Kartitsch: Stress-Free Winter Walking in East Tirol
PHOTOS: DOMINIK GIGLER
I’ve never experienced anything like it. It was the middle of winter, but instead of skis I found myself wearing hiking boots.
There are a few things from our weekend in Kartitsch that I won’t forget in a hurry. One is the taste of pinewood schnapps in the clear air at the top of the mountain. Another is the bin bags (keep reading to find out more!). Finally, of course, there is the snow: onmipresent but always different – hard and brittle in the shade, soft and mellow in the sun. The higher we climbed, the drier and more powdery it became. Not forgetting, of course, what we called „silent snow“: seemingly harmless, it suddenly gives way beneath your feet to leave you stuck up to your knees and surrounded by the sound of silence.
In many ways winter walking sounds like a bit of an oxymoron. After all, winter is for skiing, right? And walking is something you do in summer, when the snow has melted and the sun is hot, isn’t it? One of my friends, Nico, was also a little confused when I proposed the idea of a winter walking holiday in Kartitsch: „You mean snowshoeing, yeah?“ No. I mean walking. In winter. In summer there is nothing more normal for those of us who live in the mountains than pulling on our hiking boots and heading to explore the landscape on foot. It’s a great way to spend time with the family and to clear you head. So, I find myself wondering, why shouldn’t it also be possible in winter? Well, in fact, it is! In recent years Tirol has created more and more walking trails specifically aimed at guests visiting the region in winter. These well-maintained routes, which are cleared of snow on a regular basis, give people of all ages and fitness levels the chance to experience winter in Tirol from a different perspective. I was keen to find out more, so I gathered together three friends – Nico, Jana and Andi – for a weekend of winter walking in Austria’s first official Winter Walking Village: Kartitsch in East Tirol.
Step by step. The well-maintained winter walking trails offer good grip, even without spikes.
Here’s looking at you! Nico, Jana, Andreas and our reporter Wolfgang (right) enjoy the view above the village of Kartitsch.
The slow pace of winter walking means plenty of time for long conversations.
Day one. Our aim is to complete the „Hollbruckertalweg“, a circular trail in one of the valleys near Kartitsch. The route looks pretty easy on our map, but fallen trees brought down by the snowfall in November mean several sections of the trail have not yet been prepared by the piste groomers. We can just about see the signposts sticking out of the deep snow, but they point towards nothing more than an invisible trail of waist-deep white. We make it about five metres in before giving up. No chance. There is, it seems, no such thing as „off-piste winter walking“ – at least not without snowshoes. Instead of getting too frustrated, we accept our fate and head back. After all, this weekend is first and foremost about spending time together as friends. It doesn’t matter where we go or how far we get.
We walk back the way we came and take the direct route to the village of Hollbruck, where the cosy Gasthaus Schöne Aussicht awaits with a roaring fire and big slices of homemade apple strudel.
With warm cheeks and full stomachs we head back to Kartitsch in the late afternoon sunshine. The moon has already risen and hangs low in the sky, half-hidden by the snow-laden branches of the countless pine trees which surround the village. I can certainly understand why you would want to live here. Day one of our winter walking weekend hasn’t taken us particularly far or high, but we don’t mind. Sometimes it’s not so much about where you go but how you get there – we spent our day out in the fresh air throwing snowballs at each other and counting tree rings. I am reminded of a fisherman who sits by a lake from dawn until dusk with no bait on his hook. When evening comes, he packs up his things and heads home – empty-handed but nevertheless happy.
Making plans for tomorrow’s adventure.
Homemade apple strudel at the Gasthof Schöne Aussicht in Hollbruck.
Heading „off piste“ is almost impossible without snowshoes.
The village of Kartitsch in the late afternoon sun.
Like being by the seaside or around a campfire!
Day two. As we are pulling on our hiking boots, our resident weatherman Andi tells us to hurry up. „The clouds are rolling in,“ he says, pointing to a tiny, harmless speck of white in the azure blue sky. Our initial concern soon turns to laughter, aware of just how lucky we are to be spending such a beautiful day up here in the mountains.
We have learned our lesson from yesterday and decided to walk a trail which is groomed from start to finish. Our host at the Hotel Garni Monte tells us it is a favourite with locals, leading up onto the mountain overlooking the village. Ten kilometres in around five hours. One of the great things about winter walking on groomed trails is that you don’t have to pay too much attention to where you are going – it is almost impossible to get lost. There are no shortcuts and no alternative routes. The snow offers a surprising amount of grip even for normal hiking boots without winter spikes. We work our way up along a series of switchback corners, the sound of silence occasionally broken by the cries of the jackdaws circling above. As we walk, we talk: in pairs, together as a group, and sometimes with long pauses. It feels good to catch up and share our time – a resource more precious than ever in today’s fast-moving world.
We stop at one of the wooden benches for a rest. As a snack we have brough along dried apricots and herbal tea. An ice stalagmite hangs precariously from the roof of a nearby hut, dripping away in the warm midday sun. Behind it lies a picture-perfect landscape: snow-covered trees giving way to craggy mountains and a cobalt blue sky. I find myself staring into the distance, mesmerised by the beauty of nature. „It’s like being by the seaside or around a campfire,“ I suddenly blurt out. For years I have spent my winters skiing the mountains, but it is only now that I have taken the time to enjoy them for what they are. The slow pace of walking finally gives me the chance to appreciate those things which have always passed me by.
Heavenly! Who can make the best snow angel?
The untouched snow is wonderfully soft – but no less cold for it!
Taking it easy. The gentle winter walking trails around Kartitsch lead through a rolling landscape.
As we make our way up onto the mountain, the landscape slowly changes. We climb above the treeline and can suddenly see the horizon. Before reaching the summit, the trail turns back downhill and winds its way into the valley. We can see that several ski tourers have completed the final section to the top of the mountain, leaving a narrow trail behing them. Should we follow them on foot without the added buoyancy of snowshoes? A local who passed us a little earlier on cross-country skis takes the decision for us: „Sure. Easy! In 20 minutes you’ll be up at the top.“ That’s the kind of motivation we need – after all, what is a weekend in the Alps without climbing a mountain? We head off the groomed trail – and soon find ourselves knee-deep in snow.
Easy? Maybe for him. Undeterred, we battle our way through the deep powder towards the top. We decide to take turns in front, a bit like cyclists riding together in a group, sharing the hard work between us. Sweaty but happy we finally reach the summit – we certainly didn’t make it in 20 minutes, but that doesn’t matter. We soon realise that all that effort was worth it. There is a pleasant breeze up at the top, where we meet a group of ski tourers who are more than a little surprised by our hiking boots. To celebrate our achievement, Andi gets out his hipflask and we all enjoy a slug of pinewood schnapps as we soak in the amazing views stretching as far as the famous Drei Zinnen mountains over the border in Italy.
Say cheese! Hiking in the mountains is hungry business.
Wooden cross at the top of the mountain we climbed, the Dorfberg.
Walking in a winter wonderland.
I want to go back and do it again as soon as possible.
Before the weekend I had been worried that we might get bored. No action, no après-ski, no fun? Looking back now, I need not have been concerned – in fact, it seems even a little crazy to have thought that in the first place. Maybe it’s because these days we are so used to being entertained all the time. Few and far between are the moments of silence, reflection. Who knows, maybe we pack our lives full of distractions precisely because we are scared of being bored. But this weekend has taught me that sometimes less is more. After a hearty snack, we stomp back down through the snow to the marked trail and head home. All of a sudden, Nico delves into his rucksack and pulls four big plastic bin bags. Is he planning on a bit of litter-picking in the picture perfect snow? „Time to speed things up a bit,“ he says with a smile, before wedging the thin plastic between his bum and the snow. It takes us a while to get the hang of it, but soon we are whizzing down back towards Kartitsch. Bin-bag sledding might not be as comfortable and controlled as the wooden-toboggan type, but it’s at least as much fun! It takes us just one hour to complete the descent which would have taken us two hours on foot. There is just time for one final wheat beer in the sun before we load our hiking boots into the boot of the car and say goodbye to Kartitsch. As we drive home I find think about how good it has been to just spend time with friends – no adrenaline-pumping ski runs, no loud après-ski music, no social media notifications. Winter walking is not really hard and not particularly high on thrills – and I want to go back and do it again as soon as possible.
With each step you sink a few centimetres into the snow – ideal when walking downhill.
Winter walking in Tirol
Sometimes it’s the simple things in life which are the most special. Winter walking, for example. It requires almost no equipment, yet it can give you the most wonderful feeling of freedom. Explore Tirol’s enchanting winter wonderland on foot.