From Dirt Issue 113 - July 2011

Crestin
Crestin

Knife–edge ridges, epic singletrack descents, authentic mountain living and Austrian folk music…according to bike guide Alex Ganster, the Zillertal valley has it all. I had to find out more, it sounded too good to be true. So back in Autumn last year the bike was once again thrown in the back of a van and ‘east’ was programmed into an imaginary and somewhat unreliable navigation system. I’ll now transport you back to the time…

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[part title="Zillertal Valley..."]

Austria Shootings 089
Austria Shootings 089

Chugging along through Switzerland, past Innsbruck and up into the Zillertal feels like one hell of an adventure into the unknown. For myself, Jamie Teasdale and Paul Aston an adventure this certainly is, as we finally creep up along the flat bottom of the valley deep into the middle of yet another night on the road. Parking up at a coach stop we are all changed and ready for bed and within minutes are drifting off to a much needed sleep; we have little idea of just what we are in for come the morning.

With the rising sun, so too is the temperature in the van and beads of sweat are the last straw, I’m tired still from the long drive yet unable to sleep. I swing the door open and say ‘hallo’ to the discerning bus driver opposite, who bows his newspaper and approves with a glance up and a slight grunt. I guess bike bums are starting to become something of a normality around Europe these days.

Having no idea where I am, or even where I am supposed to be, I decide the only option is a little adventure along the nearby footpath; it looks well used, so what the hell. 45 minutes later and my (non) German speaking capabilities are being pushed to their limit. Eventually I find my feet and more importantly a coffee shop, it’d be rude not to relay the news so I make my way back to the van. We’re in Mayrhofen.

With some caffeine in the system, we are in a much better state to appreciate our surroundings, and how incredible they sure are. Towering peaks, green pastures, classic alpine meadows and crashing cascades of water are all to be spied on our drive deep into the valley. We also spot many side valleys extending away from the ‘bustle’ of the resorts in the base of the Zillertal, and find out at a later date that these are all closed access for half the year, deemed too dangerous for winter activities and therefore left as they would always have been. It’s nice to see some near un–touched mountain sides in the Alps: no pistes, no restaurants and no chairlifts. This place is already starting to capture my imagination.

Austria Shootings 093
Austria Shootings 093

There are some big old mountains around the Alps, as we all know, but who’d have thought that so many of those biggies could be grouped into one almost entirely un–tapped riding area? 55 peaks above 3,000 metres make up the Zillertal valley – a breathtaking statistic and even more so when stood facing them.

Any old mountain can be dangerous, no matter how big or small, sunshine or ice, meadows or crags, a mountain isn’t to be messed with. We all know that of course. 3,000 metre mountains then, well it goes without saying that there is a fair potential for danger there. I like mountains a lot, the burly beasts are there to keep us lot in shape and remind us of our mortality, but staring up near vertically at the forested steeps, I breathe a sigh of relief at the arrival of Alex Ganster, our guide for the week and a man that knows his mountains.

I’m going to state now that a guide is pretty much essential in this area, and although our friend and photographer Chris Jackson thinks he can work out a ‘mean route’ down the hill, I’m not too sure (previous experiences with Chris cement my mistrust of his orienteering). I’m all ears as we climb the impressive Penken cable car out of Mayrhofen with Alex in our cabin. The Penken lift climbs steeply up the mountainside, passing over forests, rivers and roads as it goes. We’re on a big old mountain, but Alex’s incredible understanding of his surroundings, his perfectly kept bike and his knowledge of the local weather systems relieves me. We are in safe hands.

We take a ride down the Almdudler ‘freeride’ trail that meanders its way back down to the base of the valley; incorporating jumps, soft turns and wall rides, linked by sweet singletracks and some precarious river crossings. Not a revolutionary trail, but fun nevertheless and in true Zillertal style far more of an adventure than any marked trail you would find in a French resort. This is only a warm up though; Alex has one HELL of an adventure in store for us, but first we’d better empty our van somewhere.

Austria Shootings 082
Austria Shootings 082

This valley has several notable traits, recurring themes present in every town, every valley and across every mountain. Aside from the traditional sights of lederhosen, families cultivating their land and large glasses of milk being swigged on every street corner, the evidence of a roaring tourist trade is there, so it’d be untrue to say that the area is entirely traditional. There are ‘Wellness Centres’ (nice hotels), English speaking pubs and ski shops left, right and centre, but break away into the hills and you are soon leaving it all behind.

At 4.20pm Alex rolls up to the hotel that we have barely had time to check in to, claps his hands and gets us moving again. We’ve just about had enough time to pack the items that Alex listed: Waterproofs, sleeping bag, food, tools and oxygen (perhaps an exaggeration). An hour later I am wishing that the latter was in my backpack as we fall out of the Mountain Taxi (a minibus complete with places for around 15 bikes) at nearly 2,500 metres and start our evening ascent.

Climbing out into the far reaches of this vast area of mountains is when you will start to really breathe and thank yourself for taking my advice and ordering a guide. Without Alex’s knowledge there is no way we would be ascending this mountain up to the refuge in the distance, especially as it is now darkening and we have no idea where we are.

Eventually the bike is slung on the ground and a smiling Alex hands us a beer each, a nice touch considering we are now somewhere around 3,000 metres. I realise that we have struck gold as we enter this classic bunkhouse in the hill tops, a large crowd of friendly German hikers say hi and shake our hands and we recline, or rather slump into our positions at the ancient dining table. We get a warm welcome from the hostess and tuck into some traditional mountain grub. The hotel swimming pool was worth giving a miss after all then.

[part title="Zillertal Valley..."]

James_Zillertal4
James_Zillertal4

Morning brings blistering cold winds and a dashing of snow on the ground outside the hostel. We are up by 6.30am and the light is slowly making its way over the jagged peaks that surround us. A large coffee is slurped and then we are off, upward once again and we struggle our way to the very top of one of the imposing mountains. Chris is first to reach the solemn crucifix that marks the summit, and he lets out something of a cry, perhaps by this point I should say more of a whimper. This is a singletrack as we’ve never seen before.

I admit having emailed Alex before the trip asking to demonstrate some of the more testing trails on offer in the area, perhaps somewhere he wouldn’t normally take a group of clients and something with a view. Alex certainly came up trumps, and perhaps took me a little too literally when I said we knew what we were doing! I’m not normally scared by heights, but this lonely trail high up above the pastures makes me feel more than a little wheezy, and I skid my way as slowly as possible until I jack–knife and turn to observe Paul and Jamie’s more valiant efforts. They make it look relatively easy and lead the way from here on in.

After quite some effort and a lot of nervous laughter, we make it off the trail and to the half way point of the mountain that is marked by a chocolate waffle and another refreshing Almdudler (look it up).

DSC_0174 2
DSC_0174 2

Descending from the half way mark of any mountain in the Zillertal is not going to warrant an easy time or any lack of trail. Following the Almdudler pause, our group of four tuck in behind the man with the plan (Alex), and we start building speed on the approach to a thin ribbon of singletrack that is leading away from the fireroad. Tree roots, rocks and blind crests mark this heavenly trail’s territory, and before we know it 10 minutes of pinning, pinging and pinballing have flown by. Alex knows this one well and he isn’t saving any lines, I try to keep with him as things steepen up and become more akin to something in the Champery valley. There are handle–bar–tight trees aplenty, the floor is awash with pine needles and this train isn’t stopping for anything.

I fly out onto a wide fireroad and shake my hands with relief, the tension is released and Alex is grinning like a man who certainly loves his job. Within a minute Paul comes barrelling down the steep chute and his hardtail bike crunches one last vertebra before he comes to a stop with a radiating buzz, Jamie is right in behind him and shaving tyre treads. Chris rolls in casually with the usual camera bag excuses and we continue downward for another 10 minutes of pleasurable punishment.

Eventually we roll into town and straight to the bar for a hearty meal, we then get well back at the Wellness Centre, eat some more Austrian mountain grub, heave our sorry selves out of our seats and to ‘Scotland Yard’ (basically the most British pub I have ever been to) and then at some point during the night we all make it back to the hotel, weary isn’t the word. What lies ahead? Several thousand metres of singletrack descending, that’s what. And the next day? And the one after that...? More of the same, all on uncharted territory and all under the guidance of a great guide who knows his trails.

DSC_0054
DSC_0054

We spent five days patrolling the mighty mountains of the Zillertal Valley, its towns, forests and attractions and I can safely say that I liked everything I saw. Admittedly the area is currently better set up for mountain bikers of the pedalling variety, for that reason a guide is necessary! I can’t emphasize enough how important a guide is; these mountains are big and ferocious, so too the weather system of the area and you will have a lot more fun following Alex than you will trying to make head or tail of a map and every junction that breaks up these epic descents.

Camping is of course possible, at the foot of the valley there is a site called ‘Camping Hell’ – I’m not too sure they researched that one beforehand. The valley floor is wide and rises very gradually, meaning that pedalling between the towns is both easy and in fact a pleasure. Campervans are popular in this area of the world and therefore you won’t have any problems finding a pitch for your wagon up this way.

We stayed for the majority of the week in a ‘Wellness Centre’ – there are hundreds of them in this valley and they are essentially hotels with a swimming pool, sauna and steam room, masseur and some healthy grub on offer. Some of these come in surprisingly cheaply so I’d recommend them highly. Nights in the hills can be spent in one of the dozens of mountain huts that range from basic bothy–style sheds to full–blown hotels. These are normally very high up and in fairly inaccessible locations so plan your approach wisely or be prepared to spend a night on the hill!

JME
JME

The main reason that I was drawn to the area in the first place was the longer opening dates for summer activities. We visited a month outside the closure of the French resorts and found plenty of people in the streets, hills and bars, and the majority of lifts were running as usual. That isn’t to say that you don’t need to check dates and times though, as they are changeable and subject to weather – essentially the area opens its lifts for bikes as soon as the snow melts, normally mid April and only closes again when there is a regular snowfall – last year they were open as late as October 20th.

DSC_0036
DSC_0036

Mega trails, beastly mountains and stunning scenery all equate to making this one of the best all–mountain areas I have ridden. As a word of warning, do not come here expecting groomed trails and chairlifts to each summit – you’re going to have to work for your descents, but when you do you’ll be rewarded.

Finally, do yourself a favour and sort out an itinerary with one of the best guides I’ve met – Alex Ganster at Seasonality in Mayrhofen.

Seasonality   www.seasonality.eu, +436505517605

Zillertal Tourism www.zillertal.at, +43 (0) 5288 87187

A huge thank you to Alex Ganster for his impeccable guiding, Nina Mehrle and Becky Horton at Zillertal Tourism for looking after us so well and to Paul, Jamie and Chris for being good companions.