Published in Smithsonian.com
Austria is a country defined by mountains: Well over half of its landscape is shaped by the iconic Alps. A night spent in Innsbruck, the capital city of Tyrol (the state in which Austria’s highest peaks are found), is full of constant reminders of the summits above: crisp mountain air, cool temperatures, the sound of periodic rock fall. Many Austrians spend their weekends and holidays exploring the higher climes. They hike past lush alpine dairy pastures and pristine lakes in the shadow of rocky spires. And at the end of each day, they enjoy a hearty meal, hot shower and night’s rest at a scenic hütte (hut).
There are more than 1,000 hütten scattered through the Eastern Alps, most of which are associated with either the Austrian Alpine Club or German Alpine Club. While a summer hiking in the Austrian Alps might sound like the sort of vacation best suited for serious adventurers, the clubs were founded in 1873 with the mission to make the peaks accessible to all. As Henrich Stenitzer, a prominent club member, wrote in 1912, “The alpine clubs have unlocked the majesty and beauty of the high mountains for the masses, giving countless numbers of people the opportunity, without prohibitively demanding effort…or exorbitant costs, to become acquainted with the Alps.”