18th Aug 2012 12:23pm | By Celia Topping
The Austrian mountains aren’t just for snowbunnies. We hit the peaks for summertime action and something to steady the nerves
“This is the root of the Meisterwurz. It’s very good for making schnapps,” explains Andrea, my guide.
We’re 20 minutes into our walk on Ahorn, one of the two biggest mountains of the Zillertal Valley in Austria’s Tyrol, and every flower, plant, stem, grass and root Andrea points out seems to be good for making schnapps, the seriously strong spirit merrily chugged by Austrians everywhere.
“We drink it for health reasons,” insists Andrea, with a sly grin.
“It’s a great digestion aid and can cure many ailments.” I can’t help wondering which schnapps can cure the headache caused by drinking so much schnapps.
Tyrol is gorgeous. Think of Maria, wide-armed and full-skirted, dancing on a mountainside in the Sound Of Music, and brown cows with tinkly bells munching on alpine flowers against a backdrop of craggy mountains topped with snow.
Vienna may claim all the cultural kudos, producing masters such as Mozart and Schubert, while other regions of Austria boast international heavyweights including Sigmund Freud, not to mention everyone’s favourite beefcake-cum-politican, Arnold Schwarzenegger. But it’s here in Tyrol where the nature happens, in all its glory.
Mayrhofen, about an hour from the Tyrolean capital of Innsbruck, is probably better known for its winter season – it’s home to the awesome Snowbombing Festival, where once a year the quiet, unassuming valley is turned into a rave, with snow.
However, I’m here in midsummer, to discover what this picturesque idyll has to offer when the snow melts, which is why I’m clinging to an iron rung fixed in the side of a rockface, about 200m above the valley, with the River Ziller thundering beneath me.
Via ferratas, or ‘iron roads’, were first used by the Italian infantry in the First World War to manoeuvre around the Dolomites. But now these iron veins run all over the mountains of several European countries, including Austria, Germany and even Scotland, a sort of ‘rock-climbing-lite’ for the uninitiated.
Guide Willi tells my group: “The great thing about via ferratas is that you can do them alone, you don’t need anyone to belay.” As the steel cable and iron rungs are already in place, all you need to do is clip on.
I struggle, inelegantly, to get to the top, having realised early on that I don’t have a head for heights. But I’m determined not to fail.
On reaching the top, the rest of the group are ebullient with the thrill of the climb and we reward ourselves with a hearty meal of traditional wiener schnitzel, huge glasses of beer and, of course, schnapps – just to steady the nerves, of course.
The next day brings more adventure as I go rafting on the River Ziller. Rudi Kroll, guide at Action Club Zillertal, ex-professional snowboarder, and all-round thrill seeker, takes my group out on the river, and we’re instantly paddling like mad in the rushing water.