When I booked my flight to Switzerland “alpine huts” were high on my to-do list. I wanted to go back + soak up a few more sunsets [+ rises] from the stone stoop of Swiss Alpine Club huts. In 2015 I had visited about 10 SAC huts + I wanted more. More, more, more. I even purchased a membership at the Swiss Alpine Club to get dibs on some great overnight discounts.
Guess how many SAC huts I stayed at?!
I guess I still have 5 days in Switzerland so there’s still hope…but one or two huts are farm from the 10+ I was hoping for. When I had time to scramble up the Alps the trails + huts were closed due to snow + ice. When the snow finally melted enough for the huts to welcome visitors san skis I was busy helping out at Chalet Martin, show off the local trails to Robb + cycling around Croatia. So…no complaints, but not what I was planning for.
Alas, I did get a bit of alpine hut trippin’ while in Austria at the Pfeishutte hut near Innsbruck. When I was faced with the logistical challenge of leaving Munich, Germany on a Thursday + arriving in Zurich, Switzerland on a Friday [a 5hr train ride] I decided to get creative. I hopped on a bus that took me from Munich to the Scharnitz, just over the border into Austria. That’s where the real adventure began.
all the colors of Scharnitz, Austria — the photos will never do this place justice!
My game plan was to hike up to the Pfeishutte hut, roughly five hours away. Once there I’d purchase dinner from the guardians, rest my weary head for the night + head down the other side of the mountain to end up in Innsbruck. From Innsbruck, I’d get on a train to Zurich + meet Robb at the Zurich airport for our final stretch of travel back to Chalet Martin in Gryon.
There were only…seven?…ways that plan could get kicked off course. Not surprisingly, Mother Nature was the first one to trip up my logistical dance. Within just 20 minutes of Scharnitz the skies opened up with lightning, thunder + rain. Fantastic. A nice long hike up to a mountain pass is *exactly* where I want to be headed when it’s pouring rain…or not. The rain let up about 15 minutes into the “storm” + the skies were clear when I made my decision to continue upward.
round two of the thundering rain clouds, rolling in.
That turned out to be the first of FIVE downpours I was blessed with on this five-hour hike. Personally, I was hoping to make it into a four-hour hike by running downhills + powering uphill. Considering I spent at least 30-45 minutes hiding beneath trees while the skies reigned now their wet wrath, I stand by my belief that it would have been a feasible four-hour trek.
For the most part, I felt safe enough while heading up the mountain side. There was a surprising amount of downhill + flat terrain so I managed to stay well below treeline until the last hour. I was just in view of the final uphill jaunt to the pass summit when the clouds took it all to the next level — hail. I hunkered down under some of the least protective pines ever as the world around me was pelted with hail. As the sky cracked with lightning strikes I stumbled around on a steep treed slope, tugging on my rain pants I was finally giving into.
Re-assessing Risk, Again…
Everything about the weather screamed “go down” but I was four hours from civilization + only an hour from the hut. There was no way I’d make it back to town before dark + I had nowhere to stay once I arrived there. My pack had a sleeping bag + bivy sack stuffed into it, all of which was protected by a rain cover. However, it would be a miserable, cold + wet night if I gave up now. I wasn’t yet in a completely unsafe position + every other mini storm has passed over within a few minutes.
As the hail slowed I made my decision…upward, still.
The lightning was still far off + down remained an option. Worst, worst case scenario I had passed by a farm with a running tractor about 2 miles back — I could scramble down to them + beg for the best. Again…far from ideal, but I had rather stupidly hiked myself into a conundrum.Oh, Safety Squirrel Lynne would NOT have been proud, not even a little bit. I can actually see her cringing as she reads this…I’m sorry, Lynne! I promise you I
**Side Tangent: Safety Squirrel Lynne would NOT have been proud, not even a little bit. I can actually see her cringing as she reads this…I’m sorry, Lynne! I promise you, many choices were consciously “not the smartest” option + I was regularly flipping through the risks thinking “oh, Lynne would not be happy with me!”. Sorry! Yet, thank you for always being my voice of reason!**
Shortly after venturing away from the half-hearted shelter of the scraggly pines I rounded a corner to see the road leading up to the pass. It followed a steady incline up the side of the mountain, well above the safety of treeline. I stopped + stared. This was here the risk of my choices started to creep beyond what I was willing to put on the line. I slowed my ascent + contemplated the “best” plan of action…
…give up + turn around?
…set up camp here where there are still a few trees?
…continue on, but haul ass as soon as I get above the trees?
…sit down + cry?
I seriously considered every one of those options as I trudged upward to the next hairpin turn, hoping I’d find something more appealing from another angle. The road gave me nothing but exposure…but just past the turn, I spotted a sign pointing up the valley. It said “Pfeishutte 45min”. Ahhhh, another route?!
ah, the trail that “saved” me from the far-less-than-ideal trek up the fully exposed main road.
With little hesitation, I followed the narrow path off the main road + along a stream. As I continued upward I repeatedly lost the barely visible trail, often stopping to search for the red paint on the rocks hidden in the colorful foliage. At this point, I knew the Pfeishutte hut was close, but not close enough to get me there by the 6pm start of dinner. My goal was adjusted to “before 8pm” because that’s when the website said dinner ended. I put my head down, counted my steps to keep my breathing/heart rate in check + powered up, up, up.
Pfeishutte + all of its dry, warm glory!
Somewhere around 2,600 steps, later the ground flattened out just enough + I saw the top of a flag pole. Finally! I arrived at the hut dripping wet [albeit, mostly on the outer layers, thanks to some stellar rain gear] + hungry. After the hail, the sky never quite cleared up. Once the narrow trail left the stream bed it zig-zagged up a steep slope. I scrambled upward in a rainy haze, surrounded by scraggly but tall shrubbery. It wasn’t exactly tree line, but I was barely the tallest thing around. This was not exactly something Lynne would have approved up, but at least it was a step in the right direction. Maybe?
When It All Works Out…
In the hut, they directed me to the basement “drying room” where I wiggled around to find room for my wet gear among everyone else’s…no one had a dry day. My dinner consisted of a lot of noodle soup, over a liter of hot herbal tea + a massive spinach/potato strudel.
my dinner…hard earned + delicious!
As I ate I listened to the guardians + another group talking about their missing friends. It turns out that group split up while the weather was still favorable. One chunk of the bigger group had arrived over an hour earlier. The other portion of the group was still out there, somewhere. They had actually called the helicopter rescue to be on standby. Luckily, the missing group showed up within 5 minutes of the “we’re taking action” deadline. Everyone was unharmed, just wet + hungry. They had taken a wrong turn + gotten quite lost.
While I was hiking I knew I was putting myself at risk, but I never felt truly unsafe. Hearing the concern + recap from the reunited group [+ guardian, who knew the area better than any of us] really put the risk into perspective. I don’t think my choice was wrong, per say…but it definitely wasn’t the safest option. It was a very real reminder that we all take risks when we head into the wilderness. We need to be continually re-assessing what Mother Nature is throwing at us + adjusting as needed.
views from the trail above the hut, headed toward Innsbruck…before the clouds rolled in.
The following day I headed out early before breakfast was served, for the decent into Innsbruck. As I was hiking downhill along some very loose scree I realized why everyone was concerned. I believe this was the route the other group had taken + it would have been a treacherous trek in foggy rain, especially if you were rushing to get out of the volatile weather.
the momentary view I got of the Tyrol/Tirol Alps around Innsbruck before the clouds swallowed them up!
I opted to head out on a longer, more scenic route…only to be socked in by foggy clouds all day long. Eh. Win some, lose some. I had won the previous day + had to compromise this time around. I had survived, unscathed, so I was hard pressed to be truly upset about it. Next time…I’ll probably carry on with my rather liberal risk assessment, because it works for me.
**Side Tangent: I did have my Delorme inReach with me. I had reached out to Robb for some input + weather checking during the first bout of rain in Scharnitz. When I continued upward I was able to say “I’m doing this, but I’ll keep checking in”. This gave me a sense of connection with the outside world. Even if I did have to bail into my bivy bag before the hut, someone would know. For whatever reason, that was really important to me. The inReach has continued to be a source of comfort, for the sole purpose of letting people know where I am + why I am there, throughout my Europe exploring. Hopefully, this added “security blanket” isn’t encouraging me to push too far…another factor that has to get pulled into risk assessment…the never ending risk assessment!**