By Dave Westlake
The Zillertal valley sits in a beautiful part of the Austrian Alps which has long been a favourite destination for outdoor enthusiasts. The area offers prime skiing in the winter months and has a long history of rock and mountain climbing. In the last 15 – 20 years the obvious potential for incredible bouldering has been realised. Hundreds of problems now exist on granite and gneiss blocks in several areas around the town of Mayrhofen. Although it doesn’t yet have the popularity of the Swiss or Italian destinations like Ticino or Mello, Zillertal bouldering is slowly becoming a more prominent part of the Alpine bouldering circuit. Having been on a family hiking holiday to Mayrhofen about 15 years ago I returned last summer to check out the bouldering. Alpine areas are usually a good bet in the summer, since their altitude tends to keep temperatures lower than the less elevated spots. Unfortunately our trip coincided with a heat wave which seemed to have most of mainland Europe in its grip! This put the brakes on some of our loftier plans but we still managed to climb at a range of areas and get a good feel for the bouldering. Although the classic Swiss areas have the edge in terms of quality and density of problems, I would recommend Zillertal highly if you want to climb good problems of all grades and styles in a scenic alpine setting a little off the beaten track.
Mayrhofen is very accessible by car, and lies about 1 hour South of Innsbruck. We flew to Munich and the drive from airport to camping took around 2-3 hours. There are various routes but the most scenic takes you via Achensee Lake. We went this way on our return and it took everything in me to resist stopping the car and going for a swim (which we would have done if we didn’t have a flight to catch!).
There are 3 main areas, all of which are very accessible and pretty extensive. One thing to note is that there is a toll charge of 7.50 Euro to access the road to Zillergrund, Sundergrund and some of the smaller crags in that area.
This is the biggest of the Zillertal areas and the setting is reminiscent of Magic Wood. Zillergrund consists of a steep, densely wooded hillside scattered with boulders and large, often hidden, leg swallowing holes. On a first visit it can be difficult to locate the blocks and navigate between areas, but a bit of exploring with the guide should help to orientate you before long. The large “Clockwork Orange” block near the road is a good place to get started, with a sub 2 minute approach and a series of excellent problems including “Pablo Diablo”, 5, “Barracuda”, 7a+, “Clockwork Orange, 7c+/8a and “Cockbit”, 7b+. Further up the hill there are many more excellent problems of all varieties, and a few glacial air pockets which serve to cool things down a bit (similar to magic wood, though far fewer in our experience). Many, like the excellent technical highball wall of “Free falling left”, 7c, don’t seem to get much traffic despite their quality. They therefore may require a bit of cleaning so remember your brushes. Round the corner from this is the also brilliant, though very different in style, steep wall that goes by the name of Test Piece (7a or 7c+ low start).
Do an internet search for Zillertal bouldering and the chances are the first images to be delivered are of the photogenic Sundergrund. This is a tranquil, riverside meadow perched high up amongst mountainous peaks. We visited this area on the first day but didn’t climb here much due to the heat. Sundergrund is a sun trap with limited shade, so when it is hot you would be advised to head for the woods like we did. The climbs here do look very appealing however, so I would definitely recommend it as a place to head to. You can easily combine it with a visit further up the valley to Zillergrund as they are on the same road. Climbing at Sundergrund requires an uphill approach to reach the boulders. This takes around 20-30 minutes but the scenery makes it enjoyable.
Not to be mistaken for the classic cocktail “Gin Sling”, and our least favourite of the areas we visited. Another wooded location, Ginzling has the advantage of being less steep and easier to navigate on the whole than Zillergrund. Ginzling does have a number of excellent problems, but there didn’t seem to be the amount or density of appealing blocks here compared to Zillergrund or Sundergrund. Problems we did enjoy were “Rundling”, 7b, “Ginzling Extrem”, 7a+, “Bambi”, 6c+, and “Happy Seventeen”, 7b. The hard classic “Ground Zero”, 8a+ was one of the better looking harder boulders we saw, but 35+ degree conditions during our trip were not exactly conducive to pulling on its small slopers and pinches, so we moved swiftly on!
As well as the major crags the Zillertal area has many lesser known gems, which are covered most comprehensively by the local guide by Marcus Schwaiger (see below). We found some good problems along the river bed in an area known as Zemmschlucht, which is just beneath the classic 8b+ sport route “Total Brutal”. Finding your way along the river can be a time consuming challenge, so I recommend you identify the block you are heading for and find a descent path from the road near it rather than the guidebook route along the river bed. Problems we enjoyed trying while we tried to escape the heat here included “Sphinx”, 7c, “Chop Suey”, 7c, “Unbekannt”, 7b+, and “Black Beauty”, 8a. Another good riverbed block to check out is known as “Magic Place”, which is encountered early on the toll road up towards Zillergrund and Sundergrund. It is visible from the road and near the Klaushof guesthouse. It features a steep face with lots of problems between 6c and 8b+, but better in the higher grades (mid 7’s upwards). As you would expect, these riverside venues feature smooth water-worn rock which is kinder on the skin than some of the other areas. This makes them perfect for evening sessions or for later on in your trip when you’re battling sore skin. Some of the great looking smaller crags are on private land, which unfortunately puts them off limits for climbers either year round or at certain times. One example is Saustein, home of the classic “Super terra mega project”, 8a+, but a local told us that there were rumours of an access agreement being reached soon. As ever with access issues, always check the guide and ask around locally for the latest information.
The crags in the Zillertal area is all within a 20 minute drive, but if you are willing to drive for a little longer there are various other options available. We took a day trip to Felbertauern which is around 1.5-2 hours from Mayrhofen by car. This is another stunning mountain bouldering spot and it has its own air conditioning system supplied by a glacier deep underground. This keeps the gneiss blocks cooler in summer so it’s a great choice for hot days. You will find yourself climbing amongst the tourists eating picnics, as Austrian postcard-esque cows rattle past ringing their bells. The area next to the glacial cave has some excellent arêtes, walls and slabs as well as a few nice traverses and highballs. Round the corner lies an impressive steep block which appears to be completely detached form the rock behind (go underneath and through the tunnel to the rear). Everything on the steep face is good, especially “Princess of Hoathill”, 7c, “Defender of Faith”, 8a, and “Buckingham Palace”, 7c+.
Accommodation and food
The campsite in Mayrhofen is very well equipped with excellent facilities, as seems to be the standard in Austria. It has room for tents and caravans, a bar and restaurant, drying room and shop on site. It also has excellent leisure facilities including sun loungers, an indoor and outdoor pool and table tennis. The pool and bar were particularly welcome during our trip when the soaring temperatures made climbing impossible – I fully recommend the Franziskaner wheat beer. The campsite is a short 10 minute walk from the town centre and easy to get away from by car to any of the climbing spots. It is open most of the year, only closing between Nov 1st and Dec 20th. Prices vary by season and in summer you can expect to pay (in Euro) 7.40 per person, plus 1.50 tax, 2.60 for a car and 5.60 for each tent. The food options can be roundly described as ‘Germanic’, unfortunately. Mayrhofen has various other options though, including some decent Italians. A good call for lunch is the “New York” café, which looks a bit dodgy but does some remarkably good salmon wraps at a reasonable price.
When to go
The usual Spring and Autumn seasonal recommendation is probably advisable, though too early in Spring or late in Autumn and you may have problems with snow. The summer can be good, and the altitude often keeps conditions fresh, but there is also the risk that (as we found) the heat is oppressive and makes any kind of climbing difficult. The area has a range of great looking sport climbing, multi pitch trad, as well as top rate hiking and via ferrata, so if you have room it would be worth packing other equipment to mix up your trip with a range of activities.
The Zillertal and Felbertauern areas are both featured in Alpen Bloc 2, which is a good guide to get if you are planning on checking out a number of places on your trip. This also features Silvapark/ Silvretta, the other excellent Austrian bouldering area, which is a couple of hours’ drive to the West. For those looking for more detail and more bouldering areas within Zillertal, or a guide that covers both bouldering and routes, then the one to get would have to be the “Zillertal” guide by Marcus Schwaiger.