Alps2 - Mayrhofen

Schlageis reservoir - gloomy weather and an ugly bathtub ring

When Sandy and I do mountain trips (or any trip, for that matter) we don't like to move from place to place every day. We usually like to find a spot that we can stay for a few nights in a row and use that as a base for day trips. That way we can get settled a bit. It also lets us get to know a place better - eating at different restaurants, shoping at different stores, exploring different parts of town. Most importantly, it gives us a better chance to get a good sample of the hikes in the area. For our trip this year we adopted this approach again.

For the first week, while we explored Austria on our own, we started out with three nights in the town of Mayrhofen. It's a town of about 4,000 people near the head of the Zillertal Valley in the state of Tyrol. At 633 meters above see level it's not very high - by comparison Boise is at 830 meters. But it's in a narrow valley with steep mountain walls on each side, so it is primarily a resort town oriented around mountain sports, skiing in winter and hiking in summer.

At the trailhead the skies were starting to clear

It's famous as the hometown of the great mountaineer Peter Habeler. Among his many accomplishments were the three day ascent of Hidden Peak in 1975 with Reinhold Messner, the first alpine-style ascent of an 8000 meter peak. Until that time, the highest mountains in the world were only climbed by huge expeditions that took months and used hundreds of porters and a dozen or more climbers. He and Messner also made the first ascent of Mt. Everest without using supplemental oxygen in 1978, a feat that many people believed was physiologically impossible. I avidly read his book Lonely Victory back in the early 1980's when I was an aspiring (amateur) mountaineer myself. I still have it on my bookshelf. Seventy three years old, Peter Habeler still lives in Mayrhofen and occasionally teaches at the ski school that he founded. I guess he shows that the age old adage, borrowed from pilots, that "there are old climbers and there are bold climbers, but there are no old bold climbers" doesn't always hold true.

Starting the climb to the hut

When I went on my first trip to Nepal in 1991, the trip leader, Hooman Aprin, told me a story about Peter Habeler. When Hooman was guiding for Exum Mountaineering in Grand Teton National Park, he was introduced to Peter Habeler, who was passing through on a tour of mountain areas in the US. Peter wanted to do a technical route on the Grand Teton so Hooman offered to climb with him. They had hiked up to where the technical climbing began and Hooman stopped to take the rope out of his pack. When he looked around a moment later, his companion wasn't there. He called Peter's name and heard a voice from above. He looked up and Peter was about a hundred feet up the cliff looking down. "Sorry" he said. "I didn't realize we were supposed to rope up yet."

The layout of the town is pretty simple. There is one main street that parallels the highway through the valley for about a mile. It is lined with hotels, restaurants and shops. Since our hotel was close to one end it was easy to navigate. Just walk down the main street till you came to what you were looking for.

When we first arrived from Munich we walked the length of the main street to get an idea of what was there. Even though it was at a low elevation, it felt like a mountain town, with mountains all around and a definite mountain tourism flavor to all the businesses. Except for the heat. Europe was having very warm weather and the temperature that afternoon was in the high nineties. There was no air conditioning anywhere so the heat was just brutal. We finally stopped to eat at Mo's, a restaurant at the far end of town from our hotel. They had pizza so we figured we couldn't go wrong. But even eating outside, in the shade, it was really warm. The food seemed so-so, although I can't say how much of that was really the food and how much was due to the discomfort from the heat.

A gorgeous waterfall on the climb to the hut

While we were out walking was when I first discovered a major problem, verging on catastrophe. I was carrying my camera thinking that we might want to take pictures of the town or of the two of us eating dinner. Sure enough, before long there was a picturesque Tyrolean house that was just perfect for a photo. I have a low end DSLR, a Canon T3 Rebel, which takes excellent photos and allows me flexibility with lenses and especially filters. No crummy cell phone selfies for me on one of our big trips.

I aimed the camera, pushed the button... and nothing happened. Nada. No click. Nothing. It took me a minute but I realized that the battery was totally dead. That was unusual. The camera is very efficient and I only have to charge the battery about once a year. The power switch for the camera had been in the on position when I had taken it out of the case. Apparently I had forgotten to turn it off the last time I had used it - and that had been two weeks before before when I climbed Angel's Landing. So even though my camera is super efficient it had a totally dead battery.

The views kept improving as we climbed higher

No worries. I could just charge it when we got back to our room. Except when I got back I found that I had forgotten to bring the battery charger. Since I almost never need it I'm not in the habit of packing it. Ruh roh Scooby Doo. I checked online. There wasn't a camera store in Mayrhofen where I might be able to get a charger. Now we had a major problem. Now my only hope was that we could get by somehow for a few days until we got to a bigger city later in the trip that would have a camera shop where I could buy a charger.

Unfortunately it turns out that the particular model of camera that I own has a fairly specialized battery. So plot spoiler, I wasn't able to find anything that would work anywhere that we went during the trip. This was potentially a disaster.

The photos that we bring home are a big part of the enjoyment that we get from our trips. Sandy likes to put them on her Facebook page and I of course have the Dog Blog. All we had now for taking pictures was Sandy's iPhone 5. I used to have an iPhone 3GS a few years ago and thought that the camera in it was terrible, so I wasn't very happy depending on an iPhone for all of our pictures. But since it was all we had, that was what I used throughout the trip for taking pictures. I have to admit that I was very impressed. We got a lot of very good photos. It didn't have an optical zoom, and I couldn't use a polarizing filter which I always have on my DSLR for scenic shots. But the pictures were still pretty darn good. Of course, I will let you judge for yourself. All of the pictures that we took on the trip, we took with Sandy's iPhone 5.

A beautiful spot for a break

Our other problem was that we were definitely worried about sleeping because of the heat since our hotel didn't have air conditioning. But our room stayed fairly cool during the day and it really cooled off at night. So we were able to sleep ok. It would have been really nice if the hotel had a fan in the room though. As described in my last post, the next day we were up early to beat the heat when we went on our hike.

After our hike, that evening we had dinner at Ciao, which was an Italian restaurant (who would have guessed from the name?). They had a nice shaded patio where it was actually quite pleasant. Unfortunately while I was eating my salad, I found two tiny bugs in the lettuce. Needless to say I didn't finish it. When the main course came I suppose the pasta might have been very good, but it was hard to enjoy it when I had to carefully inspect every forkfull before eating it. We skipped dessert and I wasn't really full when we left.

Although the town seemed really nice, so far we were not having much luck with the restaurants in Mayrhofen. Fortunately there was a really good gelato place in town. We stopped there both times after our disappointing dinners and filled up on dessert. Maybe we should have just started out there in the first place. As the old saying goes, "Life is uncertain. Eat dessert first."

Enjoying our hard earned drinks and apple strudel at the hut

Deciding on a plan for our second day of hiking was a challenge. The forecast was very uncertain, and it didn't help that when we got up the sky was completely overcast and the high peaks were all completely socked in. I'm easily intimidated by bad weather, in fact even the threat of bad weather, so I wasn't feeling too excited about a big hike. Sandy has much more of a "we're here so we might as well go hiking rather than sit around" attitude. So we decided to at least drive up to Schlageis reservoir. The lake itself was supposed to be scenic. There was an easy trail around it that we could do even if the weather was bad. And if it did clear up, we could continue on to climb up to the Furtschaglhutte (say that five times really fast), a high mountain hut in a beautiful mountain basin. At least it looked pretty nice in the pictures that were in the guidebook.

Just the drive up to the reservoir was exciting. The head of the Zillertal Valley was very narrow and steep. There were several sections where the road was single lane, sometimes for more than a kilometer. You definitely had to drive with care. The last section was a private toll road and we paid the toll rather than walk an extra seven kilometers. Too bad the toll sticker that I worked so hard to get on the day that we arrived didn't do us any good on this road.

Multiday hikes into the Zillertal Alps continue beyond the hut

When we reached the end of the road the reservoir itself was disappointing. Although ringed with beautiful mountains, the water was low leaving an ugly "bathtub ring" around the lake. It definitely spoiled the view for me. I suppose that if the lake was completely full it would be very pretty. It didn't help that there was gloomy weather in that direction and the tops of the peaks were in the clouds. It was more encouraging looking up the valley in the other direction where there was some blue sky and sunshine. Although we weren't hiking that way it was encouraging us (me really) to be optimistic about the weather.

The first five kilometers were very easy, walking on a service road beside the lake. Although there were beautiful mountains all around, the reservoir still bugged me. I really thought it destroyed what would have been a fantastic view. But at least the weather seemed to be slowly improving as we walked. When we got to the far end of the lake we both wanted to keep on going. That's when the hard work started. The trail climbed straight up the side of the valley, gaining 1300 feet in the next three kilometers.

Heading back down the steep slopes below the hut

It was definitely a good workout. Finally we topped out on the slope and reached the Furtschaglhutte, perched on the edge of a hanging basin with the beautiful peaks of the Zillertal Alps all around. By this time the sun had won its battle with the clouds and the views were wonderful. Just below the hut there was a spectacular waterfall with a foreground of flowers and a background of impressive peaks. And the ugly ring-around-the-reservoir was hidden below by the steep slope that we had climbed. The hard work had been well worth it. I took lots and lots of pictures there.

We found a spot on the patio with an awesome view. The menu at the hut was limited but we didn't care. We had large glasses of limonade (in the US we would call it SevenUp or Sprite) and Sandy and I split an apple strudel. It was wonderful. We took our time, resting after the strenuous climb and enjoying the view, the food and the drinks. I felt very relaxed and at peace.

The beautiful cirque at the head of the valley

When we were about to leave I committed another foreigner faux pas. Before we started the hike back, we each took a turn watching our packs while the other took advantage of the flush toilets in the hut. When it was my turn I got confused and went into the ladies room by mistake. Some poor lady came in after me and looked like she got quite a shock when she came in just as I came out of one of the stalls. I just hurried out and said to Sandy "Come on. Let's go." Fortunately we were well down the trail before the lady came out and started yelling at me. I know enough German that I would have understood when she called me a "dummkopf" and I could guess what the other names she used might have meant. Once again I had proved the maxim that to travel in a foreign country, you have to be ok with looking stupid.

On the way up we had been surprised that we had such a beautiful trail almost to ourselves. On the way down we learned again that most people just aren't into early starts. There were a lot of people slogging up the steep hillside to the hut. Once again, we could feel very superior since we were having an easy hike down and were enjoying the view. And the view was very nice. The clouds had mostly cleared and the mountains were in the sun. A beautiful day after all. Sandy pointed out that I had been way too worried about the weather, all for nothing. As usual, she was right.

More great views on the hike out

That evening we ate at our hotel in Mayrhofen. We broke our string of bad luck, as dinner was very good. We were the only ones eating there so the service was great and the food was delicious.

Overall we really liked our hotel. The price was reasonable. It had a huge shower for a European hotel. The people were very friendly and helpful. The breakfast was good and we enjoyed the dinner that we had at the hotel. Sandy wrote them a nice review on TripAdvisor.

That ended our time in Mayrhofen. It was time to program the GPS unit and hit the road. Our next base would be Lienz, in the South Tyrol. I had picked out a hike that we could do along the way, but that's for another post. We wouldn't spend a whole day just driving. Next morning after another good breakfast we left Mayrhofen and headed for our next destination.