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Jagdhausalmen Alpine Pastures, Defereggen, East Tirol, Austria, Europe
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Nina

A Walk on the Wet Side – Why It's Time to Try Hiking in the Rain

Updated 12 days ago in Nature, Photos: Bert Heinzlmeier

wet walking days

Hiking under blue skies? Easy. But rainy days in the mountains have their own special charm. We set out to discover what sets wet walks apart from the rest.

The taxi driver can't quite believe his ears. "You really want to go up there in this weather?" To be fair, it's a reasonable question – and one which we have been asking ourselves more and more on the final few kilometres as the raindrops thud against the windscreen and the clouds cling to the rocks left and right. No turning back now, we tell ourselves. "Yes, we want to go hiking," we explain down the phone. I can almost hear him shaking his head at the other end. "Nobody's going up there today", he says. "It's far too wet. Crazy."

We are in the village of Absam, at the entrance to the Halltal Valley. It is 8:15 on Monday morning. Our plan had been to complete the long walk into the valley by taxi – the private road is closed to cars. Over the past few days we have been preparing for our wet-weather walk: checking the weather report, studying hiking trails and, of course, making everything as waterproof as possible (from jackets and shoes to mobile phones). Two friends from Munich, Nina and Pablo, have kindly agreed to join me on my adventure. We are more used to going climbing together, but when I told them about my somewhat original idea they were in.

Wet-weather walks offer an atmosphere like no other.
Wet-weather walks offer an atmosphere like no other.

Finally we get a day with the "perfect" weather forecast: 10 mm of rain, 11 degrees Celsius down in the valley, 3 degrees on the mountain. Zero hours of sunshine. We are hoping for a different mountain experience, one with swathes of mist and cloud – and with the trails to ourselves. After all, we tell ourselves, the mountains are always there and ready to be explored, not just when the sun is shining. At the car park there is not a soul to be seen. It seems we really are going to have the mountains to ourselves. To be fair, I can understand why the idea of venturing out in this weather, particularly into the mountains, has a limited appeal. After our failure to find a taxi, it looks like our day is going to start with a long trudge into the valley on a hard tarmac road. Not quite how we had imagined things, but we are not going to let that spoil our fun.

We pull up the hoods on our jackets and head off into the mist. The low-hanging cloud and fog means envelopes the road, so we can only see the next few metres ahead. The neon colours of our jackets fade into pastel shades. We can hear the sound of the rushing Weißenbach stream, but in this weather there is no chance of seeing it. As we march silently into the valley, each person is busy with their own thoughts. The road gets steeper and we begin to warm up. We almost walk past the yellow signpost which points the way off the road and across a wooden bridge into the forest. Our destination, the Lafatscher Joch, is still three hours away. Time to get busy.

Setting off into the mist.
Setting off into the mist.

A quick break to enjoy the view.
A quick break to enjoy the view.

Magical, eh?

Crossing the bridge is like entering a new world. The black tarmac gives way to rocks and roots, leaves and damp earth. Raindrops hang heavy on the trees. "Look how beautiful it is," says Nina with a broad smile on her face. We continue along the narrow path, further and futher into the forest. Every now and then the clouds clear and reveal fine views down into the valley, where the gentle mountain stream turns into a rushing river. The leaves on the trees covering the other side of the valley are a mixture of evergreen needles and autumn gold. Everything shines and shimmers – like a world freshly washed. We smell moss and wet earth, see worms crossing our path, marvel at spider's web which looks like a diamond necklace from Tiffany's. Water pools gather in tree trunks, birch trees lie scattered on the forest floor. I am so busy looking at all these wonders that I lose my footing on the wet terrain and put my hand in a giant puddle of mud as I try to break my fall. "Magical, eh?" says Pablo with a laugh as he helps me back onto my feet.

I've learned my lesson: less watching, more walking. The trail gets steeper and we eventually reach a clearing. We are all a little surprised – we had not studied the route all too closely before setting off. All we really knew is roughly how long it would take us and how much vertical gain we could expect from bottom to top. The main thing was finding a trail which was not too challenging in this weather, close to the treeline so that visibility would be as good as possible in weather conditions such as these. It is a pleasant surprise to suddenly find ourselves in the open, surrouned by trees with rich autumnal shades of red, yellow, gold and brown. We make our way across the grass, turned a dark shade of yellow by the season. The silence of the forest is only interrupted by the squelch of our hiking boots. In an area of open meadowland there are some wooden boards laid out to make it easier to negotiate to wettest and softest terrain. I find myself thinking of the Scottish Highlands. Soon, the cloud lifts properly for the first time and reveals the craggy grey rocks of the mountains high above. We raise our eyes to the skies – while keeping away from the moorland beneath our feet. It is too early to get our feet wet, we agree. We still have plenty of hiking ahead of us.

Walking in the rain has its own charm.
Walking in the rain has its own charm.

There's no such thing as bad weather – just the wrong clothing.
There's no such thing as bad weather – just the wrong clothing.

Just 15 minutes later we get a sense of what awaits. Rocks and slippery scree make the climb up onto the Lafatscher Joch a challenge. The rain gets heavier once again. It's a case of mind over matter. I am glad to be here with Nina and Pablo. Over the years we have learned to trust each other while climbing in the mountains. Now they both show they are also good at judging the mood. As my motivation begins to slip, a couple of silly jokes and a big piece of chocolate gets me back into a positive frame of mind. When it comes to adventures like this one, being with the right people is just as important as taking a flask of hot tea and packing your best rain jacket. We decide it's time for a break. As if the weather gods could read our minds, the rain suddenly stops. We celebrate with the best our rucksacks have to offer: crunchy nuts and a mug of steaming tea. The rocks and roots on the trail don't make for the most comfortable seating, but we all agree that this adventure has already been worth all the effort. The landscape takes on a totally new appearance in weather like this. If I am honest, we also feel more than a little proud to be the only ones brave enough to go hiking in these conditions. Rebelling against the forecast is like getting back a little bit of freedom. Experiencing the mountains on a rainy day is a privilege.

Tea for three – a chance to warm up again.
Tea for three – a chance to warm up again.

The next section of the hike is a long trudge through slopes of knee-high pine shrubs. Green, grey, green, grey – for kilometres on end. Nina and Pablo are both fitter than me, so I have to draw on my tried-and-tested technique of stopping every few minutes to "enjoy the view" and catch my breath. Normally I only get away with it two or three times, but today there really is plenty of reason to take lots of breaks. Every time I raise by head there is something new to see. The mist wafts through the valley, clinging briefly to trees and rocks before continuing on its way. The rich colours of autumn down in the valley contrast with the slate-like grey of the mountain ridge above, dotted with a few small patches of snow in the distance. Every now and then the clouds part to reveal the impossibly beautiful summits of local mountains such as the Lattenspitze and Pfeiserspitze, which are are able to identify thanks to a handy app on my phone.

Where are the mountains?
Where are the mountains?

The mountains struggle to make themselves seen.
The mountains struggle to make themselves seen.

These are the kinds of days you remember.

We finally arrive at our destination: the Lafatscher Joch ridge. We are wet with a mixture of rain and sweat – and more than a little surprised to see that we are not the only ones up here. We are joined by a group of goats, who seem as surprised to see us as we are to see them. Despite the cloud cover, we are able to see much more than we had imagined. I gaze from a rock face known for its multi-pitch climbing routes to the craggy peaks of the distant mountains. What a view! It's then time for lunch. We find a spot where we can all sit down together and start taking out the main provisions for the day: cheese and bread, potato salad, berries and apples. Oh, and coffee, of course. I've been dreaming of that since the moment we set off. As soon as we sit down, however, the cold sets in. That is one of the big downsides of wet-weather walking – you have to keep moving. We push the food to one side for a moment and instead dig deep in our backpacks for thick jumpers and woolly hats. We agree that this probably isn't the best spot for lunch, so we set off with hungry stomachs back down the mountain in search of a little shelter.

Wrapped up warm, the adventure continues.
Wrapped up warm, the adventure continues.

Above the clouds.
Above the clouds.

We quickly decide to make for the Herrenhäuser, a collection of buildings at the end of the valley. Perched at 1,400 metres above sea level, they were used in the Middle Ages as an administrative centre for salt mining in the valley. Today there are uninhabited – and a perfect place for us to enjoy our well-deserved lunch in at least somewhat dry surroundings. We settle down in front of the former miners' accommodation and finally unpack our provisions.

A traditional Tirolean snack.
A traditional Tirolean snack.

With our hunger stilled and our thirst sated, we set out on the final section of our hike. The initial euphoria we felt this morning has given way to an exhaustion. We have climbed 1,300 vertical metres, balancing on wooden planks across muddy marshland and watching our step wherever we went. Now we can feel the physical and mental strain. The clouds close in again. The air turns colder. The fog eats away at the last light of the day. All of a sudden we find our minds playing tricks on us. Did we really come up this way? Shouldn't we be back at the car park by now? Wasn't the river on the other side? After what seems like an eternity, we reach the sodden car park and are overcome by a huge sense of relief. We open the boot of the car, sit down on the bumper and reflect, each person for themselves, on what we have just experienced. Beers are opened and handed round. Sore legs are stretched and massaged. We pull off our wet walking boots and slip into  the dry shoes we have left in the car. Bliss! We are tired but more than a little proud of what we have achieved. "These are the kinds of days you remember," says Nina. Cheers to that. As we pull out of the car park a few minutes later, I can't help but think of the taxi driver who couldn't quite believe his ears. Maybe we were a little crazy to head up there in this kind of wetter – but it was definitely worth it.

The end of a wet and wild walk.
The end of a wet and wild walk.

Nina Himmer thought about becoming a vet. Today she works as a freelance journalist – and spends as much time as possible climbing and bouldering in the mountains.

Nina
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