The E5 Route: Trekking the Austrian & Italian Alps

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The trip was a last-minute decision to cram in a European hike before a family wedding. The preparation was questionable and the walking hard on the knees, but the spectacular mountain scenery and friendly alpine-hut culture made it all worthwhile.

Four days in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in southern Germany made a good base for getting over jetlag and preparing for the hike. Maps from brands, ‘Kompass’ or ‘Freytag & Berndt’ are easy to come by in Europe – I purchased a couple of 1:50 000 topographics.

A useful online guidebook for the ‘Via Alpina’ (an amalgamation of several long-distance hiking routes) is available here, and there is plenty of information and guidebooks for the E5 section through the Alps.

Setting off from Garmisch

The beginning of the trip: setting off from Garmisch. 

Packing and transport

I packed my rucksack – an 80L ‘expedition’ style – with a tent, down sleeping bag, electronics and clothes. Not knowing exactly which villages would have supermarkets to restock meant it was necessary to carry four days of dried food, 1.5L methylated spirits for the Trangia, and of course a bottle of wine!

The whole pack weighed well over 30kg. This made me wonder how enjoyable climbing and descending would be (average altitude variation is 1,500 m per day).

From Garmisch, I took a train and bus to arrive at Bach and join the E5. Public transport is efficient – there is always a bus route to take you wherever you want to start hiking.

Going through Seescharte Pass

The view of the Seescharte Pass. 

Crossing the Lechtal Alps

The E5 trail takes you across Austria’s Lechtal Alps from Bach to Zams – from one valley, over mountains into the next valley. In early July, the first day was muggy and hot, followed by a thunderstorm overnight. After a warm and thankfully dry night in the tent, the next day was a slippery ascent to the Memminger Hut at 2,242m above sea level.

Run by the German Alpine Club (DAV), you get quite a surprise if expecting simple wooden refuges like cattlemen’s huts in the Victorian high country.

View of a high alpine meadow

Standing in a high alpine meadow.

The DAV Huts

The DAV huts are more like motels with hot showers, restaurant food and 30-50 comfy beds. Booking ahead is essential during the high season, but the hut manager should always find you a place to sleep if you turn up without a booking, even if it’s in the hallway.

A night’s stay costs 20 euro – membership of the DAV gets you a significant discount – and around 12 euro for a hot wurst (sausage, sauerkraut and potato mash) and beverage.

Room were shoes are stored to dry and breathe

The Drying Room – don’t breathe in deeply here!

Initiation into the hut culture

Initiation into the fantastic ‘hut culture’ is simple – just follow the crowd. Even in summer, most hikers head for the drying room to leave their damp clothes and boots. Then they go straight to the bar for a Bavarian lager or two. One fellow, hiking with a group, told me, “The evening social is the reason we do this!” One golden rule: no boots or hiking poles in dorm rooms!

On my first go at having a shower, I discovered it cost a euro per minute paid with tokens collected from reception. So, I had to put my clothes back on, get a token, and head back to the shower queue again.

Somehow it was possible to get a good night’s sleep, even in a room with twelve other hikers. The next morning, we set off at about 8 am after an early breakfast.

Foggy conditions on Glanderspitze Ridge

Foggy conditions on the Glanderspitze Ridge. 

The Seecharte Pass

Seescharte Pass, the main climb for that day, gave a spectacular view across the valley. The route crosses an alpine meadow down to Zams. This is where I caught the last cable car for the day with only minutes to spare. Camping on an exposed hillside with Franc, a Swiss photographer I’d met, we watched a huge thunderstorm roll over the mountains toward us.

This was a concern for our tents, so we formed our hiking poles into a tepee a few metres away and hoped any lightning would strike there instead. The weather changes instantly in the Alps, from the clear sun to dense fog in less than ten minutes. It’s a good idea to keep your raincoat handy to avoid getting wet, cold or hypothermic and to pause if you can’t see the trail ahead.

Camping on Glanderspitze

Camping on Glanderspitze. 

Keeping up with ascents

Being young and determined, I found that keeping up with others on the steep ascents was no problem. Except at the top, I was gasping for breath while ancient German men with rickety legs would speed past. By the third day, I realised I was the only hiker carrying all my gear with me. Everyone else had a 7kg daypack and was eating and sleeping in the huts.

I made a mental note for next time and endeavoured to camp as much as possible to justify carrying the tent, sleeping bag and cooking equipment.

Dinner with the friendly DAV group in Braunschweiger Hut

Dinner with the friendly DAV group Braunschweiger hut. 

Crossing the Pitztal Alps

The route descends through a pine forest to Wenns, a pleasant village with a decent supermarket to stock up on food. You then take a bus to Gletscherstuberl Inn where you tackle a 1,000m climb to the Braunschweiger Hut. I tagged along with a group of German hikers for the rainy, strenuous ascent.

That night in the dining room a mountain guide named Wolf and his DAV hiking group welcomed me to their table where we shared a cosy meal.

Glacial river crossing at Rettenbach

A glacial river crossing in Rettenbach. 

Camping at 2,500m

The terrain was mixed over the next few days, with a rugged high alpine pass, crossing the (safe) edge of a glacier, a few rocky rivers, and around the grassed side of a mountain above the popular tourist town of Soelden. After looking for a few hours, I finally found a flat spot on the side of the mountain to camp at 2,500m.

The Trangia stove was slow to boil water and cook dinner. Cold, blustery conditions foretold a change in the weather and the place was a winter wonderland by morning.

Camping and overnight snow at 2500m

The overnight snow at my campsite.

Crossing the Otztal Alps

Vent, the village at the bottom of the valley between the Otztal and Pitztal Alps, has a small shop and excellent tourist office. The path continues from here, gently winding its way up to the Martin Busche Hut. There are lots of mountain peaks to bag around here if you have an extra day and possibly some mountaineering equipment for the taller peaks (crampons, etc.). I chose to conquer the Kreuzspite at 3,400m. Don’t forget your camera!

Gentle ascent to Martin Busche Hut

The gentle ascent to Martin Busche Hut.

A worthwhile detour

A recommended detour is heading to the finding place of ‘Otzi’, the Iceman. I’d recommend taking gaiters, waterproof boots and hiking poles to prepare for this. There was deep snow above 3,100m (this was June – summer!). Similaunhutte, close by, is at the top of the pass which marks the border between Austria and Italy.

I took a quick spell in the warmth of the hut to dry out my soggy boots. Then a knee-tingling 1,700m descent followed, to a village ‘Unser Frau’ past goat and cattle herds.

You still find flowers even this high up

You’ll still find flowers, even this high up!

The Meran High Altitude Path

The route was lush and green along forests on the side of the valley, it then joined the easy and popular Meran High Altitude Path for 3 days. The ‘Merano Hoehenweg’ didn’t feel as adventurous as the previous sections but was still scenic and very safe. Tent-pitching opportunities are limited due to the steep meadows.

One night I approached a dairy farmer, Loui, and camped next to his shed. The apparently infamous “Section of 1000 Steps” tested my stamina. I drank fresh milk from a hut where you could meet the friendly cows ‘Siggi’ and ‘Emily’ who milled around the outdoor dining tables.

The Hochganghaus hut, built with a helicopter to transport the materials, made for a great finish to the hike with comfy accommodation and excellent hospitality.

The final descent to Meran marked the finish of the E5 for me.

The final descent to Meran marked the finish of the E5 for me.

Lessons learnt from the trip

The E5 through Austria and Italy is spectacular, safe and well-used, without feeling crowded even in the summer high season. A big difference to hiking in Australia is that water is no problem. It’s readily available from mountain springs, and most towns have a drinking fountain.

Camping isn’t strictly prohibited, but it’s certainly not the norm in the Alps. Next time I’d leave camping for the Victorian High country, to enjoy a light pack and the relatively inexpensive cultural experience of the alpine huts.

Who else has tackled an alpine hike? Let us know in the comments. 

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Joined back in January, 2014

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