Women in the mountain hut field have for a long time been rare. When Katharina Daum, a single mom to a seven-year-old boy, started running her first mountain hut, neighbouring farmers were taking bets on how long she would make it. Little did they know that she would outlast most of them: A quarter of a century later, the dedicated mother-son team is running the storied Olperer Hut together.
The life of a mountain hut caretaker is traditionally viewed as a man’s job; or rather: mountain huts are usually managed by husband and wife teams in their 40s who can handle living and working in a tiny and remote space with their partners. However, Katharina Daum, today’s hut keeper at Olperer Hut in the Tux Alps, was 27 years old and a single mom to a seven-year-old boy when she broke into the fraternity of the hut system: “I had worked in restaurant and hotels before—and I had even polished silver cutlery and folded cloth napkins,” explains Katharina. “When they told me that I could run a hut, there was no holding me back; I simply had to take this opportunity— without any money and with nothing more than my old tool box and a headlamp.” And of course hand in hand with her son Manuel.
Thinking back on her first days, Katharina recalls how there were a handful of people, especially local farmers, taking bets on how long she would make it. Little did they know that she would outlast most of them, and become a wonderful hut keeper at Olperer Hut. “I’ve found myself in crowds of people who are of the opinion that women can’t thrive as a mountain hut keeper. My reaction is usually a shrug followed by a smile; for I just don’t have time to think about it,” she says.
Little Manuel loved the life on the hut to such a great level that he even tried to avoid going to school each Monday—in vain. “The first hut we took care of could be reached by road, which was an advantage. We got up at 5:00am, I brought Manuel to school in my old VW Golf and quickly returned to the hut, where lots of work was waiting on me,” explains Katharina. “It was kind of… let’s say complicated. For example, we were often living off the grid. Thus Manuel had to do his homework with the light of a headlamp. At the age of eleven, he started helping me in the kitchen and became a passionate and skilled cook—with Kaiserschmarren being his signature dish.”
Today, 25 years later, Katharina and 32-year-old Manuel are still a close mother-son team, working together on the storied Olperer Hut in Zillertal Valley. One generation prior to Katharina Daum, the hut had also been managed women-handed into the early 1990s. Ginzling-native Olga Platzer, dubbed the ‘Olperer Witch’, was a very special warden and went down in history as a as a person who really enjoyed life.
Hikers and mountain climbers have been staying on the Olperer Hut on their way to the like-named 3,476-meter summit of the Olperer since 1881. It makes it one of the oldest mountain huts in the Eastern Alps. However, little has remained of the original hut that was erected by the Prague Section of the German-Austrian Alpinist Association. In the 20th century, the hut was continuously extended and refurbished and ownership of what remained of the hut passed several times. Since 2004, the hut has been owned by the Neumarkt Section of the German Alpinist Association, who was committed to building a new hut. Designed by Austrian architect Hermann Kaufmann, in its place today is a modern mountain hut, perched hundreds of feet above Schlegeis Reservoir on the sunny side of the Tux Alps, with a view of serrated ridges and glistening white glaciers in front.
The wonderful dining room in front of the panoramic window is the perfect place to feast on Manuel’s Kaiserschmarren, a staple of Austrian cuisine. This fluffy shredded pancake has its name from the Austrian Emperor, Kaiser Franz Joseph I, who was very fond of this kind of dish. The young man, who didn’t want to go to school on Mondays, today is a graduate of the School of Tourism and Hospitality Management. “He is an amazing manager and an exceptionally gifted chef,” his proud Mom says. “We have come a long way together and by now he tells me: Mom, please leave my kitchen, this is my refuge.”
The junior boss is still fond of the life of a mountain hut caretaker. “I always wanted him to be free and I often told him: ‘The world is yours, feel free to do anything you want! I will support you by all means.’ However, Manuel doesn’t want to do anything else for the time being. He loves this life up here, where each day is a new adventure.”
An adventure that is at the same time a lot of hard work. But Katharina has been used to that since childhood: “I grew up on my parents’ mountain farm in Hippach. There was no such thing as summer holidays for us kids. We had to help our parents on the farm and up on the Alpine pastures at an early age.” Although the work at Olperer Hut is quite a different story: “It’s difficult if you have to prepare dinner for 95 people and recognize in the afternoon that there are no potatoes left… Food supply and logistics are an important issue up here.” After all, the Daums pride themselves in producing really amazing food using fresh and locally sourced ingredients. Olperer Hut can be reached by foot or helicopter only. While most supplies are delivered by helicopter every three to four weeks per season, flights are sometimes made impossible by bad weather. “This necessitates various trips on foot down to the reservoir, returning with full backpacks, up and down the mountain.”
Yet an adventure that Katharina wouldn’t want to give up. A passionate climber and mountaineer, she loves to travel to Nepal, her second best-loved country after Tirol. The life of a “mountain hut woman” is a totally different life from the others. She tends to live on fond memories, not on troubles and problems, explains the hut keeper. “There’s not even a road to get to the hut, which makes life quite complicated on the one hand. On the other side, it’s wonderful that we are so remote, without any traffic. All summer long, we share a life-style committed to the bare necessities in this Alpine setting, nourished by a strong spirit of hospitality and empathy with climbers and mountain people. And together with our staff, which is made up of a dozen young people, we are a close-knit community. If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself and the work isn’t that hard anymore. This is our sanctuary, where we live together with goats and chicken like family.” Additional remark: “Of course I sometimes think about giving it all up and doing something completely different. There are those moments when looking back on my live leads me to that nagging question: ‘What if I had done things differently?’ But fact is: I would do it all again. It’s a different kind of life, and a very special one, but we regret nothing and we miss nothing.”
Perched high above Schlegeis Reservoir and gained by a walk of 1.5 hours from there, Olperer Hut is a remarkable base camp along exhilarating hut-to-hut treks in the Zillertal Alps like the Berlin High Trail, the “Peter-Habeler-Circuit” and the “Munich-Venice Dream Path”. The sundeck offers incredible views of lofty peaks and summits named Olperer, Hochfeiler, Großer Möseler, Fußstein, Schrammacher and Riepenkopf and down to the glinting, turquoise Schlegeis Reservoir. Learn More about Olperer Hut: www.tyrol.com
From Stüdl Hut on foot of Großglockner Mountain to Berliner Hut in the Zillertal Alps to Pfeis Hut in Karwendel Mountain Range: This summer, we will be telling the stories of Alpinist Association refuges and shelters in Tirol and the people who operate them. The new “Mountain Huts Close Up” series starts here on the Blog Tirol in July 2019.