I was looking forward to the climb. Firstly, after about a fortnight of doing little else except imbibing copious quantities of food and wine on our journey through the south of France to Austria, I knew I needed some serious exercise. Secondly, I’d never done any serious hillwalking outside Scotland, so I was keen to see how things differed.
A lot, was the simple answer.
The obvious difference was the heat. In Scotland you need to pack for all seasons (okay, just three – summer is a often relative term here, certainly at altitude), with various extra layers to see you through the frequent and occasionally dangerous changes in weather you can face.
Here in the Styrian mountains in July, it was scorching hot even in the early morning as we set out from the car park towards Haindlkarhütte. I was glad I’d worn shorts and a short-sleeved shirt which by the end of the day I had completely unbuttoned (not to mention soaked through with perspiration).
The path was steep and ascent was quickly achieved, and while there were one or two tricky and potentially risky parts I was in good hands. Our host Günther was an experienced hillwalker and great company, though his English not quite fluent (and my German very poor).
We were both armed with pocket German-English dictionaries, though. So had I strayed into perilous territory, it would only have taken him a couple of minutes or so to flick through the pages to find how to say something like “watch out, don’t stand there, the ground’s not stable!”
Another difference, and a very welcome touch, was the string of markers along the way, taking the form of Austrian flags painted on rocks. I can well imagine purists in the Scottish hillwalking community complaining about the lack of initiative it leaves walkers plus the potential environmental damage.
And to be fair, the boggy, heathery terrain in the Highlands probably doesn’t leave much space for clear rock faces on which you can paint markers (if of course you can see through the wind, rain and mist). Things were different in Austria, though, where the hot summer left dry, parched rock as the default canvas, the red and white standing out boldly against the grey.
The terrain reminded me of Yosemite, California, where uncompromisingly dramatic mountains towered over you and reminded you how small you were. Not least when this was territory when giants had once tread. At least if you believe the legend, of a giant called John who once roamed the area and left his footprint in a rock (right) and his name in the nearby town of Johnsbach.
The climb took the best part of an hour, and we soon arrived at our destination, the hut that lies around halfway up to the summit. It’s a common occurrence in Austria, taking the form of a simple restaurant, bar and hostel where people can base themselves for a few days’ camping or just refresh themselves in the middle of a hike.
To my astonishment, several people were tucking into meals and pints of beer, even at this mid-morning hour. Hardcore Scottish hillwalkers would probably have apoplexy at the thought of alcohol on a hot morning climb, and definitely at the sight of a stag party at the hut, the stag himself sporting only a wig and mankini, with a blow-up doll and pile of empty beer cans tied to him. Weir’s Way it certainly was not.
Mild snob that I was, I abstained from any refreshments, figuring that if I could climb greater heights with just water back home then it would do me here too. By now the sun was well up over the high horizon and it was exhausting even just sitting outside the hut in the sunshine and warmth without the debilitating addition of a pint of beer.
Descending the track after our break was tricky in places, though faster, and it was a great to be focussed not on the hill under our feet but the beautiful view across the valley. The mountain we’d climbed was just one of a great many in Austria.
Hopefully I’ll be back to do more.
In the meantime, here are the rest of my photos from the climb.