Following my Berchtesgaden trip, I found myself in the Queenstown like tourist town of Zell am See in Austria. It is frequented by rich Kuwaitis, who come here to enjoy the humidity in contrast to their own country. There is certainly plenty of that, as a frustrated German pilot I met attested to, it had rained every 24 hour period in the past month! He had bought a Schmitten lift season pass and dogmatically camped in his van indefinitely, hoping to clock up a 100km out and return in this classic paragliding valley.
I spent much of the day parawaiting with him, after forking out 20 euro for the cable car. As usual I had all my gear with me so the option was open to go XC and I had no reason to return to Zell am See. It was a little on the windy side but well flyable, as the tandem pilots demostrated to varying degree. In fact, just as I was about to take off, we were informed that the head of a flight school put his tandem in the trees. Due to the helicopter coming we were not to take off! We waited while the wind picked up further still, with no real news of what was going on. A tandem managed to launch finally and sunk into oblivion before finally sneaking around the spur to windward. We told the next tandem guy about it but he had a cigarette whilst declaring “normal conditions” (he subsequently changed his mind).
Several hours later, nearing the end of the day, the German woke me up and said the wind had dropped a bit – a big cu-nim was shadowing launch. He took off. I had considered keeping my height for the following day, wandering the ridges and finding a nice place to camp (or stay in an alpine hut). But the place wasn’t very alpine, it was just grassy pastures with ski infrastructure all over it. So I decided to follow the German down to the landing field.
I continued to operate in pass-the-time parawaiting mode after landing, lazing in the evening sun and contemplating my next move. I was wary of a possible repeat of Schmitten-sittin’ so I considered taking the bus up to the Grossglockner to get into the big mountains. Suddenly something snapped though and within ten minutes of the last train coming (landing field being in a convenient place), I grabbed my map once again, and decided I should be on it (the train, not the map!). I said my farewells to the German, passed a few minutes by unsuccessfully attempting to hitch, then jumped aboard the two carriage locomotive.
The 50km trip up the valley offered a few glimpses into the mountains, when passing the tributary valleys. It would be a classic cross country, following a large valley with big landing fields and hopping from spur to spur with big glaciated mountains in the distance to the south. But most of my views were of the well manicured and controlled river.
The last part of the trip was a taxi, included in the train fare, that dropped me a short walk from the touristy Krimml Wasserfälle. I found a nice spot to put up my tent fly in the forest. Of course early in the morning (still dark) I woke with the expectation of rain. As I quickly rearranged things I noticed distant lightning, and indeed the shower came. I sheltered myself as best I could. Just a shower!
An early start then, around 5am I dropped my pack by the no-through road service track and walked a stones throw away to photograph the sign / map at the tourist / icecream kiosk. I came back and was completely startled to see my pack had gone! All I had was the clothes I was wearing, phone, and wallet. Not good!
With plenty of adrenaline I rushed out to the main road, several hundred metres away. I’d remembered hearing a diesel truck moving around when I was looking at the sign. No one was around, of course. I stopped a car, talked to a bus driver, walked back towards the kiosk, trying to figure out what number to dial on my phone and finally contacting the local police. Standing around the kiosk amid the confusion a kiosk worker who had recently arrived came to me and said, “Was ist Sie suchen?”. He’d put it aside for me! Hell. I thanked him and continued on my way up the still deserted tourist tracks beside the waterfall.
Several hours later, having climbed into the hanging valley and pushing flat 4wd track miles towards the glaciers ahead, I was overtaken by a shuttlebus or two, and more people started to appear! A few hours after that I was amongst the glaciers and climbing up out the valley passing only one woman, with the weather deteriorating. The pass was cold, wet, and windy whiteout. It was good to be in the elements though, a refreshing change to parawaiting.
Reaching the hut on the other side I was now in Italy. The hut keepers informed me that they understand both Italian and German here and consider themselves Tyrollean. After a good hot lunch it cleared and it was very pretty indeed. I even considered flying – but there was wind up high and it only had to mix in.
The visibility the next morning put me off climbing the Dreiherrenspitze / Pico de Tre Signori / Three fellas peak. Cloud base was approximately the height of the hut. I elected to fly instead, which was nice and scenic. I spotted a fox on the way into the hanging valley. Then it was another long walk out, until finally I had to escape children on school excursions so I climbed up and out of there, back to solitude. I lay in the grass just because I felt like it, absorbing the views with no intention of getting up again. I pondered the decisions of the day. The strong winds meant I had had to fly before the cloud had broken up, but as far as climbing goes now Dreiherrenspitze was in the clear and looked great. Maybe I will climb a mountain tomorrow instead!
I followed my nose and after walking solo for several hours, along beautiful but empty trails, I was surprised to see a full house inside an alpine hut as I arrived midway through dinner.
The next morning I powered up to the track forks, eager to regain ground after having to return for my forgotten iceaxe! I dropped the pack and scooted off in the direction of the local peak, the objective of most at the hut, the Reichenspitze, 3303m. Overtaking the lead party as they donned crampons I scampered up and had a most enjoyable climb.
I must have sat on the summit for nearly an hour, absorbing awesome views and being buffeted by the winds. Finally I decided it was time to leave the queues of people before they started their descent so I had a quick glissade, grabbed my pack, and popped over another pass.
As I suspected, I’d lost the main route, but fortunately my pass was a viable alternative, albeit steep. More enjoyable glissading followed. I then grabbed a quick beer and apple strudel while passing a hut, before heading over another pass, for another glissade (avoiding the route to milk every last bit of snow). No flying but a spectacular day nonetheless. After a refreshing swim in the lake I finished the day with another great meal, sitting outside in the evening sun and gazing directly at the peak I’d just climbed and half circumnavigated. Superb.
This day marked recovery from the bad bowel related experiences of the last trip. I noted in my diary (iPhone), Awesome day, alpine, glissades, feeling strong. The wonders that having a decent shit can do to ones morale cannot be underestimated.
The next morning followed the same pattern, morning mist. Expecting the winds to pick up as per usual once things had burned off I hurried to get to a launch, and had a beautiful sleddie down the valley, feeling some early morning lift close to the trees but not enough to turn in.
Unfortunately the day developed into a cracker, with not much sign of wind! Oops, I stuffed that one up! After some dead end decision making I finally hitched with a Dutch bloke to the next town to the west, and then got a lift with a retired English chap to a valley turnoff near Innsbruck. Here the folly continued – I tried hitching, gave up, caught a train into town, looked at options, caught a bus back along the train route and up into the Kuhtai valley where I booked into a Dutch owned Gasthof – very reasonably priced – and a good chance to charge up my batteries. And have a beer – all is not wasted!
The next morning I eventually managed to get a wifi connection – the Gasthof host must have spent nearly an hour trying to configure his secure internet connection/s for me – commenting that wifi should be free! (well…?) I spoke to James, a fellow pilot from Australia, about meeting up. He had a gut problem and wasn’t feeling that great but agreed to meet up and at least see how he went. I met him on the bus and we started off into the mountains!
Although we didn’t fly the first day was quite pleasant. The next was fantastic. Reaching the pass in the peak of the day in peak season in the middle of the Alps surrounded by intimidating 3000m terrain however, didn’t do a lot for James’ confidence. As I can easily sympathise with, the reality isn’t always quite what you imagine, planning a traverse of the Alps and beyond on Google Maps!
Eventually I decided to fly, and after selecting a starting spot (a small snow chute), off I went. James was entertained as I flew away from the scree slope, glided out for 10-15 seconds, and then hit something which felt and looked big – immediately turning, losing it after two turns, then pushing out again – in sinkier air this time! While the prospects of XC in these big mountains were never very hopeful, I did enjoy this midday excitement. I finally landed only 20 minutes or so later, which was about perfect timing, as James met me while I finished packing up and we continued on to the hut together for more culinary indulgence.
Later in the evening I convinced James to deal with his heeby jeebies and we had a short but nice flight together between the hut, waterfall, and goods lift cables! Just as well, the next day the weather deteriorated again. After crossing a pass we saw the next hut and it was only lunchtime. Time to relax. We both did that quite well, although an hour or so later James decided he didn’t want to get rained on so headed to the hut. When I met him, it was close to 3pm, and I again had a last minute change of plan. I was all of a sudden guilty for squandering time, so I came up with an idea of skipping over a 3000m pass to the next hut so I could climb Schrankogel (3496m), the highest peak in the area.
Very soon the hut warden announced to all his guests the extent of my mad plans. But I had no time to lose – I was off. The wind and sleet did nothing to discourage me. I ditched my glider at the pass and took a day bag over to the Ambergerhutte, and it cleared beautifully as I rapidly descended in the late evening – arriving just in time for dinner. Here I selected exactly what I needed – a pasta meal, salad, and a few slices of good rye bread for the following day. It was the very last of my Euro’s, in my haste I had only thought of my financial situation after leaving James and didn’t have time to turn back to borrow more.
I departed just before dawn. Mostly it was a steady non-relenting climb through mist, although very occasionally the clouds broke and I saw glaciers in the gaps. But my climb was up a rocky ridge with no snow or ice to cross. That is, until I reached the summit. From here my plan was to traverse the peak and retreat down a glacier that led back to the pass with my stashed glider. Besides being aesthetically pleasing and far more interesting, it would save me a long descent to the Ambergerhutte, in the opposite direction I wanted to go. But there was no route so I had to rely on my reconnaissance of the previous day and the map.
Fun, variety, and just a little pushing into the unknown made this a brilliant traverse. Certainly one of the trip highlights.
Before midday I was back at the pass. Sitting in the sun, my mountain in front of me with clouds drifting past, I was quite content to pass the time. The conditions were absolutely perfect for flying, with just one problem – behind me, the pass generated complete whiteout, 110% humidity. In fact when I finally decided to leave my sunny perch behind it was rainy / whiteout / totally overcast all the way to Salzburg.