I realize that many people who are visiting and getting to know Austria are missing out on one of the things I like best about Austria, the mountain huts. In this article I would like to share a little bit about what a hut can be to you, what you should know about them and why they are so important. I cannot tell their whole story, nor can I take just one and do a complete job. My purpose is to motivate someone somewhere to get outside, get involved and visit a hut for themselves.
First let me tell you about my first "hut" experience. This was the first time I could really appreciate them and the work that goes into their upkeep.
It was my first snow shoeing adventure. We had rented snowshoes from the Alpine Club (OEAV) and had planned to trek up a well-known trail, have lunch at the hut and head back again. There was little snow on the trail at the beginning, and I wondered if we were carrying the snowshoes for nothing. After a while, the snow appeared and we visited he first hut on the way to the peak/ridge.
The hut was warm and inviting, the food was basic but hearty and the people relaxed. The aged timbers of the hut showed no sign of newness. They creaked, they were old, and they were proud of it. Looking at the pictures and mementos hung in various places, it obvious that the hut was rarely empty and always enjoyed.
It all fit. This remote place of silence, the glow of the hut and the simple food all belonged together. It was a feeling that might be compared to the last piece of a puzzle being put into place. Refreshed, our little party struck out to our next goal, the peak of the ridge.
A snowfall had started and the wind raced over the plateau. We broke out our snowshoes and strapped into them. Immediately walking was easier, even in the small amount of snow where we were. The wind raced by us, the snow was flying right to left, and there we were -walking along the wind whipped, snow bound trail.
At the end of the plateau, we entered a small well marked trail leading to our "peak". The trail rode along the ridge, eventually crossing the ridge to the other side. Quickly I realized that we crossed to the windward side. Wind driven snow limited our sight, and I could not tell how much longer we had to go. The cold started to seep into my body, and perspiration started to wet my hair.
Then at last we came around a bend saw a hut through the now. Although it appeared newer, I could not tell how old it was. Entering the hut, I smelled sweet pastry and new immediately what I was going to orderů whatever it was. I entered a hut that had a character of its own, similar yet different to the other -like two brothers. This time, I could savor the hut all the more as I left the wind and cold behind for a comforting cup of hot coffee.
After this experience, I have visited a number of huts and can say that each one is a cousin of these two brothers. The harder the trail for me, the more I look forward to enjoying the hut. Usually the lights are turned off between 10 and 11 p.m., but if I earned my way to the hut the early night and restful sleep are more than welcome.
How did it all start?
Of course many of the huts started out as a bivouac site, or just shelter to spend the night in. Later as mountaineering grew in popularity many comforts were added, including luggage porters! Yes, we would call it extreme today, but individuals were once physically carried to the huts by porters (don't laugh, some huts have parking lots). Mountaineering in Austria actually came into popularity within the wealthy class about 1792. I chose to begin with that date, as in 1792 the first hut was built on the Gro▀glockner, called the Salmhutte. A bishop in the Catholic Church named Salm organized the first known accent of the Gro▀glockner.
Eventually groups formed themselves to organize and share what the mountains had to offer. The Austrian Alpine Club (ÍEAV) was formed in 1862, the Austrian Tourist Club (ÍTK) was formed in 1869, and the Friends of Nature (Nature Freunde) were formed in 1895. Over time and based on friendship there have evolved many such clubs. A variety still exist today. Often the alpine environment can be dangerous, so it should be noted that the Mountain Rescue Service in Austria (Bergretungsdienst) was founded in 1946, with it's roots going back to 1896.
What is happening today?
Today the oversight of all these clubs rests with the Federation of Alpine Clubs in Austria (VAVÍ). Those organizations listed above (and many others) support these national treasures and belong to this body. Austria has a total of 514 huts with 26,088 beds. They employ 1,560 people, are valued at about 300 million Euro and cost about 12 million Euro per year to run. Over 50,000 kilometers of maintained trails connect them. Maintaining the trails cost more than 750,000 Euro per year.
If you think these are impressive numbers you have not realized their true value, which should be seen through the eyes of the many volunteers. The huts are maintained through over 180,000 hours of voluntary work per year and through the membership fees of over 435,000 members of alpine clubs in Austria (and abroad). In the end, the government of Austria still must financially support this network of trails and the huts on the provincial and federal level.
Today is not yesterday, and as such the challenges of operating huts have also changed. An increased awareness of the fragile alpine environment has changed it's operation. You do not put wastewater into the ground, so you must do the unusual. Some huts on Rax have 10 kilometers of pipe to lead the waste water away, however most huts today must filter or contain the waste and water for removal.
To please the guests in the alpine environment does not mean only offering a bed or even electricity. Even the most basic huts often offer a "Bergsteiger Menu", high on calories and filling for the next day. Beverages are expected, as is heated water. Each shower costs about 100 Austrian Schillings or about 7 Euro. The average cost of an overnight stay at a hut is only about 100 ATS for members of the clubs, so you can calculate yourself that the visitors fees/charges do not cover the costs associated with the hut. Paying for food or a shower might not even cover the transport costs! Again, thank those volunteers and membership dues for this.
OK, how do I get to one?
In the beginning of my hiking life in Austria, I was pretty happy to sit below the mountain and look up. A good hour of walking and I was done. If a hut did not have a shower (most don't), I wasn't too interested. At that time, there were some huts that fit what I wanted. But the mountain (and my wife) challenged me to go to more remote areas. These areas have a lot to offer. A remote hut has an atmosphere that cannot be replaced, just like the wilderness itself. At this time in my life, a hut that is difficult to get to is the hut I want to visit.
If you are still with me on all of this, I can come to my conclusion. With all these organizations and influences, you can imagine that the huts themselves are as varied as their owners. Each has a special charm and feeling that comes from age and history. This is what makes them special. This is what makes them valuable. This is why you see all the volunteers putting in their hard work to keep something special in this world alive.
Some of the huts offer menus and private rooms and are accessible by a car (or nearly so). Others are back-to-basic accommodation in remote areas that are difficult to get to. Regardless of the level of comfort you desire, you should find a hut and visit it for a true taste of what Austria and Austrians see as valuable. Then you might find your way to making Austria feel a little more like home.
Visit or call your local alpine club, or visit us the English Speaking Group "Vienna" for more information.
See you in the Mountains,
The information in this article has been gathered from the VAVÍ and Section Austria of the ÍEAV - with many thanks for thier effort and dedication. -tl