlooking the Elm Lake. We had a brief, bracing dip before the sun sank behind the bleached rock faces of the Totes Gebirge, the Dead Mountains.

This hut is one of 237 belonging to the Austrian Alpine Club (Österreichischer Alpenverein, ÖAV), set at strategic locations along the 40,000 kilometres of hiking trails the association maintains. A non-profit organisation with 195 divisions, it pursues two aims: preserving the mountain environment and making the Alps accessible to all.

Peaks and valleys

Founded in 1862, the Austrian Alpine Club soon merged with its German counterpart, and the German-Austrian Alpine Club grew rapidly in the last years of the century, when alpine tourism became all the rage. By the 1920s, some complained that the Alps were becoming overcrowded.

Re-established in Austria in 1951 without the German sections, it regained its old name.  Membership reached a peak in the years after WWII, while declining again in the counter- culture years of the 1970s and 1980s. Stefan Gabalvy, manager of the Vienna-based division "Sektion Austria", reports that it has nearly doubled between 2001 and today, from 280,000 to 415,000 members – almost 5% of the Austrian population.

Membership of alpine clubs in other countries pales in comparison. Only 0.1% of the French are in the Club Alpin Français, 0.5% of the Italian belong to the Club Alpino Italiano. Even alpine Switzerland has a mere 2% in Club Alpin Suisse. And in the UK, the largest mountaineering club, the Austrian Alpine Club UK, is actually "Sektion Britannia" of the ÖAV, with over 7,500 UK and overseas members. It organises weekend, week and longer meets in the UK and Austria – from off-piste skiing in Kitzbühl to summer touring in the Zillertal.

A nation of hikers

"We have the mountains, and we have to cherish them somehow", says Birgit  Habermann, a vigorous 37-year old social scientist at Vienna’s University of Environmental Sciences, the BOKU. Austrians feel a bit lost in the globalised world and "go back to the mountains as a counterbalance."

Clearly a 75% mountainous country like Austria was predestined to spawn legions of mountain-lovers. But why be in a club?

Family tradition plays a role: Many joined in childhood and even today, children’s groups are numerous. When the club marked its 400,000th membership, it belonged to a Viennese family. The father commented: "I’m particularly impressed by the involvement in environmental issues. And the kids like it that they can experience cool stuff."

Friends with benefits

Members enjoy discounts at huts in Austria and abroad, well-marked and maintained trails, courses on safety, technique and orientation, and can rent equipment such as snowshoes. Weather information and library services are free and training facilities are everywhere – including the eye-catching climbing area on the massive outer walls of a WWII anti-aircraft tower in Vienna’s 6th District.

Gabalvy traces the membership boom to the club’s introduction of mountain rescue insurance around 1990. The worldwide coverage, with no age limit and inclusive of repatriation, is included in the modest (€52) membership fee.

In addition, Gabalvy points out that only last year, his section organised 1,800 "events", such as courses, trips abroad, and expeditions.

More members means higher revenues, hence more money for services. And according to members the steady professionalisation of the ÖAV has been achieved without losing sight of the original ethos whilst it has established itself as the Anwalt der Alpen (Advocate of the Alps) in the public debate.

Markus Niemann, a slim, muscular rockclimber of 43, who joined the ÖAV as a boy, reports reading the club’s magazines. The glossy publication Bergundsteigen, for instance, focuses on safety in Alpine sports. "There is a lot of development in this field, and it wouldn’t happen without the Alpenverein," he says. "Those innovative people... help to get over the image of a conservative and even right-wing organisation."

Years of hatred

Indeed the Alpenverein has a rich but also a troubled history, and the waves of hate that swept across Europe in the 1920s and 1930s engulfed it as well. Mountaineering became militarized in the inter-war years, as a way to harden young men for battle. An "Aryans Only" clause was incorporated in the charter of many sections, and Sektion Donauland, a predominantly Jewish group, was expelled from the association in 1924.

In the 1930s, painted swastikas began to appear along the paths to the huts, many of which refused Jewish mountaineers. In 1938 the Gleichschaltung, that absorbed all public and organisational life into the Nazi state, swept away the last vestiges of independence.

No Meldezettel required

Today, the Alpenverein is a model of openness and internationalism. For instance, Gabalvy points out, 27% of Sektion Austria are non-residents, mostly from Poland; Sektion Edelweiss includes many Czechs.

There’s also an English-language group within Sektion Austria: the Alpine Club Vienna, led by Jack Curtin, a sprightly 75-year old, whose group offers regular outdoor activities, training courses, a monthly slide show and, every December, a Glühweinmarathon that welcomes people of 45 different nationalities, including Austrians.

The cool factor

About one-third of all members are under 30, which makes the ÖAV the country’s largest youth organisation.

Curtin puts it down to a "general trend among young people towards extreme sports". Habermann, who joined as a student to gain access to the climbing halls together with her friends, relates "the whole craze about outdoor activity" to the work-life balance: Rock-climbing, with the extreme concentration required, is a great way to "free your mind".

Ski touring and snowshoeing, she adds, are also booming, as people venture off-piste "in groups with instructors" who have the requisite mountaineering knowledge.

The great outdoors are now "in", Gabalvy observes. Outdoor athletes and amateurs  are "often used in advertising." Mountaineering has an increasingly high profile in the mass media. Accordingly, daring expeditions are today sponsored by multinational companies, recreating the competition for prestige which caused the 19th century mountaineering boom, yet under the

aegis of capital rather than nation states.

The downside risk

Has mountaineering gone mainstream? Birgit draws a clear line between mountain climbing (out there in the wild) and sport climbing in a Klettergarten – controlled environments for a safe adrenaline kick. The halls are always booked out and easy rock climbs near Vienna are jammed.

Curtin is concerned that many off-piste skiers have no inkling of the dangers in the wilderness, such as avalanches [see "Acceptable Risk", TVR April 2012]. Untrained in first aid, they expect a helicopter to pick them up in no time if needed. For every high-profile, royal accident – such as that of Holland’s Prince Johan Friso – how many tragedies go unreported?

Indeed the morning we left, it was snowing on the lake and a gale was blowing. A group who’d set off for the next hut long before we’d got up trudged in, saying resignedly that snow covered most trail markings and their path was blocked by snowdrifts. Luckily, we were heading for an inhabited valley. So we put on all our clothes and rain gear, tightened our bootlaces, and walked off into the raging snowstorm.

For more information, visit www.alpenverein.at

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