Slow but Steady

Gustl Fraedrich is a ski instructor at Alpinschule Innsbruck and works there in-house as a trainer for hiking guides. On his tours, he takes groups of around 12 people on week-long hikes through nature. Not just on his own doorstep but all over the world. However, since COVID-19, the world is no longer instantly accessible – but perhaps the location of the hike is not as decisive as one would think?

Where do the “great outdoors” truly begin? And shouldn’t it at least feature a few mountains?

You’ll laugh, but I’ve even done a guided hike around Hamburg during a clients’ day with a partner travel agency. We generally do guided tours wherever you can walk. That means that you don’t always need mountains, because you can also walk on flat land. But hilly landscapes are certainly big favorites, like the Alps or island destinations like the Canary Islands, Madeira, or Mallorca.

The Coronavirus has made it difficult to travel to the ideal walking spots. Has it affected hiking in general?

People can go for walks everywhere, whether it’s on their doorstep or mine. Naturally, people tend to think it’s more interesting elsewhere, wherever they may live in the world. From my perspective, coastal paths, the ocean, and surrounding nature seem more exciting because I don’t have much experience with it. Conversely, people who live in the North consider mountainous regions to be the ultimate hiking dream. The crisis may have changed many things, but what’s important is to get back up again after being knocked down. We can all learn to take things a bit slower, while still heading toward the goal, step by step. And that’s where the parallel to hiking comes in because with walking equally, you can only reach your goal by putting one foot in front of the next.

slow and steady at the Austrian Alpine school

“With each step closer to the pinnacle, your problems are one step further away.”

So what is it about hiking – the essence – if the places, the landscapes, are not the decisive factor?

Hiking has a lot to do with peace, energy, and resilience. The end game is being in harmony with oneself. There is this beautiful saying: “With each step closer to the pinnacle, your problems are one step further away.” There is only one drawback – like with everything in the world – at some point, you do have to return to the valley. That means that your problems will always catch up with you. But during the ascent to the summit, it makes sense to foster a feeling of harmony with a so-called meditative walking rhythm, which means I switch off. I meditate.

When you’re with a group too?

Within the group, I am naturally the tour leader, and so I have a role and responsibilities that I have to fulfill, so naturally, I am more focused. Nevertheless, I do try to attain that state and pass it on and share it with my guests. I also explain the whole thing to them, both from a technical and an esoteric perspective. Naturally, there are also the classic parameters that are important for participants: the weather should be nice, the route varied and suited to the fitness levels and mood of those taking part. And if we are walking in the mountains, an extended break at an alpine hut is a must. If I am out hiking alone, that isn’t really important to me. I prefer the weather to be a little unpredictable. If it’s raining, stormy, or even better, snowy, there is so much more to get to grips with in terms of yourself. The best thing about the day is when you return home from the equivalent of a hard day’s work. Because quite a lot happens on an action-packed walk, internally as well, and it’s a great feeling to return home and realize that you really don’t need that much to be content: a roof over your head, a hot shower, dry clothes, and a cup of tea. To put it simply – you feel reborn. 

Trail Running over rocks and mountain river in Jack Wolfskin gear

Meditative is not a term that springs to mind immediately in connection with a Tyrolian alpine school.

I agree. Today, however, it’s much easier to work with these terms than ten years ago.  

Did you find the meditative aspect of hiking by chance, or did you consciously seek it out?

It is no doubt something that I generally sought to attain. But using hiking as a tool helped me to find better access to it. Most people in this field discovered their love of hiking in their childhood. Perhaps the difference is that things used to be much harder, and through this meditative methodology, the summit has come a lot closer.

The entire trend in hiking has become more accessible. Hiking has become more diverse and colorful, as you can see from the fashion. It’s become revitalized. It’s not just something old people do anymore. It’s cool, an adventure. It’s written about and features in social media posts. Walking has also become more accessible, interactive, and safe through new apps and maps. Even if you want to travel individually, all the information is available at your fingertips. Hiking has generally become more dynamic. 

I concentrate on something, on my rhythm, on my breathing, on my steps, and then finally on the path I am taking.

When you walk routes that you already know well and your thoughts start to turn to problems and get sidetracked because you know the way without thinking, how do you deal with it?

If I start to think too much, I just count my steps. Not from start to finish, from one to a million, but like in a marching band: 1,2,3,4 1,2,3,4. Only to return to the state where you stop thinking. I concentrate on something, on my rhythm, on my breathing, on my steps, and then finally on the path I am taking. Naturally, that’s easier said than done, but with practice, I don’t really have to watch my step because I regularly scan the path and could theoretically close my eyes for the next three steps. But anyone can learn this feeling of surefootedness, even in an urban environment.  

man standing in teh Austrian Alps on a rocky mountain with blue sky and snow on its hills

You can simply set yourself a few pointers and walk through a park. First, you look at the path you want to follow, memorize it in your mind’s eye, and then set off. When you’ve hit the first point, then on to the second and so on. That’s really important for training your surefootedness. I also recommend that to my guests. Sometimes there are participants with us that are not as fit as they could be for various reasons. When they get to that point of no return, I advise them to concentrate on this classic march. Then, usually, they can overcome the challenge.

So, in a sense, you are the teacher, and the guests are your students?

I would say I’m a hobby psychologist (laughs). Yes, I think that’s bang on. But naturally, there are situations where people don’t want any help, and I would never force that on them. 

Where does a hike start? What should you always have with you?

The hike starts with the planning. You should always think about where you want to go. What do I need, how do I pack my things? That heightens the anticipation. What will happen on the way? Perhaps you can already imagine it. That’s useful, also in the case of an emergency. Naturally, equipment is important, but what I find much more interesting is the actual planning. In terms of packing, one change of clothes is essential. A lot of people underestimate that. There is nothing better and more comforting than pulling on a fresh T-shirt when you’ve made it to the mountain top, all hot and sweaty. It’s good for the body’s self-regulation, and you have more joy in what you are doing. The logical outcome is you have much more strength and energy to continue on your path.

Mountain Guides in the forest dressed in Jack Wolfskin outdoor clothes