The alarm beeped at 6am and we stumbled out of our beds in the half-dark. Down the creaky staircase to the boot-room, boots on and out into the early dawn by ten past. We’d guessed right with the alarm – it was just light enough to find the start of the footpath leading to the summit of Im Hinterneis, a minor bump on a long rocky ridge forming the Italo-Austrian border in the heart of the Ötztaler Alps. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the long multi-peaked ridge to our right was silhouetted black against the early eastern light. We had 400 metres of climbing and about a mile of distance to cover to the top, hopefully before sunrise. But, starting at an altitude of 2,850 metres in the half-dark, progress might not be that speedy.
This was undoubtedly the most unusual start to any day (of many) on an Inntravel holiday, but then a stay at the beautiful and quite pampering Hotel Zur Goldenen Rose in Karthaus offers this most unusual extra – an overnight stay at the mountain refuge they also own – the Schutzhutte Schoenes Aussicht or more mellifluously the Rifugio Bellavista (we’re in the German-speaking Italian Südtirol). Bellavista was politically correct when Mussolini was in power and tried to impose Italian on this former Austrian province, but, along with most of his plans, it came to nothing.
We like to earn our dinners on Inntravel holidays, favouring the longer, higher type of walks, but we also like our comforts at night. Staying in a mountain refuge sounded a little Spartan for us. But this seemed too exciting an adventure to pass on, and surely the tie-up with the hotel would ensure some basic comforts. And they do deliver your luggage for you.
There are various ways to get to the refuge, but it would be hard to beat the obvious one – the footpath from Kurzras. This is a beautifully constructed stony path that fairly effortlessly climbs 800 metres in a couple of miles across a rocky and sometimes steep hillside. There are great views behind to the shapely Saldurspitze with its high glaciers, but only as you reach the refuge to cross a col do you get to see the spectacular backdrop to the Schoenes Aussicht – the long, long wide valley of the Rofertal slowly descending towards Austria and many distant mountains. The whole of the right-hand side of the valley is a line of high rocky peaks, with a line of glaciers descending to the valley floor – which is beneath us. The refuge itself looks just like a refuge – functionally built, leaving the beauty to the view. It is perched on a rocky outcrop, a couple of hundred metres above the valley floor. Everything on this side of the valley is rock – mostly a warm orange gneiss. The valley floor, when not covered with the tail of a glacier, is filled with the usual industrial-looking grey leavings of receding glaciation, and a couple of small green lakes.
There is also some evidence of skiing here – a small chair-lift and a bulldozed road – but this doesn’t really detract from the overall impression of splendid rocky and icy isolation and vastness. We were greeted at the refuge by Jasmin, a master (mistress?) in the art of making you feel welcome, radiating cheerful, boisterous efficiency. It would be interesting to hear her tales of the reactions of Zur Goldenen Rose guests on being shown their rooms. There is no doubt we are in a mountain refuge. Everything is wooden and the rooms are just big enough for a single bed on either side of the little window, and a tiny table and chair. There are also beds tucked in every available space in the corridors and under the stairs, none of which were occupied during our stay. Our room is on the second floor, the toilets and showers are on the first. (Mountain refuge regulars would of course find this soft in the extreme – individual rooms and beds, high-quality duvets, electricity 24 hours a day, heating.) The view from our little window is surpassed only by the view from the shower downstairs which features a full-length, unshuttered window commanding a great prospect of the valley.
A fortuitous added extra to our refuge adventure is the passage of the Transhumance. For centuries, all across the Alps, every spring and autumn, herdsmen have moved large numbers of sheep, goats and cows between summer and winter pastures. Locally, one route is from the high summer Austrian pastures across the col at the refuge and down to the lower Italian pastures in Schnalstal. We sit on a boulder and watch more than a thousand sheep, with their shepherds and dogs, wind past the refuge and descend the path towards Kurzras – single file only so soon the line of sheep stretches across the rocky slopes and as far down as you can see.
This is an impressive enough sight, but the spring passage must be remarkable – at this altitude at that time of year sheep funnel along deep cuttings through the extensive remains of the winter snow. After the sheep have gone, peace descends (they mostly had bells) and we take a short walk along the valley into Austria but are chased back by the onset of some showery rain. We find a quiet comfortable corner in the refuge and settle down with good books and a glass of wine. We’re eager to experience dinner here and it doesn’t disappoint. In true refuge style we all sit down at 7pm – every seat is taken – and share the same refuge-type food, including dumplings, soup and beef stew. All extremely tasty, and accompanied by a limited but excellent choice of Südtirolean wines. Having made our plans for a 6am start the 10pm lights out is an irrelevance to us. We have some anxiety about finding our way down a floor in the pitch dark in the middle of the night to the toilet, but needn’t have worried, as they leave some low-lighting on in the staircase. Our impression that most of the other guests are true refuge-goers rather than curious hotel residents is at least partially confirmed at 3.30am when we hear an alarm go and some proper Alpinists creep out into the dark.
So here we are puffing up the well-marked path 3A as the sky lightens. Although it is a dotted line on the map, suggesting it is not straightforward, there are no difficulties. Because everything is rock, sometimes there is no path as such, but cairns and paint marks make it easy to follow the way. It soon becomes clear that the sun is going to rise over the peaks to our right – in other words we don’t need to make the crest of our ridge to see it. As it turns out we are just short of the top of Im Hinterneis (3,269 metres) when the first chink of sun appears behind the jagged black outline of the mountains. We’ve been thinking more about that than the view from the top, which turns out to be spectacular. The ridge we’ve just reached drops away steeply beneath us, and the valley below is filled with the apparently endless tail of the Hintereisferner glacier stretching eastwards. It arises from high up the Weisskugel (3,738 metres), the highest peak in the Ötztaler Alps. The summit is a faint pink in the early sunlight, but the valley and the length of the glacier are in deep, pale blue, cold-looking shade. There are rocky peaks and glaciers in every direction, and as the sun climbs more and more peaks start to light up, and our ridge now casts a clear shadow across the glaciated slopes opposite.
It’s quite cool up here (probably 8 or 9 degrees) and after taking in the view a little longer we set off down for breakfast. It’s easier to follow the route in daylight, and the sun is just reaching the refuge as we get there. After a fairly leisurely refuel with traditional hearty Alpine fare we’re ready for part two of our day. It’s rare to stay in relative comfort at 2,800 metres, and even rarer to do so in good weather with the option of easily ascending some 3,000-metre-plus peaks. The opportunity has to be seized, so now our attention is turned to the other side of the valley and the climb of Grawand (3,251 metres) perched above the impressive Hochjochferner glacier. This involves crossing the valley floor, filled with fine glacier silt, a brief excursion along ski-related bulldozed tracks and then a fine path winding up through the rocky mountainside.
There are great views back across to the refuge and our pre-breakfast walk, and it doesn’t seem too long until we come out on a little flat bit right at the glacier’s edge. This is also the site of a small chairlift which marks the bottom of the area used for summer glacier skiing – and they are skiing today. From here there is a wide track up to the highest hotel in Europe – the Hotel Grawand at 3,205 metres. It’s wide but it is also very steep for a bit in the middle, a definite spot for an Inntravel Slow Moment. The peak of the Grawand is just a little further on and higher than the hotel. They’ve done their best with wooden steps and occasional wire hand rails to make it a walk, but it needs the odd hand and a definite head for heights. The view of course is fantastic, but if you don’t fancy it never mind, the view from the rooftop terrace of the hotel is almost as good.
As well as all the spectacular peaks and glaciers, the path the sheep took down to Kurzras looks particularly impressive, as does the way up to Im Hinterneis. (These, of course, are illusions – both paths are entirely accessible to walkers, it is the surroundings that impress.) The refuge looks a little lonely, isolated against its extensive backdrop of bare rock. From Grawand one option to get back to Karthaus would be to take the cable car which drops straight down to Kurzras. But as we’ve been promised a lift down the 4x4 track we retrace our steps, taking in the last of the views which have varied enormously in the 24 hours we’ve been up here, depending on the weather and the position of the sun. The last little climb from the valley floor to the refuge takes its toll on our now weary legs, but we’re soon revived by a cheery Jasmin welcome, a seat on the sunny scenic terrace, a plate of Rösti, Speck and Fried Eggs, and a big cold Weissbier.
We’d thought we might have to chill for a while on the terrace waiting for our lift and it’s almost a disappointment to hear that we’ll be going just as soon as we’ve finished our beer. It’s been a brilliant little stay, but any sadness is of course tempered by our knowledge of the delights awaiting us at Zur Goldenen Rose. And we’ll be down in time for the daily afternoon tea and cake...