Last winter, Tobias Spechter and Lukas Aichhorn made their dream come true: They became the new tenants of Lizumer Mountain Lodge (Lizumer Hütte) in the Tux Alps. Then the winter arrived, and after the winter things did not really go as expected. In this story, you will find out more about their plans, mountain lodge romance and one thing that will never change up here in the mountains: the freedom above the tree line.
“When deciding to rent a hut, you definitely have to be an idealist. This is not something you do to become rich,” Tobias Spechter explains. Just a little bit over a year ago, the 30-year-old Tobias took over the lease of the Lizumer mountain lodge at Wattenberg in the Tux Alps together with his colleague Lukas Aichenhorn. Tobias and Lukas made the most of the spring forging out plans – plans for their own future and the future of the Lizumer hut, as some months ago everyone suddenly realised that everything would be different down in the valley and in the whole world.
The last traces of winter
Those who want to visit Tobias and Lukas have to put their hiking shoes on. The starting point for the hike is the parking lot in Wattenberg called “Lager Walchen” directly in front of the barrier of the military facility. A soldier sitting in the guardhouse points toward the south and says with a smile: “Follow the road that way and then turn left onto the Zirbenweg trail after the bridge.” The soldier does not only know the Lizumer hut but also the hikers going that way very well. The Zirbenweg Trail is an idyllic hiking path and leads toward the Lizumer hut at 2,019 metres within just two hours. You follow the Lizumbach stream, walk through the conifer forest at first and then later through the Swiss pine forest and at last above the tree line. After crossing a short snow field – the last traces of the winter – you will see the Lizumer hut built in 1912 on a small hill just beneath the summit of the Tux Alps; the hut is situated directly next to a small lake with the valley basin in the background.
“It is an exciting and interesting place. Cultivation in the valleys and on the mountain slopes is difficult. Many things are a lot more traditional than in other places. Overbreeding is no option around here for example. The results are extraordinary and high-quality Alpine pasture products,” Lukas explains. He is responsible for the kitchen. He studied nutritional science and after university he trained to become a chef at a hotel at the Lake Achensee. He then worked in a the à-la-carte area for ten years and also managed a social kitchen work project. Later on, he worked in the kitchen of the Regensburger hut in the Stubai vally – that’s were he met Tobias. I they became friends straight away.
„I knew that this step was connected with risks. Renting an Alpine mountain lodge is always connected with risks. However, we did not expect these kinds of risks.“
In spring 2019, they finally made the decision to take over the Lizumer mountain lodge together. Whose idea was it? It was definitely Tobias’ idea – no doubt at all. Full beard, lumberjack shirt, mischievous gaze – that’s Tobias. Originally from Passau, he already gained experience working at an Alpine lodge during his business studies in Kufstein. Tobias and Lukas designed the concept for the Lizumer hut together. Tobias was responsible for the business part; Lukas was responsible for the regional and culinary part. A concept that provides for many contingencies and demonstrates visions. However, there were two terms which were not present in the concept: pandemic and lockdown. Nobody was prepared for this kind of scenario.
Long hikes and seeing the bigger picture
“Of course I knew that there was a certain risk when managing a mountain lodge,” Lukas admits. “However, we had calculated different kinds of risks.” He laughs. When he hears the question what the corona pandemic means for them financially, he gazes into the distance towards the Tux Glacier – just about five kilometres away as the crow flies.
„This kind of sustainable Alpine tourism will definitely have a future even after this crisis is over.“
Lukas thinks about the question. “At the moment we are expecting a loss of around sixty per cent,” he explains. “Especially in summer, we usually have many guests going on long-distance hiking trails – for example guests hiking from Munich to Venice. These kinds of guests are so great and interesting. However, many of these hikers will not be visiting us this year.” Many other huts have the same problem. But Tobias and Lukas have not lost faith, they are optimistic. “I am not worried at all. We will make it through this difficult patch,” Lukas says. On the one hand, we have the advantage that the lease agreement with the Alpine Association of the section Hall includes the arrangement of lower overhead costs if the revenue is lower. On the other hand, Lukas sees the current situation as a chance. “This kind of sustainable Alpine tourism will definitely have a future even after this crisis is over.”
Tobias agrees. “We are focusing on sustainable tourism. Most of the people who come to us are part of the slow movement – they are looking for relaxation and nature,” he explains. The 84 beds of the Lizumer mountain lodge are located in either double or four-bed rooms as well as spacious dorms. Each room has its own washbasin. That’s anything but ordinary for a hut. The layout of the hut, the sanitary facilities – all these things will play an important role in the next months and will be decisive when it comes to the decision on how many guests can stay overnight.
Minimalistic tables instead of salt shakers
When you take a look into the dining area and seating area you will see empty tables and some of the benches turned upside down to remind the guests of the social distancing measures. “Usually there would be flowers, salt shakers and baskets with the cutlery in on the tables. However, then we would have to disinfect everything every time a guest leaves the table – there would not be enough time to do that. So we have decided to leave the tables empty for the moment,” Lukas explains. Instead of guests staying over night there were only hikers and day guests from mid-May until June. Since the beginning of June, guests can stay overnight again.
Health & safety on the mountain
There are four rules if you want to stay overnight at a refuge & shelter hut this summer:
- Only visit the huts if you are feeling healthy.
- Bring your own face mask.
- Reserve a sleeping spot beforehand (online or by phone); without a reservation, you will not be able to stay overnight at a hut this year.
- Bring your own sleeping bag and pillowcase.
For further details visit the Austrian Alpine Club’s website.
“Of course nobody – including our staff – was happy about the situation when we told them about the lockdown and that we had to close temporarily and send our guests back home,” Tobias explains. But Tobias and Lukas describe their team like a small family. Having the right staff is the key to success at Alpine mountain lodges and huts. “Working up here, you will quickly realise that the imagination of mountain lodge romance has nothing to do with reality. That’s something you have to be able to cope with,” Lukas says. During the high season, five persons work side by side with Tobias and Lukas. This year, inn keepers of mountain huts are expecting that they’ll need fewer workers.
Established concept, new goals
Shortly after the lockdown measures were eased, optimism slowly started to come back. That’s what you’ll notice when you look at the inn keepers and staff. “We have to stay open-minded towards new paths and ideas,” Tobias explains. For himself, Lukas and the Lizumer hut that means sticking with their concept and just adjusting some screws, focusing even more on quality and not as much on quantity, and last but not least: staying authentic.
„Focusing even more on quality rather than quantity is more important than ever now. Staying authentic is the key.“
“Our goal is to attract those guests who know how to enjoy things,” Lukas explains. On the one hand, this refers to enjoying the culinary side – as a kitchen chef the cooperation with local cheesemaking cooperatives and farmers is paramount. On the other hand, the guests should also enjoy nature, the calmness, and the Alpine backdrop in a mindful way. Tobias’ motto is not to make a virtue out of necessity but out of the strengths which already exist. “If fewer guests stay overnight, we have more time for them. This way we can show more appreciation for each and every guest,” he explains. And that’s just what the concept looked like about a year ago before the world of tourism had ever heard of Corona: offering high quality without losing sight of the charming simplicity of a hut.
The focus is on regional products and dishes as well as local cooperations. The guests receive the Alpine mountain lodge experience they wish for. “Of course we will be focussing a lot more than before on hikers and visitors who just come for the day. We have amazing high trails for one-day tours. We want to and have to be an attractive destination for locals as well,” Tobias says, and Lukas agrees. Especially now during a time when many things are put to the test, inn keepers have the chance to position themselves on a local level, and Alpinist Associations have the chance to position themselves in society. What could that mean for the future? “We have to work on joint campaigns and build up an Alpine mountain lodge community,” Tobias says. “We have to stay in contact with our guests even after they leave.”
Inn keepers and craftsmen
How else has the Corona crisis affected inn keepers? “This here is the most prominent Corona effect we have had,” Lukas says pointing at the porch roof of the hut. Right under the roof there is a sink unit, a cutting tool, a pile of cut tiles, and the guiding rail of a portable circular saw. “We are reconstructing and converting some parts in order to offer new spaces outdoors. We have been doing a lot more just on our own,” Lukas explains. The last couple of days, they have been focussing on demolition work and drywall installations, they have changed the sink unit, have been laying tiles, and have been working on the outside area. It’s a kind of spring clean for advanced craftsmen. “We have been social distancing but have become a lot closer. The locals who are members of the Alpine Association all helped us,” Lukas explains. Solidarity and togetherness has become even more important and people appreciate it even more than before Corona. Lukas’ résumé: “The reason was something negative, namely the corona virus, but the common goal is something positive: a long-lasting and sustainable increase in quality.”