Karwendel Range, Austria

15 Jul 1999 - by Pat Callery

Grosse Bettelwurfspitze (2706m)
Speckkarspitze (2654m)

I travelled to Austria on business a few weeks ago, planning to spend a little vacation time afterwards. So I found myself with 2 days to kill in between work and when my girlfriend was arriving to Zurich to meet me for a week of touring. First of all, let me thank all those who sent me info about logistics, it was much appreciated! Mostly because I was able to find considerable about the place beforehand, I chose to hike in the Karwendel nature preserve just north of Innsbruck. I found a pretty solid Dutch web page about the park that had just about everything you need to know other than maps & topos [but it vanished from the web in 2014].

There is a TV station in Austria that provides non-stop live oscillating camera views of several mountain resorts, accompanied by rousing german polkas. I was dismayed all week, as every time I turned it on the views from Tirol (the alpine canton in which Innsbruck resides) were of blowing snow above 2000 meters and sub zero (celsius) temps. Hey, isn't this July?!?! Apparently this was a new storm that dropped a foot or so of new snow, after most of the snowpack had already melted away in the early summer.

I departed from a hotel in downtown Innsbruck the morning of Friday, July 10, and checked my stuff at the train station, carrying just a day pack. Fortunately, I was able to find a relatively good topo map (1:50,000, 100m intervals) of the entire park at a small newsstand at the station. That done, using my limited "phrase-book german" I was able to find a city bus that would carry me to Absam, a small suburb bordering the park at the foot of the mountains. I jumped off somewhere in the middle of Absam, where I was able to navigate to the Karwendel roadhead by around 9:30am.

The hike in from Absam was pretty, along a roaring river through dew-drenched forest, up into an impressive river canyon. The hiking trail parallels a paved road for a few miles up to the park boundary. The weather was somewhat dismal, with low clouds drifting through the valleys and obscuring the peaks, with occasional glimpses of sunlight; but at least the rain was holding off. After about an hour, the trail to Grosse Bettelwurfspitze branched away from the river and ascended an wide open loose scree slope. Fortunately, the trail, which was marked throughout by red & white circles painted on rock, was fairly beaten in to the slope, so the footing was not too bad. After about an hour of switchbacks up & across the scree slope, the trail branched out into scrub brush. As I rounded the corner of another switchback, I was startled to see a deer-like animal about 30 feet in front of me, staring back at me. I slowly drew my camera and took his photo, at which time he sprang towards me several steps to take a closer look, which certainly gave me a fright. A few moments later it sprang off into the brush ahead of me. When I encountered the beast again several minutes later, it shouted at me in a high-pitched wheeze/ shriek and stared with an evil eye, apparently trying to intimidate or reproach me for my intrusion. I later figured out this animal was probably a chamois.

At about 11:45 I branched off the main trail to the "climbers" trail towards Grosse Bettelwurfspitze. After a couple of small glacier crossings I lost the marked trail in the snow and began bushing it up 2nd class talus mixed with snow. I cursed myself for not bringing gaiters! Higher up I re-encountered the trail where cables had been installed in the rock over 3rd class terrain. In the low cloud cover I could often see less than 5 feet in front of me, only to break through to a view of the Inntal (innsbruck valley) 6000 feet below me. At about 1:30pm I reached the summit, where tremendous views of the Karwendelbierge lay to the east, west, and north. To the south was the lush green valley and the impressive mountain range south of Innsbruck, only occasionally visible through the passing clouds. Buried in the snow at the summit were several large coils of 20mm diameter steel cable and a rescue sled, alongside two large steel pickets planted in the rock. Temperature at the summit was a comfortable 40 Fahrenheit.

I debated making the short ridgeline hike from Grosse to Kleine Bettelwurfspitze, to return down the climbing trail on Kleine, but turned around when I encountered a dreadfully exposed 3rd class downclimb. The eerie weather served to compound the fact that nobody really knew where I was, and my better judgment got the best of me.

I managed to stay on the use trail all the way back to the main trail and on to Bettelwurfhutte, where I stopped in around 3pm to chat with the hut keepers. I planned to hike the remaining 2 hours (hiking distances are marked by time, not distance!) to the Hallerangerhaus. The keeper mentioned he had seen me high up on Bettelwurf; when I informed him of my intent to hike up the Speckkarspitze on the way to Hallerangerhaus, he said "You do not want to climb da Speckkar... there is snow, and very cold!" He told me which trails to take to Hallerangerhaus and I was on my way.

Shortly along the trail, I passed a couple hikers, the first people I had seen on the trail all day. The sun made more frequent appearances, and I was happy to be wearing short pants and sleeves. Still much snow on the trail and my socks were by this time soaked through. A little after four I reached a trial junction and started up Speckkarspitze. The rock on the Speckkar was fairly loose, though not as bad as Bettelwurf. I managed to stay on the trail most of the way as it crossed a huge talus field (which contained a lot of snow rubble from apparent avalanche runout), and up the loose west face. I passed several more hikers coming down, thankfully I was not rained on with all the loose rock from above. There were some class 3 sections along the way (always with cables!) but the going was easy and I was on the summit by about 5:20. I found a register on the summit and did my best to sign something in german. All told, I had grossed between 9000 and 10,000 vertical feet since getting off the bus 8 hours earlier, and my legs were exhausted. The downclimb was more of a stumble than a hike, and I paused several times to sit and admire the amazing views. The rest of the hike passed some very interesting rock formations, including an 8 foot wide chimney crack that extended close to 1000 feet up the north face pf the Speckkar. Finally, by around 7:20 I stumbled up to the Hallerangerhaus.

Those of you who have hiked in the Alps are aware that these huts are not conventional huts in the American sense of the word. Here I was greeted with a freshly cooked hot meal and beer on tap. (Side note: One of my biggest disppointments with Austria and Switzerland is that they always only have one kind of beer on tap. Is it better in Germany or is this "European beer superiority" all just a big hoax?) Anyway, I was not complaining about the beer here. Do they drag these kegs up by pack mule or something? I don't think I ever carried a keg more than a few blocks when I was in college. This hut is several miles from the nearest roadhead! Helicopter perhaps?

As the only English speaking person in the hut that night, I quietly engulfed my dinner and headed off to bed. Whereas I previously was concerned about showing up withut a reservation (not a recommended practice, I was informed), I was quite surprised to end up with a 17- bunk room all to myself. The whole deal, dinner and bed, cost me 250 schillings, or about 20 bucks. I hit the sack around 9pm and was quickly soothed to sleep by the music from scores of cowbells just outside the window. Funny, earlier from up on the mountain I could faintly hear the cowbells in the meadow below, but had assumed somebody was making some funky calypso music down at the hut.

I woke at 4:30 the next morning and set out for Scharnitz in the muted pre-dawn light. Within the first 20 minutes, I startled two separate groups of chamois. Their sleek, graceful jaunt up the sidewalls of the meadow into the forest above was something to admire, a certain mystical enhancement was provided by the low light. The remainder of the hike out took me along a raging river as it grew from a 3 foot wide stream to a 50 foot wide torrent at the foot of the valley. All the way out I found myself surrounded by huge canyon walls and mountains that rival the best of California. I reached the small town of Scharnitz by 8:45 and hopped the next train back to Innsbruck, a mere 24 hours after the start of this scenic and invigorating journey.

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