The Hochschwab Salza loop – tramping through snow thunder and rain

Where did the crystal clear water go? Opaque grey silty water flowed past by through the Salza river when I inflated my packraft. Warm temperatures, high amounts of snow melt and the rainshowers of the days before had caused rather high water levels.

Hochschwab 201305
Ready to hit the Salza just downstream from Gusswerk village.

Hochschwab 201305
Flowers abound around the snow line.

Hochschwab 201305
The Ennstaler Alps as seen from the Goss mountain pass above Hinterwildalpen.

The desolate Klausgraben canyon presented itself as a delight to the eye. Passed through the canyon several heavy rainshowers teased me on my float, but I paddled on till the evening when a layer of fog formed and draped the river bed. Now I could only hear the next white water coming and throw myself into it blindly. That wouldn’t be so clever, so I put out and hiked the remaining distance till close to the village of Wildalpen where I tarp camped in the forest. Distant lightning strikes lit the sky at dusk, soon it started to rain, often it rained heavy and it didn’t stop till late forenoon.

Hochschwab 201305
The snow covered plateau under the scraping clouds.

Hochschwab 201305
Wagnergraben from the Römerweg trail.

Hochschwab 201305
Fobisbach down Hinterseeaugraben.

With the last rain droplets that fell in the morning, I made a cache in the forest to leave my packrafting gear behind for the remainder of the trip. The Salza river had swollen too much overnight so that any packrafting was irresponsible now. I climbed out of the Salza valley and wandered through vast mountain forest and some more heavy rainshowers that got my legs soaking wet until I reached the west part of the Hochschwab plateau in the evening. The sun broke through and I enjoyed watching the towering clouds over the mountains in the distance building the next thunderstorms.

Hochschwab 201305
Looking down Hinterseeaugraben with Pfaffenstein (1871m) in the background.

Hochschwab 201305
The bridge over Fobisbach appears from under the snow.

The plateau still had an almost 100% snow cover once above 1200m, but the snow had hardened enough during the last days thanks to all the rain that my snow shoes where now useless weight in my pack. Except from a few frightened chamois I seemed to be all alone on the deserted plateau. The weather improved on day four so that I chose to climb to the summit of Brandstein. A glider suddenly scared me while standing near the summit cross. Even though you can have the feeling to be all alone up in the mountains in the early season, suddenly there might always appear some company from an unexpected side in the Alps. It’s so typical.

Hochschwab 201305
The plateau seen from Brandstein summit (2003m).

Hochschwab 201305
Looking back onto the south face of Brandstein (2003m) from the plateau.

Hochschwab 201305
Entering the flowery Trawiestal valley.

The nice weather window only lasted one day as the next day I had to race against an advancing coldfront. I was now under Hochschwab’s summit but the mountain remained in the clouds all the time so that I had to leave the plan to climb any higher. The marmots were deserted looking around while keeping close to their den. With still so much snow cover everywhere around their den, there was not yet much delicious to find to satisfy one’s hunger.

Hochschwab 201305
I just woke up after my half year sleep.

Hochschwab 201305
And I stretch my legs for every photographer.

While I crossed the mountain pass on its south side it started to rain, cloud base lowered sustainingly and soon the first lightning strikes were flashing. I reached the valley bottom of Dullwitz valley just in time. The roaring thunder behind my back became loader and loader. Not much later I smiled and enjoyed the hailstorm that bombarded me. Lighting strikes hit the valley ridge above with for several times only two seconds that I could count between flash and the bang. It had been a long time since I got to experience a decent thunderstorm in the mountains.

Hochschwab 201305
Descending deeper into the Dullwitz valley whith the thunder approaching behind my back.

Hochschwab 201305
Rainy forest bivuoac.

I pitched the tarp in the forest while it kept raining in the evening and so it did during the night… and the next day… and the next night… Well, I just hiked through rain and fog the entire day after. Fortunately it became dry the last day after about 42 hours of continuous rain. I hiked upstream through the attractive Klausgraben canyon and soon finished the loop. Late spring is a beautiful time in the mountains as proved this trip again.

Hochschwab 201305
Hiking through the Klausgraben canyon…

Hochschwab 201305
… with the Salza river now showing its green waters.

Hochschwab 201305
Timid forest dweller.

This trip took place May 06-12 2013.
Watch the gear list for this trip.

Hochschwab-Salza loop trip planning

Diurnal instability triggering daily thunderstorms, the airmass in the boundary layer moist enough to keep the base of cumulus clouds low enough, often obscuring the mountain summits in fog, temperature at 1500m around a warm +11°c during the first few days with till Thursday 30 to 60mm of precipitation calculated over the mountains by the ECMWF model. That seems to be the weather I may expect on a traverse of the Hochschwab massif during next week, a limestone mountainous plateau in the east of the Austrian Alps. On Thursday a coldfront passage is expected giving lots of rain, possible snow at the end over the highest summits. Afterwards the 850hPa temperature of the operational run, although the ensembles plume is diverging significantly by that time, drops to slightly above freezing. Might become cold towards the end of the trip even though that remains premature to consider as a certainty at this point.

Hochschwab 201305
Packed for the Hochschwab-Salza loop.

This forecast may sound discouraging to many. To me it sounds very exciting! It’s been a long time I have had such unstable weather on a trip. I like thunderstorms in the mountains even though it demands special safety considerations while planning the trip beforehand and while out on the terrain. I will start the 8 day loop on the Salza river with my packraft. The river has some beautiful canyons with up to class III white water. I will put out on the second day before the hardest part on the river near Palfau and then hike back over the mountains with a traverse of Hochschwabs summit itself (2277m) if conditions permitting. Winter has been snow rich, higher then average, but the recent warm temperatures have made things evolve rapidly when looking at the local webcams (Wildalpen with Salza river in the valley, Tauplits Alm at 1656m, Bergstation Polster at 1800m). The big question: carry snowshoes or leave them home? The only pair of snowshoes I own are 25inch MSR Lightning Ascents. That’s in general too big for spring snow and I will probably not walk on snow for at least about 60% of the hiking distance. The absence of night frost and all the rain will keep compacting the snow. If the snow has become portable enough I can done the snowshoes. Will assess the conditions just before starting the trip and decide what to do best.

Will be continued…