The Watzmann is about 2,713 metres high and one of the highest mountains in Germany. It is located in the Berchtesgadener Nationalpark.
Munich and the mountains

Little Canada: the best of the outdoors

Mountaineering, skiing, freeriding – the recreational value of the Munich hinterland is legendary. But who would have thought that there would be top destinations for so many outdoor sports, some of which even boast historical records, a mere two hours from the Bavarian capital?

Climbing

The Steinerne Rinne couloir in the Wilder Kaiser region

 

Alpine climbing history is made in the Wilder Kaiser region. And it’s no wonder: the massive limestone walls a few kilometres across the Bavarian-Tirolean border certainly rival the bigwalls of the USA’s Yosemite National Park – as seen on your screensaver – for challenges, exposed sections and sheer height.

Although he wore hobnailed boots and used hemp ropes, with very limited safety equipment, Hans Dülfer’s expeditions in the pioneer years of the early 20th century, for example through the Totenkirchl West Wall in 1913 or the “Old East Wall” of the Fleischbank (literally: “meat bank”) mountain in 1912, were among the first modern-day Alpine climbs, and still evoke respect in climbers today. If you want to get to the heart of the wildness of the “Wilder Kaiser” (“Wild Emperor”) ridge, you should head for the Steinere Rinne couloir, a U-shaped gorge that sweeps down from the Alpine meadows of Griesner Alm to the Ellmauer Tor rock saddle, flanked by the west face of the Predigtstuhl (“sermon chair”) and the Fleischbank East Wall – the “El Dorado of outdoor climbing in the Kaiser region”, as Markus Stadler writes in his climbing guide, “Wilder Kaiser”.

Then, in 1994, Stefan Glowacz conquered “Des Kaisers neue Kleider” (“The Emperor’s New Clothes”), a rare Grade 10 climb a little further to the right, consisting of a string of successive, highly challenging sections.

“Here, on this bastion, measuring 800 m in width and 200-350 m in height including the pillar of the Fleischbank, new standards in Alpine climbing have been set time and again since that first expedition in 1912 by Dülfer and Schaarschmidt.” More than half a century later, during a new boom brought about by the availability of improved materials and the emergence of a new climbing ethic, the next milestone followed: In 1977, Reinhard Karl and Helmut Kiene opened the “Pumprisse” on the pillar of the Fleischbank – the first Alpine Class 7 climb.

Then, in 1994, Stefan Glowacz conquered “Des Kaisers neue Kleider” (“The Emperor’s New Clothes”), a rare Grade 10 climb a little further to the right, consisting of a string of successive, highly challenging sections that even now remains one of the most difficult multi-pitch climbs in the Alps.

 

Experience it for yourself: Sure-footed mountain hikers who do not wish to tackle these climbs can take the Eggersteig trail from the Stripsenjochhaus Alpine hut through the Steinere Rinne and on to the Ellmauer Tor – and, if they feel like it, continue on to the peak of the Hinteren Goinger Halt. Or, for a panoramic alternative, why not head from the Greisner Alm to the Stripsenjochhaus and take the trail that leads across the Stripsenkopf and Feldberg and then back to the pine oil distillery at Griesner Alm? The views of the Kaiser gorge are breathtaking.

Freeriding

The Dammkar in Karwendel

 

“At the end of April and throughout the entire month of May, when all the ski regions in the Alpine foothills – yes even the skiing paradise of Kitzbühel – at Arlberg and across Davos and Innsbruck have long been transformed into floral bowers in full bloom, a strange, long, black worm made up of ski-wearing people from Munich creeps from the violin-making village of Mittenwald every Sunday and down into Dammkar,” wrote Walter Pause in 1961 in “Ski Heil”, his collection of the 100 most beautiful ski runs in the Alps. Now, more than 50 years on later, hardly any skiers are carried up the Dammkar any more.

And in this new millennium, the best days in the Dammkar cirque are more likely to be in deep winter than in the spring, and best after a northern storm that has strewn the Bavarian Alps with fresh, cold, powdery snow. And thus, the history of the Dammkar reflects the development of ski tourism throughout the entire Alpine region. After a sort-of involuntary boom in ski tourism in the 1950s and 60s (there were simply too few ski lifts) gave rise to the regular Sunday appearance of the “Dammkar worm” described above, the Karwendel cable car was opened in 1967, shortening the once-laborious ascent into an eight-minute ride up the mountain – and changing the wild descent through the Dammkar into a more or less normal ski slope.

And in this new millennium, the best days in the Dammkar cirque are more likely to be in deep winter than in the spring, and best after a northern storm that has strewn the Bavarian Alps with fresh, cold, powdery snow.

But shortly before the turn of the millennium, the Karwendel cable car was just one of a great, great many cable cars in the northern Alps – and a very small one at that. And it has long been impossible to keep pace with the ski areas of the glacial valleys of Tyrol, with their nightly planning and perfect snow – not least because the Dammkar was too steep and the effort required to develop it into a perfect carving run was too great. The crisis proved to be a blessing in disguise for ambitious skiers and snowboarders. Since 1999, the Dammkar descent is no longer prepared, but is rather smoothed by the local Avalanche Commissions using blasts.

And so local skiers, and those who have travelled to Munich, now crowd into the Dammkar on the first day it is opened following a snowfall. However, they now head to the upper end, beyond the tunnel exit that acts as a shortcut from the mountain station, to one of the first freeride descents in the Alps, striving to be the first to leave their marks on the 1200-metre route and further on through the Kanonenrohr (“gun barrel”) and the long connecting piste back to the violin-making village.

 

Experience it for yourself: Managing to get there the first day after the snowfall requires constant monitoring of the weather, patience and flexibility in terms of time. Even a few days later, however, the descent is an experience. So: just hop on the cable car and walk through the tunnel. The Avalanche Commission can guarantee you will not be buried in snow, and any decent skier or snowboarder equipped with the standard safety equipment should manage the rest.

Windsurfing and kite surfing

Walchensee (Lake Walchen)

 

The Upper Bavarian windsurfer – who has been replaced to an increasing extent by the Upper Bavarian kite surfer over the past ten years (though please do not confuse either with the Munich Eisbach surfer!) – often faces rather sobering conditions on the most beautiful days for water sports. When the water is especially sunny at the height of summer, a leaden depression weighs on the large lakes of the Alpine foothills. This is the finest hour for Walchensee: especially in a stable, high-pressure location, when the nights cool under clear, star-filled skies and the sun provides the best of weather from the morning onwards, a local thermal forms between Jochberg and Herzogstand that draws up the cool valley air from Kochelsee (Lake Kochel) and stirs it into a strong wind on Walchensee, further freshened by the nozzle effect of the closely-grouped mountains.

And while the lilos bob up and down in the August heat on Ammersee (Lake Ammer), Wörthsee (Wörth Lake) or Chiemsee, Walchensee fills with colourful swarms of sails and parasols, in an intensity usually only seen at Lake Garda in northern Italy, which also benefits from a thermal effect. Various zones can be distinguished within this scene: from the Schweinebucht (“Bay of Pigs”) near Sachenbach, where the thermal only takes effect in the morning, and the “Gallery”, whose few parking bays are packed with caravans belonging to Walchensee pros on good days, to the large meadow not far from the Herzogstand cable car.

If conditions are favourable, observers can watch the entire range of manoeuvres by these water sports buffs, from the swollen gybes of the trusty windsurfers to the wild attempts of the young kiters at flying – movements you would generally only see on the coast and not on a mountain lake in the Alpine foothills of Bavaria.

 

Experience it for yourself: Those wishing to experience the Walchensee nozzle effect should look for a “blue thermal” over the Bavarian Alps in terms of weather. Though of course, you could always just take a chance: If the thermal that gradually stirs up the glassy surface of the water fails to arrive from the north on a hot summer’s day, you can simply go for a dip instead, or take a hike around the Herzogstand. And what about windsurfing equipment? You can rent it in the windsurfing centre at Walchensee.

Hang gliding

The Tegelberg

 

The flight of American Mike Harker from Germany’s highest mountain, the Zugspitze, in April 1973 is considered to be the birth of hang gliding. What had previously only been open to inventors, or had become a bizarre spectator sport with roots in Australian and Californian airshows developed a strong dynamic within a few short years – similarly to other leisure sports at the time that allowed people to move about in the elements just as they wished to.

All over the Alps, young flying pioneers founded the first hang gliding schools, and in a few short years, a lively scene emerged. The Tegelberg, on which a cable car had been running since the late 1960s and against whose “Gelber Wand” (“yellow face”) unusual winds tend to develop, soon emerged as one of the most popular gliding spots. In glider speak, it can be described as follows: “The Tegelberg is a typical northern face, but the updraughts are more precisely defined and can be very strong.”

In order to reach these upwinds, which generally arise around midday on the Tegelbahn, the hang gliders glide on the leeward side of the mountain, i.e. on the southern side on thermal days, where they rise high enough to touch the clouds.

In order to reach these upwinds, which generally arise around midday on the Tegelbahn, the hang gliders glide on the leeward side of the mountain, i.e. on the southern side on thermal days, where they rise high enough to touch the clouds. Or, as the glider says: “They can reach the base very quickly this way.” For paragliders, who usurped the hang gliders as the leisure fliers half a lifetime after that historical hang glide, it is more difficult to use the specific flying conditions above Forggensee to their advantage.

Of course, the airspace above the royal palaces has become more crowded and colourful. Nonetheless, the Tegelberg seems to be retaining its status as the home of hang gliders. Numerous hang gliding championships continue to take place there today. Thus, there are ample opportunities for the interested observer to watch elegant hang gliders, who are becoming an increasingly rare sight in most gliding areas in the Alps. But the commotion in the skies is still a spectacular sight even if you have no personal interest in updraughts.

 

Experience it for yourself: Good gliding weather is also good hiking weather. The starting points on the Tegelberg are an excellent vantage point for watching the flurry of activity as things get started – and what better way to do it than over a spot of lunch after a hike, with a view of the royal palaces of Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau (followed by a descent through the richly varied landscape of Bleckenau). The laid-back “Königsrunde” (“King’s Route”) can be accessed from the Tegelberg cable car. If you really want to know what’s so special about the gliding conditions on the Tegelberg, why not book a tandem paraglide with a view of Neuschwanstein castle courtyard with one of the flying academies in Schwangau?

Mountaineering

The Watzmann east face

 

Will we go mountaineering or will we keep hiking? Or are we perhaps already climbing? Historically, the lines have always been rather fluid, but in the past, the main aim was simply to get up a mountain – preferably in the most spectacular way possible. This is also reflected in the language used in these circles: even today, climbers speak about “redpointing” a face – and it is no simple task to define where an overhang ends and a face begins. For the average hiker, the Watzmann east face has little to do with mountaineering any more.

In addition, one or another sports climber would perhaps be more inclined to describe the “redpointing” of this limestone monster as mountaineering – until he or she had ventured into that steep world of overhangs and tiers, strips of gravel and intersections, with an 1800-metre difference in altitude that makes it one of the highest walls – yes, walls – of the Alps. Actually, the Watzmann east face is the third-highest after the Monte Rosa east face and the Eiger north face.

The first person to climb though it was Johann Grill, also known as the “Kederbacher” (“man from Kederbach”) who completed the climb in 1881. In 1953, however, Hermann Buhl managed the climb alone and at night during the winter.

The first person to climb though it was Johann Grill, also known as the “Kederbacher” (“man from Kederbach”) who completed the climb in 1881. In 1953, however, Hermann Buhl managed the climb alone and at night during the winter. Mountain guide Heinz Zembsch from Berchtesgaden has now made the climb over 400 times. In his selective guidebook “Longlines”, Adi Stocker counts 2800 climbing metres – as mentioned above, the wall is not completely vertical.

The strong impression it made on Helma Schimke, whose husband lost his life while attempting the climb in winter and who later completed the climb herself, is still as vivid today: “My God, this wall is beautiful! How quiet it is. Not a stone falling. Not a jackdaw in sight. You almost have the feeling you’ve forgotten something down below until you realise: It’s just the noise.”

 

Experience it for yourself: Boat trip to St. Bartholomä on Königssee. And then, look up – and take leave of the east face aspirants, who are the only ones allowed to spend the night on the Hirschau peninsula as you leave on the last boat. For those who want to take a closer look: Why not hike to the “Eiskapelle” (“ice chapel”) at the foot of the wall, the lowest-lying permanent snowfield in the Alps – a kind of mini-glacier, if you will. The Watzmann is also a worthwhile destination for mountaineers – or should we say hikers? – however, these do not access it via the east face, but instead via the normal route, spending the night at the Watzmannhaus mountain hut.

Video: Lakes & Mountains

 

Text: Oliver Stolle; Illustration: Julia Pfaller; Photos & Video: Tobias Schnorpfeil, Carolin Unrath