By Conal Healy
(AKA Mick In The Middle)
THE plan was to climb the local mountain, today. Yesterday was the tour and seeing the sights. Tomorrow it was shopping. Today – as was said before – was The Mountain. But there was a problem.
Here in the small Austrian city of Salzburg the weather had closed in.
A thick cloud of freezing fog had descended overnight and visibility was now pretty poor. The rocky escarpment at the end of the street was still there, but only just.
The big local mountain – The Untersberg – on the other hand was not.
A mountain, with a high point of 1857metres, disappearing – well, that was disturbing.
The Untersberg dominates Salzburg. It even dwarfs the huge Festung Hohensalzburg, the local medieval fortress that has kept watch over the region for hundreds of years.
If you check out the background – and ignore the singing Julie Andrews – in the film The Sound of Music you’ll catch glimpses of this mammoth of a mountain.
By European standards, the Untersberg is very much a typical Alpine geographical feature. In other words, it rises sharply out of the valley floor, as though some subterranean giant had delivered an upper cut to the earth’s crust.
It is the sharply angular lump of a mountain that is loved by advertising agencies trying to sell breakfast cereal, bottled water or a pine-scented deodorant.
In geological terms, the Untersberg is still a toddler (about 22 million years old). The forces of nature – the wind and rain – have yet to knock the edges off this rock. And it will be millions of years before the Untersberg takes on the rounded profiles found on many of Australia’s ancient mountains.
But today, the majesty of the Untersberg is lost to us – thanks to this cloud of freezing fog. The helpful staff at the Hotel Lasserhof were having an each-way bet when asked if today was a good day for climbing.
“I could be cloudy down here, but at the top? Who knows? It could be clear?” was their suggestion. Hmm, it was sound advice but not very helpful.
What would be the point in climbing to 1857 metres (nearly 5000ft) and NOT being able to see your hand in front of your face? We could easily step outside the hotel and get a better view of the swirling greyness at street level. It would also be a lot cheaper.
So what to do? It was now just after breakfast but a decision would have to be made soon.
IN winter, the days in this part of the world are famously short.
In January, the sun rises just after 8am and is almost gone by 4pm. In some of the high Alpine villages, which are surrounded by mountains, the sun might not be glimpsed for weeks.
Mid-year, the long summer days (5am-9pm) makes the Alps an ideal location for hiking, rock climbing or a place to simply amble. From late spring through to early autumn, the Untersberg’s myriad of trails are open to walkers. Now in mid-winter, the only safe option was a cable car service, directly to the top.
In the end a run to the mountain was agreed. A short trip on a local bus from central Salzburg found us at the base of the Untersberg, next to the cable car station. The mist – or was it low-lying cloud? – was as thick as ever. From the valley floor the visibility was a dim 200 metres.
In reply to a mangled question in German, the box office attendant announced that the sun was shining at the top of the mountain, but muttered (almost under his breath) “for now”.
Money was exchanged for tickets and we followed the directions to the waiting cable car. As the three-quarter empty carriage swung into the cold gloom we caught sight of the snow-covered landscape.
Wonderfully cute Alpine chalets – the inspiration for generations of cuckoo clocks – sat dusted in white. Towers topped with onion-shaped roofs stood defiant in the mist. Swimming pools in summer holiday homes had now become ice-rinks.
Farmfields looked like ironed-flat bed sheets. Mist swirled through a belt of pine trees that wrapped around the base of the Untersberg.
Moment later the cable car swung off another pylon and one half of the view disappeared and we suddenly faced the shear rock face of the mountain. And that’s when the cloud enveloped the car. Now all that could be seen was hard rock wall, lone trees appeared, sometimes it was patches of snow, sheets of ice, or long daggers of ice hanging off ledges.
The rest of the carriage windows showed grey cloud.
Would there be sun at the top, was the question being asked. The car’s operator tried to assure people, “Yes there is sun, but in 20minutes – who knows?” Well, at this height, I figured, there would be decent snow.
TWO nights earlier the Ryanair plane had touched down in Salzburg. The favourite conversation on the flight was snow, or the lack there of. The mildest winter on record – blamed on global warming – had left most of Europe’ ski fields snow free.
News reports the previous week had shown ski competition organisers bringing in – by helicopter – giant bucket of snow for their downhill events. Thin ribbons of white where being constructed in green Alpine meadows.
Salzburg, which usually gets its first snow in November, was still waiting for the first fall. And this was January. One of the passengers on the plane had asked, almost in desperation: “What do you do at a ski-resort when there’s no snow?”
We’d all gone to bed that night wondering when – or if – the white stuff would arrive. But there was no need to worry, the next morning Salzburg woke to an inch of snow on the ground. It wasn’t going to get the serious skiers excited, but it was fantastic for the first-time snow seers.
The already picturesque Salzburg looked magical but cold. By mid-afternoon, the snow had cleared from the streets and paths. And there hadn’t been a chance to build a snowman or to have a snowball fight.
The Unsterberg promised – at the very least – deep snow, perfect for snowballs.
BACK at the cable car we reached the top. Looking back, the black cables stood out against the grey cloud they disappeared into.
The door slid open, we got out and walked up a few step into a waiting lounge. As we walked to the window, to see the view, there was a gust of wind and the last vestiges of cloud disappeared from the top of the mountain.
We went outside, into bright sunshine and into a day that almost defies description.
On top of the Unsterberg we were literally above the clouds. The clear sky was a delicate blue. Before us, stretching to the horizon, was an ocean of soft whiteness. The high peaks of the distant Alps stood like low islands above this fluffy whiteness.
In the cold, still air it was silent. There was a sense of being alone, on the roof of the world.
It could have been the thinner air, it might have been the view, but the top of Unsterberg is euphoria -inducing. It forced you to stop and admire the work of Mother Nature.
Sitting on rock ledge, surrounded by deep snow, it was possible to see (with the naked eye) individual snow flakes. I’d seen snow before, but as coin-sized fluffs and puffs. Here each crystal of snow seemed to have its own identity. This was not the compacted almost-wet snow of my Irish childhood – instead it reminded me of grains of sand. The wind forming each flake into dunes of snow, rather than into banks.
Only a handful of people had gambled on a low cloud ceiling and ventured to the Unsterberg to wander the mountain’s top snow-covered walking trials. The mountain-top restaurant sold local post card souvenir of summertime hikers, dressed in shorts and T-shirts, beaming smiles, walking along gravel trails through Alpine meadows littered with edelweiss blossoms. There were photos of happy wanderers sitting outside, sipping on ice-cold beers while working on their suntans.
In mid-winter, it was very different. The dress-code was thermal underwear – ankle to neck – shirt, jumper, heavy coat, hats, scarves and gloves. No bare skin could be exposed for long for fear of frostbite. It was now below freezing point.
The warm weather chalet restaurants/bar stood closed, their many tables and benches stood snow-encrusted. Dissolve-at-a-touch ice crystals, as big as fingernails, formed on thin cables making them appear as thick as a mooring rope.
THREE monuments marked the ridge line path that stretched into the distance.
The first marker was an iron cross, and was a few hundred metres from the cable car station. An already-beaten path had been made in the snow making it an easy trudge. Underfoot, layers of ice and frozen snow made footfalls tricky, but the view made the effort worthwhile.
From this vantage point, the valley below could be glimpsed as the clouds thinned out. Sometimes a slight wind change would force a bank of fog to break away, ride an updraft and smother the top of Unsterberg.
Surrounded by cloud, in a bright white landscape it wasn’t difficult to imagine straying off the path, walking off the unseen edge of a cliff and falling to your death.
The second lookout beckons from the first cross, but on this glorious day few people had succumb to it’s siren call.
In the deep snow a few sets of footprints led off into the distance. I set off the half -kilometre determined to make the monument that offered a better lookout of this already unforgettable view.
I trudged on, taking one step at a time in the thin air. An English woman passed me coming back, I greeted her with a cheery good morning and we chatted, posed for photos with our own camera and went our separate ways.
A few minutes later, I met her boyfriend. “Is it worth it?” I asked. His beaming smile said it all. I struggled on, stopping to catch my breath and to marvel at the ocean of white before my eyes.
The second marker was a monument to the Alpine rescue squad. I sat down, read the plaque, and watched the view.
On nearby bushes, thin branches were transformed into white fingers by the snow. Individual ice crystal glistened in the noon day sun. Overhead was the sky blue that only airline passengers see. Below, windows in the cloud gave a God’s eye view of the valley.
Alone on the top of the Unsterberg the third marker was calling out, offering even more worldly delights.
A blanket of snow covered the bushes, the rocks on the trail to the last post. Nobody had ventured to this final marker to the edge of the mountain’s big cliff. There was no safe path. No foot prints to step in. It would be dangerous, especially if the clouds came back.
I took one last photo, pulled my scarf over my nose and headed down the icy track, ignoring the urge of that ultimate stop.
THE Unsterberg was going to stay with me for the rest of my life and kept walking. Inside me there was wonderful sense of fulfilment, of being alive, of achievement.
Behind me the sun cast shadows in my footsteps. Ahead of me was the promise of a hot meal.
The rest of the party had gone back to the station restaurant and ordered me a traditional Austrian winter warmer, a thin vegetable soup with cheese dumplings.
Now that was going to be a meal to remember.
Where in the world is this?
Riding the cable car:
Counting the cost – Ascent and descent:
Children: (6-14 years) for one child only € 12.00 – all others free of charge
Students: (up to 26 years, ID required) € 17.00.
Sound of Music connection:
The Unsterberg gained international fame as the “distinctive, lopsided peak” featured at the beginning and end of the 1965 movie The Sound of Music, although the filming was done on the German side, not the Austrian side. It was where Julie Andrews sang The Hills Are Alive at the opening scene and where the family climbed the mountain on their escape to Switzerland at the end of the film. (Source: Wikipedia)
Around 100,000 passengers enjoying the ride every year.
Between the valley station the lift rises an impressive 1,320 m in elevation.
The ride in gondolas takes about ten minutes. When you step out at the top, there is a view of Salzburg City, Berchtesgadener Land (in Germany) and the Rosittental. In good visibility, you can even see all the way out to the Salzkammergut lakes as well as Lake Chiemsee in Bavaria.
Numerous hiking routes begin close to the mountain station, too. But if you simply prefer to relax and take in the views, they suggest renting out a comfortable deckchair.
You have a number of options available to you whenever you get snacky or want to sit down for a drink. In addition to the restaurant at the mountain station, hikers may wish to visit Bergrestaurant Hochalm and sample their delicious homemade regional specialties. Traditional refuge huts, such as the Zeppezauerhaus, also serve refreshments to visitors.
Things to do in Salzburg:
What is the best time of year to go to Salzburg? Here are some average weather facts we collected from our historical climate data:
- During the month of June, July, August and September you are most likely to experience good weather with pleasant average temperatures that fall between 20 degrees Celsius (68°F) and 25 degrees Celsius (77°F).
- The months April, May, June, July, August, September, November and December have a high chance of precipitation.
- On average, the warmest month is August.
- On average, the coolest month is January.
- July is the wettest month. This month should be avoided if you are not a big fan of rain.
- February is the driest month.
Hohensalzburg Fortress sits atop the Festungsberg, a small hill in the Austrian city of Salzburg. Erected at the behest of the Prince-Archbishops of Salzburg with a length of 250 m and a width of 150 m, it is one of the largest medieval castles in Europe.
Cost: Tickets start from 13 Euros.
Want to know more?
What airline fly into Salzburg?
Like what you see? Visit