We just returned from a six day ski adventure in Austria through the Otztal region of the Tyrolean Alps. We made a loop through the mountains of this region, staying at huts each night and climbing and skiing nearby summits along the way.
The trip began in the small town of Vent, which Austrians have considered to be the “Alpinist’s Village” of the region since the mid-1800’s. The town is a short distance south of the popular ski area of Solden, and is about a one hour drive southwest from Innsbruck, the unofficial capital of the Tyrol.
The mountains and ridges of the Otztal region form a section of the border between Austria and Italy, and for a day or two we were actually skiing back and forth between the two countries.
There are countless ways to explore this area, our tour was just one way to link things up. We made use of four different huts in the region but there are several others that can be integrated into your a trip plan.
[Use the map above to see the route, individual days are in different colors.]
Day 1 – Vent to Similaun Hut
Vent is a small village, and we walked from out hotel, down the street, to our starting trailhead. Once at base of a small T-bar hill, we began skinning up towards the Martin Busch Hut. The route is easy to follow, it’s basically along a snow-covered summer hiking trail/jeep road. It’s actually a good way to start a trip like this. After a long overseas flight the day before, and a 3-4 hour drive from Munich, the easy grade without any navigation concerns was nice. It felt good to stretch out the legs and ease into the routine for the next six days.
Martin Busch Hut is about 4 miles from Vent. Some spend their first night here and attempt to ski a nearby peak called Kreuspitze (3338m). We had a reservation for the night but we thought the hut was a bit close to town, and we wanted to get farther into the mountains on our first day. So we decided that rather than stay at this hut, we would stop in for a tea and check it out, and then continue on up the valley to the Similaun Hut for the night. That would allow us to attempt Similaun Peak the following morning, hopefully with better visibility.
We reached the Similaun Hut (3019m) that afternoon and checked in. Due to the mixed weather forecasted for the week, there were many cancellations at the huts which meant it wasn’t a problem to show up without a reservation.
Day 2 – Similaun Peak, Hauslabkogel, Similaun Hut
With the jet lag fading, we got up with the other hut trippers for breakfast, which was typically served around 7am. The weather wasn’t very good, looking out the window at the hut we could see we were in the clouds and the visibility was poor. It wasn’t snowing much though, so we figured it was possible to make an attempt on Similaun Peak.
Between brief windows of visibility, GPS, and some old partially buried ski tracks, we were able to get ourselves up to the summit of Similaun (3606m), the seventh tallest mountain in Austria. It’s pretty common to encounter big crosses on significant summits in this part of Europe. We found the cross easily (it’s huge) but had little additional visibility which was unfortunate because the views are supposed to be impressive. A clearer day would have also shown some huge exposure to the north and south along our route of ascent, so maybe it’s good we couldn’t see.
Once off the summit and away from the big exposure we skied powder all the way back down to the hut. It was great.
Rather than pack up and head to a new hut, we opted to climb and ski a different peak we saw across the valley, and spend a second night at Similaun Hut. We made our way up Hauslabkogel (3403m), again in the in-and-out visibility, and found more great snow to ski in a big bowl on the mountain’s east side. Our timing was good, another wave of weather came through as we made our way down, which pushed the whiteout conditions into the “vertigo” category. We were below the hut at this point and had a very snowy, low-vis skin back to Similaun Hut. Visibility aside, the snow was great and it felt good to get up on two summits that day.
Day 3 – Iceman, Fineilspitze, Bella Vista Hut
Now firmly in the hut routine, we were up early, packed, and out the door by around 8. Our goal was to skin to a pass called the Hauslabjoch, climb a peak called the Fineilspitze, and then navigate our way to the Bella Vista Hut, which was actually over the border in Italy.
The day began with a short descent from Similaun Hut to an adjacent valley from where we climbed up to the pass. The route took us past a memorial marking the location of the “Otzi” (Iceman), which was a mummified human from 3000 BC that was discovered in 1991. (Read more on it here.) We stopped for a moment to ponder it all.
From the pass we began up Fineilspitze (3516m) which was steep and rocky to the point that it didn’t make sense to bring our skis. So in European fashion we left our skis and poles in a “ski depot” by some rocks, and started up with crampons and ice axes. The route to the top was fun, with some wild cornices that built up from the recent storms. We made the summit, which barely had enough room for the two of us, and headed back down. Like everyday so far, the weather and visibility was in-and-out, but we did catch some great views during a temporary moment of clearing that offered us a quick survey of the route for the rest of the day.
Once back at our skis we dropped in off the shoulder of the Fineilspitze and skied the glacier into Italy. Fun!
The Bella Vista Hut is actually near the top of a ski area called Grawand, and being in proximity to lifts and day skiers gives it a little different feel from the other more remote huts in the area. It had a wood-fired hot tub and sauna, showers came included with your stay, and we had a cute little bedroom for the two of us for the night.
Day 4 – Weisskugel attempt, Hochjoch Hospiz
We woke to more inclement weather at the hut. But bad visibility hadn’t stopped us yet and we figured today was no different, so we had breakfast and headed out. The goal was to reach the top of the ski area, cross over a ridge and descend to a big glacier that feeds off of Weisskugel (3739m), the third tallest mountain in Austria. Our ambitious goal for the day was to summit the Wiesskugel.
As we made our way above the hut we actually climbed into some better visibility, but it was pretty windy. Once we crested the ridge, we made a short climb up a nearby peak named on the map only as “Egg” (3217m). We went to this little bump on the ridge partly due to the cute name, which we’re told means “corner” in this region of mountains. But also because we feared the weather might make things too challenging for us to pull off Wiesskugel and Egg was an easy get.
After summiting the mighty Egg, we skied down to the Hintereisferner (Hintereis Glacier) and began our approach to Weisskugel. It wasn’t long before we were in whiteout again, following the GPS and looking for any old tracks that might indicate the route. After three hours of skinning up the glacier in absolute zero visibility, we finally reached a prominent col on the route and had a decision to make. We were still about 1000 feet below the summit and unlike some days where we have climbed up and out of the weather, conditions only seemed to get worse as we got higher. It didn’t make sense to go further so we took a break, ate some food, put on some layers, and headed down. We still had a very long way down the glacier to get to the next hut, the Hochjoch Hospiz.
After a long descent of the glacier we reached the old hut. It is in a central location in the region, and at the confluence of two valleys, and with the bad weather causing a lot of groups to change their plans, it was packed with people. We tried unsuccessfully to make a reservation in advance, so we hoped they could just fit the two of us in. Thankfully for us they had two individual bunks in separate rooms. We settled in, got changed, had a beer and played chess. Tomorrow would be another full day.
Day 5 – Guslarspitze, Fluchtkogel, Vernagt Hut
We got up and out of the Hochjoch Hut with the other groups. It’s common for skiers to head to Vernagt Hut from here so we assumed we’d be in line with all the other on the skin track. It was low visibility outside the hut, just thick fog. We let the other groups leave ahead of us knowing we usually caught up to them quickly. It’s easier to just let them show the way for a while.
Our route led us up the hill behind the hut to a pair of summits known as Guslarspitze and we very quickly found ourselves alone. Unbeknownst to us, the others were skipping these two summits and following an easier, lower route to a nearby summit called Fluchtkogel. Just when we had resigned ourselves to being in a huge group all day we actually had the morning all to ourselves.
As we got higher we broke out of the clouds which were filling the valley, and we had a beautiful day ahead of us! We reached the twin Guslarspitze summits (>3100m) and then skied wintry, north facing powder back down into the clouds.
Our next section would take us up the Fluchtkogel (3500m) where we encountered other groups from the night before along their alternate route. We skied back down into the clouds and to the Vernagt Hut (2755m). Three summits, great views, good snow— it was a really cool day.
Vernagt Hut was nice, we were in a bunk room with a family from the Czech Republic. By now we had been bouncing around with so many groups in the huts and on the trail we had made friends. The guys from Copenhagen, the Germans who didn’t talk much, the Italian guide with the four Americans, etc. It was fun, moving along the route, seeing new huts, having hut guardians inquire about the two of us, “…so far from home… are you guide…? don’t you have mountains in Colorado?”
The next day we planned to go to the Wildspitze, the second tallest mountain in Austria. And for the first time in almost a week, the weather looked good!
Day 6 – Wildspitze, back to Vent
Because the Wildspitze day is a little longer than others on this circuit, breakfast is earlier at Vernagt Hut which allows everyone to get out the door that much faster. It seemed most of the groups in the hut were headed the same way as we were. It was a gorgeous Saturday morning and we knew it would be a busy day on the peak. So we set a quick pace and passed all of the other groups on the initial climb up to the Brochkogeljoch (saddle).
There was a skintrack from the day before so the route finding was easy. After the saddle we kept plugging along, happy to have the other groups comfortably behind us. We traversed behind the Hinterer Brochkogel where, to our left, we could see a ski area tram terminal with skiers descending our way. I guess it’s common for ski mountaineers to get the first tram up from the nearby Mittleberg ski area and attempt Wildspitze from there. And just like, that several dozen others were making their way up to Wildspitze with the rest of us.
We kept on skinning and reached the Wildspitze ski depot with only one other person nearby. We dropped some gear, put on crampons, coiled the rope and began up. It’s a fun final 100m to the cross at the summit. A narrow arete, mostly snow, with a bit of a rocky gully crux at the top. It didn’t take long to get there, and the stop at the summit was a quick one. We took a bunch a photos and when we looked down to the base of the final climb, we could see some 80-90 other people nearing the ski depot, getting ready to start up. Time to head down.
We descended through the crux before they arrived, which was the goal. Then it was an easy descent back to the skis. It would be tough for everyone to fit up there on the summit, and the crux would become quite the traffic jam, but those weren’t our problems. The Wildspitze was done and it was time to head down to Vent and wrap up this tour.
From the ski depot we skied great snow to the Mitterkarjoch, where a semi-buried via ferrata (iron cable) leads down to a glacier which would allow us to ski back to Vent. We pulled out the rope to protect the airy moves, and before we knew it we were down to the skiable snow and making our way home. The route lead us down the long valley to the Breslauer Hut, which wasn’t open for the season yet but seemed like a good place to stop. We had lunch on the snow-covered deck before hitting the piste of the Vent ski area and calling this 6-day trip a huge success.
We cruised the spring corduroy of the ski area to a mid-mountain restaurant where we stopped for a beer, once again taking it all in. After that welcome pitstop, we descended to town, literally skiing right to the hotel we started from six days earlier.
There’s something about traveling through the mountains in this fashion that is really fun, with only skis on your feet and the few things you really need all in your backpack. And the European huts make that style of travel possible.
The Austrian huts are some of the nicest we’ve seen and the Otztal region is beautiful. If you like hut trips and the European ski experience consider exploring this region. You’ll meet great people and see some incredible mountains. And you might even ski some great snow and stand on cool summits along the way!
Wow, what a great trip. You two are the best and your description of this adventure is just great. Thanks for sharing!!
It was a fun adventure out there. Might have to go back someday.
Great report, Ted! Love it!
Thanks Jen. It was a little long but there was just so much to cover!
Wow – great trip! You mentioned the glaciers, did you ever have any concerns about crevasses? Also, do you have a guidebook and map recommendation for that area?
Scott, we traveled as you would through glaciated terrain, with harnesses on and a gear and a rope (packed) in the event of an emergency. But it’s the tail end of the winter there and they received a lot of snow and the glacial features were all totally buried. Crevasses are always a concern but in our experience if you’re early enough in the season, be it in Europe or in the Pacific NW, you can avoid any issues so long as everything is buried. But still be prepared!
We got info from a guidebook- Alpine Ski Mountaineering 2: Central and Eastern Alps – ski tours in Austria, Switzerland, and Italy, by Bill O’Connor. We also have a friend who own Northwest Mountain School and guides in the region and took some ideas from his trip itineraries, which are all posted on his website. We find it hard to get the good maps her ein the States in advance and always just buy one locally when we get over there. We’ll do some planning on Caltopo.com beforehand though.
Fantastic, C&T. Just beautiful. Love the way you two roll. And I miss seeing you!
Miss you too Chris. Hope you got some good skiing in Canada this year. See you this summer, somewhere.
Absolutely awesome, Ted. So inspiring on many levels. I love that your adventures continue to evolve.
Thx Fry. They’ve definitely evolved to be a little easier and include more beer and food along the way!
Wow, consistent powder in Austria. You nailed it!
Thanks, Ted! And thanks for the pointer to Northwest Mountain School – looks like they have some cool trips other than the Haute Route.
Scott, check out the book I mentioned. There are lots of cool Alps adventures in the model of the Haute Route but often better in terms of peak skiing options and slightly smaller crowds.
George, if you can get away from your cabin for a week one of these years we’d recommend a trip like this one! But if you can’t break the spell of Marble we understand.