Life under the summit cross: 130 years of the Passauer Hut

Salzburger Saalachtal

The Passauer Hut at 2,051 metres is the only hut base in the Leoganger Steinberge. Above the Mittagsscharte, between Birnhorn and Fahnenköpfel, it clings to the rock and has been a popular destination for alpinists and hikers since 1892. Michael Faber from St. Martin in the Salzburger Saalachtal has been hut warden since 2011 and tells us about his everyday life in the hut; the challenges of a life below the summit cross and his moments of happiness high up between Weißbach, Saalfelden and Leogang.

A look back

The Passauer Hut was built by the German Alpine Association at a time when courageous mountain enthusiasts were beginning to explore the Alps and one peak after another was entered in the list of first ascents. East of the prominent Birnhorn, the new mountain climbers’ accommodation was opened on the 23rd July 1892 with a festive mountain mass.

These days, Michael Faber is the “good soul“ of the Passauer Hut in his role as hut warden, even though at the beginning active management of the hut wasn’t planned. More then 100 years ago the key was loaned out to trusted mountain climbers and members of the association climbed up and down to make sure all was well. However the visitor count increased constantly with the development of tourism in the region from 100 mountaineers per year at the beginning and so from 1906 onwards the hut was managed. The original hut fell victim to an arson attack in 1946 and it took a couple of years until enough money could be raised to rebuild it.

Michael Faber – passionate hut warden

Since 2011, the last big upgrade of the hut, Michael Faber has been hut warden. Together with his wife Evelyn and his team he provided for the wellbeing of mountain climbers from June until the middle of September for the last years. With great commitment the couple managed the hut, but in the year 2017 they decided to go separate ways. After their separation Evelyn assumed the management of the Franz-Fischer-Hut in the Lungau. Michael Faber actually comes from Bavarian Aichach and is a registrar, but he seems to operate so effectively in his role as hut warden high up on the mountain that you would think he had never done anything else. With passion and his great sensitivity towards people he is warden, heart and soul. And it isn’t always easy to be the warden here at this altitude as he explains, “Mountain climbing satisfies a deep longing in the guest. He often brings a romanticized image of hut life with him. The warden must be aware of these desires and hopes. In addition to good catering and the beautiful views, it is also expected that the warden has the answer to every question.  And with around 12,000 visitors in the summer season, sometimes you have to be a psychologist when individuals haven’t been able to put enough distance between themselves and their problems in the valley.  Incidentally, the hut warden is still first and foremost water provider, energy commissioner, sewage manager and rubbish mountain tamer.“

Water, liquid gold

The Passauer Hut was first supplied with spring water in the 1980s and Michi Faber assures us, “Water is the gold of the hut because even though nothing would work without water, it isn’t a matter of course up here. Our drinking water comes from a spring in the Kuchlkar via a 1.4 kilometre long pipe: a considerable rarity here in this region of karst rock. Even after weeks of dry weather this spring doesn’t run dry but of course the water pipe requires maintenance and care.  Before we return to the valley in autumn and before the winter sets in, the pipeline must be completely emptied and aired. In the spring it takes around five days before the water reaches the hut. Whether we can begin the season or not depends on the water. But when it runs, it runs. In the same way, we produce our electricity for the hut from the power of the water. When our hydroelectric power plant reaches it limit we can change to solar power but after a couple of days of overcast skies it means only one thing, ‘Save electricity!’ That is difficult for some guests to comprehend when they see sockets in the hut but we ask that not everyone recharges their mobile phones at the same time. We don’t use the vacuum cleaner and the showers for our hut team remain cold.“

Just like any other culinary establishment in the valley, a sewage treatment plant and certain kitchen standards are mandatory. “An extra building was constructed in 2012 for the modern waste treatment plant. The kitchen also had to be renovated in accordance with official notification, but the cosy guest lounges have been kept original. Rubbish is sorted and collected in a separate store. It is returned to the valley at the end of the season or when an additional delivery is flown in. Of course we are pleased if guests don’t leave their plastic bottles, which they carried with them in their rucksacks, for us to dispose of“, Michi Faber lets us look behind the scenes of everyday life in the hut.

Rucksack taxi & onset of winter

The Passauer hut needs a carrier even though basic supplies are delivered by helicopter at the beginning of the season and a further twice before the season end. Despite this Michi and Babu have to go down to the valley at least once every ten days to buy bread, dairy produce and fresh goods. Generally the pair set out in the rain and on the way back carry up to 25 kilograms on their backs. “Wet weather is very welcome now and again. It means we can relax a little. Otherwise the day always begins at 5.30 am with the preparation of breakfast and meals. Lights out for the guests is at 10.30 pm and then there is a relaxed end of work beer for us. This is traditional and is one of the nicest moments – to know that the day has gone well, everyone has arrived here safely and is asleep in bed. If Gisela and I want to go for a walk up to the Hochzint we have to do it at the crack of dawn so that we are back at the hut punctually at 5.30. I love these moments when the sun rises over the Watzmann and the hut lies below me, dark and silent.“

Even though hut life is fantastic and the view to the valley is magnificent there are also things that the hut warden misses after a while. “Up here on the mountain I miss the scent of hay in the summer, cow bells or the lush green of the alpine pastures. I notice that first when I return to the valley and I am blinded by the colours. Also privacy comes up too short after a while because we live here in a confined space especially if we are snowed in at the hut. We use this enforced break for pre-cooking and resting. Sometimes there are hut tantrums so we go out and build a snowman, bake Christmas biscuits, brew Glühwein and knit hats. So often the worst days turn into the best days.“

Hut anecdotes

Many funny stories have played out in the Passauer Hut over the last years and during the time of Michi Faber’s lease a lot has happened too. As a good warden, Michi Faber doesn’t gossip but we do manage to prise one story out of him  – about Lorenz the high-ranking clergyman and lights out. The hut warden can’t remember whether the dignitary was a bishop or not, but as far as he was concerned he was just Lorenz. On one lively hut evening the cleric got out the guitar and played with abandonment. At one point the warden warned him, “Hey Lorenz, that’s the end now, the other guests are already asleep.“ In answer the cleric replied, “Michi, let me play one more song because who knows the next time I will be so close to God.“ Those who would like to hear more anecdotes should go up to the Passauer Hut themselves. There are several possible ascents. Those who would rather take a more relaxed route can choose to travel part of the way with the Almwandertaxi from Weißbach. After that, the hut can be reached in around two hours via ascents on forest paths and alpine meadows. The trickiest and the shortest ascent begins in Leogang. For this three hour hike you need to have a head for heights and surefootedness. The Passauer Hut can also be reached from Saalfelden and the Lettlkaser in around four to five hours via a steep climb.

Tip: It is worth taking a detour from the Passauer hut to the mythical Melkerloch.

At this natural rock arch below the Birnhorn and west of Hochzint, you will be rewarded by an impressive view through the stone window. According to legend, the devil threw a cocky milker, who bathed himself in good milk, through these holes. The ascent from the hut is well-signposted and takes about 30 minutes to the Melkerloch, via the Zintschartl.

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