John Hayes heard about the Karnischer Höhenweg by chance when sitting out a storm in an Austrian Alpine hut with four young men from Vienna. He took their advice to trek the route and loved it so much he wrote a book about it.
I first heard about about the Karnischer Höhenweg eight years ago. After a stormy, snowy day in Austria’s Eastern Alps (it was the middle of August) we were enjoying the shelter, warmth and conviviality of a mountain hut. Crowded round an unseasonal fire, the conversation, as it often does, turned to trips we’d done and favourite hikes.
Four young Austrians from Vienna described a hike they’d enjoyed the previous year. This close-knit group, who clearly spent every spare minute hiking, climbing and skiing in the Alps, waxed lyrical about the Karnischer Höhenweg. Their description of a long ridge walk, high above the trees, which switched between Austria and Italy and was sandwiched between the Hohe Tauern to the north and Dolomites to the south, convinced us that it was a walk we had to do.
I've now walked the Karnischer Höhenweg three times. The first was as part of a longer trek along the Via Alpina, and the second two more recently after I had convinced Cicerone that the walk deserved a guidebook.
Each occasion was a pleasure and added further layers of understanding and enjoyment to what is a particularly interesting, as well as beautiful, part of the world.
What is the Karnischer Höhenweg?
The route goes from west to east for 169km along the main ridge of the Carnic Alps, a small but incredibly significant range of mountains in both historical and geological terms. It follows the border between Austria and Italy, a border finally settled after brutal mountain fighting in the World War I. Reminders of the conflict are everywhere, with trench works and barbed wire still in situ despite the passage of 100 years.
The Karnischer Höhenweg is known as the ‘Peace Way’ and the route was put together by Walther Schaumann, an Austrian ex-army officer and son of a soldier who served in World War I. Walther believed that restoring wartime remains and making them accessible to visitors was an important act of reconciliation.
Walking the frontline is a fascinating experience and trying to understand how the logistics of alpine warfare worked and how soldiers were supplied on a ridge, which for eight months of the year was covered in snow, is mind-boggling. Although occasional information boards describing a particular engagement or feature of the war help, it’s your imagination that has to do most of the work. Once you get your eye in and you start to appreciate the extent of the defensive works, the road-building and the tunnelling, the whole huge picture clicks into place.
An alpine walk that competes with the best
Personally, I enjoy walking through landscape where the history talks, but you don't need to be interested in history to enjoy the Karnischer Höhenweg.
As an alpine walk it competes with the best, taking you along a spine of huge limestone massifs and long dark granite ridges, while also offering traverses of beautiful flower-filled alpine meadows.
It is of particular geological interest, sitting as it does at the junction between the African and European tectonic plates. The area is a complex mix of central alpine core granite and gneiss, as in the Hohe Tauern to the north, and limestone, as in the Dolomites to the south. The huge cliffs of the limestone mountains provide the spectacle but the grassier granite ridges afford the best walking. The special geology of the area – which includes some of the thickest limestone beds in the world – is internationally recognised by UNESCO.
The walk takes a minimum of eight days to complete, but most people will want longer, particularly if the highly recommended Italian variant is followed. To make the most of the Karnischer Höhenweg, including going up some of the optional summits, then spending a fortnight's holiday in the Carnic Alps makes sense.
Although there are lots of optional extras, the basic route is well defined and easy to follow. Some parts of the walk will be challenging if you don't have a head for heights, but provided that's not a problem it is a good introduction to Alpine walking. It's a well-supported walk and cables are positioned to help manage the more difficult bits. Incidentally, it was in this part of the Alps where the utilisation of cables for the sport of via ferrata, originally fixed to supply troops, really started, although its promoter Eduard PichI, a notorious Nazi, is no longer celebrated.
A cultural experience in the mountains
As well as wonderful scenery, history and geology, one of the features of the Karnischer Höhenweg my Austrian friends enthused about was the opportunity to walk through two countries. In the context of an open border through a mountain range it may seem a little strange to talk about cultural differences, but in this part of the world they remain significant. The first stages of the route follow the border, but accommodation is in Austrian mountain huts and the food is classic German/Austrian fare. On the fourth day the route splits with one variant heading into Italy and Italian mountain huts, where the atmosphere and food are very different.
Anyone who has walked in the Alps will appreciate mountain huts, although for most German or Austrian huts respectful appreciation is about as far as it gets. The Refugio Marinelli, sitting just beneath Monte Coglians, which at 2789m is the highest mountain on the route, is a really special place and my favourite mountain hut in all the Alps.
It's not just the food, which is really good; it's also the warm, relaxed atmosphere and general friendliness that makes this a place you'll want to go back to.
The wide variety of accommodation along the route offers a unique experience. For example, there are two cheese making farms, one in Italy and one in Austria, where you can stay overnight. Both win awards for their cheese and, although I actually preferred the Austrian cheese, the flagon of prosecco served by the Italian hosts (who spoke an Italian dialect only they understood) tipped the overall experience in their favour.
Switching between an Austrian/German world and an Italian world makes the trip culturally interesting but it’s a bit of a nightmare when it comes to writing a guide. Everywhere has both an Italian and a German name and these names tend to be applied in a fairly arbitrary way. Even the heights of the mountains vary from one map base to another.
A sociable trip
On two of my trips I walked the Karnischer Höhenweg with my wife, Christine, but the third time I was on my own. If you’re a solo hiker, but appreciate some occasional company, you will not be disappointed. It’s a popular walk with Germans and Austrians, and walking on a similar schedule the chances are that you bump into the same people each evening. It’s a very sociable experience and to be honest you’ll probably meet more people walking alone than as a couple.
If I have one regret it’s that I didn’t keep in touch with those Austrians we spent a very pleasant evening with eight years ago. Their enthusiasm meant that I got to learn about and enjoy a special part of the world that I wouldn’t otherwise have visited. It would be nice to spend another evening with them in another hut someday, and share our memories.