Change of plan

The weather was amazing, and somehow I couldn’t find a partner for the mountains. Also, Kris needed the car to take the boys to a summertime weightlifting comp. Finally, a late night Friday with a couple of grillfests meant I woke up Saturday morning unprepared to use the beautiful weekend.

But these problems can be solved! I decided to climb the Blassengrat to the Jubilaeumsgrat bivouac hut, then continue to the Zugspitze summit the next day. I brought a helmet and rock shoes, two days of food, and regular hiking equipment. On the train to Garmisch, I realized I should have at least brought an ice axe as well, nevermind crampons. Oh well.

It was already brutally hot as I walked from the train station to Hammersbach. I’d had some interesting conversations the night before with Janina and her roommate, talking about things like the status of women through history, “Adam Smithian” economics, how interesting the nuances of just the right words are, pre-history. Another of Janinas friends specializes in creating authentic clothing and jewelry from early Christian and Pagan times. All really cool stuff!

I walked to the mountains and lost patience with my cleaving to man-made installations in order to bring my trip across. I was going to pay for a lift to eliminate much hiking, I was going to seek out a shelter, possibly cramped with coughing, begrudging people? No, I thought!

On the hot and steaming road, I saw the Zwölferkopf shimmering high above, directly before me. I had climbed it once before with a friend, Alexander. But we fought with hail and lightning on the summit, and getting down was fraught with danger on the wet rocks and slick grassy slopes.

Now I had a chance to climb it again and get a proper view. Where would I sleep? What do I care! Perhaps I’ll follow the ridge all the way to the Riffelscharte. I remembered Georgs description of that trip, he seemed to shudder as he described the stressful and endless towers of loose rock. Or maybe not. It would be many hours before I’d have to decide that.

But the point is that the decision to “not care” about sleeping was very liberating. I had enough food, I only had to take every chance I could find to drink as much water as possible, because there would be none above the last trees. I refilled my water from the river at Hammersbach, among the milling tourists. I hiked up listening to a Loreena McKennitt song about a highwayman, again a reminder of conversations yesterday (“what is the term for a robber on the road?”). Weirdly, at this moment a black snake slithered across the path right in front of me.

There should be a name for the state of mind when concurrences and coincidences pile up rather pleasingly in the mind. And all this combined with an adventurous undertaking that quickens the blood at the same time. I was in a liminal state, halfway between worlds. So for example, I decided that the black snake was significant, but felt free at the same time to interpret the meaning creatively. To me, it meant I was crossing a boundary, and the occasion was ominous only in the sense that all border crossings contain seeds of danger. But I was going to cross, and I thanked the snake for reminding me to be cautious.

So in this free-wheeling state, I made my way up trails and roads to the hidden Selbstversorghütte (self-service cabin) in the woods below the Zwölferkopf. There are no signs, perhaps because people would show up and querulously ask for beer. Eventually I managed to get there.

“Ist jemand zu Hause?” I called out. It’s polite not to approach a hut too directly. A man appeared between hanging clothes.

“Gibt es noch Wasser im Quelle?”

He explained that yes, there was water and it was only a couple of minutes down the hill.

Yes! Had the spring been dry, my plan would be in serious trouble. I needed a LOT of water on what felt like the hottest day of the year. I drank a couple of liters, and headed out again, waterlogged. Before long I was scratching up desert-like scree slopes finding the best purchase in places with a faint footstep. Strange rotten bags of dirt dotted the slope, each spilled open and blackened. Finally I realized they must have been part of a nighttime exhibit in which the slope was lit up was fire. They were meant to light and burn harmlessly in place. How many years ago had that been?

A couple guys coming up

Nearly a wrong turn

Clean cracks

On the Zwölferkopf

On the crazy-exposed trail

Looking back

Not a bad view

The Eibsee

I entered the stony cirque between the Manndl and the Zwölferkopf, kicking steps up a snowfield to change into rock shoes at the Gedankentafel marking a long-ago death. I carefully climbed the rotten rock…no mistakes allowed!


A brief comment about soloing in alpine terrain.

Soloing terrain like this might seem crazy, but as the veteran of hundreds of climbs with partners and alone, it’s clear that in the loose and protectionless terrain before or after the “meat” of a rock climb, there is not much a rope can do. In these situations usually it just slows the party down and worse, knocks rocks off onto the second climber. In the case of a fall, it’s likely that the leader has no protection in place, or protection that would likely fail. In the absolute best case, the rope can mean the difference between the hospital and the grave. But in the average case in this terrain, there is no difference.

The rope rises in value in proportion to the protectability of the terrain. Therefore, whether you are alone or with a partner on such terrain…you are alone, and you may as well realize it early.


Wild animals

A place for the night

More dawn

It took some time to find the start of the route, even though I’d been here in 2010. I climbed the first pitch slowly, mindful of the danger of a wrong turn. Pitch two had a couple harder moves (IV), but they were joyful to climb because the rock turned strong and clean. In fact I got into trouble here because the climbing was so nice. I sped past the third belay, and ended up confused at the fourth belay station, wondering if I should go left to the ridge crest or continue for another 50 meters on a great tilted face. Both looked reasonable, which is kind of a problem! I cursed that I didn’t remember this spot from 4 years ago. My own rule in soloing is that you can’t venture more than 10 or 15 meters from a known point into unknown terrain, and that you have to absolutely be able to downclimb everything in that state. I had to check out the right option carefully now, so I ventured over and tried three chimneys in turn. Each proved to be harder than the grade III climbing I expected, and there was an “unclimbed” quality to the rock. Usually, there are subtle signs that people have been by. A slight wear on important holds, a reduction in loose rock, a lack of black lichen on the rock, a lack of wet, muddy vegetation peeking out from cracks.

After 20 minutes or so, I was sure: this was not the way.

Later, following the ramp left to the ridge crest I was very happy in my choice. Had I climbed up one of those chimneys I would have ended up below vertical faces that remained loose and scruffy. Whew!

Now on the crest, everything looked better. 3 easy pitches followed on solid rock with tufts of grass. I had heard voices before, and I saw their owners…two guys dealing with the grade IV cracks on the crest. I climbed up, met them for a friendly exchange of banter, and climbed through for some excellent crack climbing with good hand jams.

Nice trail

Amazing sky

The glacier and summit beyond.

I thought the crux of the route was the small overhang that began the “Badplatten.” A couple of poor footholds, and some ungainly heaving got me onto the slab, where I rested a few minutes. One of the guys below came up and remarked that he thought that move was grade V- or so! More clean climbing got me into the great gully that marks the last easy pitches. Starting to feel tired, I reached the summit under a broiling sun. The feeling of pleasant intersection with subjective interpretation of reality had been burned away by the demands of constant focus on what was in front of me. It wouldn’t be until night that I regained that feeling, but even then only to a degree.

But that’s okay. Intense concentration is it’s own reward.

Now I looked across to the Grosser Waxensteinturm. Could I traverse the ridge over there? It looked like there would be climbing moves. I wished for the guidebook with a description. I decided it would be a bit foolhardy to just try and get over there without knowing at least something. Oh well, so much for “perfect freedom!” So I hiked down the rather unnerving trail to the Mittagsscharte. I followed the tedious ups and downs of the Schafsteig to the junction with the route down to the valley, then continued on to the route back up to the Grosser Waxensteinturm. I left my pack here and climbed the entertaining route to the summit. It goes right up a polished stone watercourse, sometimes with some real climbing moves. Some pitons and bolts were present at harder spots.

A nice view from the summit, but also the realization that I was pretty tired. The heat of the day had an exhausting effect. I climbed down, got my pack and continued the long journey on the Schafsteig. Now I met many Gämse (mountain deer), who kind of wheezed at me as I went by. The sun gradually dropped behind the mountain walls, and I dropped into the valley. Far below I saw a grassy slope with sheep and a waterfall. I was incredibly thirsty, having finished my last water an hour before. I’d need to go as far down into the valley as necessary to get water.

One interesting difference between a granitic mountain range and a limestone range seems to be that water sources in the latter disappear more quickly in summer. My thought is that the rock is porous, and water sources have more opportunities to disappear from sight much sooner.

Climbers on the glacier

Eberhardt and his sons

A gaggle of climbers

Finally I reached the sheep and a fairly protected water source. I drank two liters greedily, then took another liter down the valley to the first flat grassy spot with a little bit of wind protection. Now it was almost fully dark. I settled down on my pack, arranged it’s contents around me as wind protection. I had my rock shoes for a pillow, a light down jacket as a “sleeping bag” and a windproof jacket as a “blanket.” I ate two peanut butter sandwiches and put some Landjaeger sausage in my jacket to warm up for later. Around midnight that sausage was delicious!

Sausage, like cheese and chocolate, can’t be eaten cold.

I slept now and then, woke up shivering, thought about life, looked at the stars, then slept a little more. I enjoyed myself a lot. Some famous mountaineer said that a night out was psychologically an important part of adventure, and much as I usually try to avoid it, I have to agree. I played the thousands of feet and hundreds of holds and positions over in my head. I imagined taking different paths. I stretched all the sore muscles, which felt good. I shivered some more, and watched the moon across my arc of sky.

I woke up at around 4 am as a light swept across me. Crunching footsteps, and a man stood before me. “Is this the trail?” he said in English.

“No, you just stepped off it, back to the right!”

“Thanks!” he said, and crunched away. Who was he? Where was he going at this strange hour? It was especially odd that he was traveling down valley and not up. I sat up and watched the dawn.

The fun-plex

Check out the people on the glacier

Near the summit

At 5 am I started to walk, stiffly. Three men appeared, and I sent them ahead because I planned to move slowly. The pilgrimage to the Zugspitze summit had begun, now in deep pink and orange light from the rising sun. I hiked up the trail and cables uneventfully, mind rather cotton-encased. I passed the men, a father and two sons when they stopped to eat second breakfast. Later, on the glacier I ran into trouble. I had to cross rock-hard smooth water ice to get to some steps melted and bashed into the slope from previous parties. I tried all around the area, using rocks and my ski poles to make a step. But it was too hard.

The three men came up and I asked if they had anything to help, maybe an ice axe. Or worst case, I thought that if one of them stood in the bottom bashed step, I could grab their ankles and do a funny kind of lying down pull-up to reach that step!

But instead they decided one of them would take off his in-step crampons above the difficulty and toss them down for me to wear. That was really nice! And it worked perfectly! I was happy for several reasons, including general “comradeship in the mountains.” They could have easily told me how irresponsible I was to be there and what happens if, etc. etc.

Together we crossed the glacier and found the entrance, using the higher one because the lower entrance had an impossible moat to cross. I returned the crampons and headed off, getting some nice pictures of them later.

The nice climbing in the sun here was fantastic. But by the time I reached the final slope, I was dead tired. I mentally abandoned the plan to hike down the Stopselsteig, and go ahead and give in to the mechanical world. On top I chatted with a family from Seattle, then shared a beer and breakfast with Eberhardt and his sons. One of them knew Stuart Hardy, who I only know by reputation, having climbed many of the routes he set in the Thalkirchen climbing gym.

The adventure ends here, the rest is a weary procession of lifts and trains to get home. It was a 25 hour adventure, with 3500 meters of elevation gain and 12 pitches of technical climbing. What fun! I came home, intending to play with the kids and just crashed after a shower!