Sat huddled, naked under a duvet, in a basic wooden hut, with no power, phone reception and nearly 2000m up a Austrian mountain and with no immediate way off, I wondered if, what was meant to have been a simple trek up to swim in a lake, could get any worse? As it turned out, I was in fact experiencing what was just the tip of the iceberg of challenges for my group and I, when a 5 hour trek turned into a 29 hour nightmare of experiences high up in the Stubai Alps.
Let me explain! – This trip had been advertised in the hostel I was staying in and I with other hostel dwellers were looking forward to the trek. The plan was simple – head out mid- morning for a gentle hike up to a picturesque lake part way up, have a swim and then head back down in the afternoon! And in fairness, to start with all went well – there were beautiful blue skies together with stunning mountainous scenery. We passed spectacular waterfalls as we started our ascent and my thoughts of this being my favourite European country felt justified. However within a short period of a few hours reality proved to be very different.
The many waterfalls on the mountain of course meant that there were also streams running through the passes. Little did I know when I crossed over them on the wooden bridges, that they would later be the downfall of this trek. A few hours in, and our group were within 15 minutes of the lake, the furthest point we were meant to be going. However, with a few clouds gathering overhead and light rain falling we decided to wait in one of the mountain huts and have a bit of lunch and refreshment. This was to be our first mistake, (as we would later discover), the 45 minutes we spent there was valuable time lost. Although the rain got heavier during lunch, it had started to clear again and conditions were good enough to head up to the lake.
The lake itself was beautiful. The water was a perfect aqua, and serenely still; a little oasis tucked away in the mountains. I was warned the water was ice cold, which instantly put me off, but seeing as the rest of the group were all jumping in I thought I may as well too. So I stripped down and joined them. This would later prove to be my second mistake – not because the water was indeed ice cold meaning my swim lasted all of 2 minutes, but as soon as I came out, the storm really hit! Rain and hail started to hammer down accelerating my change back into my clothes, and in my haste I stuffed my wet towel and swim shorts into my rucksack not realising they were next to my spare set of dry trousers-( the only spare clothing I had)!
For the next hour the weather was treacherous, loud rumbles of thunder echoing around the mountains followed by piercing cracks of lightning, blurred by the mist and clouds that we were being engulfed in. Quickly my clothes were drenched through, but as I was warm from walking my morale remained high. In fact, at this stage it just appeared a bit of an adventure, and thoughts of a warm shower and cold beer in the evening motivated me to continue my trek back down the mountain. Little did I know then that it would be quite some time before I could enjoy those luxuries! By the time I had reached the bottom of that section of the mountain range I caught up with the faster paced walkers of the group, initially I thought my own speed on that section must have been good enough to catch them up, but my smugness quickly evaporated as I discovered the reason they had stopped was actually because they couldn’t pass the next stream! (at this point we were only an hour away from the base of the mountain and our creature comforts). The river had risen to a level that had covered the bridge completely and with a gushing current now racing down the mountain, crossing would have been impossible, even if the bridge could have been located!
Luckily for us, there was another mountain hut nearby in which we took shelter, waiting for the river levels to subside once the storm passed. The Austrian owners of the hut laughed at our idea and informed us, in pigeon English, that the storm would last all night and possibly into the next day. We had little choice but to stay there the night! I do but wonder however, if a shorter lunch break and skipping the lake would have given us enough time to get back over the bridge before it disappeared – who knows?
Now we had stopped moving, our sodden clothes started to make us cold, and with no spare clothes we were forced to strip down to our underwear! The scene now was becoming comical- a group of relative strangers sitting around a table, in their underwear sipping hot chocolate and making hard work of ordering one the two dishes on offer to us!! With the lack of electricity, power or communication methods, there was no way of contacting anyone to let them know our position, and by 7pm the only thing we could do was head to the bunkbeds our hosts had provided, rid ourselves of our wet underwear and huddle under our duvets to finally get warm. In storm conditions like we were experiencing the generator on the mountain could only supply power to the huts or power to the cable pully system that delivered supplies. It was the correct decision to keep the cable supplies running of course, but that meant that the air in the hut remained cold all night.
All night long there were cracks of thunder and the sound of rain on the windows and I began to wonder if we would in fact get off this mountain anytime soon! We had been told there was an option of climbing back up from where we had come, then over the summit of the mountain and down the other side to a cable car, this however would not be an easy trek, and would still be impossible should the rain continue. I finally drifted off to sleep around midnight consoling myself with the fact that things could be worse – at least I had a roof over my head for the night!!
When morning arrived, there was immense relief that the rain had stopped. The pass was still heavily flooded however, and the bridge had actually been swept away from one side of the bank meaning getting back that way was now impossible! Our only options therefore were to stay put, or try and go the alternative route, up over the summit and down the other side, we all just wanted to get off the mountain at this point so we decided for the latter option and to get moving. However, in reality, we were seriously unprepared for what we were about to face. None of us had come prepared, or been given the right equipment for a full scale hike up a steep mountain face passing glaciers at 3000m and where parts of the mountain showed clearly it was necessary to provide metal handlebars and loops to connect ropes to help climbers – to say we were ill equipped is a massive understatement! To top it all the lack of electricity had meant that none of our clothes had dried overnight.
For the first hour, we were going back over ground we had trekked the previous afternoon, this time though it was on an empty stomach! The paths were now running streams because the top of the mountain was still trying to rid itself of the previous 15 hours of heavy rainfall! Reaching the mountain hut in which we had had the now ill-fated lunch the previous day we managed to negotiate with the hut owners to be served some left over, warmed up, beef stroganoff for breakfast – which tasted like the best thing I had ever eaten and to some extent set me up for what was to come! Seeing our desperate state, and the lack of any food anywhere else, it was amazing that the host reduced the price of the food, completely going against the laws of supply and demand, but instead highlighting genuine human kindness in the face of adversity – a sincere thank you to them.
The lady at the hut informed us that this was the worst storm the mountain had seen for 30 years! Last time it lasted a full 2 days and trekkers ended up getting rescued by helicopters. With this information, I was keen to head on, while the rain had subsided, not only to take advantage of the break in weather, but I was also determined not to break my ‘No-Fly’ rule from England to Australia by having to get in a helicopter! Europe was meant to be the easiest part of my challenge, I didn’t expect to be faced with the situation I was now in! Our breakfast host had put up 70 stranded trekkers of her own the previous night and was therefore out of water, and the mornings supply had not been delivered on the supplies cable carrier. With no time to waste I was therefore setting off with just a 500ml bottle of water to last until we made it to safety.
The final three and a half hours saw us scale the 3000m peak, pass glaciers and head back down the other side to reach a cable car station. However, this period was undoubtedly the hardest and scariest sector, making it feel like double that time. The lack of proper hiking gear meant I was constantly slipping down and slowly gaining a collection of mud over my sodden clothes. Both inclines and descents were steep and I felt the rock scree move and fall constantly giving me the impression the whole cliff could give way with any wrong move.
It was however the weather that caused the greatest concern, we were still engulfed in constant clouds with only a few meters of visibility. The clouds were accompanied with a rotation of sleet, snow, rain and rumbles of thunder that left the constant threat of a return of the storms of the previous day. (Had they returned I honestly question what we would have done, being hours away from any shelter and in conditions that would have been near impossible to navigate a rescue in, let alone start finding people).
As our escape mission progressed, the group became more and more spread out. It was hard for people to keep waiting for others as even stopping for a minute meant your wet clothes started making your body shiver, so we had to keep moving. One saving grace was that the paths were very clearly marked with painted rocks every 20 meters or so to show you which way to go. However, as we spread out more and more, I invariably found myself alone in a pocket of cloud. Had I slipped then, I could easily have fallen down a cliff face and I’d have be surprised if I had been spotted by others; I was certainly just focusing on each step I took, rather than looking out for others and what they may be doing. As we finally descended and the mountains became grass again, the danger actually increased for we were now walking on nothing more than a muddy sludge! Although I wanted to rush back to safety, caution was what was needed and I had to resort to almost pigeon sized?? steps as I tried to avoid my flat trainers causing me yet another muddy tumble!
After what seemed like an eternity, the thunder rumbles were suddenly replaced with the churning sound of a cable car, although clouds still provided my only view I knew I was close to safety and was indeed elated to finally see the outlines of another hut nearby – the stay on the mountain was finally nearly over. I decided to wait at the hut for the 4 others who I knew were behind me, and in a final cruel twist, the clouds lifted in a matter of minutes offering me another beautiful Austrian panoramic view – but it would have been even better appreciated if it had cleared a few hours previously!! However, at that stage I was simply glad to have made it off the mountain in one piece!
The cable car ride down, which ironically will be the nearest to an airplane that I will likely face before I reach Australia, had the feeling of being a rescue boat saving people from a deserted island and the relief was immeasurable.
Back at the hostel, celebratory beers were drunk 24 hours after they originally should have been and tales were shared about how everyone had had their own fears and anxieties on the mountain, and obviously an appreciation of being back, safe and warm. It certainly was an adventure that comes with a story, but one I’d rather not experience again but if anything it gave me renewed energy to continue my travels to the fullest. Retrospectively I can see the comical side of the situation and taking on the mountain with nowhere near the right equipment and in horrendous conditions! In truth I’m just glad I am now in a place where I can laugh about it.