TAKE UP THE SLACK,’ shouts Matthias Schiestl, as he dangles by one arm from a sheer granite face, clips his rope into a carabiner and dips his hand into a bag of chalk hanging from his belt. Thirty feet below, his girlfriend Nina braces her legs against the rock and leans backwards so the rope tightens against the piton, in case Matthias’s grip should slip. It’s an unnecessary precaution. In a sequence of graceful steps and lunges using clefts and ledges in the rock, he ascends the last part without as much as a missed step. At the top, he takes a break and surveys the green meadows of the Ewige Jagdgrunde.
Other climbers are tackling pitches around the valley, and Matthias watches them with an experienced eye, assessing lines, critiquing routes, evaluating moves for style and panache. Having caught his breath, he scrambles back onto the rock face and abseils to the bottom, where Nina is waiting with a flask of coffee and a chocolate bar. Now 27, Matthias is one of Austria’s most promising young climbers. Born and bred in the Zillertal, he’s been exploring the valley since he began climbing as a teenager. A senior member of the Austrian climbing team, he’s competed all over the globe, but for him, there’s nowhere quite like home. ‘I’ve completed most of the main routes in the Zillertal,’ Matthias says, ‘but there’s always a new place or a better line to find. That’s what keeps me exploring.’
Slinging his ropes over his shoulder, he sets off in search of the next spot. Meadows hatch either side of the trail, where a few cows munch lazily. Cascades tumble like threads of silver off the valley walls, and the loamy scent of earth and tree sap hangs in the air. The Zillertal is hiking country, with some of the wildest scenery in the Alps: lakes, plateaus, ridges and pastures awash with wildflowers. Cable cars allow easy access to the trailheads, and mountain huts provide hikers on longer routes with a hot meal and a place to stay overnight. These refuges are a cornerstone of Alpine life and hospitality: most have kept their rustic atmosphere, with pot-bellied stoves, gingham tablecloths and ibex horns on the walls.
One of the most aged of these hostelries is the Klausenalm, near the Ewige Jagdgrunde in the wild web of valleys southwest of the main town of Mayrhofen. At this cabin, long wooden tables are loaded with mountain specialities: cheese soup, dried sausage, crusty bread and meaty stew. As his guests eat, owner Karl Geisler emerges from the kitchen, discarding his apron for an accordion before trilling and parping his way through a folk song. Everyone links arms and joins in for the chorus, but Karl’s impeccable yodelling steals the show. After lunch, a band of hikers heads up into the remote Oberboden area, deserted save for a few farmhouses and tumbledown barns.
The group climbs steeply through the forest; by late afternoon, they’ve reached their goal: a junction between two valleys. Sharp and sheer as a pair of crossed swords, it was carved out long ago by mighty glaciers that once sliced through the Zillertal. The hikers stop for a breather on a rocky knoll. On the valley’s far side, fissures in the cloud rain sunlight onto the mountainsides, and the air seems charged with electricity. There’s a crack, then a nimble – in seconds, a downpour sends the hikers scurrying for cover under the pines. It’s a reminder that, though its pitches have been climbed and its paths mapped, the Zillertal is a corner of the Alps where nature still has the upper hand.