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The day before

Something neat about the Watzmann Ostwand (“east wall”) is that it starts at the same elevation as my hometown of Munich, about 2 hours drive to the west on the great Bavarian plain. Usually, when you climb a mountain it’s understood that you drove up about a thousand meters or more into them before lacing your boots. And then, the Watzmann is pretty high for such low footings. Of course there are no glaciers, but you definitely get up into the rocky zones above the stubborn latschen shrubbery.

There was a perfect weather window on Wednesday. Girding my mind for the arduous approach to the little hut at the base of the wall, I plunked down 8 euros for the car park, made the short walk through touristville to the boat dock, paid another 7 euros there, then, strangely still full of energy after the grueling 30 minute boat ride, paid a waiter in the St. Bartholomae restaurant the 9 euro fee to stay in the hut. As I sipped my beer at the evening meal, seemingly reserved for East Wall climbers (Ostwandaspiranten) as the tourists had already caught the last boat, we sized each other up.

“First time on the wall?’ I was asked.

“Yes, indeed!” I replied. Knowing looks and grunts. Most likely, a decision was reached that I’d have to be rescued by everyone else. Everyone clammed up and sipped their beer silently.

I get this treatment a lot. For those of you who know me, I tend to look like a wild-eyed innocent, blinking around naively at the world. It’s partly true, just because if I’m not entirely innocent, I sometimes wish I was, and for me the idea of enthusiasm is bound up in this approach. But it does nothing to convey any kind of faith in my skills or experience, so I perpetually get dubious looks. Especially in the German world, where a strong frontal appearance, a sort of “bulwark” about the face, neck and shoulders is a minimum requirement to be seen as competent, capable, all those ideas that project strength. To hell with it!

We slept in the Watzmannlager, which was very comfortable. I had explored up to the Eiskapelle the evening before, it’s about a 45 minute hike past a church up into the glen behind St. Bartholomae. I would have liked to have gone further, setting foot right on whatever barely discernible trail might climb the wall left of the permanent snowfield that makes up the Eiskapelle, but I needed to get back to make the 6 pm roll call for admission to the hut. A quick dinner of Wienerschnitzel and fries and I was off to bed. Everyone planned to get up around 4 which sounded good to me. I had my own room in the lager, possibly because I warned that I had a reputation for snoring!

The Berchtesgadener Weg — <img align=right src=””>In the darkness, I walked by everyone pretty quickly but then ran my boat aground on the shoals of insufficient knowledge. Near the Eiskapelle, with cold wind and the loud sounds of rushing water coming off it’s snowy flanks, I stopped and waited for more headlamps to appear. I’d lost any kind of trail, and started to wonder if I was going up off route. Here, Stefan and Andy appeared, walking steadily but sedately along a hidden trail. I scrambled up to it and followed them on a steep but reasonable journey through pitch black and tendrils of mist. Then I went ahead through a gully and promptly lost the route on the other side. I was exploring one of three possible trails that could be the route, when Stefan and Andy plodded by, pointing out the right way by example. I climbed down from an improbable perch to join their line.

We walked a steep and narrow trail for a while, making good progress, then it started to get light very slowly. Everything was soaking wet, my clothes included once we’d passed through a few brushy sections loaded with water droplets. We came to the feuchte Platte (“damp slab”) with a short hard move. Stefan pointed out a beer-stein handhold in an overhang of rock at the top of the short slab. This made the move very easy. I began to realize Stefan must be a guide! We reached an open area where the next stages of the route could be seen. Stefan pointed to a light white patch in the dark rock above. The idea was to follow a ramp up to that patch, then continue on the ramp up to a bright white patch at the Wasserfallwand, then turn up and right on another ramp system. Ultimately, this ramp should lead to the Gipfelschlucht, a long gully coming down from about 2300 meters where the bivouac box was set up.

That was enough for me to head off in front again. I crossed a stream and got some fresh water, then traversed a broad basin until it was time to start climbing up and left on the ramp. Here the terrain offered consistently grade II climbing with a few harder steps. I saw the first bolts and pitons along the way. I tried to stay on dry rock, but often I had to cross slabs running with water. Occasionally, I’d chose a steeper but drier way to overcome those sections, following the adage that when soloing sometimes the more secure way is the harder one. By the time I approached the Wasserfallwand, Stefan and Andy had arrived, belaying short pitches. I was at a crux pillar on the slab, threading between sections of running water. Stefan pointed out an easier way along his line, but it was a bit far away. For the first time I had to do a real climbing move with considerable exposure! I hesitated. “Do you want the rope?” asked Stefan, kindly.

“Nah, thanks though,” I said. I quit dilly-dallying and mantled onto the pillar with a couple of tiny smears for feet. From here, a couple of laybacking moves up and left, then right got me to more pleasant terrain. Everything had to be tested carefully. The urge to just yard on something and get through the steep slab was huge but I had to fight it in favor of a climbing style that distributed weight among all four limbs. I was wearing ordinary tennis/jogging shoes and had felt their limitations on that pitch. I resolved to switch to my rock shoes the next time there was such a move!

Now up and right through gullies of grade II, moving away from the sound of water. Eventually my route description showed a variation, you could go left on grade III slabs or right which might be a little easier. Stefan had said they’d take the right path. I went with the left this time, crabbing up and left, traversing many runnels and climbing short walls. I enjoyed this slab much more than the previous one, because it was bone dry and there were regions of very good holds. I passed some bolts which showed me I was on the right track. Now I was enjoying myself! I took a fantastic picture of Andy and Stefan on their line off to the right here.

Life is good, keep climbing! The mists swirling around the upper mountain had finally dissipated, and the sight of gray and black rock towers against a cobalt blue sky comforted me. Below, a thick cloud sea filled the cirque. I wondered if we’d ever see the other three parties emerging from that? I felt like the crux of the climb had been well passed…that lower half of the route with all the wet, darkness and cloud is a bit of a labyrinth.

I reached the base of the Gipfelschlucht, marked by a huge crumbling pile of snow blocks, the result of avalanches over the winter and spring. Here my instincts failed me again. Looking at the topo, I believed I should climb into the narrowest part of that gully and follow it up to the bivouac. Once I’d scrambled above the snow blocks, I began climbing pretty steeply in a smooth “V” formation, stemming and occasionally sticking to one wall or another. But the terrain above looked even steeper and quite intimidating. Was I in the right place? As usual, no.

Looking down, I saw Stefan and Andy walk sedately over the snow blocks, then turn up and right on a hidden trail that I would have described as being so far out of the Gipfelschlucht as to be a different route. But this was the right way, and I realized I suffered from a problem of scale. Used to reading route descriptions for smaller routes, I took everything literally. But the intent of this topo was to show me a broad feature (the Gipfelschlucht) that should be used as a guide while maintaining an overriding concern to always go the easiest way.

It took me some time to climb down, but eventually I was on the correct line, now far behind Stefan and Andy. “Live and learn, or not!” I muttered. Later, moving easily up runnels and blocky faces I had a chance to look down into the channel I had tried to climb. I shuddered! It would have been a long, smooth journey, marked by several bulges that had to be climbed around on slabs, perhaps underclinging the bulge. I’d estimate that the climbing in there reached IV+ or V-, if followed completely.

Together, the three of us arrived at the bright orange bivouac box, seemingly now sponsored by Salewa. Stefan pointed out a bench there with a dedication to a guy who had climbed the route 250 times! Since the bench was made, he’s completed another 200 times, and he’s going for a total of 500 times! The man is 71 years old. I reckon he’ll manage it…very impressive!

I set off ahead again, this time with no illusions that I could maintain my lead! There were just too many ways to go wrong. But I found the left-leading gully 70 meters above the hut, then correctly exited to the right at the appropriate point to enter the obvious Ausstiegskamine (“Exit Chimneys”). Here would be longer sections of grade III climbing, culminating in a III+ step just below the summit. There were 500 meters to go. I decided my feet could handle rock shoes for that long, so I changed into them.

Now I had a very enjoyable run of climbing in the chimney, with stemming, slab climbing, liebacking, even a hand jam or two. The scenery was fantastic, now I was among giant peaks, with swirling clouds far below and occasional glimpses of the Koenigsee. The rock was solid, warm and generous. I made my final wrong turn as the chimney feature seemed to dissipate into a broad, loose face. Looking at my topo, it appeared the III+ crux should be up and left, with a way to avoid it by going around to the right. I seemed to be at that point now. So I hunted up and left on loose but steep rock for the line. While I systematically explored 3 different options, you guessed it, along comes Stefan and Andy! They simply walked beneath me, and off to the far right. “Does that lead to the easier exit?” I asked. “No, no,” said Stefan.

Slowly and carefully, I climbed down the pile of loose blocks I’d somehow got atop of, traversed over to their trail, and followed up to the crux. A metal handhold was installed here, which seemed strange, but once in the move I saw why it had been done. In fact, the move itself without the handhold is more like IV- or IV. Since I had rock shoes on, I could figure it out without having to touch the point of aid (did I come all this way to have to rate my ascent III/A0, no!). It was quite thrilling, there is a lot of exposure beneath!

I went ahead again for the last time, scrambling easily to the summit. I was grateful that these guys did the climb today and was certain that my ascent would have taken hours longer without being able to see where they were going several times. They came up, we took pictures, shook hands, and before I headed off for the long traverse to the Watzmannhaus, I rang the bell and whooped, as Andy told me I should do. They would descend to the south.

Traverse of the Watzmann summits

I met many people in via ferrata (german: Klettersteig) gear on the long traverse to the middle peak up, over and around subsidiary towers. It took more than an hour to the middle peak, and it was two hours by the time I reached Hocheck. I was getting tired, having racked up about 2300 meters elevation gain to this point, and thinking about the fact I’d have to descend all of it back to the car at Koenigsee!

I alarmed a few people along the way, for two reasons. Between Hocheck and the middle peak, there were folks in via ferrata gear who clearly felt they were on the absolute outside arc of extreme adventure up here…dogmatically clipping and unclipping from the cable that ran between the summits, and, probably on the move for quite some time, were feeling exhausted by the continued requirement to down climb something, generally harder than going up. One nice young lady was very disturbed to see me come waltzing along without gear, balance across a steeple-top roof, jump to the cliff where she was attached, then, in order not to disturb her, climb an exposed slab off to her side. “But the cable is over here!” she cried. “Ach, that’s okay!” I said, disturbing her composure afresh when I raised a hand in a friendly wave. My hand was covered in blood!

You see, on the summit I’d made the mistake of resting my hands for a moment on a white/red/white trail marker, which had been freshly painted on the rocks that morning…so my hands were a welter of red and white paint, mostly red as it turned out.

I thought she would turn back after this horrifying sight, but she set her mouth firmly, looked much older for a moment, and with a clamped jaw resolved to go on. I got the feeling of what it’s like to be a spirit flitting along his rounds, occasionally, and without meaning to, frightening humans along the way. Another nice fellow shouted to me I was going the falsches Direktion! Finally, unable to help myself, I approached a stalwart group who looked at me very disapprovingly. Everything was wrong. No via ferrata gear, very bad shoes, the wrong direction, a carefree look. I asked, just by way of confirming, if this was the way to the Watzmannhaus. For assent I got a surprised grunt, but I left knowing I’d set the group aflame with new indignation…and he doesn’t even know the way?!?!

Whistling a cheery tune is useful at these points. At Hocheck I found a nice bivouac hut and resting hikers. It was 1 pm. I needed a boost, so I ate a candy bar, took off my shoes for a bit, then kept going with fresh music. At the moment it’s Death Cab for Cutie and Imagine Dragons, with a bit of Shovels and Rope. All good bands!

It was a long walk down from Hocheck. I tiredly hiked up into the impressive Watzmannhaus, dreaming of Kaiserschmarm. But the kitchen had closed 15 minutes before, and they didn’t have anything hot. So I headed back out, and down to the Kuehroint Hut. On the traverse of a wet and mossy trail, I ended up behind a party of 15, moving very slowly. I passed eventually, but it was tough with all the slippery mud…I slipped ungracefully three times in the attempt to get by, provoking much amusement and head-shaking. Finally at the Kuehroint Hut, they didn’t have Kaiserschmarm, only something called Griesschmarm, which is a very poor substitute. Kaiserschmarm is essentially fried dough pieces, festooned with sugar and applesauce. Griesschmarm is just pieces of crumbled cake. Since German cake is generally very dry already, it’s like filling your mouth with sawdust. Blech. Oh well! Now down to Koenigsee on my music-fueled journey, reaching the car at 5:30, 13 hours after waking up. The wall itself took just under 6 hours.

This had been an excellent adventure, I can highly recommend the trip for any climber who is impressed by big walls and doesn’t mind plenty of mud and muck along the way. You’ll get rewards of clean rock, but they must be paid for! The real reward on this climb is looking down into the depths, possibly obscured by cloud past a certain point, and marveling that somehow or another, you came up through all that, almost 7000 vertical feet of gullies, slabs and chimneys.

Again a very hearty thanks to Stefan and Andy. At least Andy lives in Munich and I can easily buy him a beer soon :).