About Josef Kyselak
Pioneering tagger and Alpine mountaineer

Picture (cropped from a watercolour) of a rock inscribed with his name
  1. Who was Kyselak?
  2. The Austrian Kilroy
  3. Backpacking
  4. Leaving his mark
  5. His equipment
  6. Journey of 1825
  7. Attitude
  8. Death
  9. Reputation
  10. Links to more

Who was Kyselak?

Josef Kyselak (1799-1831) was a clerk of the lowest grade in a ministry in Vienna at the time of the Emperor Franz I, yet he has an entry in the 19th-century Austrian dictionary of biography. Immediately after his name, where the reason for his being selected is given (e.g. statesman, artist, nowadays footballer perhaps), it says ‘eccentric’.

The Austrian Kilroy

Kyselak was the Austrian Kilroy. He wrote his name in all sorts of places, especially inaccessible ones, on walls and buildings, on cliffs and church towers, caves and gorges. The name of this anonymous clerk was therefore, paradoxically, known throughout the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. Even today an internet search locates him in histories of graffiti as the first ‘tagger’.


He was also an early backpacker. He spent his summer holidays (at the time even minor civil servants seem to have enjoyed a generous two months) walking all over the Empire, unaccompanied, apart from one of his dogs, a wolfhound. He managed to get his account of one of these summer trips published: Sketches of a Journey on Foot through Austria, Styria, Carinthia, Salzburg, Berchtesgaden, Tyrol and Bavaria to Vienna (Skizzen einer Fussreise durch Österreich, Steiermark, Kärnthen, Salzburg,Tirol und Baiern nach Wien, 1829).

Leaving his mark

His journeys to all four corners of Austria-Hungary, leaving his name everywhere, often in places only a daring climber could reach, made him what we would nowadays call a legend in his own lifetime.

As with other legends, the popular imagination added Kyselak stories which really ought to be true. On a trip to South America, the scientist Alexander von Humboldt set a world record when he climbed almost to the top of Chimborazo, reaching a height of 19,280 feet – only, so the legend goes, to find Kyselak's name already written there.

When Kyselak defaced an Imperial building, the Emperor is said to have summoned him to the palace and ordered him to stop writing his name in public. After he left, Emperor Franz picked up the document he had been working on and – so the story goes – saw, written on his desk, the name Kyselak with that day's date. For a while in Vienna a stout pair of boots were known as ‘Kyselaks’.

His equipment

However stout his boots, they would not have had the sophisticated features we know today. They do not even seem to have had nails like the old tricounis; in his book he several times complains of slipping because of his smooth soles and often puts on his crampons, not just for crossing ice and glaciers, but on other slippery surfaces. At one point he came across young farm-workers in the high summer meadows who were also wearing crampons while cutting hay on a steep slope.

In his book he describes his equipment, which he kept to a minimum: a change of clothing including a pair of shoes, a telescope, tin water bottle, crampons, flint and tinder, lantern and candles, paper, pencil, maps mounted on linen squares so they could be folded up, a long, strong rope, a brush. (Presumably he also had the stencil he used to print his name and a pot of paint, but he doesn't mention those.) It all, he said, weighed 15 pounds, though it is not clear whether that included his rifle, which weighed six pounds, not counting powder and shot.

He kept his pack down to this weight because his intention was to walk at least six ‘miles’ each day. From distances he gives which can be measured on a modern map, this appears to be the old German mile of 7.4 kilometres. A daily average of getting on for thirty miles seems ambitious, even for a fitness fanatic who, we are told, toughened himself up by going out in all weathers, at all seasons, and at all times of the day and night. For a bet, he tells us, he once did ‘thirty German post miles’ (over 130 miles) in three days' continuous walking.

Journey of 1825

On the journey recorded in his book, Kyselak set off from Vienna on 12 August 1825. In order to get through the less interesting countryside as quickly as possible, he took a carriage to Bruck an der Mur and then a raft (itself not without its dangers) down the River Mur to Graz, where he started his journey on foot.

He headed west, up the valleys of the Drau and the Möll to Mallnitz, where the Alpine part of his trip started. He crossed the 2,500 m Hohe Tauern to Gastein, then continued north to the Salzach river almost to Salzburg. From Hallein he went to Berchtesgaden, then made his way south over the Steinernes Meer. He climbed the Hundskopftod (2594 m), only to be annoyed to see that the Watzmann was clearly higher. (He obviously had a strong competitive streak.) From Saalfelden he went south and west via the Gerlos Pass to the Zillertal, heading south, across glaciers, to Sterzing (Vipiteno) in the South Tyrol, until 1919 part of the Austrian Empire. The Jaufen (Monte Giovo) and Timmeljoch (Rombo) passes took him back north into the Ötztal, from where he crossed into the Stubaital and, eventually, came down to Innsbruck.

That was more or less the end of his ‘walk’. He bought a boat to go down the Inn into Bavaria. It was stolen, but he got it back. He walked from the valley of the Inn to Salzburg, took a barge down the Salzach and the Inn to Passau, where he got a boat back to Vienna. It was well into October, his summer journey had taken two months.

It is impossible to get a precise calculation of the distance Kyselak travelled, but a very rough estimate gives around 450 miles from Graz to Innsbruck, in something like six weeks. Since this included frequent climbs up to over 2500 m, crossing glaciers and snowfields ‘and occasionally being stuck in an inn for a couple of days because of heavy rain’ it was a considerable achievement, that would surely be a challenge for even today's marathon walkers.

He occasionally took a guide when he thought the route might not be clear, once, for example, when there had been a snowfall. In general, however, he avoided them. The locals, he says, only want to take the quickest way, not go up to the summits, they are more interested in smoking and eating than enjoying the beauties of nature, and know more about where to find the best game than the best views. He discovered too late that one guide he employed had taken the job because it gave him an opportunity to do a little poaching, in which a rather unhappy Kyselak was forced to help him. However, poacher or not, the guide had a streak of honesty: he refused payment because of Kyselak's assistance in getting the chamois. Another guide accompanied him for two hours, then disappeared, again without payment. The comfortable hotels, inns and even mountain huts today's visitors enjoy did not exist: Sölden, he says, was the only village with an inn in the whole of the Ötztal. As well as village inns, he stayed with mountain shepherds, in dairymaids' huts in the high summer pastures, sometimes sleeping rough in haybarns.

Even in the inns the ‘facilities’ were often primitive: a bed on a bench with straw was common; once he had a kind of duvet filled with moss. Generally he praises the kindness, honesty and trusting nature of the simple country folk, though once when he was spontaneously offered food and board he did wonder whether these generous folk were friends or robbers. He was genuinely worried one night, when he was locked in his bedroom and found blood on the sheets. He tied his dog to his foot to be warned in time, if a murderer should appear. However, the only blood he lost was that sucked by the many bedbugs that infested the mattress.

The reverse also happened. In his dishevelled state after several days in the mountains, with his torn and muddy clothing, and accompanied by a wolfhound, Kyselak himself was occasionally suspected of being a dangerous vagrant, attracting a crowd of curious villagers. He carried a passport to prove he was not some foreigner, even an illegal immigrant, perhaps.

Attitude to the country

Kyselak was a forerunner of modern tourism, which became such an important factor for the Austrian economy in the later 19th century. Despite his self-reliance, despite the fact that he felt at home in the mountains, he was very much the modern city-dweller; his attitudes were decidedly different from those of the local population, as in his Romantic rhapsodising about the wild country, which the locals merely saw as something to be ignored or endured.

Yet although his love of the wilderness made Kyselak a kind of Austrian John Muir, he also appreciated the economic needs of the local population. He comments approvingly, for example, on new roads, and points out that more summer visitors would provide a market for the locals' produce, the yield from which would allow them to improve their farming methods. At the same time, he has something of a modern environmental awareness, noting more than once that too many trees had been felled, allowing the soil to be washed away and exposing the mountain villages to the danger of avalanches.


This pioneer hill-walker died as he lived, deliberately courting danger. During the cholera epidemic of 1831, he insisted, despite medical advice, on continuing to eat fresh fruit, and refused to see a doctor when he contracted the disease. He died in October of that year, aged 32 (or 36, the encyclopaedias differ).


But his name lived on. Although he mostly wrote it using his stencil and paint, there are still places, including one in Vienna, where he carved it on the rock. He remained a figure of popular legend, though one writer saw him, and his daring climbing exploits, as something more. In a poem written around 1860, about the Aggstein, a ruin that stands on cliffs 1,000 feet above the Danube, the popular German author, Joseph Viktor von Scheffel, first describes the barbarous exploits of the medieval robber barons who lived there; then he spies something which he sees as a symbol of the more civilised modern age:

Horror-struck, I view this cruel
Relic of a cruel age.
But lo! On high there shines a jewel,
Token of our milder days:
Sheer above the dizzy fall
Stands the castle's jagged stack,
And the tower's topmost wall
Bears the name of — KYSELAK.