Alps4 - Rainy Days

The Grossglockner, Austria's highest peak, hidden in the clouds

Our base for the rest of the week was the Austrian town of Lienz. With 10,000 people, it's a small city rather than a village. It's known as the Pearl of the Dolomites, and a group of mountains known as the Lienzer Dolomites provide a beautiful backdrop to the city. Our hotel was on the outskirts, in the small village of Zettersfeld, just outside of town. Our hotel was very modern, and the rooms were spacious, especially for a European hotel. Except for the fact that it didn't have a kitchen, it felt more like a condo than a hotel room. It was obviously built with skiing in mind because the Lienzer Bergbahnen, the cable car that went up to the local ski area, was less than a hundred feet from the front door of the hotel. Although the lifts were built for the ski area, like most cable cars in Europe it operated in the summer to take hikers up to the high country. With the lift that close we definitely had to go up to explore one of the days that we were in the area.

The weather had been beautiful on the day that we drove over from Mayrhofen. Fortunately we had been able to get in a good hike at a stop on the trip over. But the evening that we arrived in Lienz it started to cloud up. The forecast was for rain for the next day or two at least. So there would be no big hikes tomorrow.

The famous church in Heiligenblut

We really didn't mind the change in the weather too much. We had done hikes for three days in a row, and even though none of them had been monster hikes, a rest day didn't seem like a bad idea. Rainy weather would give us a chance to sleep in late, have a leisurely breakfast and spend the day doing some easy car touring without feeling guilty.

We drove north from Lienz to reach Hohe Tauern National Park, the largest nature preserve in the Alps. It protects a spectacular mountain area which includes the highest peaks in Austria. The day before we had hiked in the far northern part of the park when we went to Weisssee. Today we would go to the very center of the park to see the Grossglockner. It is 3790 meters high (12, 461 feet) and is the highest mountain in Austria and all of the Eastern Alps. We drove the Grossglockner High Alpine Road, which provides access to the some of the most fantastic views in the park, to the Kaiser Franz Josef Hohe Visitor Center. It's directly across the valley from the huge southeast face of the Grossglockner.

The forecast turned out to be accurate. The tops of the mountains were shrouded in clouds and it was pouring rain most of the time. But we could see enough to tell that the Grossglockner was a BIG mountain. It would have been nice to have been there on a clear day. The pictures on the postcards in the gift shop showed that the views were truely spectacular. We resolved to come back on a clear day after the weather had improved. PLOT SPOILER: Like many such resolutions, we didn't make it back on this trip. Maybe next time.

Start of our hike - it looks like the weather is clearing

I had been to the Grossglockner once before. In 1986, in my serious mountaineering days, my climbing partner Vern and I spent a whole month in the Alps. We came to the Hohe Tauern and made the long climb up to the Erzherzog Johann Hut. It's very high on the mountain at 3451 meters. When you reach the hut you have already done most of the climbing - you're within 350 vertical meters of the summit. But just like our experience this year, back then the weather wouldn't cooperate either. As soon as Vern and I reached the hut it turned bad. We waited two nights before we gave up and went down. When the weather improved we came back and again climbed to the hut, and again the weather turned bad on us. After two more nights we were sick of waiting. The huts in Switzerland are very clean. The huts in Austria, not so much, at least back then. And this was the worst hut we had been at. But after climbing so high twice we were not going down again without a summit. So even though I am a fair weather climber, and really only appreciate getting to the top of a mountain when I can enjoy the view, we did the climb the next day in fog. The route is technical, with an alpine grade of PD+. That's easy if you are a professional climber but it's very serious for someone like me. The route went up a narrow ridge and the slopes disappeared into clouds on both sides. That was spooky, as there was no way to tell how far down they went. From photos I saw later, they went down a long, long way. But Vern and I made it to the summit, and more importantly, back down again.

Neualpseen - I thought the weather was clearing?

On this trip Sandy and I had to settle for pictures of the Grossglockner with the top of the peak completely lost in the clouds, taken during a brief letup in the rain. As a consolation prize we checked out the large gift shop but I was disappointed at what they had. I couldn't even find a decent tshirt. I was hoping for an "I climbed the Grossglockner" tshirt, which I could have bought and worn in all honesty.

On the way back we stopped at the village of Heiligenblut. It is famous for its views of the Grossglockner. There is a church which is very photogenic, with flowers in the foreground and the huge white mass of the Grossglockner behind it. Sandy managed to get the flowers in the shot she took. The mountain was in the clouds so you'll just have to use your imagination. Or search the web for a photo taken on a clear day.

We were back in Lienz in the early afternoon and headed straight to the city center. I had found a camera store online and we went there looking for a battery charger. No luck. But by then we had taken enough pictures with Sandy's iphone that we had confidence that we would get a reasonable record of this trip even without my DSLR. So at this point I just stopped worrying about it. Que sera, sera.

Sandy scrambling on the Schleinitz

The next morning it was cloudy but the forecast was for clearing weather. Since we had good luck with a similar forecast earlier in the trip at Schlegeis, we decided to take the cable car up to the ski resort. From there a chairlift took us to a high plateau at 2200 meters known as Zetterfeld. A trail climbed 1200 feet to a group of high lakes, the Neualpseen. The trail only went a short distance up the ridge past the lakes, but an easy scramble route went up to the summit of the Schleinitz, a 2905 meter peak. It was about 2500 feet of elevation gain and was supposed to take three and a half hours to reach the top. We were ready. We had done our warmup hikes. We had a rest day. Today we were going for the summit.

Once again we caught the very first cable car of the day. Things looked promising when we started out. As the cable car climbed out of the valley we also climbed out of the valley fog. Although the peaks were still wrapped in clouds, there were a lot of blue patches in the sky. It did look like the trend would be for clearing weather. It would take us three or four hours to reach the summit so we figured that we would be basking in warm sunshine and enjoying views of the distant mountains by the time we got there.

Well that was a great plan. It just didn't happen. As we hiked the clouds thickened and dropped down from the high peaks. When we reached the Neuaplseen lakes, it was downright gloomy. Still, it wasn't raining (insert your best Marty Feldman impersonation here saying "Could be worse. Could be raining.") so we kept climbing.

Cloudy weather on the hike back to the cable car

When we reached the summit pyramid of the Schleinitz the trail ended and we started to scramble up the south ridge on large boulders. We also reached the level of the clouds, and now were climbing in a thick fog. We could follow the route. It was marked with paint blotches on the rocks. But it was cold and damp. We certainly didn't have any views. We climbed for a while but when we reached a point where there was exposure and cables for security, we decided to turn back. We could have kept going, but it wasn't really fun. We turned around and headed down.

On the hike back we seemed to have made the correct decision. The cloudy weather had settled in. It wasn't raining, or even threatening to rain. But it wasn't clearing either. There was a solid overcast and the mountaintops were all in the clouds. It was cool, actually a pleasant change for hiking after all the heat we had earlier in the week. So it was a good day for a hike, to get some exercise. It wasn't a good day to attempt a summit.

We reached the chairlift a little after noon, and found we had a small problem. It wasn't running. Ruh roh! It was a long walk down to Lienz. When we checked the signs, we saw that it shut down from noon to one oclock. Well, I guess the guys who work on the chairlift need to eat lunch too. Fortunately there was a small restaurant right next to the chairlift. We didn't see anyone but when we checked, they were indeed open. We had our choice of where to sit on the patio while we studied the menu to see what we could get for lunch. Although we hadn't planned to stop here for lunch, this was when we made a great discovery.

What the hell is knodel soup?

One of the things listed was knodelsuppe. I wasn't sure what it was. I knew that noodle soup was nudeln soup. This sounded pretty close. It had to be about the same thing, right? It was listed "mit kase" (with cheese) so it couldn't be too bad. Neither Sandy nor I are adventurous eaters when we travel but for some reason I decided to give it a try.

Well knodel turned out to be bread dumplings, in this case made with cheese and served in broth. And they were... absolutely delicious. I shared some with Sandy and she thought that they were fantastic as well. We had seen them on the menu other places - they are an Austrian and especially a Tyrolean specialty. We marked them down to try again somewhere and kept an eye out for them on the menu. We had them at other mountain huts on the trip and each time they were fantastic. We had made a new favorite food discovery on this trip. When Sandy got back to the US she looked up the recipe and found out that they were quite easy to make. While I was gone hiking in the Sierras (watch for posts on that trip - I'll get to it eventually!) she had a Tyrolean-themed dinner and made them for our friends Ellen and Sarah. They loved it too.

Riding the chairlift down to Lienz

By the time we finished lunch the chairlift was running again. We had a long ride and a very short walk back to our hotel. It was still early afternoon so we cleaned up and headed into town and spent the afternoon checking out the shops. We didn't really find anything but at least we had a chance to look around. For dinner we went back to Leonardo's. We had enjoyed our pizza the first night and this time we decided to try the pasta. It was excellent as well.

When we got back to our hotel after dinner the clouds had finally started to clear off. The mountains across the valley were lit spectacular shades of red and orange in the alpenglow at sunset. The weather forecast for the next day was for sunny weather - about time! We had enjoyed our "rest" days but now we were ready to do some serious hiking again. And we had one more day to do a hike in Lienz before we would be leaving for Italy and our CustomWalks tour in the Dolomites.