Sunday Life

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A chance to hike in the Alps with the first man to climb Everest without oxygen! Given that my mountaineering experience was limited to a few leisurely walks up Slieve Donard, I contemplated making a run for the hills.

But the opportunity to hike with a living legend was too good to pass up so I pulled on my walking boots and set off for Austria. Situated two hours from Munich airport and 45 minutes from Innsbruck, the quaint Tyrolean village of Mayrhofen is framed by beautiful mountains.

Mayrhofen is a prime ski resort offering the largest ski area in the Zillertal valley. But the fun doesn’t stop when the ski season ends. At this time of year the white slopes turn to lush green Alpine pastures and the Ziller Valley becomes a summer playground.

You can quite literally hike an Alp, climb an Alp and jump off an Alp — if you’re brave enough.or stupid enough! But for me there’s no better way to experience the dramatic and timeless landscape of the Tux and Zillertal Alps than on foot. For one thing it’s far too easy to spill your schnapps if you’re trying to ride a mountain bike.

At 2395m, the Grublspitze is three times higher than Slieve Donard and a ‘baby mountain’ by Austrian standards.

Although the paths are well marked and experienced hikers travel them alone, a guide is highly recommended — both for safety and the story telling.Accompanying us on our ‘baby hike’ was the highly entertaining herbalist Erika. Picking wild flowers, clover and grasses along the route, she explained how the Alpine mountains are nature’s own pharmacy. Arnica, one of the best known herbal sports medicines grows freely here along with a plethora of other herbs which we touched, tasted, smelled and rubbed on our sore bits as Erika regaled us with stories of the Alpine version of Viagra!

With the sun shining we had a fabulous view of the Tux glacier. There’s a great sense of satisfaction and pride when you observe the grand spectacle of the Alps from one of its peaks, take a celebratory shot of schnapps and sign ‘I was here’ in the little book. Living life to the max at high altitudes in the great outdoors requires a high calorie diet. And while traditional Austrian fare such as dumplings, noodles and sausage is widely available — many mountain hut restaurants are beginning to offer culinary creations to delight the most discerning of palates.

Conquering the mountain was nothing in comparison to our next challenge — meeting a living legend, Professor Peter Habeler.In his quest to push the boundaries between the possible and the impossible, Habeler and his climbing partner Reinhold Messner attempted the first ascent of Mount Everest without the aid of breathing apparatus.

The two extreme climbers achieved the impossible when in 1978 they quite literally stood on top of the world.

Our trek to the Berliner Hut at 2042 metres was a remarkable experience. Sometimes it took all my effort to take three or four steps. Peter Habeler was both intriguing and charismatic and each one of our group fell under his spell.

The Zillertal Valley is just one big adventure playground with activities to suit all abilities. You don’t have to be super fit to walk in the Alps. You can hop on any number of ski lifts and survey the breathtaking peaks.Another fantastic activity to try is Via Ferrata. Taking its name from the Italian for ‘iron road’, steel ladders and cables are fixed along high-level footpaths to provide a thrilling but safe climbing frame. Walkers and climbers use a harness and a karabiner to clip themselves onto the cables. If you don’t mind heights one of the most exhilarating ways to make your way back down the mountain is to fly down by paraglider.

There is something quite nuts about running towards the edge of a mountain with a view to jumping off, but the feeling you get when you are airborne is amazing. The views were spectacular and it was much calmer and more tranquil than I had expected.

That was until I asked Hannes, my pilot, why the glider I’d seen the previous day seemed to be spiralling out of control. Bad idea! Turns out Hannes was part of the aerobatic team and so pleased I'd seen him in action that he proceeded to demonstrate his skills with me on board! No sooner had he uttered the words ‘Now we do the roller coaster — ya!’ than we were off. It was enough to strike fear into the dead but perhaps the perfect way to come down to earth from my adrenaline packed Alpine experience.

Belfast Telegraph