A hike for the soul: finding perspective on the summit of Kanisfluh
How an incredible sunrise hike to Kanisfluh mountain in Vorarlberg, Austria was exactly what this weary traveller needed - plus the information you need to hike the Kanisfluh yourself!
The sound of the alarm pierces through the darkness of our hotel room. An impolite shriek, it jolts us both awake, disoriented and panicky.
I roll over, smacking my elbow on the bedside table, hard, in my haste to halt the offensive sound from my phone.
Swearing, I groan into my pillow.
It’s 3:15am, and any peace is well and truly gone.
We arrived yesterday afternoon to Vorarlberg, a slice of alpine beauty in Austria's west, to spend a week exploring the mountains in summer. That begins this morning with a sunrise hike to the Kanisfluh, the famous massif that towers over the Bregenzerwald.
I reluctantly peel myself from the cocoon of our warm bed while the question of why I chose this insane career of travel writing/photography flits across my mind.
After all, sure, watching sunrise from a mountaintop sounds amazing when organised months ago - but it definitely doesn’t translate as well when you’re running on just a few hours sleep and you’re about to hike up a steep mountain. In the dark.
And yet, I remind myself with a sigh, so far every early start and crazy adventure has always ended up being worth it.
Mercifully, thanks to a little foresight (aka Mark’s encouragement) my clothes were laid out ready the night before, but gritty-eyed and clumsy-limbed, I quickly give up trying to lace my boots and instead clutch them in my hands as I pad down the hotel hallway in my thick socks.
Our meeting point is the carpark across the street, which is lucky considering we've somehow managed to arrive late, as per. There are quick greetings with the the rest of this group also crazy enough to be making the trek - two families on holiday from across the German border - before being bundled into cars and transported the 10 minute journey to our hike's start.
If our guide is feeling the early start, there’s no trace of it. She’s warm and smiley and looks like she could probably run to the summit twice without even breaking a sweat.
She also only speaks minimal English, while our broken high-school German isn’t likely to get us too far past the basics. It's a language barrier that suits us fine for now though; an early start and four hours of sleep means we’re not really in the mood for chatting just yet anyway.
Eventually, it’s time to lace up the boots, flick on the headlamps, and begin the 680m ascent in single-file silence.
The first few steps feel like the beginning of a heart attack.
We can’t see a thing, save for the dim light of our headlamps (of course, mine is already dying), and the only sounds are that of a faint wind rustling through the grass and the echo of cowbells, presumably attached to a herd nearby that we can’t currently see.
The hike is steep and unrelenting, my muscles aching and stiff, and I have to focus on the basic mechanics of walking to keep my mind from wandering back to thoughts of the cosy bed we’ve left behind.
One careful step, then another, and another.
A steady breath, a calm exhale.
This is where I’ve always found my peace in hiking. In the meditative rhythm that each footfall brings, like a wheel turning over and over. Heck, that's why i've hiked both the Annapurna Circuit and Mt. Kilimanjaro.
Plus, as a tech-reliant millennial who struggles to focus on anything for more than about five minutes (stereotype? It's my truth!), a good hike in nature has become my own form of mindful meditation.
Modern distractions removed, surrounded by life-giving trees and clear air, and with no options but to continue moving forward, hiking is simply the most calming state I’ve found.
It's also the only place I've found where I can really think - like, delve into the deeper parts of my brain and process my thoughts kind of think - without the interruption of the ding of an email, or the escape of a quick social media scroll.
Ironically, this is actually probably a well-timed hike, I realise with a laugh; there's been a lot on my mind lately.
Our trip to Vorarlberg had arrived at a time when we were feeling generally pretty burnt out, lacking confidence and creativity, and definitely missing any real appreciation for travel.
Most people travel for an emotional reason. To celebrate, to escape, to ‘find themselves’, to appreciate their lives or the world more. That new appreciation for people and places is what’s always drawn me to it myself.
Yet over the last few months, our own travels had become solely about work and deadlines.
When your greatest passion morphs into a frantic mess of 18+ hour days, bouncing from one stressful job to another, late night emails, and often sleeping just 4-5 hours a night to (barely) keep up, the doubt, and dislike, really creep in.
I hadn’t actually been able to stop and appreciate my surroundings in months, and it had left me feeling pretty numb to travel generally.
In fact, more than once in the last few months, I’d genuinely pondered whether this was the life I truly wanted for myself.
This last point is what consumes me as we weave our way up the side of the mountain; a distraction from the burning in my legs as we climb higher and higher.
By the time we reach the halfway point and pause for a much-needed water break, I’m so lost in my own mind that it’s only then that I realise first light has begun to brighten our path so much that our headlamps are almost redundant.
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The Valley below us is emerging in the half-light and it’s breathtaking.
Imposing limestone mountains slope down to meadows full of wildflowers and the grazing cattle we heard but couldn’t see earlier.
Quaint villages - including Au, where I hope a parallel universe version of myself is still comfortably tucked up in our hotel bed, fast asleep - dot the landscape, and various trails criss cross all over the range, beckoning other curious adventurers to their paths.
Before long, our water break is over and it’s back to the trail. I fall back into the trance of hiking again; one step, and another, a scramble up steep rocks here, a pause for breath there.
The Kanisfluh summit teases us from above; always seeming to move further from reach the closer our tired legs get to it.
Finally, an hour later, we scramble up the last of the incline to the summit. We’ve made it.
I’m not a morning person by any stretch (obviously), but when I actually manage to do it, I’ve always found something special in being awake before the break of day, particularly in the mountains.
Today is no different.
Above us, a blood red sun is forcing its way through thick cloud cover. Below, light creeps across the valley floor, illuminating it into a colourful mosaic.
In the middle, there’s us: sitting quietly atop a mountain, surrounded by limestone giants, taking it all in.
On this cloudy morning, the sunrise itself isn’t even particularly epic, but there’s warmth on my face and sheer beauty surrounding me, and the intensity of it all is overwhelming.
The awe bubbles up in my chest, before escaping with a sob that takes me by surprise.
At first, I'm not sure if it's the early start or the physical fatigue that's caused my eyes to well up.
But then it strikes me; this actually the first time we've been able to stop and feel our travels in such a long time; to feel insignificant in the presence of enormous mountains, or humbled by a landscape - or deep gratitude to be standing above the Bregenzerwald, on this particular morning, watching the world wake up around me.
These are the moments I've been missing - no, desperately craving - from our travels lately, and I drink it up. I want to savour this scene forever.
Our guide catches my eye. "Sehr schön," she smiles. I laugh, and nod. Sehr schön indeed.
I have a feeling that long after the aches and pains have faded away, this hike in Austria - and the rejuvenation it's brought - will stay with me for a long, long time.
Our trip to Vorarlberg arrived at a time when we were feeling a little lost.
But standing on the sure shoulders of million-year-old giants, it turns out that a simple hike in these Vorarlberg mountains is exactly what we needed.
How to get to kanisfluh
Kanisfluh is neatly wedged between two towns in the Bregenzerwald region; Au and Mellau, and can be accessed from both. Check this map of the Bregenzerwald area for more information.
Kanisfluh hike - the details
THE KANISFLUH SUNRISE HIKE
Sunrise hikes depart from Au at 3:30am between early June to mid-October. This hike can be organised either at your hotel (we stayed at Hotel Rössle) or at the tourist information centre next door.
Location | Meeting point is the Au Schoppernau Tourism Office
Trail | The hike begins from the Alpe Öberle parking lot, before winding right up to the massif
Duration | 4 hours
Cost | Free for guests staying in Au, €20 for others
Tips | Pack for all seasons, bring a head torch, bring water and a small snack, don't litter
where to stay in au
For stays in Au, we highly recommend staying at Hotel Rössle, a beautiful family-owned hotel nestled in a romantic village, with envy-inducing Scandi designed rooms and delicious traditional restaurant food.