Thursday, September 17, 2009

Via Alpina Day 1: Munich to Meilerhütte

Forest View from Above Leutasch Austria

<< Previous Week: Via Alpina, prologue

I arrived yesterday afternoon at the four star NH Munich Airport Hotel, my first stop on the way to the Via Alpina's Red Trail. The fluffy white comforter reminded me that I was back in Bavaria as did the spotless, dustless modern furniture. For under $60, it was a real bargain. Still, on the shuttle back to the airport, I can't help but reflect that I am still hours away from the trailhead.

The subway station is at the airport so I have to return. This shuttle was free from the airport so I am surprised to find that the return trip costs €5. To an American, German customer service is often a touch too pragmatic: they have a vested interest in getting me to the hotel but no interest at all in getting me anywhere else. I guess it makes sense in a weird way but it wouldn't fly in the States.

My hiking attire is bizarrely unique in this mini-van of starched and cologned business-folk. Nobody tries to sit next to me, leaving me plenty of elbow room. I get the impression that my style, or lack thereof, is probably misunderstood. To the untrained eye, my dusty backpack and threadbare fedora give me the air of a hobo who maybe just won a pile on the horses.

The public transportation system around Munich is called the U-Bahn. The "U" presumably stands for "Untertage" (underground), so it is, nominally anyway, a subway. Not surprisingly, it runs mostly above ground out here in the countryside. Yellow stucco houses with red tiled roofs sit close to the tracks bordered by sculpted hedges and trellised vines. The yards are all planted with fruit trees and gardens. In my yard I grow more piles than plants. I am amazed to see that everyone here has such a green thumb.

It is difficult to make travel plans three thousand miles from your destination. Even so, the half-day of travel to Scharnitz, Austria was an amateur miscalculation. If I were to plan it again, I would never have slept so far from my destination. It will take 8 hours to hike to Meiler Hütte. That is a serious challenge for my first day, and I won't even start before noon.

While riding the U-Bahn it dawns on me that I haven't yet withdrawn any Euros. I have a few in my pocket from a previous trip but they won't get me far in the middle of nowhere. Hut to hut hiking in Europe requires lots of ready cash, so the first thing I want to do before heading south is to find an ATM. I hop off the subway and use my spare twenty minutes in fruitless wandering. I chase my tail through pedestrian tunnels and sleepy streets but don't find an ATM. Bahnhof München-Pasing is supposed to be a major commuter hub but it looks more like a quiet suburb. I return to the train station with some anxiety. If there are no ATMs here, will there be any in Scharnitz? How far will I have to walk just to find one, and will it take my card or decline it?

I sit nervously and wait for my train among smartly dressed locals. The minutes pass. The train must be late -- but if it were, there would at least be some raised eyebrows. I show my printout of the train schedule to the middle-aged woman next to me and she shakes her head skeptically. This really is a sleepy suburb. I got off the subway one station too early.

A half-hour later, at the real Bahnhof München-Pasing, I rush to the ticketing area. I am generally not a panicky traveler but this is starting to feel like one of those bad dreams where you make one small mistake and things spiral completely out of control. To lose a day at this point could really throw off my itinerary. My pulse is racing as I scan the departure board for an alternate train to the region.

I am saved by the one inefficiency of the German rail system. In the interest of comprehensive public transportation, they don't think twice about repeatedly sending half-empty trains on dead-end routes. Consequently, there is a train leaving in an hour for Mittenwold, just across the border from Scharnitz, not far from Innsbruck. So that's plan B, I guess.

I find an ATM and take out my daily maximum, the equivalent of about $400. Two close calls have been averted but I will have to start paying more attention to details. Mistakes in civilization are one thing but mistakes in the middle of nowhere can be deadly.

I settle myself in the slick, modern coach for the two-hour journey and consider my options. It would be a shame to miss the hike from Scharnitz to Leutasch but there is really no other way at this point. To start from Mittenwold now would be inviting disaster: one can't start an 8-hour hike into the middle of nowhere at 2:00 in the afternoon. I will have to get to Leutasch and start from there -- cutting off the first three hours of the hike. Perhaps I can catch a taxi from the train station.

On the train I see a group of hikers. The area where I am going has many popular hiking trails. If they are heading for my trail, they will be starting tomorrow. Chances are, they will be climbing other mountains. Even so, just seeing them makes me feel a little more at ease.

For those unfamiliar with European trail systems, I should give a bit of background. The Via Alpina is a newly arranged collection of trails that criss-cross Europe. I say "newly arranged" because many of the routes are reconfigurations of paths that have been used for centuries. The Via Alpina is really just another way to categorize, and connect, these same old trails. Some new paths have been (and will be) added for the purpose of continuity but, for the most part, it's just a way to encourage hikers to visit some less frequented trails.

It is in the best interest of the local hiking clubs to publicize new routes like those of the Via Alpina. These routes get people to some of the under-utilized huts that desperately need more visitors. Also, some of the more popular routes are so well traveled that they suffer from erosion and pollution. Spreading out the visitors is in everyone's best interest.

I belong to the Austrian Alpine Club's, UK Branch. As far as I know, there is no US branch of the Austrian Alpine Club. I might have joined the Appalachian Mountain Club, but I feel that the AACUK gives me the most bang for my buck in the Alps. Besides, I love Austria's mountains. They are affordable, remote and just as beautiful as the Swiss or Italian Alps; I like that my money goes to support that. I could probably get reciprocal benefits from the Appalachian Mountain Club but you just never know.

So I will see what this new, remote Via Alpina trail has to offer. I am not "thru hiking" but am, instead, chopping off a section hike that I think will be interesting. I chose it for the height of the mountains and the fact that there are plenty of cheap huts along the way. I have brought only the barest hiking essentials. My pack, some snacks, some warm clothes, some emergency items and water bottles. Not knowing the trail, I hope that I packed well enough.

As I disembark from the train, the sky is overcast but not threatening. Puffy clouds hang over the surrounding mountains like piles of white mushrooms. The weather could go either way. In all likelihood, I will be hiking into the clouds. I hope they look this friendly up close.

In front of the station several taxis stand waiting. I grab the second one. The driver has never heard of the Via Alpina. So I tell him: "I want to go to Leutasch... to a trail that will take me to Meilerhütte."

"I do not hike so much. I have bad knee," he says, as if I might hold it against him. But he thinks he knows a trail that will get me to Meilerhütte. He will take me to the trailhead for the small fortune of 20 Euros. He speeds out of town and into farm country. The countryside has few houses. The road is bordered by rough-hewn cow fences. Leutasch, Austria near the Via Alpina hiking trail to Meiler HutHe lets me out in a small pull-off at break in the fence. A yellow sign post says Meiler Hütte 22. I don't know what "22" means but I am hoping it does not mean kilometers. The driver takes my money, spins his tires in the dirt, and leaves me in the middle of nowhere. As the car disappears, the only sounds are the crickets, the birds and the ringing in my ears.

There is a bench near the fence. I put down my pack and click a few pictures. The trail crosses a field and disappears into the forest on the other side. I heave my pack onto my shoulders and head toward the trees, not knowing what to expect.

Two days of travel have taken their toll on my legs. Deep down they are strong but they complain almost immediately so I slow down my pace. It is a fairly mild hike at the start, more of a walk in the woods than a serious trek. I just need to get my thighs burned in a bit.

I pass a sandy, dry riverbed on my right. No doubt it overflows with the rains of April but right now it is dry enough to play host to two noisy dirt-bike enthusiasts. I don't think I'll see much more of that sort of thing for the next several days. Close by I connect with the Via Alpina which often shares the path with the Europäischer Fernwanderweg E4 ("European long hiking trail" E4). The E4 is an older route, developed and maintained by the European Rambler's Association. As I walk, I see signs for both the E4 and the Via Alpina, sometimes one above the other. I am familiar with some sections of the E4, as well as the Europäischer Fernwanderweg E5, but this stretch is entirely new to me. I am "wandern" the Via Alpina's version because it was well documented and slightly less well beaten. Since the Via Alpina is so new, I may just be the first American to walk this trail with these intentions.

The trail continues on a gradual incline until I reach a small spring. The water flows clear from under a little wooden platform in front of a mossy rock. The water appears clean and fresh but I have already filled my bottles. It is my tradition to drink any clean water I find on the trail, so I drink just a bit and then continue.

Shortly after the spring, the trail starts to climb more seriously. My legs have, by now, warmed up and the burn is a pleasant one. I slow down the pace to keep my breathing as regular as possible and enjoy the cool, leafy smell of the late summer woods.

Waterfall Cups Above Leutasch AustriaI hike another hour or so before emerging from the trees. The horizon widens, but only as far as the ridges around me. I pass a series of waterfalls, like cups carved into the mountainside, fed by snow and underground springs. Sheep graze, untended, nearby, and snow melts from banks along the edge. This is not glacial snow. It is too low for that. The spot is probably shaded much of the day, and the snow must have fallen quite recently.

Two hours into the hike, at around 4:00, I pause below the open mouth of a dark cave. I pull out some snacks that I bought for my lunch -- plums, cheese, salami, bread and a yogurt drink. I am tempted to investigate the cave but, not knowing how much further I have to walk, my better judgment keeps me out. Since I passed the off-road bikers in the sandy river bed, I have seen nobody else on this trail. I am surprised at how deserted it is. The trail is well-maintained but not at all well-used. Or perhaps it's the lateness in the day. In any case, I cannot afford the risks of caving along such a lonely route.

Sheep on the way to Meiler HutClimbing again, I cross over a ridge and soon find myself approaching the height of the darkening clouds. The only signs of life are lonely sheep that eat the patchy grass that clings between densely packed rocks. I should be more than half way there but there's no way of knowing for sure. So the clouds have my rapt attention. I have hiked through many rain storms in the wilderness, so I am well prepared for the worst. Still, I will be climbing to almost 8,000 feet today and would rather do the whole thing dry.

Climbing higher, the grass and the sheep disappear. I am left with the most desolate landscape I have ever encountered. The slope to my left drops off precipitously and my trail clings to a very slight lip of gravel cut into the grey mountainside. Tiny bits of rock give way under my feet as I walk, rattling down the mountainside, disappearing from sight. I imagine the danger of losing my footing. I could slide, or roll, a thousand feet before catching a large enough stone to arrest my descent. If the clouds turned to rain, the danger would increase, perhaps, two-fold. There are no second chances on a slope like this.Scree_Slope_Near_Meiler_hutte

The terrain continues like this as the clouds surround me. The water condenses on my jacket and face and the vagueness of the trail has me wondering whether I might have taken a wrong turn. There can be no trail markings on a slope like this. How could there be? They would be covered in a month with new gravel. So I follow the thin line, less than one foot wide, toward the farthest edge of the mountain. There is a false trail off to the left which I almost take. My instinct tells me, however, that I should be going up.

I turn a corner and the trail becomes firm again. But now I am hiking up an exhausting series of switchbacks. The switchbacks seem endless but, just as I wonder whether I will ever find the hut in this fog, a building creeps over the next ridge. A wave of relief washes over me as I approach an incongruous barbed wire fence at the top and see lights in a grotto behind the small building. Meilerhütte comes into view, with its two-storey glass doorway and its red cedar shingles. The grotto appears to be a shrine of some sort but I don't have the energy to investigate.

MeilerhütteI enter the building and take off my shoes. The entry way is a new addition to an old building. The rafters are new wood and one wall of the clothes-drying room is the side of the old building.

In the dining room I order an apfelsaft gespritzt (carbonated apple juice.) Two guitars hang, unused, from the brown wooden walls, and there are several black and white photographs. Otherwise, the room is unremarkable. On the far side of the room, a group of Englishmen pack around a small table. On the left, three Frenchmen are playing a game with little plastic pigs. They throw the pigs and collect points depending on the way that they land. I join the Frenchmen, to practice my French, but they end up practicing their English instead. I do not protest. They warn me not to drink the water here. It is collected from the roof and, as such, contains all sorts of unwanted bacteria as well as bird droppings. We chat for a bit about hiking. They are heading the other way on the E4 so it is unlikely that I will see them again.

For dinner, I order Eggs, potatoes, hash and a "radler" (half beer, half lemonade). It is filling and enjoyable -- just the right amount of salt and protein after my first day of hiking. I excuse myself to eat at a table with more free space. By the time I am through, the Frenchmen have gone off to bed. I write down some notes in my journal and then head upstairs to read myself to sleep by the light of my headlamp. I can't believe that I have come so far in just 24 hours.

Next Week: Knorrhütte

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