Also posted to Summitpost here
I drove to Garmisch with a light pack. I brought hiking boots, aluminum crampons and an ice axe. In retrospect, it was a bit cold for light hiking boots! My camera was broken, but I expected to be in clouds all day anyway, so I didn’t mind leaving it (wish I had it in retrospect!).
Starting the walk from Hammersbach in the dark, I followed a few wrong trails, but finally got on the right track. As I hiked and listened to music it became light, and I reached the little building and mysterious set of doors into the mountain at the entrance to the Hoellental gorge. Though it was “closed,” I could step over the chain and go in. I knew that the authorities dismantle some of the bridges and walkways in the winter, but I hoped to be able to get by anyway. It was possible, but kind of interesting, as various “pieces” of the trail were missing. It’s not too hard to get by.
Above the Hoellentalangerhuette there was full snow, though at first tracks kept me moving pretty fast. I approached a massive cliff and wondered how to get through. But soon I was on the rock, carefully ascending ladders and crossing the famous “Brett,” where steel pegs allow you to walk across a blank and icy cliff face. The hut below looked increasingly like a toy.
Now atop the cliff, I entered a long zone of snowy terrain beneath the glacier, sometimes climbing short cliffs or hunting for tracks in the snow. I encountered a strong, chilling wind and for the first time saw beautiful plumes of blowing snow whirling around on the cliffs above. Anticipating exposure to stronger gusts, I hid in some bushes and altered my clothing. I put on a balaclava, glacier goggles, thick gloves, and a wind jacket over my sweater. Now as long as I could see, I could keep hiking. I put away the iPod, having truly left “casual ground” by this point!
Long, tedious hours of trail-breaking followed, which seemed to take me nowhere. Sometimes there was a crust, and just when I thought I could walk on top, it would collapse and leave me in a deep hole. I often went too fast, and had to look around at the walls, breathing hard. Very slowly, I approached the glacier, resolving to go between the two distinctive crevasse fields on the left and right. I was very happy to see I didn’t have to climb to the top of the glacier, as the fixed rope was only a short way above the crevasses on the right. As I approached, the glacier steepened, and my trusty ice axe protected the climb to a metal ladder on the rock. I had to be careful to avoid falling into the moat between ice and rock, though lots of recent snow made this fairly easy.
Once I climbed the ladder, I saw the cable traversing right, then disappearing in snow. It was a nervous session, kicking steps and searching for good axe placements above the cliff. Unfortunately, the snow was not very deep, so I was doubly disadvantaged: I couldn’t find the cable to hold on to under the snow, and I had to make do with shallow axe placements that would have a hard time holding me if my boot steps collapsed. At the same time, this was terrain where a fall is not allowed!
So I spent plenty of time verifying the security of each step, and my progress continued at the crawling pace I’d established on the snowy glacier. No matter: the sky was blue and I’d long ago gotten used to the gusts of wind and snow flurries.
However I nearly turned around when I couldn’t judge if the route continued traversing steep snow to the right or somehow went up cliffs. Continuing to the right looked very implausable, as my ramp faded away into the face. I wondered for a good while, then finally saw a portion of cable on rock above and right. Kicking steps up to it, I first made an over-eager attempt to climb snowy rock straight to the cable. Bad idea! I’d removed a glove for better grip on a small hold, only to realize there was nothing positive above for the final move. Fingers freezing, I climbed down and carefully dealt with the steep, breakable snow, grabbing the exposed cable with some relief. This turned out to be the mental and physical crux of the day, as cold extremities and uncertainty made me think of retreating. But now I could follow the cable on rock, with feet out of the snow and toes gradually unfreezing.
The cliffs at this point become ever more imposing, and my footsteps on the glacier below smaller and more toylike. What a strange place to be in the winter! I could see the summit cross for many hours, but it never got closer. Putting my mind firmly on my work, I kicked steps and secured myself with the ax over and over. When the cable was exposed, I could hold it and travel more quickly. After a long upward stretch, I could see the rest of the route to the summit block. It was probably a quarter-mile of traversing the cliffside, occasionally protected by cable. I continued slowly but securely, sometimes noticing people at the building on the summit looking at me. I must have been a tiny speck with a red helmet in a vast sea of snow and rock! I got a kick out of thinking that they might be amazed. But they were probably angrily debating taxpayer rescue costs should I get hurt!
Finally, rather tired after 7000 feet of climbing, I approached the summit. I was particularly stunned by the view down the long jagged ridge to the Zwoelferkopf. I believe Mat once climbed up by following that long ridge, which is really amazing. On the windy, cold summit I was amazed to see a teeming ski area on the other side, and a whole complex of buildings and lifts. I climbed down from the summit block, then up onto the large promenade platform of the building. It contained two restaurants, a hotel (the Muenchnerhaus), 3 gondolas, a museum, a gift shop and various other amenities. I admired the huge views and jagged peaks in every direction but north, where I saw the Bavarian lakes.
I gave up on hiking down, as it would be dark within 2 hours. A fellow climber named Daniel had come up the Reintal valley, and we became partners on the descent, buying the right tickets, then going down to the flats to wait for the train through the mountain. Long lines and crowds of skiers were wearying, but finally I was dropped off in Hammersbach and allowed to walk back to my car as the first fireworks of the New Year were set off.
A great trip, with good timing in retrospect. Folks have reminded me how dangerous the valley is when there is more snow, and large portions of the route are exposed to avalanche danger. Probably best to do it in early winter or wait until early summer. Happy New Year!