I had the pleasure to spend a few days in Gesäuse National Park, Austria. My first visit was in 2016 November and the second at the end of December.
Gesäuse national park is situated in the heart of the Austrian state of Styria, only 3 hours car drive west from Vienna. It is a large part of the Gesäuse range within the Ennstal Alps. The Enns river crosses the park through Admont and Hieflau.
The national park currently covers 110 km², with another 15 km² planned. It was established on October 26, 2002.
The highest mountain is Hochtor at 2,369 m (7,772 ft).
The park has a unique atmosphere and it has some beautiful mountains and great gorges. It is perfect for climbers, rafters, and hikers. Even great for skiers and snowboarders in the wintertime. Although there are no ski lifts in the park, you can ride on the white virgin slopes in return.
Frozen wonderland in November
My first visit was in the middle of November, autumn, as I expected there were only very few areas has notable snow.
Soon as we arrived at our host’s house in Weng im Gesäuse, we dropped our bags and went to explore the picturesque valley.
On the sunny hillsides, all the snow has melted, but in the gorge, it was much colder. This time of the year the sun goes on a much lower orbit, so it didn’t make its way into the deep valley. Gesäuse’s gorge has an individual microclimate, the cold and the rising fog created these frosty creatures on all trees and formed it into a frozen wonderland, which was a pleasure to photograph.
We snapped some great pictures of the sunset with Hochtor in the background.
We were driving through the park to find some valuable spots. At the end of the day, the sky gave us some drama, so it was a good time to capture the frozen valley with its stormy clouds.
At this particular location, I was really tired, but my buddy @gabornagy_photography forced me to hike up to a close chapel to take this shot. I really appreciate I have friends like him, who always inspire me to push myself beyond my limits.
We fueled up ourselves with some great Austrian foods and had some rest. We were ready to shoot the night sky in the valley. Unfortunately, the moon has risen above the park, so we couldn’t take any decent milky way shots. Although it was even more picturesque with its bluish lights.
The morning hike
After an early wake-up, we started to climb the near mountain in Weng im Gesäuse. We have ascended 1000 meters in pitch black to witness the beauty of the sunrise.
Must have things for early hikes are the following; headlamp, hot tea in the thermos, energy bars, warm polar, and a waterproof shell jacket. Trekking poles are also very handy on these slippery slopes.
Fortunately, the sun gifted us with some amazing lights as we approached the first hut Grabneralhaus. The view over the park was breathtaking as the sun rays entered the valley.
The sun came up, so it got a bit warmer, and we finally had some great rest at this beautiful place. The huts are all closed in wintertime, usually from the end of November till early May. It all depends on the current snow conditions, so it is always great if you check the openings on www.gesaeuse.at.
Lots of snow in December
My second visit was in 2016 late December, the winter was in its full swing and we knew we would expect some great amount of snow in the area. As we crossed the Austrian border it started snowing, and at the time we arrived at Johnsbach, it started falling down heavily. I always check current and forecast snow conditions on www.wepowder.com. They have a pretty good system to predict the upcoming snowfalls.
They foresaw 15 inches of fresh snow for Gesäuse National Park and that”s what exactly happened.
We stayed in a charming guesthouse called Donnerwirt Guesthous. The storm lasted for 48 hours and we trapped in our homestay until it went away. Although on the following day we couldn’t resist and went to explore the area to capture some snowy shots. We hiked up to Kölblwirt Gueshouse, where we fueled ourselves up with some traditional alpine meals. I highly recommend the liver dumpling soup and wiener schnitzel, and of course the very tasty Schnapps.
We spent almost 2 hours in the restaurant when the storm finally weakened a bit, and we were able to capture some pictures.
Morning hike – Großer Buchstein
On the third day, the storm went away and we climbed up to a close spot near our homestay. Luckily the snow wasn’t too deep to hike up to lower areas of the mountain.
We choose a close spot to take pictures of the 2224 meters high Gros Buchtein, towards the north in the rising sun. The mountain top was fully covered in clouds, but as the sun was rising higher, the peak has emerged from the clouds.
In the early hours the whole area covered in light purple, and at the end of the sunrise, the lights all turned into yellow, that’s when we snapped some valuable pictures of the Grose Bechstein.
As we were ascended back on the hiking path, I noticed a great view of Buchstein with some supporting small peaks in the foreground. I immediately put my camera on my tripod and attached a telephoto lens, Canon 70-200 f4 to it. The sun was way higher to use this pic in color, so I decided to turn it into black and white.
Lights are totally different at this time of the day, so sometimes it’s worth getting up a bit earlier to experience and shot this atmosphere.
One of the guys from Photo Cascadia, Zack Schnepf wrote a great article about snapping pictures in the twilight.
Higher areas and lots of fresh pow – Mödlinger hütte
We gained some energy at the guesthouse we were ready to hike up to Mödlinger hut to capture the sunset. We were facing 2 hours of hike, the lower areas had very little snow, maybe 15 centimeters, but It was easy to ascend. Later this evening it was getting rougher though.
The whole hiking trail was buried with fresh pow, and it was very difficult to follow. For the navigation, I always use Galileo offline map application, simply it has all the hike trails marked on their maps. Unfortunately, it only indicates the paths, without the exact route sign. However, this is still a pretty useful application.
To avoid 4G data usage, I always download the designated area or a whole country to my phone as an offline map.
Hiking in the cold
The cold could be very uncomfortable, and ascending in steep snowy terrain is quite challenging too. I suggest to have all these important clothes, while you do or planning to do winter hikes:
- Waterproof hiking boots
- Hiking gaiters
- Hiking pants
- Trekking poles
- Shell jackets
- Feather-lined coat
- Warm hat and gloves
In case of icy terrain, a must have is to attach crampons to your boots, which protects you from slipping.
It was getting harder and the snow amount had significant depth changes as we ascended towards the top.
Under normal atmospheric conditions, as altitude increases, air temperature drops between 1°C and 3°C for every 1,000ft (300m) height gained.
The above video shows how we suffered along the way. We better had snowshoes, but we didn’t expect this much snow in higher areas. Lesson learned, never underestimate the power of nature.
Our goal was to reach Mödlineger Hut by sunset, but we couldn’t make it all the way up to it, due to the deep snow conditions. There were some areas where we couldn’t even move in the waist-deep snow, and we decided to stop on a meadow and snap some pictures of this magnificent blue hour.
Sunsets could be really beautiful, but dawn has some really unique lights, especially in the wintertime. Due to the deep pow and the cold, I didn’t have much space to find a special foreground for this magical light. By the time I snapped this picture the temperature dropped to -15 celsius, and my hands were pretty cold.
I have never experienced this kind of winter conditions before, it was a nice and safe journey overall. My next trip to Gesäuse National Park will be in May, where I will participate in a rafting and hut photoshoot for the park management. So stay tuned for my next spring adventure.
Hope my article helps to explore this beautiful area and my tips assist you along your journeys.
Please do share your experiences in the comment section below, and tell us what was your most challenging photo experience.