Dates of Trip:
During spring of 2019, I learned that I was getting the chance to travel to Berlin in the summer to present my research at a conference. Around the same time, I learned about the Collier Adventure Grant and figured it was serendipitous timing to get the chance to take my hiking abroad. Prior to this trip, the furthest I had traveled abroad was Canada, so while a little intimidated, I felt up for the challenge and excited the CAG committee agreed and allowed me to fulfill this trip.
My goals for the trip were to 1) Experience traveling solo in a foreign country where the predominant language isn’t English, 2) Experience differences in hiking in Germany vs. the US, 3) Learn about German culture and the country’s natural landmarks, and 4) Build skills for future hikes. With that, my mission was to get to the Bavarian Alps. My original plan was a 2-Day hut hike to Zugspitze which is the tallest point in Germany. I had heard great things about hut hiking in Europe, and it was neat to learn how the mountain huts in the White Mountains mirror their European counterparts.
Alas, the best-laid plans often go awry – with a late arrival into Munich, I conceded that I should minimize hiking solo after sunset, so my 2-day hut hike was out. So new plan: solo MITOC circus. Bavaria- style. Home base: Munich. Day 1: Coburger Hutte at Ehrwald. Day 2: Berchtesgaden National Park. Ready, set, go!
I purchased a Bayern Day Ticket which allows for unlimited travel on trains and certain local buses for a day in a single region of Germany. I set out early morning to Ehrwald, which is actually in Austria just past the border and about a 2 hour train ride to the south of Munich. Taking the train was fabulous because they were incredibly clean, comfortable, and reliable relative to public transit that I’m used to. On the train, there was even a nice map on the table in each row. My priority each day was to not miss the last train back to Munich so downloading or taking photos of train station schedules was crucial. I didn’t utilize internet services during my travels except when connected to WiFi, but I did set my phone up to make paid phone calls if needed. This forced me to become adept at reading train station listings and maps and has since encouraged me to avoid pulling out my phone to figure out subway stops back in the US.
Seeing the mountains grow as the train went further south and pulling into Ehrwald definitely got my excitement going. From the train station, I took a bus up to the base of the Ehrwalder Almbahn where you could purchase a cable car lift ticket or hike up yourself. Given my limited time window, I knew I couldn’t do the full hike to Coburger Hutte fast enough, so I swallowed my pride and bought a ticket. It turned out to be quite the view. I started my hike at the Ehrwalder Alm Hutte, and the trails had very helpful signage with blazes and yellow signs.
I was grateful for the good weather, and it felt like I was in the Sound of Music while passing through farms and pastures with cows and cowbell galore. As I kept hiking, I realized my pace was slower than anticipated and that I also needed to factor in the return time to make the last cable car down the mountain, so again, I had to swallow my pride and settle for finishing at Lake Seebensee which was still fulfilling. After my stop at Lake Seebensee, I made my way back to the Almbahn, caught the cable car down to Ehrwald, and strolled around the town a little.
On the train ride back to Munich, I happened to share a train with a group of schoolboys in festive Lederhosen. It felt like the cherry on top of a very German/Austrian day. Interestingly, even with this very German day, I did snap a fun photo of a newspaper during my post hike grocery stop. If you look closely, you’ll see the words “50 JAHRE” (“50 Years”) above a photo of the Apollo 11 moon landing in July 1969. 2019 was a big year for Course 16 (AeroAstro) nerds like myself, so throughout my entire European trip, I was documenting all the memorabilia I found commemorating the 50th anniversary.
That capped off my Ehrwald trip, and I returned to Munich safe and sound to map out my trek to Berchtesgaden National Park the next day.
Day 2 began at the regional Munich train station again, and I indulged in loading up on German baked goods like this Rischart bread before the nearly 3 hour train to Berchtesgaden. Arriving in and navigating around Berchtesgaden by public transit was fairly straightforward as the park gets quite a bit of traffic being the only alpine national park in Germany. I wasn’t able to make it to an information center, but I had armed myself with a park map and guide and set out into the town.
My first stop was Lake Konigssee. I had originally considered doing a longer hike to Watzmann Haus, but my friend in Munich recommended that seeing the lake was a must. With my time constraints and long train commute, it seemed to be the right call, so I bought a ticket and boarded the ferry to see what it was all about. It was worth it. Konigssee was formed from glaciers and is known as the cleanest lake in Germany, so the ferries are all electrically powered. One particularly worthwhile part of the guided ferry ride was when the tour guide, without warning, reached into the staircase I happened to be sitting next to and pulled out a trumpet. The first thought that came to my mind was that maybe the guide would be serenading us. Alas no, even though Berchtesgaden is very close to Salzburg, I wasn’t going to fulfill that Sound of Music dream. Instead, it turns out that at a certain point in the ride, the canyon walls create an incredible echo, so the whole boat got really quiet to hear the callback as the trumpeter began his tune.
The ferry then made its way to the other side of the lake where the St. Bartholoma chapel sits at the base of the mountains. The first chapel was built in the 1100s, and the current church was erected in the late 1600s. I was pleased to find great signage again to start my hike and chose to do a moderate trek up toward the connecting route to Watzmann as far as I could go before catching the last ferry back to the main side. I tried to document my hike up while minimizing picture time. A note to my future self: while I generally don’t condone selfie sticks, this hike would have greatly benefited from one. It took *significantly* longer than anticipated to set up my phone for the overview shots which ate into my hike time. I was already cutting it close getting back to the ferry on time and even elected to run for part of my hike down to ensure that I had buffer time to make it back. I don’t recommend cutting it this close to avoid unnecessary stress, but am glad the pictures came out pretty well.
It also helped that I had a firm stop to my hike upon hitting Via Ferrata. I knew I did not have the proper gear to traverse this way, and interestingly I ran into a fellow hiker who expressed his concern for me attempting to make it back to the ferry in time (If you miss the ferry, you have to pay a fisherman 200 Euros to get back to the other side). I told the hiker that I was not comfortable ascending the via ferrata route to Watzmann Haus without gear, so I was just going to have to hustle back. That was definitely a lesson in setting firmer turnaround times and also prioritizing my safety.
I am pleased to say that I made it back to the ferry with time to spare but with a good bit of sweat. Making it back to the other side, I saw several people dipping their toes in, so naturally given my sore and sweaty feet, I felt inclined to take the plunge. And you guessed it, it was COLD.
One last interesting fact about Berchtesgaden is that on one of the surrounding mountaintops, there’s a house called the Kehlsteinhaus. It is also referred to as the “Eagle’s Nest” because it was one of the locations that Hitler and the Nazi Party used for meetings. It’s hard to tell from my low quality photo, but you could spot the house on the walk back from Konigssee to the bus stop. Yet another interesting and unexpected fact that arose during my travels. Alas, this concluded my travels in Berchtesgaden, and I was on my way back to Munich for my last long train ride.
In total, here are some of the major lessons I learned during my travels.
Goal 1) Experience traveling solo in a foreign country where the predominant language isn’t English.
Check. With enough exposure, your brain will eventually learn to see a foreign language as actual words and not just gibberish and random letters put together. (I admit it helps that I was in a country with a similar language structure and alphabet). Also, I learned that you can survive just fine (if not better) without phone and internet access, but you should have a plan in place in case a real emergency arises.
Goal 2) Experience differences in hiking in Germany vs. the US.
Check. I’m used to having the luxury of taking my personal vehicle to the trailhead and starting my hikes. While locals could certainly do this in Germany, this was my first time trying to access hike routes via public transit and realizing it takes significantly more time and planning to coordinate. It also helps that Germany has incredible public transit (are you tired of me talking about their public transit?) so most areas were fairly accessible.
Goal 3) Learn about German culture and the country’s natural landmarks.
Check. This naturally occurred while doing research on places to visit, but the quick immersion was still eye opening and fun to experience. In general, I felt that Germany is fairly welcoming to strangers. I was determined to figure out navigating the (fabulous) public transit system on my own, but in most places, strangers were always willing to ask if I needed help (or maybe my naturally furrowed face automatically signaled “tourist”). Also, Germans really love bread. Like *really* love bread.
Goal 4) Build skills for future hikes.
Similar to Goal 2, this trip was a reminder that things in and outside of my control will not go according to plan, so stay adaptable and build in buffer time for when things take longer than anticipated. Also, it’s okay to not make it to the summit. It’s better to swallow your pride than to swallow forking over 200 Euros to the fisherman (or worse).
This trip was definitely a strong confidence boost in getting me to do more international travel, international outdoor adventures, and making a return to Europe to do some proper backpacking and hut hiking, and I’m excited to use these lessons in planning my own trips as well as future trips with MITOC.
A HUGE THANKS to the MITOC CAG Committee for continuing Sean’s legacy with these grants, for spreading the love of the outdoors, and for making these adventures more accessible!