Snowshoeing in the Allgaeu Alps
Also posted on Summitpost here
No big adventures here! Just a meandering account of an enriching weekend of snowshoeing in the friendly parts of the Allgäu Mountains…
Over the last few weeks it hasn’t snowed in the Tyrolean Alps, but continuing cold has kept the avalanche danger up at higher elevations. Lower, the snow is not very good. So we’d go to commercial ski areas. Finally I had enough…those places are just devoid of soul! So I went down to the storeroom and dusted off my snowshoes, lying unused since moving to Munich from Seattle. My friends only had one day available, and I was hoping to minimize driving and maximize mountain time, so I headed off alone Saturday morning to the Allgaeu mountains.
I left the car at the tiny village of Hinterstein and floundered around for 30 minutes trying to get off the valley floor. I made some wrong turns and was also thwarted by the iciest farming roads I ever saw. A constant cycle of freeze and thaw made beautiful translucent surfaces with nary a pebble or other helpful friction element in sight. Villagers in town were wondering what I was doing, always on the periphery of the village, meandering along. Finally I found the right road and started up the mountainside.
[img:375147:alignleft:small:In the Elpenalpe] [img:375142:alignright:small:Route to the summit]
I was going up Breitenberg, the northernmost (and lowest) peak of a chain including the Grosser Daumen (big thumb). The area has several popular via ferrata routes on the ridge crests. In the summer even the crests are a maze of latschen bushes, but it would feel alpine enough in the winter.
I thought my legs would be cold, so I wore an extra layer. Finally I realized I was going so slow because my legs were too constricted, so I set up a changing area under a tree then moved with pleasing alacrity after that. Already I suspected I’d see no one all day, and I was proven right.
Once beyond switchbacks in a steep forest I entered the Elpenalp, where snowshoes came in handy. Passing a hut, I broke trail up a ridge, finally following my nose steeply up to a crest that divided the Elpenalp into two parts. There was another smaller hut on this crest that I didn’t see until looking down from the summit. I made a long journey across the basin, keeping well below several avalanche zones with fresh deliveries. I wondered how I’d reach the ridge crest near the summit. The most direct slopes looked steep, plus they had cornices at the top. The safest way would be to contour far to the side and gain the ridge at the easternmost point. But I found an alternative that looked safe enough: a steep but short slope where I could hug the edge by mostly-snowfree rock. I could get on the rock if I didn’t like the snow. Once there, I thought the snow was okay, as it faced mostly south, and wet afternoon sluffs would be the principal issue. It was thrilling to climb in the sun and finally peek over the crest down to Bad Hindelang far below.
[img:375151:aligncenter:medium:Steeper peaks to the south]
Reaching the summit was exasperating, because the corniced crest required travelling on the north side, which was an ocean of unconsolidated, bottomless snow. Sometimes I reached a “dead end,” when I dug a pit for myself with no upward escape, and had to step back and try elsewhere to move up. Later, I stayed right on the crest unless cornices prevented it. The summit cross above me looked like some sort of inspirational poster.
[img:375145:aligncenter:medium:Summit of Breitenberg] [img:375149:aligncenter:medium:Panorama of Bad Hindelang]
I was pleased with the day on top. Although I was only on the lowest summit, and the beginning of a locally famous via ferrata, the Hoehe Gaenge, I’d had some good exercise, solitude and adventure. Time for hot tea! I thought about taking another way down to the west, but frankly it looked kind of “roady” down that way, and there would certainly be a long road walk to my car too. “No thanks. Me like snow.”
On the steep slope getting off the ridge crest, I flopped 160 degrees over and into a helpful snow hole. Happy that no one saw that, I continued the rest of the way uneventfully. I was thinking about what to do the next day, and the mountains to the north beckoned. I listened to music and wandered down happily.
Before reaching town I saw a sign for the Kutschenmuseum (carridge museum). Why not? It was free, and alone on a hillside outside of town. I wandered into what looked like a 100 square foot shack for one of the wierdest experiences I’ve ever had outside of the Mojave Desert. It was like a Michel Gondry video, or like that movie “In the Company of Wolves” from the 1980s, or something Edward Scissorhands would invent. Basically this strange man collected old horse-drawn carridges and sleighs between 100 and 200 years old, and set them up in a huge underground warren, also full of lifelike stuffed animals of the forest. Bizarre lighting effects, mannequins in fur coats, and classic “Euro New Age” music added to the air of unreality.
I was getting a sense of this place as somewhat forgotten, at least in the winter. Nothing so strange could survive in the usual centers of commercial recreation. There are not many ski lifts, and none in this cold valley. As the weekend continued, this impression would be strengthened. I thought about the “old alps” and the “new alps.” The latter is just a layer over the former, which could still peek through in places. Anyway, I liked the Kutschmuseum.
Back in town I looked for lodging, which should have been easy because it looked completely empty. But the only vacancy was a room for 70 euros…no way! So I had to drive down the road to Bad Hindelang where after an hour of fruitless searching I settled for a 40 euro room. Should have brought my sleeping bag I guess. But I took a walk above town in the sunset and got some nice pictures.
[img:375134:aligncenter:medium:Bad Hindelang at sunset.]
A good greek restaurant provided dinner. After dinner I met Helga and her husband, retirees and guests of the house. Helga spent twenty minutes with me pouring over the map, guessing about good hikes and climbs with the enthusiasm of someone fifty years younger. In fact they had made a long cross-country ski journey to the Schwarzenberg Hut in the back of the valley that day. We had a great time, and she helped me choose what I’d do the next day. Also, her husband offered to give me a ride to the trailhead that allowed me to make a loop trip without several miles of road-walking.
[img:375143:alignright:medium:Looking back on the previous day’s terrain] In the morning, after the aforementioned ride to the trailhead, I hiked away in the crisp dawn. leaving Hinterstein for the Willersalp. A very icy trail kept things interesting, though I reveled in the peek-a-boo views of mountains through sparse trees as the trail rounded the mountainside. At the snowy alp, I saw a hut and smelled smoke. Maybe it’s open? Sure enough, it was, and I heard movement upstairs. I went up and said hello to the hut warden. He made me two cups of tea and we talked about the hut, the mountains and the town. He said they use horses to stock the hut, rather than build a lift. He said hardly anyone comes by on winter weekends, though recently some people planned to build an igloo and eat in the hut. Apparently they didn’t get it built before dark, so retreated to the hut for lodging! It was a great conversation, and I really appreciated his committment to keep to the old ways. He said the valley is special because it’s overlooked by the modern skiing industry.
Above the hut I was thankful to have some tracks to follow, as well as a frozen crust which sped up my journey to a pass that marked the Austrian border, and a little peak called Zirleseck. Here I met a skier coming up from the north. It was my first contact with anyone on the trail for the weekend. I walked over to say hello and he stopped me in my tracks by saying “watch the ski trail!!” Uh-oh, I had walked across the ski tracks that he wanted to use with my snowshoes! Once I’d been made to behave he volunteered that my idea of walking to Oberjoch over the mountains wouldn’t work because there are rocky sections in the way. I left him waiting for some friends and continued west on the ridge crest to Ponten. Soon I was kicking steps in deep snow for a few hundred meters to the summit. Once I stepped on a ski track again and thought I could hear him admonish me from far away.
[img:375156:aligncenter:medium:The way to Ponten] [img:375153:aligncenter:medium:Ponten’s summit]
Ponten was a nice summit, although crowded with skiers from Schattwald. I left very quickly, starting a traverse to B’schiesser along the western ridge. A dozen skiers were in the valley below, coming up to climb one peak or the other. I traversed the north side of the ridge slope, surprised at the depth of the snow and the several layers of different strength that existed. It had been a cold month, and not much consolidation had occurred. Below a moderately steep access gully for B’schiesser I started kicking steps, tempted to just follow the short switchbacks made by the skiers, but I knew a chorus of boos would rain down on me! As the only snowshoer in the range, I had to tread softly! [img:375155:aligncenter:medium:B’schiesser across the ridge]
I took off snowshoes and wallowed up the steep slope, which was a full body contact sport. But the snow yielded to my advances and finally I was on the summit ridge. I found a few nice waist deep snow holes, but finally I was there, enjoying the view to the Tannheimer Valley, but especially interested in the west, where my last summit lay if I chose to accept it. The prudent thing to do now would be go down to the south into the Zipfelsalpe, or north to Schattwald. But the former seemed too short, and the latter would mean lots of road walking, so I looked at Iseler looming directly west. I tried to memorize the trail I’d have to break through indistinct light forest on a long leftward traverse from a broad windswept saddle.
As I went down to this saddle (the Stuibenalpe), I was amazed at the harsh wind. It had scoured about 30% of the slopes clear of snow, revealing forlorn brown grass. I wanted to rest and drink some tea there, seeking in vain for a spot out of the wind before giving up. So I took off, following elk or deer tracks to the southwest and uphill. [img:375152:aligncenter:medium:The way to Iseler] When the deer seemed to meander and decide to head down into the Zipfelsalpe, I started switchbacking up the broad slope, still a bit northeast of Iseler. I tried to be crafty about where I climbed. Little hummocks in the shade had deeper snow, and were best avoided for the rounded edges of the hummocks, which were more exposed to the wind, therefore colder and more likely to hold my weight without exhausting post-holing. Finally Iseler came into sight around a corner. I wasn’t even sure if it was climbable, as the north ridge looked short but steep. I got closer and decided I could do it. On the ridge I could look down into a new valley: Oberjoch, with it’s several ski lifts. [img:375129:aligncenter:medium:Dramatic summit block of Iseler] Kicking steps to the summit, I loved the complete solitude over here. I sat down and finally got my long-promised hot tea. From the summit ridge on the other side, a steep and apparently bottomless snow slope led down to the lifts. Skiers scraped along, not looking to be having much fun on the ice. I chose to follow a “Nordic walking trail” down through the area, but I had to laugh at the numerous deep postholes people had experienced in boots. It got pretty ridiculous, it was the “Nordic postholing trail.” Later I bombed straight through young forests to avoid long switchbacks on a road. At the Untere Ochsenalpe, I followed an icy track down to Bad Hindelang, turning off at a sign for the “Cafe Polite,” which sounded nice. I got there just a bit before dark, and quaffed a well-deserved Radler and ate a hearty portion of Kaiserschmarm. A regular in the hut couldn’t believe I did three summits, and told everyone I was a “profi,” Basking in my new reputation as a wizened wizard of the mountains, I tried to look flinty and tested. The waitress mistook this for indigestion and pointed out where the bathroom is. Later a man came in with his friendly dog who we all petted. I left and was admonished not to be a stranger and come back! “Good people,” I thought, now feeling my way in the dark down to Bad Hindelang.
It seems like there is a little easter egg at the end of each day, and this time it was a collection of enormous hot air ballons arranged in a circle on a field below the town. To blasting “Euro-inspirational” music, the balloonists fired their burners in rythmic bursts, resembling a pod of communing aliens from a distance. After getting lost on the edge of town (again), I paraded the main street, secure in my knowledge that as a “profi” of these hills I belonged there.
For this weekend I thank my trusty snowshoes and new friend Helga!