Frustrated at the first time of asking by extremely poor visibility I hoped that my next attempt to ascend the iconic Hahnenkamm and spend a day walking from the top station of its eponymous cableway, would bear greater fruit.
I was indeed second time lucky, at least from a meteorological perspective. Home to the most fearsome downhill ski race on the Men’s’ Downhill circuit Kitzbuhel’s Hahnenkamm ‘Streif’ run makes winners out of all those who simply finish to post a time, and not just the heroic victor atop the champion’s podium.
The uninitiated will though wonder as to what all the fuss pertains. Viewed from Kitzbuhel town the Hahnenkamm mountain appears similar to many other moderately-sized peaks within the local area, striking a somewhat unprepossessing, shoulder-shrugging appearance. It is only though once visitors are a third the way into the 12-15-minute journey within one of the modest gondola carriages that the enormity of the challenge for those hurtling headlong down its devilish course every January becomes apparent.
Trundling along at a modest angle the cableway suddenly takes on a far steeper incline; of the perhaps 30 mountain railways I have used in Austria I fail to recall another whose journey is anywhere near as precipitous. Although situated at a modest altitude of just over 1,700 metres above sea level the Hahnenkamm once more reaffirms that a relatively modest elevation does not necessarily equate to terrain affording little in the way of a physical challenge.
A nice touch afforded to most of the Hahnenkamm’s cableway carriages is a red sticker bearing the name of a previous winner of one of the skiing disciplines – Downhill, Slalom, and Super-G and Combined – over the meeting’s 88-year history. Although some skiers are far more familiar than others to even those with only a cursory interest and knowledge, all deserve equal respect for not only completing but conquering such a deceptively fiendish course.
Although not in Kitzbuhel simply to say I have been to the race start house on the mighty Hahnenkamm it is nevertheless an ‘I was there’ moment and a memory that will be re-lived in three months’ time when Eurosport air the 2020 race.
With the wide-eyed tourist duties completed it was time to put the commercial appeal of the mountains behind me and seek the challenge and mountainscapes I had missed out upon during a 4-day period of heavy rain and poor visibility. My aim was always the Pengelstein peak and beyond; the Hahnenkamm in effect only serving as a means of getting from point A to my intended destination further afield.
For a hike towards Pengelstein and the higher peaks beyond scaling the Hahnenkamm from the Kirchberg side of the mountain using its Fleckalm cableway does give walkers a greater head start than approaching from Kitzbuhel, but I inadvertently chose to visit the area whilst the lift is getting a significant upgrade in time for the lucrative winter season.
Once away from the Hahnenkamm photo opportunities and a profusion of mountain restaurants of the more sophisticated type, a succession of winding paths that double as service tracks to maintain the local mountain railway network and allow ease of access for hut custodians and their suppliers, I finally hit the open country. I was though disappointed that an uncomfortably vast choice of ski lifts littered the mountainsides to such an extent that they detrimentally dominated their surroundings.
Assuming one is walking away from the Hahnenkamm top station towards Pengelstein, viewing the right-hand perspective in the direction of Kirchberg and beyond to Aschau, the landscape took on a less developed, more natural appearance far less molested by the insatiable demands of Austria’s leviathan winter sports industry. By contrast the left-hand side of the path in the vicinity of Jochberg was depressingly dominated by a clutch of architecturally questionable lifts that mercilessly scaled the Pengelstein’s immediate surroundings, almost if seeking to assert themselves against their famous neighbour. Winter’s coat has the ability to hide a multitude of sins but alterations to the landscape are permanent and carry their own geological and ecological downsides whose grim realities will, in the end, be impossible to mask.
Passing the nominal Pengelstein summit cross and its mountain restaurant with ease I was left underwhelmed by having gained the best part of 1,000 feet with such relative effortlessness. Pushing on into more remote alpine surroundings promised a greater feeling of solitude away from the scars inflicted on the landscape by human hands, particularly towards the 2,000+ metres peaks of the Schwarzkogel and Kleiner Rettenstein.
At this point the deteriorating condition of the paths from a by then almost entire summer season of walkers, recent incessant rain, and bovine calling cards all conspired to turn at times inconsistently marked paths into glue pots. With the weather again looking uncertain I decided to turn tail, albeit feeling a little dissatisfied that my walk had failed to deliver the intended challenge, set amidst an exaggeration of winter sports infrastructure.
My return journey slightly deviated to take in the momentary steep trek to the Steinbergkogel peak and the Hochbrunn restaurant and Hocheck hut, the situation of the latter lending itself to views of clarity only possible during the latter part of the day in question.
Views towards Reith and the dramatic peaks above neighbouring but distant Ellmau brought welcome sunshine to both the proceedings and the soul but my abiding memory of the day will be one that promised much but delivered neither the challenge or easy coexistence between man and this fragile environment that I sought.
From many of the accompanying photographs you would be forgiven for thinking that I have grossly undersold the picturesque, even dramatic backdrops but that is the point – much of what is so good, so photogenic, and unadulterated lies somewhat in the distance, away from established tourist centres and their attendant constructs.
To truly escape the hordes of camera clutching tourists and humanity’s alpine handiwork one has to find alternative paths less travelled, and not serviced by lifts, for an authentic mountain experience. To their credit the Kitzbuhel Tourist Office offers, from May to the end of September and in conjunction with two local cab firms, a hikers taxi on a Monday, Thursday, and Friday to areas away from the madding crowds that are otherwise accessible only by a long hike to reach the starting point to treks to the likes of the Sinterbacher waterfall, and the Gamshag peak high in the Glemmtal.
For hikers basing themselves in Kitzbuhel who seek solitude and day walks offering a sizeable challenge, my advice is to look beyond the Hahnenkamm, Bichlalm, and Kitzbuheler Horn lifts and the territory they serve. The aforementioned all afford panoramic views and alpine culinary experiences of the highest order but for those staying in town who want far more, in is very much incumbent upon them to look beyond what are the easy options on their doorstep.
All photographs are the copyright of C. Bowman – September 2019.