Destination: Zillertal Alps

Soaring peaks, sparkling glaciers and exceptional walking routes mean this unspoiled region of the Austrian Tyrol is prime adventure territory – as one of its most intrepid sons can attest.

Words and photography by Joly Braime

 ‘These mountains were more or less rediscovered by the Brits,’ says Peter Habeler, digging into his plate of pasta and watching the snow fluttering down outside the window. ‘They were the playground of young British climbers.’

We’re sat round in the great wood-panelled dining hall at the Berliner Hütte, 2,042 metres up in Austria’s Zillertal Alps. If Habeler’s name sounds familiar, it’s because in May of 1978, he and his climbing partner Reinhold Messner made history by becoming the first men to summit Mount Everest without using bottled oxygen. Now 75, he’s climbed all over the world, but the Zillertal is his home turf, and it’s where he cut his mountaineering teeth.

‘I was guiding here even as a boy – by the time I was 14 or 15, I was taking them to the summits,’ he laughs.

Undeveloped mountains

To be honest, there is little need for Habeler to promote his home region as a walking destination – the Zillertal pretty much markets itself. Set in the Eastern Alps, this part of the Austrian Tyrol is an extraordinary landscape of towering peaks, deep valleys, and scores of glaciers. Look up, and you’ll see little tornados whipping up spirals of snow on the 3,000-metre tops; look down, and icy turquoise streams rush down over grey silt from the ice fields above.

Best of all, more than 420 square kilometres (160 square miles) are protected as part of the High Alps Nature Park. Where so many Alpine communities have been seduced by the glitter of ski gold, replacing their traditional buildings with chic wellness hotels, and carving lifts and runs into their mountainsides, the Zillertal has compartmentalised its tourism. The downhill bustle is concentrated round Mayrhofen and Hintertux in the north and west of the region, leaving the spidery southern valleys gloriously unspoiled.

As we ascend to the Berliner Hütte via the Zemmgrund valley, the only scars on the slopes are the broad strips of avalanche-skittled trees, and a single narrow vehicle track to service the mountain huts. Our guide, Florian, dives repeatedly off into the undergrowth, returning with handfuls of cranberries, blueberries and raspberries. He picks the seeds from cones of Swiss pine, nipping off the tips and squeezing the ‘butter’ into his mouth. There’s a joyous feeling of Eden about the place.

Later that evening, I remark on how wonderful the lack of development is, and it turns out I’m not alone.

‘I love that there are no lifts and cable cars here,’ confides Habeler. ‘We have a fully commercialised part, and then we have this fantastic area too.’

Ich bin ein Berliner

The Berliner Hütte, where we sit chatting late into the night and drinking a little too much local ‘zirbenschnapps’ (a delicious, resinous concoction, flavoured with Florian’s favourite Swiss pine cones) is a special place for Habeler. Asked about his favourite spot in the Zillertal Alps, he picks this hut without hesitation.

‘I remember being up here as a young boy, walking from Ginzling. I would always get a soup.’

Built in the 1870s by the Berlin section of the German Alpine Club, the Berliner Hütte is a ‘hut’ in much the same way that Sandringham House is a ‘house’. From its Valhalla-like dining room and carved chandeliers to its long corridors of creaky little rooms that sleep a hundred walkers at a push, the whole interior is clad in richly coloured timber. At one time, it boasted a post office, a cobbler and a bakery, and it was so popular that it had its own telephone line as early as 1908.

There’s a ladies’ dining room with murals and carvings, and a more rustic one where the young guides, Habeler included, used to hunker down while they waited for clients. Places like this are full of mountain character, and inevitably some of his memories are on the colourful side. My particular favourite is the tale of an Alpinist Catholic priest from Vienna who once cleaned out several guides in a poker game.

‘His girlfriend was with us too, I think,’ adds Habeler innocently, as we snigger guiltily into our schnapps.

Challenging routes

Part of the Berliner Hütte’s popularity stems from its outstanding location. Set on the Berliner Höhenweg long-distance path, and ringed by 3,000-metre peaks, it makes an ideal jumping-off point for more ambitious forays into the surrounding mountains.

And therein lies both the joy and the drawback of the area, depending on your point of view. A mountain guide acquaintance of mine classes the Zillertal Alps as ‘superb harder walking’, and many of the routes are spectacular but reasonably demanding. The hut-to-hut tours will require decent fitness, and if you’re going to start tackling summits then often you’ll need solid glacier crossing and crevasse rescue skills, or an experienced guide.

Inevitably, both Habeler and Florian advise hiring guides for mountain tours in the Zillertal, and Florian is reluctant to discuss opportunities for independent walking. He argues that only a professional with local knowledge can truly assess whether a walker is up to a particular route, and that the conditions up here can turn on a sixpence. As if to prove his point, in the space of 48 hours we encounter bright sunshine, rain, fog, and a decent dump of snow.

All the same, while a guide is an excellent idea if you’re looking to extend your reach, a prohibition on independent walking does seem a bit unnecessarily absolute, particularly if you’ve got plenty of hill experience under your belt. Indeed, Habeler himself mentions the Highlands, Snowdonia and the Lake District as good training grounds for adventures in the Zillertal.

In the Cicerone guide to Trekking in the Zillertal Alps (2013), writer, mountaineer and fellow walk contributor Allan Hartley takes a more balanced view of the opportunities on offer for different experience levels, including novices and families. While emphasising that ‘the Zillertal is not necessarily a tame area in comparison with the Western Alps’, he nevertheless reckons that some routes in the area are ‘ideal for first-time visitors to the Alps […] and for aspiring alpinists’.

Long-distance routes

A good place to start might be with a section of one of the Zillertal’s multi-day tours. There’s an excellent network of huts, most owned by the various Alpine associations, and the undeveloped nature of the Zillertal gives hut-hopping a definite edge over day excursions.

The classic is the Berliner Höhenweg (70-80km, 8-10 days), but there’s also the relatively new Peter Habeler Runde (56km, 6 days). Both are high-level routes featuring steep, rocky terrain and stretches of assisted path, but you won’t need climbing gear and glacier skills unless you’re planning on taking side trips to bag the big summits.

The Peter Habeler Runde was devised in celebration of our local hero’s 70th birthday, and he recently marked his 75th year by climbing the north face of the Eiger, a challenge for which he and Messner once held the speed record. Their lightweight mountaineering style, unconventional in the 1970s, was based on swiftness and adaptability, and even in the modern era of ‘fast and light’ gear, he still reckons walkers have some things to learn. ‘People carry too much. They have big heavy rucksacks – what the hell? They say, “maybe I need it”; I say, “maybe you don’t need it”!’

For a man who made his name through some of the most extreme adventures of his era, Habeler is refreshingly devoid of mountain machismo. All the same, the affable old raconteur still shows the occasional glint of steel when he talks about the tough ascents. He confides: ‘You have to work – you have to kill your little pig which is living inside you which is saying, “I want to stop”.’

On the edge of a revival?

Habeler has fond recollections of his early days in the 1960s, guiding British mountain walkers in the Zillertal.

‘The people from England were extremely strong – we hated them! They wore Ventile jackets, breeches, gaiters and good boots. The Brits didn’t care about bad weather.’

It’s a source of regret to him that in more recent decades, the more intrepid types who used to flock to the Zillertal have tended to gravitate to South America and Nepal instead. And in an odd parallel, as the mountaineers have been disappearing, so too have some of the Zillertal’s celebrated glaciers.

Old photographs of the Berliner Hütte show the two nearby glaciers, the Waxeggkees and the Hornkees, reaching almost to the walls of the hut, and even in Habeler’s youth they were close enough for the staff to use the ice as a natural fridge-freezer. These days you can barely see them at all. As we descend from the Berliner Hütte the next morning, only the tip of the Hornkees is visible high up above the wide sweep of snow-covered moraine.

But while the glaciers aren’t returning to the Berliner Hütte any time soon, Habeler’s quietly optimistic about the future of mountain walking in the Zillertal Alps.

‘There is a generation coming up now who don’t want to use the lifts. They want to walk up, like Hemingway,’ he grins. ‘There’s a big renaissance… and I like it!’     

Walk it!

  • TIME/DISTANCE: The Peter Habeler Runde (56km) usually takes 6 days, while the Berliner Höhenweg (70-80km) takes 8-10 days. Both routes have various access points, so can be walked in shorter sections. The walks pass through meadows but also over ridges, rock and scree, so decent levels of fitness and experience are essential. If in doubt, there are plenty of local mountain guides available.
  • TRAVEL: Innsbruck is the nearest main airport, but Munich and Salzburg are also good options. Onward travel to the Zillertal’s main hub of Mayrhofen is by rail or road.