Chamois are crazy. In driving storms, snow and wind these creatures climb high into the Alps, teetering on precarious ledges and tightrope-walking on knife-edge ridges, all in search of food. My guide Erich Schweiger – aka Naggi – told me all about these hybrid antelope/goats as we stood on a rocky path, 1,000m above the Austrian town of St Anton, fumbling around in our rucksacks trying to find our waterproofs as rain blew in our faces. “Yep,” said Naggi, gesticulating somewhere towards the mist, “crazy.” The irony wasn’t lost on me as we, too, continued on in the driving rain, guided by our bellies, heading to Leutkircher Hutte for lunch.
In the Tirolean Alps – and in particular here in the Lechtaler range – mountain huts are spaced regularly along the trails, offering dorm beds and hot food. This means that you can stay high among the mountains, connecting walking paths to form a hut-to-hut adventure, without the need to carry heavy camping gear or return to villages for supplies. Some huts are even open in winter for emergency un-staffed use. It wasn’t winter now. In fact it was mid-July – a time free from the hedonistic crowds that descend on St Anton in ski season, leaving the granite peaks to walkers. My plan had been to explore this winter wonderland snow-free, bathed in summer sunshine, spending my days strolling from hut to hut. St Anton, it seemed, had other ideas.
“I’m not saying a bad storm,” said Naggi when we’d met earlier that morning, “but – it’s the mountains, anything could happen.” Indeed it could. The day before, I had arrived in town to find the sky overcast; the threat of thunder brewed in the air, and the clouds churned as though being stirred in a cauldron. I had taken a bus into the nearby Verwall Valley and meandered among grey cows and rows of purple and pink orchis to find Konstanzer Hutte, my first introduction to a mountain shelter. Spits of rain fell sporadically as I walked, clouds swarming around the peaks, but by the time I left the hut to return to St Anton, the sky was blue, the sun burning through intensely, forcing me to remove layers. That night I was buzzing at the thought of my forthcoming trek.
Shelter from the storm – Then next morning I met Naggi and almost on cue the rain started. Trying to ignore the worsening weather we headed for the ski lifts. Walking in the mountains of a ski town offers two main perks. The first is that when places are better known for winter sports, in summer they’re much quieter and cheaper. The second is that the ski lift infrastructure makes it easier to get up into the high places to start a walk, saving your legs hundreds of metres of ascent. We jumped in a cable car to Valluga, the highest peak in the mountain range at 2,811m.
As we passed the 2,000m mark, the views of green meadows and wildflowers disappeared, swallowed by thick fog. I looked over to Naggi, who was busy humming to himself, avoiding my gaze. When we finally reached the top, I stepped out into winter. Snow lay banked up the stairs to the walking path; I half wondered if we would need skis to get down. “It might improve as we head along the path – we’ll be descending a little,” said Naggi optimistically. We began plunging our legs into the knee-deep snow, using walking poles for balance.