Early morning sunlight casts its sleepy golden haze across the landscape. The sweltering heat wraps itself around my body and beads of sweat gather on my forehead. My breathing is laboured and heavy as I slowly ascend the mountain, my exposed shoulders tinged with pink. The heat from the sun is punishing, only adding to the intensity of hiking up Zwölferhorn. And with each patch of shade we encounter, we both sigh with relief. Eventually, in the safety of the forest, we find the shelter that we need. But with the forest comes the ascent, as with each footstep the climb becomes steeper.
I feel defeated.
Standing among the foliage, trees disappearing into the sky, hints of sunlight twinkle through the leafy canopy. I turn and look down the hill before returning my gaze to the vertical climb in front of me. I realise just how far we’ve come. My knees won’t handle the steep descent, and my lower back will struggle with the climb. It’s a no-win situation, but the lesser of the two evils is to continue upwards; with my body tipped forwards, I power myself up the mountain.
A few minutes later, a slope emerges to the left with wooden steps embedded into the mud. Inquisitive eight-year-old Lorna wants to see where they lead, so I make my way over, climbing to the top one step at a time. I’m greeted with an Alpine hütte and the most incredible view of Wolfgangsee; turquoise blue water nestled between the mountains, glistening under the hazy morning sunshine.
I stand in the stillness, breathing heavily; sweat dripping down the back of my neck while the heat from the sun caresses my skin. Captivated by the incredible sight in front of me I hydrate myself with ice-cold water and refuel my body with trail mix. The water is cool and refreshing, each gulp cascading down the back of my throat like a waterfall. The trail mix is salty and sweet, an infusion of nuts and seeds, with the sugary taste of dried fruit in equal measure. The only thing left to do is reach for my camera. But just like our trip to the Grand Canyon, no matter how many photos I take, I fear they still won’t capture the true beauty in front of me.
Hiking Up Zwölferhorn
We have two days left, and I feel sad. Austria has been my dream trip, but with our last day approaching, I feel deflated about returning home. The plan was to ride the cable car to the top of Zwölferhorn and walk for a couple of hours before returning down the mountain the same way – admiring the views in the process. But pulling into the car park, I see swarms of hikers heading off towards the bottom of the mountain. They could just be exploring the area – but in my head, they’re all hiking up Zwölferhorn. They certainly look dressed for it.
At that moment, I decide we should climb the mountain too. I look upwards, letting my gaze follow the line of cable cars effortlessly floating towards the top. It’s high – yes, but as we study the map – it looks doable. We can hike to the summit, walk around, and then return by cable car like we originally planned.
How difficult could it be?
How Many Hours Does it Take?
A quick search on Google shows the hike will take 1 hour and 8 minutes. I hold my hand up, shielding my eyes from the glaring sun as I take another look at the mountain. The time seems optimistic, yet it seals the deal – so off we go, following in the footsteps of the other walkers. It’s only afterwards I discover I’ve looked at the wrong walk. I’ve made the rookie mistake of not cross-referencing our map with the internet search. The yellow sign part way up stating there are still two hours to go is also a giveaway. But by then, it’s too late, so we continue climbing.
Everything in Austria is signposted and clearly labelled with a walk number. You can follow the bright yellow signs and track your route on a map, ensuring you’re heading in the right direction. If you’re paying attention of course! The walk we’re following, is marked as 855, leading us off the main road and through a maze of houses. They have traditional wooden frontages with quaint balconies, and many are covered with brightly coloured flowers. Every house looks like something out of a storybook, and it feels intrusive each time I stop to take to photograph.
Views of Wolfgangsee
Zwölferhorn is 1494m high – 149m higher than Ben Nevis in Scotland. And with an estimated time of 2.5 hours to scale it, you can see why the 1 hour and 8 minutes seemed optimistic. Unfortunately, I have the attention span of a goldfish, which is why I made the mistake so easily.
From the start of the ascent, we experience magnificent views of St. Gilgen and Wolfgangsee. With each step, the golden sunshine enveloping the mountains looks glorious, and the shimmering lake more inviting. The climb becomes almost vertical, and we realise the magnitude of what we’re doing. We’ve bitten off more than we can chew, but by now, we’ve come too far and are committed to our cause. We hike through the forest with nowhere to go but up; the higher we ascend, the more people we pass. Zigzagging down the mountainside with poles to relieve pressure from their knees, I berate myself for forgetting to pack some. We’ve managed without them so far – but now I’m acutely aware they’re a vital part of Austria’s favourite pastime.
The higher we climb, the more exposed we become to the elements of the sun. The shade of the forest has disappeared, and the midday heat is relentless. Beads of sweat trickle down my arms as we stand underneath the cable cars, watching them gently sway as they pass by overhead.
Seeing the Top of Zwölferhorn
By now, we can see the top of Zwölferhorn. Finally, the end is in sight – but the climb won’t be easy. It’s steep, and we pass more walkers, all zigzagging their way back down. With tunnel vision, I will myself to keep going, putting one foot in front of the other, making my way towards the summit. The forest is far behind us, and we’re left wide open to the elements. Shining brightly in the clear blue sky, we’re fully exposed to the afternoon sun, and I can feel my shoulders burning. There are a few other hikers heading up the mountain, and I feel a strange sense of satisfaction from seeing the look of pain across their faces. We exchange the occasional nod and knowing glance, sharing in the hell that is hiking up Zwölferhorn.
I keep my head down and power on, repeatedly telling myself there isn’t far to go. We pass through more woodland, and like a waft of cool air from an open refrigerator, the shade from the foliage is pure bliss. We step over branches and watch leaves float gently from above before softly landing on the dappled sunlit ground.
When we reach the other side, a wide-open space leads to the side of the mountain. In all its glory, there it is, Lake Wolfgang and its turquoise waters glistening in the afternoon sun. Nestled between a vibrant patchwork of mountains with tiny houses dotted around the landscape, it’s the most magnificent view of the lake so far. The hike up Zwölferhorn has been worth it, and momentarily I forget all about the uphill struggle. It’s hard to comprehend the height we have hiked, and although I feel good right now, I know my legs will pay for it in the morning.
Reaching the Top of Zwölferhorn
At the top, it’s absolute mayhem. The quiet of the mountain is shattered into a million pieces as Japanese tourists run around with selfie sticks and voice recorders, taking photos and recording themselves. Fighting through the crowds, we head towards the panoramic trail, hoping the number of people will thin out. Luckily they do, and the further we walk, the quieter it gets, passing only the occasional couple or small group. We walk along the track, looking on in awe at the views; thick cotton wool clouds create shadows across the landscape, and we realise we’re on top of the world.
We walk up to the Pillstein Cross, and it hits me just how small and insignificant I feel. I’m part of something much bigger: a small cog in a big wheel. I grab a notebook from my bag and stamp it – proof I hiked up to 1478m. Triangular trees are spread across the landscape, and walking trails are scribbled into the patchwork canvas below us. We spend a few minutes enjoying the views before walking down the other side of Pillstein and re-joining the main track.
On Top of The World
We have one more climb to complete – this time to the summit. A large cross marks the spot, and upon reaching the top, we realise this is the best view of the lakes. Paragliders line up along the grass, waiting for their turn to fly off into the wild blue yonder. And loved ones breathe a sigh of relief after they have landed safely. One by one, each paraglider effortlessly soars through the air, making their way back down to the bottom of the mountain, and I can’t help but think what an incredible feeling that must be.
After watching the last paraglider soar away into the sky, we make our way to the cable car station, ready for the trip back down the mountain. The queue is long, and people stand patiently in line as the final cable cars of the day prepare to leave. As the queue snakes its way past the bar and down the stairs, one by one, each person slowly shuffles forwards, a few footsteps at a time. After 20 minutes, we reach the front of the queue. To our dismay, we have to share a car with a mum and her two young children – this is not my ideal scenario. They are noisy, climbing all over the place, standing on the seat opposite and then jumping back down. Although she makes a half-arsed attempt to quieten them down, their mum spends nearly the whole ride staring at her phone, showing no interest in them.
Thinking back to my childhood, I realise how lucky I was and how different things were back then. My parents would have encouraged me to look at the landscape or perhaps play a game of ‘I Spy’. They definitely wouldn’t have ignored me or allowed me to climb all over the seats while distracting themselves with something else. With the technology we now carry in our pockets, it shows that every country shares the same great parenting skills, and it’s not just limited to the UK.
After paying for our cable car ride to the bottom of the mountain, we head further into St. Gilgen to end our day with vegan ice cream. It’s an evening tradition we started at the beginning of our trip and one I enjoy immensely.
We find a bench looking out across the lake as the turquoise-blue water glistens in the evening sun. Bright red motorboats bob up and down as the vendor ties them together, signalling the end of his day. He casually throws his bike into one of the boats before climbing into the front and firing up the engine. As the hazy sunshine disappears along the horizon, so do the boats.
We watch as they snake along the water until they are a tiny dot in the distance. The hot morning sun is a distant memory, as is the pain of our hike up Zwölferhorn, but I’m sure my calves will serve as a reminder in the morning.
Have you hiked up (or down) Zwölferhorn?
Tips and Advice:
- If you’re travelling by car to St. Gilgen, there is a car park on Wolfgangsee Straße. It fills up quickly in the morning so it’s best to get there early, but it quietens down again after lunch.
- The cable car is one of the best ways to see the views – but they get busy. We waited for 20-minutes to come back down Zwölferhorn, but it can sometimes take double that time.
- The operating times of the cable car vary throughout the year. Make sure you check the times on their website to avoid disappointment.
- Zwölferhorn is a tough climb! I struggle a lot with my joints, but I find going uphill easier than downhill. My knees can’t take the pressure of a steep descent, so if you’re planning on hiking, this is a personal preference as to whether you hike up or down – or both. Take walking poles. Don’t make the rookie mistake like I did and forget to pack them!
- The cable car is expensive – but worth it for the views. You can’t pay at the top, so if your plan is to hike up and get the cable car down, you’ll need to pay at the bottom either before or after. Prices are €26 for up and down. €18.50 to go down and €18.00 to go up (correct as of March 2019).
- Like any hike, make sure you have plenty of food and drink with you. The hike up is very strenuous – especially in the heat. I would also recommend either a sports drink or some electrolytes.