Berchtesgadener Alpen 6/2-12/12
Watching a Rick Steves video left me with the impression that a person can hike from one end of the Alps to the other, staying overnight at mountain refuges, “without ever coming out”. I found this idea attractive, since I was already thinking about walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain. Maybe I would like a trek in the Alps even better. I looked into it.
I learned that the Alps are literally crisscrossed with walking trails. Some of these trails are prehistoric. Some are historic trade routes. But most are local rights of way leading to farms, country restaurants, mountain refuges and climbing base camps. These trails tramp across peoples’ back yards, between farmhouse and barn, through cow pastures, through villages, past restaurants, through streams and rivers. They are just as likely to lead to the top of a mountain as they are to passes between.
While it is technically possible for a person to thread their way from one end of the Alps to the other using these trails, I learned that this is not how they are typically used. The idea of designating significant through routes made up of local trail segments is actually a new one, starting back in 1991 with the Alpine Convention. The idea was to preserve Alpine culture by calling attention to it, promoting appreciation of it and encouraging sustainable tourism around it. The founding partners of this program hoped that by making a public record of special places and routes that connected them, they might head off thoughtless development that would otherwise ruin the very qualities of these areas that were already drawing a crowd.
In 2000 the idea was given the name Via Alpina. Then followed funding to identify, sign and improve the routes. Now there are supposedly 5,000km of trails on five different routes winding through eight different countries.
If the plethora of yellow signs, indicating the walking time to nearby points at nearly every trail intersection is the result of this initiative, then wow, they really blazed the trail and that really helped me. If the few mossy, faded, cryptic plates I spied hanging from trees are good examples what existed before, then surely the prior use of these trails was restricted to locals who knew their way around the neighborhood.
Strange though, I saw only a couple “Via Alpina” signs and only a single mention that I was on the “purple” trail. The few times I mentioned to people that I was hiking on the Via Alpina to or from some neighboring town, all I got was a blank stare, or a gesture like, “Wow, that is far away.” It seems most people still use these trails as a route to, rather than a route through.
In the Basel train station I met a group of seniors with packs and poles. One of them explained to me that they meet at the station every Thursday morning to go hiking. They rotate through a variety of destinations, pack a lunch, then return in time for dinner.
I walked past a lot of isolated gastofs, sited for their views. Most are places to walk to for lunch. Some rent rooms. There are lesser stops that offer beer and snacks. Others offer fresh buttermilk from the cows out back.
I used the Via Alpina website to research and plan a ten day hike over twelve “stages” of the “purple trail” that runs through the Berchtesgaden area. Since these are some of the lowest elevation mountains, I expected they would be the earliest opening. But the day I headed out to my start point, I got a late response from one of the mountain huts saying they wouldn’t be open in time to accept my reservation. Hmmm.
I was travelled to Berchtesgaden starting from Madrid. I took an overnight train from Madrid to Paris and then continued to Stuttgart, Munich and Berchtesgaden over the next day. I missed my connection to Berchtesgaden, then got rerouted because of maintenance on the rails and ended up getting into Berchtesgaden 11 pm. I discovered the next day that the hotel I had reserved closed their front desk at 10 pm. I was lucky to grab a room at another hotel down the street, just before the clerk closed for the night. I was touched to find that my other hotel was concerned about why I didn’t show up and wondered where I was. When I explained what happened, they went out of their way to cancel my unused reservation with booking.com.
To reach my starting point, I bussed from Berchtesgaden to Salzburg, trained from Salzburg to Bischofhoffen. I missed the last bus from Bischofhofen to Muhlbach, so I bit the bullet and paid for a taxi. Gastof Lerderer was on the far side of Muhlbach, at the top of the hill, across the road from a river. When the taxi left, all I could hear was rushing water. There were a half dozen outdoor tables set with bright table clothes for dinner, but it turned out I was their only taker and it ended up being too cold to eat outside by the time I got around to it.
I went in and found my hostess fussing behind the bar. I began to introduce myself but she cut me short – “Yes, Mr. Parks. We were expecting you …“ I was their only guest that night. She explained that hiking season didn’t really start until July. Oh.
When I finally looked at it, the regional map I bought in Berchtesgaden didn’t include the area I was starting from. When I asked my hostess if she knew where I could get a map, she offered to give me her own. After dinner, her son went over the route with me and gave me landmarks to look for. My hostess was sorry I didn’t have better weather to start out in. The weather report was for rain the next day. It rained during dinner too. But it cleared up around sunset, so I climbed up the hill to find the trailhead where they said I should start.
Hochkonig from Muhlbach
I took this photo the evening before I started out. I climbed the hill immediately behind my hotel to find the trailhead for the next morning. The trail basically ran straight uphill from here, turned left and ran along the base of these giants.
There were still rivulets of water running down the pavement from the shower that just ended. There was a road leading to this farm, a neighboring farm and a hotel/restaurant situated on a bluff just below them. I could hear hit radio music coming from an upstairs window and see a man moving milk cows into a barn. Below, the lights of the restaurant beckoned, as did intermittent billows of laughter from the diners. I found the trailhead on the backside of the hotel.
The next morning I set out in drizzle under an umbrella that didn’t quite cover my daypack. I climbed straight uphill for a couple hours and then west along the base of this mountain range. It was completely socked in so I couldn’t see the peaks that I knew were towering above me.
I arrived at my destination only little after noon, just behind another couple who hiked up from the other direction, just for lunch. They ordered beer and little sausages. I said I’d have the same. That is how I inadvertently got introduced to Radler – beer with lemon soda. It was a small, rustic place and I couldn’t see sitting out the rest of the afternoon and evening by the fireplace, staring into mist. Asked the hostess if she would mind me moving on and she was cool with that so, I elected to continue to my next destination.
I hiked back down to the road and made it to a bus stop in the middle of nowhere only minutes before a bus was due to arrive. After ten minutes, I figured I didn’t understand the posted schedule so I kept going. In another five minutes the bus came by and the driver stopped for me even though I didn’t flag him down. There was only one other rider, an old man with a cap and a cane. At the front of the bus was a pictogram of an ice cream cone with a red circle around it and a line run through it. I wondered if that meant no ice cream, no sticky- runny things or no food in general.
I got into my hotel in Maria Alm early afternoon. They had no problem booking me a night early and getting me right into a room. Lovely. (I was soaked.) It was a nice place with a German style spa in the basement and a bar and a nice restaurant. The bar appeared to be the neighborhood hangout. The place packed out for dinner. They were really nice to me.
Steinernes Meer from Maria Alm
This is a view of the same mountain range from just a little further west.
The second day here was clear and warm and I hiked all over the valley. I read that Maria Alm is a historic pilgrimage site. Although an iconic church still dominates the town center, I think it is better known these days as a ski resort. My hotel gave me a free pass to the nearest ski lift – just behind the church. That got me half way to a hilltop restaurant where I had lunch. There are ski lifts on nearly every slope around here. You could literally spend a winter day skiing from village to village to village by taking lifts to the top of a hill and skiing down the other side.
I had originally planned to hike straight north over these mountains to Berchtesgaden immediately on the other side, but this is where the mountain hut was not open yet. It looked like it might be okay to hike anyway, so I wondered if it mattered that the hut wasn’t open. I found a guy at the sports shop that spoke pretty good English and was willing to give me specific answers to all my questions. “No, not glacier, just snow. There is no danger crossing the snow. People do it. It is just more difficult. You may have some difficulty crossing the snow on the steep stretch just before the top. But the most difficult part is coming down on the other side. I think if you had a good set of cramps and poles, you would do alright.” I considered buying poles and crampons but finally discarded the idea. It would make a long, difficult trek without a stop over at the top. And, if I had a problem, it was unlikely anyone else would be travelling that route. I reminded myself this was supposed to be about walking, not climbing.
Next day I took a bus northwest to Saalfelden, which offered the next closest route to my next destination. It turned out to be another lovely day of walking past chalets and farms, with vistas around every corner.
I got the last room at the last hotel in Hintersee, just as it started to rain. As they prepared my room, I took advantage of the mixed grill buffet they were offering on the covered patio overlooking the lake.
After dinner I walked around the immediate area, observed a farmer next door bale and shrink wrap wet, fresh-cut hay for what I later learned is called “hayage” – obviously something between hay and silage.
Waterfall in the Hills above Hintersee
I stumbled upon this beautiful work of nature on a trail just twenty minutes uphill from my hotel on the north side of Hintersee. Melting snow was a dominant feature of all my treks, as was milky-mouthwash colored streams and rivers.
Kunterwegkirche North of Ramsau
I saw at least one church in every community, but few like this little gem on the boundary of a village rather than at the center.
This interior was surprisingly ornate for its size. The door was wide open, it was invitingly cool inside and it smelled of frankincense. There was a photo panel detailing a recent shake roof renovation. The roof was posted with the original date of construction and two dates of restoration.
Kurgartenkirche, Ramsau with Schottmalhorn Beyond
Pictures of this church appear on every piece of paper promoting Ramsau. There was a steady line of people getting their picture taken on this bridge. There are many charming churches similar to this in these parts, but none that line up with a mountain view quite so conveniently.
Konigssee from Aussichtspunkt Archenkanzel with Hochkonig Beyond
The woman who had just served me lunch at Kuhrointalm (immediately below Waltzmann) left this spot as she heard me approach. I had the impression she was accustomed to coming here and was giving me the opportunity to experience it alone. I appreciated the gesture only moments later, when I was dumbstruck by the view. So lofty, so quiet, so still, it inspired contemplation. Bette Midler’s “From a Distance” started playing in my head.
Berchtesgaden from Grunstein
The valley floor looked so close from here but, after I took this photo, I had to run all the way down in order to check into my hotel before the front desk closed. If the depth of trail ruts is any indication, this is a popular peak to climb. It is certainly one of the closest to Berchtesgaden, part of which can be seen in the photo. There is a stereotypical café (Grunsteinhutte) just a little off the summit, where you can get drinks and light meals.
I triangulated that this was the very peak over which I watched a cloud form, from a restaurant across the valley, while I ate lunch with my mother back in April. I could see the restaurant where we ate. The Eagle’s Nest was also in profile from here.
My map indicated there was an alternate route down from the summit, but it looked insane. There were signs posted over in that direction with the German equivalent of “Danger – do not go beyond this point”. It would have required jumping down a staircase of spires surrounded by deadly drops.
St. Bartholoma, Konigssee
I took a boat tour of the lake and it was just as serene as promised. The boats use electric motors in order not to soil the pristine water. This keeps everything rather quiet too. St. Bartholoma is one of two stops the boat makes. You can only get to these places by taking the boat or walking – and it would be a long walk.
You can get off the boat at the far end of Konigssee and hike in about 20 minutes to Obersee. Then you can continue on around Obersee to a waterfall on the far side. A lot of people were making that trek. There is a kiosk and a full service restaurant not far from where the ferry stops.
Someone told me there is an old woman who lives at the back of Obersee. If that is true, then this would be where she parks her boat when she goes to town.
Kehlsteinhaus (The Eagle’s Nest)
Martin Bormann commissioned this mountain hut on a bluff above Hitler’s command complex in Obersalzberg for Hitler’s 50th birthday. However, it is reported that Hitler suffered from vertigo, so he couldn’t enjoy the view much and came up here only a few times. When the Americans came through and destroyed the Nazi complex at Obersalzberg, special arrangements were made to preserve this building.
Kehlsteinhaus is now a restaurant with inside and outside seating. It is a huge tourist attraction. There is a continual string of busses serving the destination. It is at such a high altitude, it is often enveloped in clouds. I feel sorry for people who come here not understanding it really isn’t worth the trip when it is in a cloud bank. I shared an umbrella with a woman who told me she came from Munich just to see this – a whole day round trip out of ten she was spending in Europe.
This is perhaps the most picturesque example of German homes in the country. Although there are simpler styles of construction, the timber upper story with plaster-finished stone base is common. The front half of this fortress was the house, while the rear half was a dairy barn. It seemed a dozen or so cows was the typical size herd. I was charmed by the ubiquitous flower boxes with pansies and geraniums, well-kept yards and well-used picnic tables tucked under sheltering eves.
This is a little village of summer cabins built on the Austrian side of the border that cuts across the top of Reiteralm, a shallow bowl surrounded by peaks on the outer edges. I stayed the night here at Neue Traunsteinerhutte after spending a rainy afternoon hiking up tight switchbacks cut into a steep face that, from below, didn’t look like it could possibly support a hiking trail. Once I got settled in a room, it really poured. I and two other couples spent the night. We spread our wet stuff all over the fireplace in the dining hall. The one guy I talked to said they planned to hike to a peak on the north rim before returning to their car the next day. They would see how the weather went. They had driven from Munich.
Sunset at Drei Bruder
After dinner the sky suddenly cleared, so I ran to the rim to see the sunset. If you look close, you can see a little line sticking up on the peak just to the left of center. They have these crosses set up on every notable peak around here. I could see two from where I took this photo.
On the way out to this point I noticed there was a trail running this way, so I followed it back. Within a hundred yards of the hut, the air suddenly turned to fog and I couldn’t see anything. It was interesting to experience how the change in conditions suddenly eroded my certainty about where I was headed, even though I had clearly seen my destination only moments before.
I hiked back down the mountain in marginal weather. I heard and then saw a glimpse of a large deer. A little further down the trail I met two deer hunters coming up to sit in a blind. The first was as eager as his dog and walking some minutes ahead of his trudging companion.
I came upon this plateau about half way down to the nearest town. There were sheep grazing and several huts, but no sign of a keeper.
I stumbled upon an excursion through this gorge by accident. It was exciting to walk only a few feet above water thundering through such a confined space. Considering the work that went into the scaffolding, I was surprised there were no signs promoting it from either direction.
Although it was to be my last day on the trail and the Via Alpina website promised this was the most spectacular segment of the route I had chosen, I didn’t think I could take another day of hiking in the rain. I got up late, intending to take the bus north across the border to Ruhpolding.
However, on my way out the door, the woman at the front desk explained that I might get to Ruhpolding faster on foot. Unken was so close to the border, all the busses serving it ran south, toward the middle of the country. I would have to back track and find a special bus going north across the border. It might take all day. We looked at the forecast again and she said, “Well, it doesn’t look like rain all day.” She was so encouraging, putting everything in the best light, I decided to grab a sandwich and get on the trail. It sprinkled not long after I started out and then improved throughout the day.
Deer Blind at Peitingkopfl
You see deer blinds like this at nearly every vantage point in rural areas. The height provides several advantages: deer don’t pay much attention to noises in trees, the hunter’s view is unobscured by foliage and shooting toward the ground keeps bullets from traveling past the target.
Perchthohe Alpine Meadows South of Sonntagshorn
These houses were situated just below the final approach to Sonntagshorn. They are typical of the habitations I saw at the highest altitudes. Just beyond this group was a place you could stay and another where you could eat. But neither was open for business.
Sonntaggshorn Summit, 1961m
Here is a close-up of one of those crosses I saw mounted on summits all around. About ten feet on the other side of this monument was a sheer drop of a thousand feet. It was clear, still and quiet; serenely tranquil. I saw a single ravine plying the updrafts. I could see what I believed was the community I was heading for and a large lake beyond.
I had a hard time feeling tranquil inside though. The exposure I felt on this pinnacle upset my stomach. And the trail down the north slope surprised me – it seemed to disappear over a few ledges. The trail up from the south was a well worn zigzag of switchbacks. But the opposite side looked hardly used. I decided to sit down and eat lunch first; try to acclimatize myself to the view.
Had I been with someone else, I know they would have insisted on turning around and going back the way we came. But there was no alternative route near by. If I turned back at this point, I would basically have to start over. I wouldn’t make it to my objective for that day.
I reasoned with myself that the map indicated an established trail continuing on, so, people must go that way. Maybe it wasn’t as bad as it looked. Maybe once I got going down, the trail would look more substantial, less hazardous.
North Side of Sonntagshorn
I was born with a senseless fearlessness of heights. So my life experience has been to slowly move toward a more reasonable fear of heights. However, the hours I spent this day walking a knife edge between deadly drops tweaked me into a fear of heights such as I have never known before. It was interesting to experience for myself what a few of my friends have tried to describe. It has been interesting to note how this sickness persisted well after the experience.
With real focus and fained ease, I lowered myself over four or five ledges separated by scree. I reassured myself that the trail was getting easier as I descended and it was gradually moving away from that awesome precipice. Then I sat down next to an eyebolt. “Oh god, this is a rope route.” All my fear was suddenly replaced with anger at myself for being stupid. I don’t want to die doing something stupid.
Well, from that point, it was less treacherous to continue down than to go back up. So, I continued. It was a long afternoon of careful walking. But there was steady progress from deadly drops to serious drops to only painful drops. It was a great exercise in concentration. The steady muscle tension left me sore for days.
It was evident no one had been on this side of the mountain yet this season and that it was much less used than the southern appraoch. There were numerous trail sections erased by rock fall. There were some sections with cable handholds, only part of which were still intact. I did controlled slides down several snow fields. Finally, I lost the trail altogether. Then I spotted one of those deer blinds and figured there had to be a trail to that and found my way down from there.
Looking back from one point, I noticed the trail had gone through a series of small plateaus, all of which ended in drops on the downhill side. So you really had to follow the trail in order to find your way out.
I slipped and fell pretty good a couple times traversing steep slopes lower down. I guess I needed the back adjustment.
The trail finally turned into a road and I walked past several woodcutting operations. But I never met another soul the whole afternoon.
Just before dark I made it out to a little community on a highway. (I knew there was a highway down there somewhere.) I went straight into a restaurant and got dinner before they closed. Then I sheepishly asked my waiter, “Where am I?”
Weissbach!? Wow, I really got peeled off in the wrong direction. I could have made it all the way to Ruhpolding by now for all the distance I walked.
I asked if he could help me call my hotel, to see if they would stay open long enough for me to get there. He came back with his own cell phone, called my guest house and explained the situation. He hung up and then reported, “No problem, she will wait for you.” Then he called me a taxi.
Ruhpolding was a cheery place. It would be a pleasant place to stay for a weekend of hiking in the area. I got a chance to take a look around before I headed out. There was a big church with a crowded graveyard on the hill.
One bus and one train later I was back in Berchtesgaden.
Cake Counter at Grassl’s Bistro-Café, Berchtesgaden
I returned to the same hotel I missed the first time around. These people had happily agreed to keep my spare luggage for me while I was on my trek. And they refused to accept payment for the service, even though they had to climb over my pile of stuff in their small office for a week. From my point of view, they made my trip possible. I was so appreciative; I decided to leave them with a Sacher Torte upon check out. The woman at the front desk was mystified.