Time flies.. although it seems like yesterday, it’s almost a year ago now since we spent an interesting couple of weeks exploring the Pinzgau region of Austria’s Salzburger Land, a mountainous area which includes part of the Höhe Tauern range of the Central Alps. Höhe Tauern National Park is one of the largest protected areas in the European Alps covering an area of 1850km2. The region’s dramatic scenery includes some 260 peaks over 3000m, including the Großglockner, Austria’s highest mountain at 3798m.
The area has a complex geology and incorporates the famous “Tauern Fenster” (Tauern Window) whereby older rocks from the underlying Eurasian Plate have been exposed by a gap in the overlying rocks which form the leading edge of the African Continental Plate. Intense pressure, folding and seismic activity associated with the meeting of the two tectonic plates has been responsible for the formation of rich mineral veins and gem stones deep within the earth’s crust. Along with impressive berg (quartz) crystals found in the Pinzgau region, the area is also renowned for its remarkable emeralds which can be found in a number of locations around the area, most notably the Hachbachtal valley.
Although the original mine where these gems were found is remote and hard to access in a precipitous mountain gully, it is still possible to find small stones amongst the gravel and alluvial outwash in the stream close to the Alpenrose Alm in the Hachbachtal. Whilst this can provide many hours of amusement (and frustration) it’s not guaranteed to yield so much in the way of results as we found to our cost. However, emeralds and minerals from the Tauern Fenster area are on display at the Alm and also in the superb geological museum at nearby Bramberg im Wildkögel where we were staying.
The many beautiful and remote side valleys of the main Pinzgau valley which are worth exploring include the Obersulzbachtal. After an initial steep hike up the track to the Berndl Alm, this hanging valley opens out to provide a beautiful walk into the core area of the Höhe Tauern National Park, passing through the alpine zone and open meadows to the start of the Glacier Trail at the head of the valley. In this area we encountered a spectacular carpet of alpine flowers and if you’re lucky, as we were, you’ll also catch a glimpse of alpine marmots, instantly recognisable by their distinctive shrill whistle and from the way they stand guard (in regular meercat fashion) from distinctive rocks and lofty vantage points.
Although the alpine flora seems well established here and permanent enough, it’s unsettling to learn from the interpretation signs that the glacier has retreated almost 4km up the valley since 1850. We passed a sign that marked the snout of the glacier in 1969, the date of the first moon landing and the year when I was only three years old; now there is no ice to be seen anywhere in the vicinity – only distant patches on the peaks at the head of the valley. Anyone who doubts the impact of climate change needs to come here and see this with their own eyes. Alpine glaciers are receding quickly and at this rate will all be gone in just a few decades from now.
The path up to the lake at the head of the trail is an easy enjoyable scramble which the kids found good fun. By the lake at the top there were some colourful alpine flowers including gentians and mountain houseleek – beautiful but at the same time a reminder of the dynamic nature of the alpine landscape and just how quickly former areas of ice are being colonised by montane vegetation. From the top of the trail there are spectacular views up to the surrounding mountain peaks including the Großvenediger, which at 3657m is the highest peak in the Pinzgau area. Although the trail up towards the peak looked remarkably inviting, we regrettably had to turn back at this point and head down the valley, getting caught further down in a torrential deluge and thunderstorm (although the Berndl Alm proved a great refuge – the Postalm seemingly not being so welcoming !).
The nearby Krimml waterfalls are well worth a visit despite being somewhat of a tourist trap and by far the busiest place we visited on our trip. The impressive falls are the fifth highest in the world with three separate falls cascading over a total drop of 380m. The power of water coming down is simply awesome (to use Aussie backpacker jargon) as glacier melt water from the mountain turns from a winter trickle into a summer torrent – sending up spray far into the sky and forming multiple rainbows in the strong afternoon sun.
After passing the mandatory souvenir outlets and interpretation centres, we took a walk up the steep trail by the side of the falls encountering an eclectic range of bemused looking tourists en route to various eateries higher up; dragging push chairs, buggies, miniature poodles and stiletto healed women up paths normally reserved for seasoned mountain walkers. The grind was well worth it. In addition to great views of the falls, the valley suddenly opened out at the top into the Krimmler Aachental, a hidden mountain oasis. Remarkably the crowds encountered lower down suddenly just evaporated away into thin air and once again we were back in the real Höhe Tauern.
Another great vantage point in the area is the Wildkögel on the other side of the Pinzgau Valley. From the resort village of Neukirchen, the Wildkögelbahn gondola, whisks visitors efficiently up to a mountain café terrace at 2100m offering superb views of many of the Höhe Tauern’s 3,000m peaks on the South side of the valley; not a bad place for morning coffee all in all. There are some nice mountain walks from the top of the Gondala and in addition the site boasts the “longest sledge run in World” (possibly) which takes thrill riders down an exciting and possibly rather chilly 14km of zigzags to the village of Bramburg where they can thaw out with a glühwein in front of the log fire.
As in many parts of the Alps though ski developments can look somewhat depressing without the comforting blanket of winter snow to hide all the infrastructure. Everywhere we looked there appeared to be construction work going on as resorts busily try and beat accelerating climate change and shortening ski seasons by installing in snow canons everywhere with all the associated drainage retention basins, tracks and power cables required to service these. One wonders how long this battle of technology vs. (un)natural processes can continue before it all simply becomes financially unsustainable.
There are however reminders that traditional lifestyles and farming patterns do continue in the Höhe Tauern despite increasing “resortification” tendencies and outside commercial interests. The centuries old alm tradition, a form of transhumance whereby cows are moved to high pastures for grazing each summer, still continues to this day and is responsible for much of the biodiversity and diverse cultural landscapes which are encountered in the Höhe Tauern.
The extensive grazing of the high meadows by cows favours the creation of colourful, rich alpine meadows, offering a haven for rare flora and fauna which would otherwise be quickly lost by encroaching forest regeneration. One of the main aims of the Höhe Tauern National Park is therefore to support and protect traditional farming practices in order to help preserve the cultural landscapes and biodiversity. The economics of alm life however are fragile and many farmers therefore supplement their income by providing local produce, catering and accommodation for visitors and mountain walkers; a pleasant stopover on any alpine hike.
We stayed on a mountain farm just outside Bramberg im Widlkögel, which provided super views down the Pinzgau Valley towards Zell am Zee. Although the view was great the constant low drone of traffic along the main valley route could be a little wearing and I must admit this did impact negatively on the location. It’s another reminder that things are changing in the Pinzgau; traditional lifestyles are evolving or coming to an end, retail and hotel chains are springing up and the main valleys start to become slowly clogged up with infrastructure development – perhaps Dire Straits song “Telegraph Road” put it all quite nicely in this respect.
It was our last evening in the Pinzgau; looking up the valley from our apartment, the skies darkened as storm clouds rolled ominously in. Sheets of rain cascaded off forbidding mountain walls and bolts of lightning crashed to earth on distant summits as the gale howled in. The storm passed just as quickly as it arrived; a fresh earthy scent in its place and a low angle sun illuminating the valley like a giant celestial spotlight.
Once again we are put in our place, given perspective and reminded that it is not us who are really in charge…