Margaret, September 18, 2004
It was forecast to be a gorgeous
day; and it was. The sky was cloudless and bright, the
air the chilly crispness of autumn. It had been rare
this summer to wake up and see the distinct silhouette
of the Wendelstein, the nearby mountain of note. Most
days, I had to wait for the morning mist to burn off.
And some rainy days the mountains didn't show themselves
at all. But today, as I looked out my bedroom window,
south to the horizon, I marveled at the pinkish-yellow
glow that drew the contour of the Wendelstein and its
companions in the sky. It would be a beautiful day.
I couldn't quite rouse myself at 6:30am on a Saturday,
but did manage to get out of bed by 7:00am. Having done
most of my packing the evening before, the morning routine
was simple and I hopped in my car to drive down to the
Austrian border. A half-hour later I was in Kufstein.
This town on the river Inn sits on the way from Munich
to Innsbruck, right in the middle of the Alps. It's
a ski resort in winter and the starting point for many
an outdoor activity in summer. The road dumped me out
into the center of the town and I witnessed throngs
of people hustling to set up for an apparent fest. Women
prepared fest tables with cheap colorful tablecloths
and centerpieces. Men hauled out benches. Children decorated
the streets with scattered bales of hay.
But my eyes were on the store signs. I was looking
for a place that would sell me new batteries for my
camera, which had decided that very morning to be done
with the old ones. I spotted a Schlecker,
a sort of home supply store and went in. The store was
empty except for the shopkeeper whom I greeted, and
I quickly found the things I needed. The shopkeeper
took my old batteries for recycling and charged me for
the new ones. On my way out she called, "enjoy
your vacation!" I couldn't decide whether to take
that as "enjoy my two-year working vacation of
being in Europe" or "enjoy my one-day vacation
to Kufstein and its Alps". I knew she meant something
in between and took it as both.
I navigated through the windy one-way streets of
Kufstein trying to find the starting point to my hike.
I hit dead ends a few times, but eventually managed
to find the trailhead and the parking lot across the
street from it. As I gathered my things a woman magically
appeared at my car door, demanding two euros for the
privilege of parking. I paid her and crossed the street.
I grin. It is already 9:15am - later than I had anticipated,
but still early enough for a full day hike.
The hike begins just outside the northern limits
of Kufstein, where the Kaiserbach (the "Emperor's
Brook") flows into the Inn. I would be vaguely
following the Kaiserbach the whole day, working my way
up the valley Kaisertal to a mountain hut called Stripsenjoch.
A coworker had recommended the route to me, and it sounded
like a lovely way to spend the day.
I start up the maintained erosion-control steps with
dozens of hikers around me doing likewise. In less than
five minutes I come upon a cow. A cow on the steps.
With her are two men, trying with all their might to
prod, coerce, and push her down the steps. They aren't
having much luck. She must have come from one of the
mountain pastures above and I can see that she favors
one of her back legs. I don't know why the cowherds
decided to bring her down the hiking steps as opposed
to one of the supply roads, but perhaps they thought
(incorrectly) it would be quicker. They had managed
to make the cow move one more step down by the time
I lost sight of them as I rounded a bend above.
The steps peter out and became a wide dirt road,
sloping gradually upward along the top edge of the valley.
Pastures flank the path, with grass nibbled to lawnmower
perfection. The rush of the Kaiserbach can be heard
down the right. And steep slopes rise up on the left
to reveal bared rock and clinging trees. Then there
is the sound of cowbells and I come upon the Veitenhof,
a farmyard-turned-guesthouse. Cows graze in the pasture
below the house, and above a man in Tyrolean garb descends
from the upper hill. Over his shoulder is slung what
I take to be firewood, but upon closer inspection determine
to be fence posts. He greets a neighbor who had just
come out his back door and the two converse out of earshot.
Further along the path, through pastures, bright
sunlight, and tips of mountains rising up on all sides,
I come upon the Pfandlhof, another farmyard that offers
eating and sleeping possibilities to passersby. More
cows. And also goats. And a steep pebbled driveway that
looks like it would be impassible in winter. As I leave
it for further pastures, I catch up to an older man
who is hiking alone. We exchange the customary greetings,
and he asks my destination, addressing me as Fräulein.
I tell him and he looks mildly impressed, describing
to me the route I must take. He asks where I am from,
comments on hiking alone, and on the weather. Soon thereafter
he takes the left branch of the path, heading up to
the peak of a nearby mountain, and I take the right.
It wasn't necessary, of course, for this man who
called me Fräulein to describe my route. The Austrian
Mountain Club (Österreichischer Alpenverein),
like its German counterpart, does a tremendous job of
marking all the trails through the Alps. Hiking trails
are indicated with red circles, technical climbing ones
with black ones. Approximate hiking times are listed
on signs at every intersection. I learn from these signs,
in fact, that I am hiking along route 801 and will follow
it all the way to Stripsenjoch.
The path soon leads me into some woods and I welcome
the shade as refuge from the blinding sunshine of the
pastures. The path meanders down, crossing streams at
wood-planked bridges. For the first time I am actually
alone on my hike, no chattering of other hikers behind
me, nor the click-click-click of trekking poles ahead.
The woods are full of color and shape. I stop to admire
the bluebell flowers that are only found at higher altitudes.
The texture of a tall rotted tree stump covered in moss
and shelf mushrooms catches my attention. I hear rustlings
in the brush, small animals foraging. The air smells
like damp earth.
Too soon the path has descended onto the bank of
the Kaiserbach. There, families picnic and couple stroll,
having arrived by a path along the brook itself. The
brook is wide here, washing over smooth pebbles and
wider rocks. Kids jump from rock to rock, crossing the
stream and coming back. The water itself is flowing
quickly, with the swirling milky look of glacial water.
I stop to dangle my fingertips in it and find that it
is indeed ice cold.
The hiking is easy for a while, flat along the brook's
bank. And then the path heads back into the woods and
up. Soon I arrive at the Hans-Berger Haus, situated
with a view overlooking the valley. The front porch
is busy with hikers enjoying their lunches amongst flowers
draping the railings all around. I ask if I can use
the bathroom and the young woman there answers in perfect
English, "of course." I wonder what has given
me away: the backpack? The plastic water bottles? The
lack of trekking poles?
From there it's nothing but up. The signposts indicate
that it's another hour to Stripsenjoch, but it takes
me less time. The path here is a series of rocks with
flat tops, positioned like stairs. It switches back
and forth, climbing to the ridge, gaining elevation
every bit of the way. I stop on a couple of these turns
to take in the view behind me. Soon I hear voices, indistinct,
drifting down from above and I reach my destination:
a mountain hut like the last, with a full contingent
of diners on the deck, enjoying the views and the Kaiserschmarrn.
Stripsenjoch Haus is accessible in several ways,
one of which is the four-hour route I took along the
Kaisertal. Another, shorter way is a one-hour hike up
the other side and as I looked over the ridge I could
see the parking lot from which most of the Stripsenjoch
visitors originated. I make my way past groups of older
hikers and groups of younger ones with ropes tied to
their packs. They will be doing one of the many rock-climbing
routes in the area. I buy and eat my lunch quickly,
all too ready to remove myself from the crowd.
When I am done, I climb up a little further to take
in the full panorama. To the west extends the valley
from which I came, framed at the horizon by mountains
on the other side of the Inn. To the east, the view
is similar. A valley drops down and leads away from
the ridge to a patchwork of light green pastures and
dark green woods, dotted here and there by the glint
of a farmhouse or mountain hut. To the north is the
peak of the Stripsenkopf, flanked on either side by
the starker mountains of the Zahmer Kaiser range. Many
of the hikers who took the short way up to Stripsenjoch
will continue up to its top. The southern view is the
most imposing, though, with the harsh bare stone of
the Wilder Kaisers rising almost vertically up to impressive
heights above. The climbers will be heading in that
I glance at the obligatory panorama guide that names
all of the peaks that can be seen from the ridge, and
am delighted to discover that to the northwest, just
peeking out around the side of the last of the Zahmer
Kaisers is a mountain I recognize. I turn and look.
It isn't quite the same shape as from the other side,
but nevertheless I behold my familiar Wendelstein. And
then I realize that it must be the white peaks of the
Kaisers that I can see from home on very clear days
when the humidity is gone from the air.
I admire the view a bit longer and then begin to
head back, down the ridge to the valley floor, back
up through the woods to the pastureland, and then, joining
up with the crowds again, down again into Kufstein.
I get back in my car and drive home without incident,
even though the center of Kufstein is closed for the
fest. Back in my apartment I gaze out the window at
the Wendelstein and the Kaisers further off in the distance,
their silhouettes now dark in the fading light of dusk.