14 May 2012

Untersberg adventure hike

Danno and I had a full day to go hiking, which is unusual for both of us. It’s been an unusual spring, with lots of snow even at relatively low elevations. So we struggled to find a good destination. A few weeks before I’d wanted to hike up the Untersberg via the Dopplersteig, a kind of easy via-ferrata. But I was disuaded by serious warnings of cornices, avalanches and all kinds of mess. Now though, the warnings were removed because much snow had melted. It was okay…let’s go do it! Additionally, since we were ready for an 8 hour hike, I thought we could put together a “grand traverse” to reach Berchtesgaden, travelling from north to south along the Untersberg crest. Thanks to a good weather forecast, this should be a rip-roaring day, ending with a beer in Berchtesgaden and some kind of taxi back to our car in the early evening.

Danno came prepared with gaitors and good boots. I made an error (that I make over and over again) thinking that tennis shoes would be adequate. Still, we had a couple of pairs of gloves and extra warm layers knowing that we’d have a fair amount of snow to deal with. The good forecast meant that even though our hands might be cold and wet as we mucked around, our backs would be warm!

We hiked up in gloomy weather on a trail that didn’t fool around! The Dopplersteig starts climbing immediately, going in for long sections of wooden steps as it parallels a gorge full of waterfalls. We noticed many memorials (“Denkmals”) to the fallen along the wall, with sometimes poetic sometimes rather disturbing phrases (like “God wanted it….huh?”).

Joking about all kinds of things, we eventually reached snow cover in the open cirque below great cliffs of the upper mountain. We saw the tram lazily ascending above our heads. We stopped for some chocolate and noticed it was snowing lightly! Hmm.

We hiked to the base of the cliffs and started ascending stairs that wound ingeniously among them. The stairs and rocks were wet, making us take extra care on the ascent. The scenery must have been dramatic, could we see anything beyond the cloud we were in! But still, we enjoyed it. Emerging on the great plateau that makes up the west side of the mountain, we saw the summit buildings and started walking up, joking about Southern WWII sniper types who constantly mouth Bible versus. The sound of the freeway below caused me to term it “…a dishonorable, horrific manifestation of mans…”

When I stumbled for the next word, Danno said…“Hubris.” Har! Perfect. From then on the disturbed southern gentlemen would accompany us throughout the day :).

At the summit FunPlex, we found a hut to eat in and ordered a hot plate of Kaiserschmarm. Mmm..good! Later, I helped a woman down a snowfield by loaning her my poles to brace herself and gave an impromptu lesson on confident snow travel. I don’t think she was convinced!

Danno and I started walking south along the crest, trying to remain undeterred by the hut wardens confident assessment that it was “impossible” to reach the Mittagsscharte. Danno was worried about a via-ferrata which the map ominously indicated existed. (I didn’t find this via-ferrata in my book). It started snowing rather heavily, and we tried to keep our spirits up by playing with our gps-enabled phones. We lost the trail at one point, spending 10 minutes floundering around to regain the track. The GPS was really helpful there, in the snowy murk. Needless to say, the weather wasn’t turning out as predicted!

After a steep hike down, we attained the Mittagsscharte. “Wow, that was easy!” Still, deterred by the weather, we decided to try and leave the ridge here and start for the lowlands. Although the trail to the Berchtesgadener Hochthron appeared to be gentle, it was buried in snow for periods and we knew that could be expensive to find and maintain. Finally, without any grand views, motivation was understandably lacking!

So we headed down to the Toni Lenz Huette, planning to pass by the ice caves on the way. Our only concern was that this route took us through cliffs, and it was hard to tell exactly what that meant. Initially, we were pleased. We descended very dramatically through caves with windows, steep stairways and ledges blasted out of the rock. What amazing terrain! But later, we had to cross a steep snowfield lying across the trail. Initially, we tried to get on steep grass and scree underneath the trail, but this felt pretty insecure. Then we kicked steps across the snowfield. This was time-consuming and unpleasant. Our gloves were soaked and fingers cold. Without ice axes, the terrain was unnerving and required us to “over-kick” the steps to make them extremely bomber.

Once across (it’s still snowing by the way), we saw that there were a few more of these. Danno noticed that by taking the ice cave detour we might be able to avoid the worst of them. This was a great idea, and worked perfectly. A couple of tenuous moves on a remnant patch of snow later, and we were looking down on the Toni Lenz Huette.

But to get there would require more snow traversals or descent. “Ugh,” said Danno. I had to agree it didn’t look great. I was thinking optimistically though, as long as we could convert our hiking poles into primitive ice axes by removing the bales. Also, it looked to me like we could descent more directly to the hut. Below the hut, snow continued, but we saw tracks. At this point Danno made a prudent judgement call to return the way we came, because we couldn’t be sure that we wouldn’t hit more impasses below the hut. Monitoring available energy and time, this made sense. So we turned around forthwith.

Back at the steep snowfield, we took a few minutes to carry out the transformation of our hiking poles into “hiking spears” that would provide more security. This did turn out to help a lot, and it’s something good to remember if you find yourself dealing with snow without an ice-axe. Danno had two “spears,” and I went with one sharp rock and one spear. Danno bore the brunt of the effort. His hiking boots could kick better steps, so he led the traverse, while I had the easy job of following good steps. He did a great job, but it was tough. He responded by getting mad and powering through. Way to go man! This reminded me of my own first experiences on steep snowfields. It’s not easy to find security there, and really, there are no shortcuts….it takes repeated exposure across days and months before you can feel at home on that stuff. Danno was a real trooper!

Relieved to be done with that part, we quickly (tiredly!) hiked back up through the caves and got on the plateau. Visibility was better now, but it still snowed lightly. My GPS was getting low on battery…we just needed it to accomplish one more task: help us reach the Schweigermutteralm on snowed-over paths through confusing, humpy landscape.

Danno and I worked together to find and keep the trail. I kept veering off to the left, and he’d find a marker. We’d stick to it like hound dogs until another open area left room for interpretation. This was kind of fun, but a little stressful too, because we realized that if we lost the trail hopelessly, we might be forced back up to the Mittagsscharte, then forced to climb up another 200 meters to follow our path back to the lift station. Then we’d finally be able to start descending again. So it was all about keeping hopes up and making sure by looking around that we were never “lost,” but could always reverse course if needed.

Happily, it didn’t take too long until reaching the ski run that goes down to the Schweigermutteralm. At this point we knew we had no more uncertainties, and the “adventure” component of our trip could come to an end. Danno said with a sidelong glance, “so…you don’t even do hikes at all do you, in the sense of a relaxing short walk with all variables accounted for?” I had to admit that this was true! Unless the fambly is along!

We enjoyed the hike down the ski trail, though our knees didn’t have as much fun. We hiked up to the base of a cliff and sat in a deer blind for a few minutes. We kept going, talking about school, kids, college, etc. Later, we hiked a “shortcut” road that led us into yet another mini-adventure: we had to cross through a mine site with some impressive marble blocks. The bridge we expected to cross was destroyed, but new wooden planks provided a safe way across an elaborately decayed structure. Below, there was a yawning abyss with red-stained rock and waterfalls threaded by broken logs. The road came to an end and we found our way down an alarmingly steep cog-railway track that we surmised was used long-ago to lower marble blocks. Once in town, we walked tiredly through mundane streets to our car, back to the northeast.

What a day! Almost 12 hours long and almost constantly on the move. I actually like days like this but I can feel Danno glowering at me! We worked on navigation, snow, decision making. These are the classic skills of mountaineering, and nothing counts more in the ledger books that experience. We saw a lot of wild country and had effectively no one out on the trail with us. Alone in the clouds we created a story that tested us and (sometimes) entertained us. We’ve got the sore muscles to prove it!

Thanks to Danno for a fun time (really!). :)