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The Wild Waters of Schladming

Austria Uncovered: Schladming-Dachstein
Written by Daniel Neilson // Photography by John Summerton

Among the great mountains of the Alps, the sharp peaks, the high mountain passes, the forested trails, it is still water that defines Schladming-Dachstein. Thunderous falls that can’t help but shock, mountain tarns that invite you for a refreshing dip, vast lakes hidden high in the valleys, leaping rivers in spring spate.

In the days we spent in Schladming-Dachstein, our eyes and camera lenses constantly flitted to the torrents around us. It’s impossible for them not to. It’s the sight and sound of those rivers, known as the Wild Waters of Schladming-Dachstein, that stay in my memory most. The pure energy that flows through the region is awestriking in the truest sense of the word. John and I were left silenced by the Riesach waterfall, not that we could have heard each other over the torrent. The falls, the river-side walks, the lake-side beers, the streams trickling through Alpine meadows in full bloom. Those were the first I spoke about when I returned. Well, that and the bloke riding through Schladming on a penny-farthing. More of him later. And more, too, of the mountain biker who moved to Schladming for some of the world’s best downhill trails. More of the florist who spends her spare time in the summer, wondering at the flower-painted meadows, and more of the innkeeper who rhapsodised about the produce of these meadows and the water that feeds it. Alongside the wild waters of Schladming-Dachstein are the warm people who make this region their home.

Schladming and the nearby settlement of Ramsau am Dachstein are former mining towns in the Austrian state of Styria, in the country’s southeast. Salzburg is a couple of hours’ drive away. These days, mining tools only appear in museums, and Schladming is primarily known as a winter sports destination, notably the Planai ski area, which is served by several lifts. In summer, it’s mountain bikers who will most readily recognise the name, especially having been home of the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup since 2004.

We arrive in early June. Snow still rests on the high peaks around us, but the sun glimmers on the sharp spires and the onion domes of the town’s churches, still the tallest buildings in the valley.

We’ve come to explore the region, to hike its steep mountain paths, to visit the waterfalls, to eat traditional Styrian food, and, most of all, to meet the locals. The Austrians have a word that is apt here: Lebensgefühl. It is loosely translated as ‘sense of life’, the conscious feeling of participating in real life. It’s about being part of life and living it to the fullest. It’s about recognising the moments of the day, the flavour in the food, the sound of the rushing water, the laughter in an Alpine hut, the conversations in the bakery, the food in the bakery (more of that later, too!). It’s about the eye-catching flower on the mountainside, the feel of the iron via ferrata in your hands, and the vertiginous sense of walking across a wobbly bridge very high above a river. It’s about the feeling of the moment, recognising it, and bringing it home.

We weren’t here to record an FKT or summit the highest peak, we didn’t want to clock up the kilometres or to scare ourselves stupid (although we did at one point). Instead, we were here to immerse ourselves in nature, get our shoes and hands dirty, and enjoy life in the mountains. So, with that in mind, we started at the bakery.

Now, being British, I figured that we had the pastry/bacon/cheese triumvirate pretty much perfect. A visit to Bäckerei Lasser in the centre of Schladming proved me wrong. Oh. My. Word. After a strong morning coffee, we bought Speckstangerl to go as an afterthought and headed to the Planai Schladming Bergbahn, the base station of the gondolas that would take us to the beginning of our trek. This bit is going to sound greedy, especially with the information that we’d pretty much just had an ample breakfast. Still, the Speckstangerl translated somewhat unromantically but accurately as ‘bacon stick’, just popped out of the bag and was gobbled before the midway station. I barely noticed the scenery, but when I did, the valley opened as we rose higher and higher on the mountain bike-friendly gondola. The distant peaks seemed to get even more distant. We arrived at the Planai station and walked to the peak at 1904 metres.

We had a loose plan to follow some of the Planai High Trail until the late snow stopped our path. It was quiet in the ‘shoulder’ season, as the tourism industry insists on calling the bits between summer and winter. There were a handful of hardy hikers but few other people. To guarantee a complete walk in the mountains, wait until the middle of June once all the huts open again, and the chance of snow on scuppering high trails is minimised.

We trod along the path, stopping to examine the Alpine flowers and read the poetic signs under the finger posts. The trail traverses the mountainside, settling in at around 2,300 metres. The drop below became increasingly steep, and the mountain above increasingly rocky. The undulating paths soon became narrower, with iron handrails to steady the nerves. Exposure increased, at points vertiginously. It was pleasingly hands-on, a bit scrambly and approaching a via ferrata (although for some of Europe’s best via ferrata routes, cross the valley to Dachstien, where you’ll find 22 routes, including the oldest in the Eastern Alps). 

After a couple of hours, the snow hindered the path. Besides, a wave of rain came in, and we retreated along the narrow paths, taking in the opposite view.

he Wild Waters around Schladming is the name given to the rivers sloshing through two valleys: Untertal and Obertal. The people of Schladming talk about the valley, and the tourist board promote the Wild Waters, but nothing quite prepared us for the sheer force of the torrents. We drove up the Untertal Valley, stopping at the 300-year-old Gasthaus zur Weissen Wand and met the amiable proprietor Georg Masten. Opposite the alm house, the meadows were in full bloom. Old wooden houses and huts dotted the landscape below the great mountains above them.

We parked a little farther up the valley at the Seeleiten and began our walk up towards the Riesachsee lake. You can hear the waterfalls before you see them. Immediately, we were struck that there was something very impressive around the corner, but we were silenced on seeing them and the power of the water.

We all remember the water cycle diagram from school. And here it is in action. In the Alps, the water falls as snow; it freezes, sometimes for hundreds of years, before melting in the spring, filling lakes and overflowing through gorges riven by millennia of the same action. The Lower and Small Riesach Waterfalls do not seem either. High and massive would have been more appropriate, but it suggests what is coming. From the viewing platforms, we get close enough to worry about our cameras, but to feel the water spray is refreshing in the sun, it has appeared, bringing heat and rainbows. A little higher is the definitely aptly named Great Riesach Waterfall, the highest in Styria. A wooden bridge crosses at the moment the water tumbles. From here, the Unteralbach River is at its most violent, raging down. It’s called Höllschlucht, or Hell’s Gorge. The water takes whatever is in its way, or so it seems. Trees rise high from seemingly impossible spots towards the cliffs above them. The water-splashed branches and leaves are battered but not broken, standing in damp defiance.

We rise up the steep pathway, occasionally on ladders at the steepest climbs. Then, the most well-known part of the trail is a 50-metre steel suspension bridge that bounces with every step. Through the floor, far below, you can see the river below, and the views down the valley and rising from the other side are immense. We stop for a while to wonder at the magnificence of it all.

As soon as we begin to think it will flatten out at the Riesachsee lake, there’s another ladder (there are 14 in total) or climb (750 steps, we’re told), but before we know it we’re walking into the garden of the Gfölleralm, an old pine hut built in 1888. We order what everyone else appears to be eating: Omi’s Bauernkrapfen, Grandma’s Farmer’s Doughnuts with marmalade. It’s the kind of place where two arrive for each person.

We sit for a while, chatting to the proprietor and the other guests. We wander over to admire Riesachsee before coming back for another local beer.

We spend a few more days exploring the other valleys in Schladming and cross to Ramsau am Dachstein. We stay at a hut in the mountains on this side of the valley, the Brand Alm, under the great walls of the Dachstein Massif. The highest mountain in the region, the Hoher Dachstein (2,996m), rises above us. Here, we meet Katrin and Carolyn, who came from Bavaria to hike these mountains. The mountain’s popularity has increased due to the popularity of Die Bergretter (The Mountain Rescuers), a TV show following a fictional mountain rescue team from Ramsau am Dachstein.

We also meet Patrick, a mountain biker also from Germany who has come to work as a bike mechanic for the summer to make the most of one of the world’s best mountain biking destinations. In a florist, I chat with Alena, who spends her weeks surrounded by cut flowers and her weekends wandering among the wildflowers of the Alpine meadows. And we meet Franz Seggl, a retired mechanic from Schladming who has covered 184,000 kilometres on a penny-farthing. Yes, all of that sentence is correct.

So perhaps more than the waterfalls and the mountains, maybe even more than the ‘bacon stick’, it is the people of Schladming that I will remember. Georg and his beautiful hut, Alena and her love for wildflowers and, of course, Franz and his penny farthing. Each person we met had a love and appreciation for the place they call home. And, frankly, why wouldn’t they?

Experience Lebensgefühl with the locals

Georg, owner of Gasthaus Weisse Wand
We stopped at possibly the quaintest place we’d seen on our visit so far, the Gasthaus Weisse Wand. This wooden guesthouse has been part of this flower-strewn valley for more than 300 years. We sat down with Georg, the proprietor, who told us the story of the place. ‘I come from Ramsau, and I’ve owned the place for 17 years.

‘I worked on the top of the mountains in the ski area for about 15 years in an unbelievably loud restaurant, but then I found this palace.’

He pauses to smile as one of his cats (his ‘tigers’) comes in for some attention. ‘This building is more than 300 years old and is called Weisse Wand, the White Wall because the mountain next to us is white. It was closed for a few years until I opened it again. When I did, everyone said to me, ‘Georg, you’re so stupid, you’re so silly.’ But it was a dream, and we did it.’

Today, they serve 300 dishes daily, mostly Austrian cuisine and a little international food. And in his precious off time? ‘I’m a cross-country skier and a walker, but I don’t go up into the mountains in summer. I meet so many people I know, my guests, and I’m kissing hellos, so I go in early spring and late October.’

Patrick, a mechanic at Bikeworld Schladming, Brúndl Sports
Cyclists are bouncing around the car park at the foot of the Planai Schladming Bergbahn, resting their bikes for the world-class downhill above them. The impeccably located Bikeworld Schladming is also here for bike rental and last-minute alterations. Inside, we speak to Patrick, a German working as a mechanic in the shop for the season. While pulling the type off a wheel, he explains how many of the pros come to the Schladming to train before the World Cup, with many staying through the summer.

‘I came here because I love mountain biking and enduro. We used to come here in the summer anyway to cycle, but I’m a trained mechanic, so made sense for me to come and work. The bike park here is amazing; it’s super fun. And I came for the people, too; they’re really nice too.’

Alena, a florist for Prima Flora
In the heart of Schladming and within earshot of the fast-moving Talbach River is Prima Flora, a lovely florist. Here, we meet Alena, who is, needless to say, passionate about flowers.

‘I’ve always lived near here, and I love it’, she tells us. ‘It’s very green, very exciting, touristy, and there’s always something to do here. The people who live and visit here are fun, too.’

As with everyone we met, we wanted to know how they enjoyed the regions. Any secret tips?
‘I love hiking in the mountains, especially the Riesachtal. I love the wildflowers in the meadows too. It’s always amazing to see wildflowers growing; they are beautiful.’

Carolyn and Katrin, hikers from Germany
‘We’re from Bavaria, but we came here because it’s a hiking area with many routes.’ Carolyn explains. We meet Carolyn and Katrin on the path up to Brand Alm below the mighty Hoher Dachstein mountain. ‘We can make a lot of ascent and reach the top. The Dachstein Massif is a great area, and we’ve just climbed Jungfrau.’

They excitedly show us photos from the morning walk. It’s stunning. The rugged peaks frame the valley below. ‘The area is so high and dramatic,’ Katrin adds. ‘And there are so many hiking routes.’

They also tell us about a popular TV show called Die Bergretter, based on a fictional mountain rescue team based in Ramsau am Dachstein. It’s attracted fans from across Austria and Germany. We saw them filming yesterday, and there were some fans watching’.

Franz Seggl, penny-farthing cyclist
You certainly can’t miss Franz Seggl when you see him, riding high on a penny farthing through the streets of Schladming. We later discover he’s a local celebrity, but I guess if every day you cycle the roads of Schladming on a penny farthing, you would be. Franz is an effusive, happy man with a big smile. He’s always lived in Schladming but has cycled across Europe on his bike.

‘I ride every day, and I have ridden 184,000 kilometres on my penny farthings,’ he tells us after we flagged him down. ‘I love living here in the mountains; they’re so beautiful.’

Visit Schladming, and you’ll see Franz. Be sure to wave!

For more information about active holidays in Austria, visit and follow @visitaustria.
To read more about Schladming-Dachstein, read the Sidetracked guide here, and Visit Austria’s guide here.

Written by Daniel Neilson // @danieljneilson
Photography by John Summerton // @johnsummerton
Produced in Partnership with Visit Austria // @visitaustria