Editor’s Note: This is Part III in way-too-many-part series on Mark’s trip to Germany. If you missed Parts I or II you can check them out here:
After a stellar day of climbing at Rabenfels, we crammed our gear into the station wagon and commenced the long drive south. We’d been staying with my sister Christina’s family in a town called Weiden on the far east side of the Frankenjura. Having access to a real house—and a free one at that—made the trip way more manageable with kids. Frankly, we wouldn’t have come if not for the lure of a free place to stay and a chance for our kids to spend some quality time with their cousins. We are extremely grateful to Christina and her husband Eric for opening their home to our family and showing us such great hospitality.
That said, staying in the same spot the entire time was unusual for us. Normally we migrate around a country to see all the sights. SO far we had been limited to day trips from Weiden, so we were anxious to branch out a bit. For the next two days we were headed south into the Bavarian Alps, along the border between Germany and Austria.
Our first destination was a picture book hamlet—set in a broad cirque, and surrounded by soaring, glaciated peaks—known as Berchtesgaden. Stunning knives of limestone pierce the deep blue sky, waterfalls cascade down the lower slopes, feeding lush green pastures and sparkling lakes. At night the air is crisp and dry, and in the morning you wake to the sound of distant cowbells echoing around the hillsides. The Huber brothers, Thomas and Alex, grew up a short distance from here, and they cut their teeth on the many peaks and cliffs adorning the valley.
The first evening we enjoyed crepes and gelato along the shore of the Konigsee (King’s Lake), and then took a fantastic star-lit stroll around the village. My time here really reminded me how much I love the mountains. I’ve been to Europe three times, but other than a few gondola rides I’ve never been up any mountains. Some day I’d love to come to the Alps and climb something big!
The next morning we headed west, into Austria, towards Innsbruck. Along the way we stopped below an impressive limestone massif known as the Wilder Kaiser. Hidden in the foothills below the jutting fins of rock is an easily-overlooked limestone cliffband split by a dramatic waterfall. In the late 1980’s, Tyrolean climbers realized the amazing potential for sport climbing on the steeply overhanging cliffs surrounding the Schleierwasserfall (“veil waterfall”).
In the early 1990’s, Alex Huber arrived on the scene and began to leave his mark. The Huber brothers are interesting characters, and somewhat under-rated in my view. Alex especially has mastered nearly every discipline of the sport. In fact, you could argue he has been the best in the world (at one time or another) in at least three different disciplines.
- As a sport climber, he established the route Open Air in 1996, which some now consider to be the first 5.15 in the world (originally given .14d, it was unrepeated for over a decade until Adam Ondra finally got around to it, and suggested an upgrade to 9a+/5.15a).
- Soon after, he decided it would be fun to do some trad climbing, and subsequently became hands-down the world’s best big wall free-climber, making first free ascents of El Nino, Freerider, Golden Gate, El Corazon, and Zodiac on El Capitan, and Bellavista (5.14b), as well as many other big routes, in the Dolomites
- In the mid-2000’s Thomas suggested they try speed climbing, and after a few seasons of practice (and a long delay to rehab a broken ankle) the two set the speed record on The Nose.
…Not to mention a 5.14 free solo, an ascent of an 8000m peak, and world class aid climbs in the Karakoram and Antarctica. Their ability to excel in many different facets of climbing is extremely impressive. I like to think of myself as an all-arounder, but more of a “jack of all trades, master of none”. Alex Huber is a master of all trades when it comes to climbing.
Another aspect of my fascination with the Hubers is the brother dynamic. Alex’s autobiography The Mountain Within deals with this topic extensively. Having a brother (in my case, a twin brother) to train with and learn from is an amazing gift that few share. But it’s not always easy. There is rivalry, outright competition, and envy. I would argue the primary theme of Pepe Danquart’s documentary film Am Limit (which follows the Huber’s efforts to set the speed record on The Nose) is their struggle between the desire to be there for each other, and the conflicting desire to follow their own path. I can relate to that very easily, but I think it resonates with anyone whose had a dedicated, long-term climbing partner. Mike and I have each done things on our own that we’re extremely proud of, but looking back I would still say my best “ascents” were the product of our partnership.
Although I wouldn’t be climbing, I really wanted to hike up to the cliff and check out a few of Huber’s standard-setting climbs from the ground. The hike to the cliff was brutal—50 minutes uphill, and quite steep at that. The views were breathtaking, and the waterfall was quite impressive. It shoots out from the cliff top to land a good 30 or 40 meters from the base of the cliff. Despite a huge amount of water coming down, the cliff behind the waterfall seemed perfectly dry (although seepage was a problem in many places).
The Schleierwasserfall is huge, allowing enormously tall sport routes, but the rock, especially through the big roofs, looks somewhat chossy and dank. Large sections of the cave were unclimbable when I was there in late September. I would love to have a cliff like this near my home, but I don’t think I would travel to Europe to climb here (historical significance notwhithstanding). There are definitely better-looking cliffs—with much easier access, and more dependable conditions—all over the continent (still, when I was standing below the cliffs, I was wishing I had brought my climbing gear).
It’s interesting that Alex chose to direct his impressive talents towards this crag, especially since he was living in Munich at the time and the crags of the Frankenjura were likely easier to get to. After quite a bit of research, I’m not aware of him making any significant ascents in the Frankenjura. [It’s worth noting that Alex’s time as a dedicated sport climber was actually quite brief. He started as an alpinist, and when he decided to try sport climbing he ascended through the grades quickly. He climbed his first X+ (~5.14a) in 1989, and by the end of 1996 he decided he had done enough and made a pretty clean break from the discipline.]
My guess is that he preferred the super long, consistently overhanging endurance routes of the Schleierwasserfall to the relatively powerful and fingery climbing of the Frankenjura. In his autobiography his states that the Wilder Kaiser was as much his spiritual home as the Berchtesgaden Alps, so perhaps this area felt more like “home”. Many of the climbers he grew up with remained in the Bavarian Alps and spent their time here. Perhaps he felt a responsibility (or at least a preference) to push the grades in his home region.
I wonder if he also felt it was better to pave new ground, at a new crag, than attempt to follow in the footsteps of his “guru” (his word) Gullich. I could easily understand that. I know for me personally when it comes to new-routing, I’m more inclined to seek out new crags, or crags that have been overlooked, where I have a blank canvas and my choice of the best lines, as opposed to trying to find something worthwhile at a crag that’s been extensively picked over.
After checking out the Schleierwasserfall, we continued west, through Innsbruck, and back into Germany to the mountain town of Garmisch. There we took a train and cable car system to the summit of the Zugspitze, Germany’s highest peak. Logan loves trains, so it was very exciting for him. We started on a regular train, and then transferred to a cog railway for the steep ascent to the summit. The last section of track travels 5km through a tunnel inside the mountain, depositing riders at a subterranean train station just below the summit ridge.
Above ground we were suddenly in an alpine setting, with magnificent views all around. We still had to take a short cable car ride to the actual summit at 9,718 feet. While not very high (my house in Colorado is at 7400 feet), the vertical relief is stunning. The valley floor is more than 7,000 feet below the summit, and the walls of the mountain are steep and plastered with rime ice. From the summit plaza we could see clear to the Dolomites (in northern Italy). There’s an extremely popular via ferrata that leads to the summit, and a nearly nonstop parade of climbers inched their way to the top before relaxing for a beer and pretzel at the concession stand (and the best part–taking the cable car down).
I’m never quite sure how to feel about developments like this. In my younger, Ed Abbey-reading days, I would have thought it was a monstrosity. On the other hand, it was a really cool experience, one that my family wouldn’t have been able to have with mechanical assistance. If every mountain summit had a cable car, that would be a travesty, but I think one out of ten-thousand is probably not the end of the world. I’m glad that people who otherwise wouldn’t have access are able to experience places like this. It’s possible that if more people are able to experience the beauty of wild places (even a Disney-fied version of it like this), it will help establish a broad base of support for protection of such places.
We took way too many pictures, watched the clouds roll in and threw a few snowballs. The highlight was certainly the dramatic cable car ride down the terrfying north face of the mountain. The gondola drops with impressive speed–the train ride up took almost 45 minutes; the ride down was lest than 5.
Back in town we found a park for the cooped up kids and grabbed a quick dinner. My one and only schnitzel of the trip was about how you would expect: not bad, but not exactly good either. The next morning we did a cool hike through a limestone slot-canyon (made tourist-friendly with copious amounts of TNT and steel railings). Water was streaming down the canyon walls, creating intermittent waterfalls. The river running through the gorge had that milky hue that comes from glacial silt. That and the ubiquitous moss reminded me a lot of New Zealand. It would be awesome to descend a natural Alpine slot canyon but I imagine it would be super cold! Definitely dry-suit territory.
The final stop on our journey was the medieval city of Fussen and its two incredible castles, Schloss Hohenschwangau and Schloss Neuschwanstein (the so-called “Cinderalla Castle” that Disney’s version was modeled after). The first was the boyhood home of King Ludwig II, “the fairytale King”. He was obsessed with medieval times, and built numerous elaborate castles and palaces around Bavaria to satisfy his fantastic imagination. The second was perhaps this greatest of his many creations. He was intimately involved in the design and construction of what is surely the most famous castle in the world.
It started raining just as we arrived, but with no sign of improving conditions we decided to go for it. We all got quite soaked on the 30 minute hike, but it was a warm rain and everyone was in good spirits. Neuschwanstein was impressive for sure, but I found the fact that it was built purely for show, and never used as an actual fortification, to detract from the mystique a bit. Not to mention the insane hoards of tourists swarming around the place. I really wanted to go inside, but there was a four hour wait! No way were we waiting for that. Still, we had an awesome time, and in my experience castles look the best from outside.
Somehow our two rest days were anything but restful. No matter, I was eager to get back to the Frankenjura and sample some more limestone….