Published on EXPLORE NOW OR NEVER 2021, written by Chris Roman
Published in China World Traveler 2013, written by Ricky Schlesinger
Franz and I trekked to the top of the Sulzfluh, a formidable +2800 meter peak in the Western Austrian Alps. Our route was up a non-technical, but strenuous trail. As we reached the peak, we joined the handful of others rugged individuals already resting under the 30 foot high cross monument at the pinnacle. As we stood proud of our accomplishment, three giggly Austrian teenage girls entered the scene from the back side of the mountain wearing helmets and rock climbing gear. This could only mean they ascended the more technical Klettersteig – or Via Ferrata vertical climbing route. A via ferrata (Italian for “iron road”) is a protected climbing route found in the Alps. The essence of a modern via ferrata is a steel cable which runs along the route and is periodically (every 3 to 5m) fixed to the rock. Our accomplishment was still gratifying but suddenly taken down a notch. They don’t make teenage girls like that in Encinitas, California I am thinking to myself. “I guess we’re not in Kansas anymore”.
As a co-founder of Eagle Creek Travel Gear, and responsible for global business development, I’ve had many opportunities to travel around the world and when possible include personal travel/adventure into my business travel itinerary. On several occasions I had the fortune to trek in the Alps, staying in alpine huts managed by the Austrian Alpine Association. And always with my buddy Franz.
This year, my daughter graduated from San Dieguito High School, in Encinitas California, and before continuing her studies at Seattle University, my wife and I wanted to take her on a celebratory adventure. Neither my wife Judy, nor my daughter Kai, had experienced European trekking. Our close family friend formerly from Encinitas, Franz Herbert, moved back to his home town in Austria along with his American wife Sharon, who happens to be a Navajo Native American. So we headed for Austria.
Our first stop was to Franz and Sharon’s home in Bregenz, which is the capital city of Vorarlberg, Austria. The region is not only a cultural center but also a very prosperous business region, headquarters of world famous Red Bull energy drink, Head Skis and Milka Chocolate. Bregenz sits on the border of Austria, Germany and Switzerland, in the Rhine Valley but tucked between Lake Constance (the Bodensee) and the Pfänder Mountain. Population of 30,000, it’s quite quaint and picturesque and appears to be more of a cultural and recreational area than an obvious industrial center. Franz Herbert and family live in the house his parents built in the 60ies, and his Native American wife, Sharon, has turned the grounds into beautiful Asian gardens complete with tea house and meditative fish pond. Franz is a former ski instructor, marathon runner, first class mountaineer, and our mountain guide.
The Austrian Alps and its network of hiking trails are very accessible throughout most of the country. Public trains and buses run extensively and reliably from town to town, making day travel and tourism very easy. The people are friendly, the scenery is story book, and the food is delicious, especially washed down by the local beer and wine. The only challenge for tourism is that foreign language is somewhat limited and as in most mountain regions, the weather can be unpredictable, especially at higher elevations.
Because we intended to stay in the Tilisuna Hütte in the mountains, it will provide food and shelter, making preparation and packing for this trip relatively simple. A trekker needs a comfortable pair of sturdy hiking boots, trekking poles, appropriate clothing for both warm days and cool days, cold nights, rain protective outerwear, sun screen and sun protective hat eyewear, sunscreen, a hostel sac as your personal linens, a good book for the hut and snacks for the trail. All of this should fit into a 30-40 liter rucksack, which should be only moderate carrying weight. The hut (there are 100’s of them in the Austrian alps), will provide a hot dinner, modest breakfast, hot and cold drinks and a cold shower if you are lucky. The accommodations range from sparse semi-private rooms to rustic dormitory sleeping quarters with pillows and blankets provided.
Our trek started with a 30 minute train ride from downtown Bregenz, which connected to a 45 minute bus ride to one of the many small villages, Gargellen. Primarily a winter ski town, in the summer they use their gondola to shuttle tourists and hikers up to a mid point, where you can dine or start your venture off into the Alps. We took the ride up 1500 feet, stepped off to immediately hear the sound of cow bells clanging in the adjacent meadow. After a quick bite to eat at the outdoor café, everyone cinched on their rucksacks, extended their hiking poles and we started up the trail toward the first small peak.
My daughter Kai, the most reluctant hiker of our bunch, actually led the way on the first ascent bolstered by the beautiful scenery, fresh air and blue sky. Reaching the first crest and initial resting stop in about 45 minutes, blisters were already started forming on my wife Judy’s heels from her relatively new hiking boots. Not a good sign for three days of strenuous hiking. We patched her up with Second Skin, a product for protecting boot rub spots and we (especially Judy) hoped for the best. The first day was long and arduous, 6 hours of uphill and downhill hiking, 13 kilometers to our hut. The trail led up along ridge tops and valley streams with some of the most breathtaking views and countryside imaginable. Mountain flowers sprinkled the high meadows, glacial peaks hung above, and dense forest below as we crossed streams and followed our trail. We spent all of the day way above the tree line, which is at approximately 1500 meters and staring at 3000 meter alpine peaks.
We arrived at the Tilisuna Hütte in an alpine gorgeous meadow, capacity for about 100 hikers, but rarely full. There was not much sunlight left and not a lot of energy in reserve, so the hut was a sight for sore legs. The celebratory cold beer was particularly rewarding, though the ladies preferred the local wine. It is good practice to call for hut reservations, however their policy is to never turn away a mountain hiker, they will always find a spot shelter. We settled in a bare bones private room for 5, with hard bunk beds, simple mattresses, pillow and blanket., rest rooms down the hall. In the family style dinning hall, there were several choices of hot dinner entrees including a vegetarian meal for Judy, and of course apple strudel for dessert. We all went to sleep early and slept well, except for occasional snoring from our bunkmates.
The second day, the women did casual day treks while Franz and I climbed up the Sulzfluh. It is an accessible strenuous hike from one side of the peak and a technical rock climb from the back. In the afternoon, we all enjoyed the breath taking scenery, incredible views, and relaxation at the hut.
Day three was our down hiking day, on a different route to the town of Vandans, another small mountain village, with public transit back to Bregenz. The hike down was about 8 kilometers, and equally picturesque, passing glacial ponds, meadows of wild flowers, crossing mountain streams. As we got closer to civilization herds of grazing cows and donkeys greeted us. The trail led past the farmer’s house and we were served coffee and home made cheese from the farm. One more hour and we arrived in Vandans, stopped at an inn for a full meal of local fare before catching the train back to Bregenz.
Trekking in the Alps is an exhilarating and breath taking experience. It requires you have a moderation of fitness, enjoy the outdoors, and the appropriate clothing and equipment. It is surprisingly accessible in the region, and for us foreign tourists, a guide and German speaker is helpful. I am sure that the same is true throughout the Alps of Germany, Switzerland, and Italy, but I don’t think I could ever tire of visiting this region of Austria.
Alejandro from Santander, Spain
I have hired Native Journeys for several sports adventures in the last years. I would not be able to decide which one was the best: Snowshoeing, Mountain Biking, Hiking, Skiing… Every one of them was a perfect combination of sport and incredible landscape. Franz is always able to find breathtaking spots on our way, which makes for an unforgettable experience.
And… when you start thinking that it could not be better; we get a restaurant or a hut to enjoy local food and/or a nice beer to recover some energy! Nice conversation including explanations about the background of any place is also part of the adventure.
According to my experience, there is no better adventure for someone who loves nature and sport….and not to forget good food!
Don from New Jersey, USA
Native Journeys – guided adventures in the Austrian Alps
In July 2012 our family of four spent a memorable week hiking the stunningly beautiful Austrian Alps, with custom guiding provided by Native Journeys in the quaint city of Bregenz on Lake Constance. Native Journeys is owned by native Austrian Franz Herbert and his native American wife, Sharon – which explains the company name.
The four things that impressed us most about Native Journeys were their flexible, informal approach (no European regimentation), intimate knowledge of the environment, outstanding value, and ability to turn a simple holiday into an adventure. All we had to bring were hiking boots, a light day pack and cameras. Everything else was arranged for us, including luggage storage, transport to and from our Bregenz hotel, and reservations in the alpine hikers’ “huts”.
On the first morning, Franz collected us from the hotel down the road from his house and stashed our bags in his basement. We then took a train a few km to a cable car that brought us up to mountain-top level. We could have hiked up, but the cable car saved half a day and was itself part of the adventure.
Each day we walked a comfortable distance at a comfortable pace, with plenty of breaks to rest or take photographs. Attempting to describe the scenery is pointless. Just Google Austrian Alps and you’ll get an idea, but of course without the third dimension of distance, which is what takes your breath away. Fine weather helped, but one of the most memorable mornings was foggy, which lent a Hobbit-like spookiness to the area.
The “huts” we stayed in were luxurious, with reasonably-priced restaurants and bars, broad verandas, stunning views and comfortable sleeping facilities.One day we crossed a high saddle and had lunch in a Swiss hut where prices were about double! It seemed weird to move from one country to another simply by alpine trail. On the return journey, Franz and our fearless son Andrew climbed to the top of a snowy peak while the rest of us made our way back to the hut. Such spontaneous changes of plan are one of the reasons we looked for private guiding, not a group tour.
The next day we all topped one of the highest peaks without equipment. Though much fitter than us, Franz picked a route we all could manage, but was still pretty challenging. At one point we traversed a narrow ledge with a chain secured to the rock face and a beetling drop to our left. Getting to the top felt like quite the accomplishment, with high-fives and selfies all round.
Descending on the last day was an adventure in itself, going from snowline through picturesque alpine meadows (complete with cow bells and their owners), to the top of a lower cableway. Franz and the kids took a wheeled bob-sled ride while the wife and I floated down by cable car. Watching them whoosh by beneath us was a perfect end to a perfect trip.
I’m sure there are other good private guiding companies in Austria, but next time we’re going straight back to Native Journeys.
Ricky from California, USA
Americans in Wonderland, Hiking in the Austrian Alps
Hiking in the Austrian Alps is a breath taking experience, in every way. It can be as casual or as strenuous as you care to undertake, but it is spectacular regardless. You can access the Alps through many villages nestled in the valleys throughout center Europe. Many have a trail up into the mountains. There is a trail network which runs throughout the higher elevations of the Alps, across national borders, over and around peaks and through meadows. Interspersed along the ridge tops and meadows are mountain huts which are fairly bare bones accommodations; but generally serve hot food and cold beer. Each is a little different, some have private rooms, some are more dormitory style. You bring the sleep sac, they provide the pillow and blanket, sort of an alpine hostel.
The challenge for Americans and other non-german speakers is that most huts require reservations for rooms, otherwise you sleep in bunks with lots of others. There is very little English spoken at these huts, and the trail system is a little tricky to navigate. So having a guide is not absolutely essential, but in my mind preferred. I was first introduced to the Austrian Alps and hut system with Franz Herbert, of Bregenz. He arranged the itinerary and reservations, and has all the experience to make you immediately comfortable under varied alpine conditions. It was immediately on the top of my list of travel experiences and I went back several times with other friends, my wife and teenage kids. It’s amazing. If you like to hike, enjoy the mountains, and prefer an authentic outdoor adventure, you should experience this.