Tirolean Alps: Finding new horizons among Austria’s majestic peaks
August 4, 2005
“Hiking and mountaineering are good — good for the body, the heart, the mind,” says Peter Habeler.
He should know. In 1978, Habeler climbed Mount Everest with Reinhold Messner, the first man to ascend the mighty mountain without oxygen. Since then, Habeler, who now runs a mountaineering school in Austria’s Tirol region, has climbed five of the world’s 14 mountain peaks of more than 26,000 feet.
“It’s not speeding,” he says of his sport. “It’s a good counterpart to today’s fast life — fast cars, fast everything. It’s a good way to see and find new horizons.”
Habeler and his friend Wolfgang Nairz were on hand recently to help inaugurate the Eagle Trail, a 173-mile hiking route in the Tirolean Alps near Innsbruck. He says that as a mountaineer and hiker, he wanted to show people the new trail and what it is all about.
Hiking in the mountains is all about beauty: spectacular vistas, breathtaking panoramas, the wonders of nature. All abound on the new route, part of which the two climbers hiked with our group.
We set off riding the Rofan cable car near the town of Pertisau to the heights. There, some of us followed Nairz on an easy trail that first went down, then up, offering gorgeous views of Achensee, Tirol’s largest mountain lake. We hiked past cozy mountain huts and under grandiose peaks.
The more ambitious followed Habeler on a hike that went up a steep trail and through fields of snow to the top of the Rofan mountain at an altitude of 7,450 feet.
Traced on a map, the Eagle Trail, which stretches from St. Johann in the Wilder Kaiser in the east to the heights of St. Anton am Arlberg in the west, resembles the silhouette of an eagle with its wings spread in flight. The bird’s head is in the middle of the trail near Innsbruck. Just as the eagle, the symbol of freedom and strength, ascends and descends through the sky, the Eagle Trail follows the rises and dips of the mountains.
The trail is divided into 31 sections. However, it’s not meant to be a hike from the beginning to the end, nor a hike from the bottom to the top of a mountain. It’s to be enjoyed in stages, which can be as easy or as difficult as you choose. Ski lifts that operate in the summer take hikers up the mountains from where they can trek even higher on challenging paths. Or, hikers can choose easy sections where the ascents and descents are not so demanding.
The trail leads through 16 regions of Tirol, each with its own architecture, handicrafts, traditions and culinary specialties, and organizers hope hikers will take time to get to know the attractions in the valleys, too.
During the trail’s opening, several local gastronomic delicacies were offered, including obstler, Austria’s fiery schnapps, and brandenberger Prügeltorte, a special cake from the Achensee region made by brushing batter on a spit that twirls above an open fire. Woodcarvers, felt makers, violin makers and musicians from the various regions also contributed to the opening festivities.
“Mountaineering has lots of different levels: climbing, hiking, glacier walking, hut hopping. Hiking is the easiest but you need experience, the right equipment, and a little bit of knowledge,” said Nairz, who was the first Austrian to climb Mount Everest in 1978.
The most essential equipment is proper footwear. Shoes or boots that are sturdier and offer more support than running shoes are a must for hiking mountain trails, which are often steep, slippery and rocky. Hiking poles are also recommended. “They take the burden off the knees,” says Nairz. “They’re also good for safety.”
And, even for day hikes, a backpack for water, snacks and raingear are important.
In Tirol, an Austrian province that is 87 percent mountains and nature, there are some 9,300 miles of marked hiking routes in addition to those of the Eagle Trail. Along those trails are 150 mountain huts offering both food and lodging.
For the ultimate hiking experience, set off with a backpack and spend a night or two in a mountain hut. Sleeping accommodations range from large dormitories with bunk beds to Matratzenlager, rooms with platforms lined with mattresses. Each person gets a mattress and a blanket. It’s not posh, but it’s fun, especially in the evening after a strenuous day on the trail when groups of hikers gather in the cozy restaurants to link arms and sing.
Some tourist offices in the towns along the Eagle Trail offer guided hikes. Many also offer packages that include lodging and a guide. Literature on the Eagle Trail specifies which sections are more difficult and demand some experience, as well as which are suitable for children.