Daniel Arndt is a local climber who spent a few years in Washington State. On his web site he details several interesting trips he’s made since returning to Germany in 2005. We exchanged emails and he invited me for a spring climb of the Mittenwalder Klettersteig. Along with friends Claus-Dieter and Ursula, we set out from Munich loaded with gear and grimaced in anticipation of the taxing approach. For 13 Euros, we rode the Karwendelbahn 1000 meters up to the ridge in a grueling 5 minutes. “I feel so…embarassed!” I blurted. But none of us could deny how nice it was to be feeling fresh, kicking steps along the ridge to the south to reach the start of the Klettersteig.
The weather forecast wasn’t very good, and we were prepared to turn around if needed. Clouds came in and out, and after less than an hour contributed to an expensive wrong turn. We belayed the party on snow around a rock tower, then from a high point mistakenly thought we should make for a summit to the west. It was kind of funny - Claus-Dieter and Daniel had climbed the route one year before, and thought they recognized the distant summit. It shows that twisted rock ridges combined with drifting clouds can play with your memory and sense of direction even if you were there before! So we tried descending various couloirs and crossing little ridges, searching for a way down from a tower to reach that summit. Finally, we gave up and turned back, only to immediately find the right way thanks to a strong gust of wind which blew the local clouds away and revealed tiny ladders on the side of a peak to the south. Kicking ourselves somewhat for the mistake, the promise of easy travel ahead raised our spirits. Racing down ahead of the others, I reached a low pass then kicked steps across to ladders which led to a summit. I could see much of the Klettersteig ahead was snow free - promising quick travel, which was essential after the time we’d lost.
All smiles, we enjoyed winding among the ridges and goggling at the town of Mittenwald far below. Soon we came to a viewpoint down to a somewhat technical traverse we’d have to make around the Sulzliklamm Spitz. Looking at the time, and the somewhat deteriorated weather, Daniel suggested we could return and come back another day. Ursula and I though were especially keen to continue as long as it didn’t rain on us. It was telling that we were the only ones without direct experience of this traverse! Daniel and Claus-Dieter were okay with continuing though chiefly because of the snow-free state of much of the ridge, making travel potentially easier than they’d had the year before.
From a pass below the massive rock peak, Daniel belayed me out on snow for a long traverse. I went easily to a curious hut with a “no bikes allowed” sign on the door. The snow steepened beyond, so I wondered if I could use a beam of the hut for a sling to protect my followers. Hee hee, that would be awesome :-). Alas, I had to settle for a decent knifeblade in rock to the left.
The snow was problematic. It had snowed 5 centimeters a few days before, and I found myself dropping through sugary layers, especially near rock outcrops. After a second outcrop, the snow steepened above a bergschrund. I could only kick a step down to a certain level and if I stepped too heavily it would collapse again, seemingly exploding into water droplets. So holding my breath a little bit, I continued above the ‘schrund and finally reached safety on rock on the other side. The belay was bomber and easy to make - it was a piece of the klettersteig ladder sticking out of the snow! During the traverse my fingers in thin gloves had frozen and I cursed for several minutes while they came back to life. Man did that hurt! Ursula had my “ice gloves”, and I guess I should have taken them with me for this step-kicking kind of work!
Everyone else came along, and feeling better, I set off up and slightly left, but not left enough as it turned out. This snow was even worse if that’s possible. I started questioning the sanity of continuing because I was stomping out steps with no hope of arresting with my ice ax in case of a slip - the ax would just pull through several feet of sugar. I thought I should go more left, but I kind of shrank from the steep rotten snow over cliffs that way. At least my fall line was snow all the way down for now. Also, we saw a chimney above that might be the correct way. So I continued for it, breathing a sigh of relief with a good piton placement in another outcrop. The closer I got, the less correct it looked. “This is an easy klettersteig, there would be some kind of cable sticking out here, right?” I knew it was too dangerous to downclimb this snow, so I got onto rock, and gratefully straddled an outcrop that made a good belay. Daniel came up and fundamentally agreed that it couldn’t be the way. On belay, he explored to the left and concluded we were nowhere near the route. With our friends (especially Ursula) getting cold at the belay below, and time disappearing in great dollops, we rigged a rappel and retreated. Right away we reversed the traverse to the saddle, grateful for the sun there. But also mournful - our route hadn’t gone and we had a long and uncertain trip back.
In case you do it in winter or spring, this picture might be helpful for that section.
The problem was that we wouldn’t make it back before 4 pm, when the Karwendalbahn closed. A trail went down from there, very steeply. We’d seen it on the ride up, half buried in steep snowdrifts. We knew it wasn’t an option, especially after dark. Maybe we would have to stay there for the night?
At least the weather was nice. The sun had come out, and only the Zugspitz to the west remained in dark brooding clouds. “I’m glad we didn’t decide to climb the Jubilaeumsgrat!” said Daniel, as it had been raked and obscured all day. He also joked that we’d done the best part of this route anyway. A good face on retreat is a noble thing!
Back at the Karwendelbahn building, everything was closed and locked tight. We wondered about breaking a window but were all reluctant to actually do that. As it turned out though, there was another option to get down - a curious long tunnel leading to the Dammkar basin. It was a popular ski route, though not patrolled and possibly dangerous if avalanche conditions were bad. I started thinking - if someone can ski it - I can walk it! But Daniel had been that way before in snow, and remembered it as a grueling sufferfest of waist-deep snow. Our party had been on the move for many hours, and we might be too tired to successfully descend. At least here we could wait until morning. We went back and forth about it, feeling more or less committed to descend or to stay as we chewed the risks. But we still had daylight, and this made me feel determined to at least have a look. I thought that if we hurried, we could get down 500 meters or so before losing the light.
So I went into the curious tunnel and emerged 10 minutes later to find excellent conditions. I plunged stepped easily down 100 feet of snow, saw the dozens of ski tracks, admired the relative lack of steepness to the slope (compared to what we’d already been on!), and knew we could descend this way. Claus-Dieter came out and agreed. He went back to get Ursula and Daniel.
But as the light faded I lost patience waiting and hiked back up and into the tunnel. “Confound it!” I thought, stomping along. The delay was because Ursula had called the local mountain rescue just to get some information about the lift. We thought that someone was still in the building after seeing some chimney smoke, and wondered if the bahn could go up one more time. With the new information Claus-Dieter and I had about the safety of the descent everyone felt okay to go down, but now a rescue response was being discussed because of our information request! Naturally we tried to call this off, but were told that officials were meeting and couldn’t be disturbed. If we were to go down without getting confirmation that these officials knew that, then we could be liable for all kinds of damages or punishments. We were rather impatient to get moving as we watched the light turn from pink to blue, to darker blue while we waited for a return call. It never came, so Ursula got clever and called various other authorities who promised to rely that we were going to walk down. They informed us to stop at the Dammkarhut where we were expected. “Okay…now we can go!”
Once we were all bounding down the snow, Daniel was impressed by the huge change in conditions here from his last visit. Responsibly, he had worried about the risk of a tired party descending this way in darkness. But now he was pleased to see that conditions were much better than he expected. Now it worked out absolutely for the best: we were simply a late-returning party that was known about, and it was known which way we were going, and we even could have a drink halfway down at the hut.
The actual descent was easy and scenic in the dark blue light of the Dammkar valley. I had a radler (beer + lemonade) at the hut, and we talked with the caretaker for a while. She had to laugh on hearing we were from Munich - yet another bunch of would-be “mountain heros” coming out late.
We continued down on trail, talking about politics, culture and work. We reached the car at 11 pm, where I emptied a quart of water from each boot and sock. We enjoyed the warm and dry drive back to Munich. Thanks to Daniel, Claus-Dieter and Ursula for a good trip. Unfortunately her opinion of the whole thing was “…never again!” Well perhaps she doesn’t yet know the way mountain memories mellow and improve with age. :-).