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Postcard - Hiking Austria's Virgental

Steve Jones

Hiking hut-to-hut in the Austrian Tirol, Summer 1998

Hiking hut-to-hut in the Austrian Tirol, Summer 1998

The Virgental is a small valley in the shadow of Austria's tallest peak, the Grossglockner, nestled between the Lasorling and Venediger mountain ranges. Because it is not a major downhill skiing destination, this Tirolean valley has retained its rural character and has not been scarred by the commercial development which is associated with major downhill skiing venues. The mountains that ring the Virgental are primarily used for hiking and ski touring. Because of this, the area is ringed with twenty-one alpine huts.

A booklet titled "Mountains", provided by Tirol-Information helped us decide that the area near the villages of Pragraten and Virgen would be a good location from which to launch our hut-to-hut trek. Because the weather was "iffy" when we arrived, and we had found lodging at a wonderful farm/gasthaus, we thought that staying in the valley and making small treks up to the alms (small shelters) in the lower elevations of the valley was a good strategy to warm up for a longer hut-to-hut journey.

On our last day in the valley, a day after we allowed ourselves to optimistically hike "a ridge too far", we creakily hobbled down to the breakfast room. As we loaded our baggage into the trunk of the car, our host inquired about our next destination. I pointed up the side of the valley and told him that we would be hiking up to the Wetterkreutz hut and then along the trail known as the Lasorling Hohneweg. He was startled that we would want to hike up to the first hut, when a mountain taxi service was available. When my wife discovered that her prayers had been answered, we headed into the village of Virgen to hire a taxi at the local tourist bureau.

Soon, we were being whisked up a logging trail in a four wheel drive Volkwagen van. We and our six fellow passengers gasped occasionally as the vehicle bounced and slipped on the muddy, rutted road, especially on the switchbacks that revealed empty space all the way to the valley floor, thousands of feet below. "Guard rails? We don't need no stinkin' guard rails!" When we reached our destination at 2106 meters, we were happy to have saved ourselves from a three hour hike.

Discharged from the taxi, we all kissed the ground and most set forth to hike to the Lasorling hut, four and a half hours away. This hut is located at an altitude of 2305 meters, so our hike could be characterized as a "balcony hike". This wonderful balcony allowed us to follow a clearly defined trail, sparsely traveled, with constant views of the snow-capped peaks and glaciers of the Venediger range, across the valley. The June weather was warm and sunny and the high meadows were filled with alpenroses and other wild flowers. By lunch time we were nearing the Zupalsee Hut. Its fresh pine decor and the convenience of popping in for a cool beer after two hours on the trail made our lunch stop quite pleasant. Refreshed, we pressed on towards our destination.

Occasionally, we would come upon a log bench, where we would rest and try to absorb the incredible beauty and tranquility. Around two o'clock, towering cumulus clouds began to build (a typical phenomenon at high altitudes, on warm days) and the barometer on my trusty Dick Tracy wrist altimeter/watch/gizmo began to show a marked decline in barometric pressure. Some of our fellow travelers from the mountain taxi read the warnings and turned back. Our maps showed some shelters (intended for cattle grazing in the high meadows) nearby that we thought we could get to in a dire emergency, so we pressed on.

Predictably, the weather turned unseasonably cold and it began to spit light rain. Got Gortex? Yes! Coming to a fork in the trail, we decided to take the lower branch, since it seemed to pass closer to the shelters on the map, and both branches appeared to lead to the Lasorling hut. Soon the trail ended, just when the weather started to look really menacing. Rather than back-track all the way back to the fork in the trails, we decided to go "cross-country" up the side of the mountain. Forty minutes later, with 400 meters of elevation gained, we rejoined the original trail, winded, but no worse for wear. The weather held, and the storm never came. After a gradual ascent, the trail crested a small rise and we gained our first view of our destination. Across a large scree field that looked like the surface of the moon, lay the Lasorling hut, looking like the Emerald City.

The weather started to clear, and by the time we had traded our hiking boots for felt hut slippers, and checked into a private room at the hut, the sun had come out. We met a Danish couple on the terrace and joined them for beers. They were perplexed as to why we chose the Tirol over the Rockies for hiking. I raised the beer glass and swept my arm towards the hut. "Because you would never find comforts like this on the trail in the Rocky Mountains", I lamented. Then, I thought to myself "Jeeze, you could be eating trail mix and freeze dried beef stroganof" and began looking forward to the night's meal of goulash soup with fresh rye bread, served with a good Austrian beer, of course.

The privately owned hut is an intimate, pine paneled structure that has a capacity of 65 hikers, 40 of them on communal matratzenlager. The other 25 guests can be accommodated in 2, 3, and 4 bed private rooms. We stayed in a 2 bed room, furnished with an extremely comfy goose down comforter and colorful rag rugs. It had its own private, modern bathroom: very nice. The hut food was nearly as good as any restaurant "down in the valley", but we were limited to two choices from the menu: understandable, given their location.

Our plans to hike on to other huts on the Lasorling Way were thwarted when we found out that all the trails beyond were still covered with four or more feet of snow (we knew that early June was pushing the envelope). So, after a nourishing breakfast, we headed down the valley toward Pragraten, a lovely four hour stroll. Serenaded by cuckoo calls, on a beautiful sunny day, we passed down into farm meadows, and past farm houses festooned with flower boxes of geraniums. Stopping at a small alm, we enjoyed cold plates of meat and cheese, with the obligatory beers, of course.

Ah, life is good!

Photos

www.slowphotos.com/photo/showgallery.php?cat=3416: Overnight at King Alberts, photos from this hike, Steve and Linda Jones

www.slowphotos.com/photo/showgallery.php?cat=3607: Hiking Austria's Virgental, photos from this hike, Steve and Linda Jones

Resources

Slow Travel Austria - Hiking Hut-to-Hut: What to expect with this kind of hiking in the alps, Steve Jones

Slow Travel France - King Albert's Hut: Postcard of hiking to a hut above Chamonix in the French Alps, Steve Jones

© Steve Jones, 2005

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