June 3rd, 2008 20:28 EST
Flying High in the Alpine Sky
For the Less Athletic
This morning the mountains disappeared in a move out of an Alfred Hitchcock film. In their place hung a thick cloud of mist. A dim shadow reached partway up the horizon, a hint of what waited beyond the fog: Towering Alps that encircle Innsbruck, the capital city of Tirol, Austria.
Without the backdrop of tree-covered slopes, it was no longer the Innsbruck of skiers and outdoor adventurers. The baroque buildings that lined the city center seemed dull, the locals` steps more hurried. Of course, it didn`t help that it had rained in the valley and their shoes would soon be soaked through.
What might adventure-seekers think of the empty landscape? More than 17 million visitors are drawn to Austria each year. Many come to Innsbruck for the healing of wellness spas or the challenge of 24-mile hikes through silent forests and past smooth glacial lakes. More come for the touted ski conditions that drew the winter Olympics to the city twice, in 1964 and 1976.
Despite the Alps` popularity among hard-core athletes, the mountains offer a variety of experiences for all levels. Experiences like the one I recently had on a trip partway up the 7,600-foot Hafelekar. While the trip was organized privately through the University of Innsbruck, local tourist boards and organizations also offer short excursions. Our own trip had been modified to make it an easier hike; we took a bus partway to our destination and then hiked the rest on foot.
With each turn of the bus, we saw more of the valley below. Soon the entire city stretched out before us, from the city center in the west to the main train station in the south.That`s when the bus stopped and we stepped out into the brisk October weather. We were about a quarter of the way up the mountain.
Our goal was to make the hour climb to a mountain hut, where we would have dinner and drinks before tracking back down to the bus. The hut was one of many placed along the Alpine trails that provide food and shelter for travelers tackling various stages of the mountain. The locals spoke highly of these warm, safe pitstops, but their praise was curiously devoid of description, as were the hiking brochures we`d read. There was plenty of time for speculation in the hour it took to hike from the bus to the first hut.
The trail started off wide and clear and with gray stones marking the obvious route. I was glad I`d worn my hiking boots, but the loafers and sneakers that others wore on that portion of the trail were fine. As we worked our way up into the trees, the path grew steeper and narrower, and branched off into several directions. We caught glimpses of the sharply inclined, branch-laden trails cut out by serious trekkers.
By the time we`d reached the final incline an hour later, most conversations had faded and small poofs of air escaped chapped lips. A few people had fallen behind, but the promise of warmth and rest pushed every last hiker over the final hill. The rustic wood hut stood at the top, and its heavy wood door lugged open. A cushion of warm air escaped. Inside was a regular-sized bar that opened into a sitting area lined with enough tables and benches to seat our group of 40 and several other patron hikers who had stopped in on their way through.
The three-course meal and Kaiser beer were the perfect, satisfying end to the scenic climb, and worthy of the praise that locals granted. Partway through the raspberry torte dessert, I walked outside for a breath of crisp air and a moment alone. Wind rustled through the trees that surrounded the hut. In the background it glowed yellow, but, it was silent behind its thick wood door. The sun had set, and small clusters of light shone in the city below. Straight ahead stood the promise of the Southern Alps.
The anticipation on the bus ride up had been invigorating, the exercise on the hike felt good. But the promise of that still, breathtaking moment with the Alps was what drew me up there and what made it so worthwhile. It was just a taste of the Alps, but a taste that leaves athletes of all levels wanting more.
For hiking and hutting information visit the Tirol Tourist Board website www.hiking.tirol.at.