Sustainable, mindful, close to nature: from Munich, you can experience the combination of climbing under your own steam and descending (if all goes well) through untouched snow in a weekend.
Crunch, crunch, crunch: our skis forge a path through the deep snow, left, right, we are the first today for a change. Because for once I am on time, and for once I didn't misplace the key to the roof box, pack the wrong skins, or make some other stupid mistake, Aki and I are tramping up to the Geierköpfe (mountains). It's a winter's day worthy of a holiday brochure: blue sky above us, knee-deep fresh snow beneath us, we can see nothing of the green of the fir trees and spruce around us – they are under a thick white blanket.
The thermometer in the car showed a crisp -18 Degree Celsius so we wasted no time putting our ski shoes on, attaching the skins to our skis, and quickly checking each other's avalanche transceiver. But now, having tramped through the forest for a few minutes, our bodies get going, not too cold, not too warm, as if were made for nothing else but ski touring.
The stingy ones who don't want to pay for a lift pass. The extreme sports people who are drawn to climb the rock faces in winter too – just on skis. The people who are anti those skiers who, with their old, UV-bleached equipment, just about manage the corners: this was once the image people had of ski tourers, whether deserved or not. This is an outdated picture, and the sport has become hot. Ski touring is to winter what mountain biking is to summer: an on-trend activity with ever-improving equipment, with new destinations constantly being added, and with ever brighter, more fashionable colours. Ski tourers use various mountain portals, Instagram and Facebook to post, preferably on Mondays, all the places they visited at the weekend.
It's a winter's day worthy of a holiday brochure: blue sky above us, knee-deep fresh snow beneath us.
But it's very easy to start out. Travel by BOB (Bavarian Uplands Railway) and bus to Spitzingsee, from there head to Schönfeldhütte or up to Rotwand. Take the Werdenfelsbahn (train) or Flixbus to Garmisch-Partenkirchen and return to the Kreuzjochhaus in the evening. Because – as Munich ski enthusiast Michael Vitzthum is currently proving as part of an Experiment – it's possible to enjoy climate-neutral ski touring using public transport for an entire season. Or, as far as I'm concerned, it's with the car and kids to Bad Kohlgrub and up to the Hörnlehütte. Or like today, to the Geierköpfe in the back Graswangtal.
Crunch, crunch, crunch: we have left the forest behind and below us, and the slope upwards gets steeper. 30, 35 degrees? Such is the approximate gradient of the slope, at least that's what the map I looked at beforehand said. The avalanche report says the snow has fallen with no wind, has stuck well to the ground, but what about the possible risk of life-threatening snow slabs? Quite low today: on the five-level scale used by the avalanche warning service, today is a low two – so moderate risk. Aki skis a few lengths ahead of me, to minimise the stress we put on the steep slopes. Warning signs such as bulges of driven snow, fresh avalanches, or even booming sounds below the snow? There's none of that.
According to the long-term average, around 100 people die in the Alps each year because of avalanches, the majority of them while enjoying winter sports. In winters with a lot of snow, the number of victims falls because the massive snowpacks tend to reduce the risk of snow slabs; in winters with low snowfall, it is easier for skiers to trigger dangerous sliding layers of snow. But the fact that the ratio of avalanche victims is remaining constant, and even falling, while the number of off-piste ski tourers, freeriders and snow-shoe-ers in the great outdoors has seen a huge increase – that's a success story!
It's probably because of better weather forecasting and avalanche reports, better equipment, and better educated winter sports fanatics. To maintain that, every ski tourer should carry, and be able to use, a complete set of safety equipment, regularly consult the avalanche report and its recommendations before heading out, refresh and regularly practice their knowledge of how to avoid snow slabs and how save their fellow skiers in an emergency. This could be on an Alpine club course, at a mountain skills school, or anywhere else.
The snow turns to powder, our skis slide over the hillside, Aki and I take it in turns to whoop out loud: there's something very childish about ski touring.
Crunch, crunch, crunch: a few more steps, then we take off our skis. The famous Felsentor blocks our route to the summit, we strap our skis to our rucksacks for a few metres, and tramp upwards to the summit ridge. And we finally have the sun on our faces. Before us is the solid grey block of the Wetterstein range and the break-off edge of the Zugspitze to the west. To the left, in the east, are the peaks of the Karwendel range, while further afield the Zillertal glaciers glisten in the sunshine. And to the right we have views to the Lech Valleys, and beyond to the Allgäu Alps. We put our skis back on, shuffle along the ridge for another quarter of an hour, and soon reach the summit cross. A few more ski tourers have passed us in the meantime, but they all make a stop here: one takes out some nuts, another eats a muesli bar, and one cracks open a can of beer.
There are ski tourers whose aim is the ascent, and for them it's the sport that's most important; they are the ones with narrow skis and tight-fitting, streamlined clothing. There are those focused on the descent, the ones with wide pants and broad skis whose focus is on the fun of the descent. For some, the camaraderie is the most important thing. Others prefer to ski alone. And yet others goes to all this effort mainly for the après-ski. If I am honest, I am one of the latter.
So: skins attached, ski shoes on, into the bindings – and we're off at a rattle, hammering down all the elevation we put so much effort into conquering on the way up. The snow turns to powder, our skis slide over the hillside, Aki and I take it in turns to whoop out loud: there's something very childish about ski touring. If it goes well, and today it's going well, your tracks cut through a slope of fresh snow, your happiness hormones are raging, and the trials and tribulations of daily life are far, far away.
And if you're really lucky, you'll get your fill in other ways too: we complete our descent, carry our skis across the street, and the midday sun has now hit the Ammerwaldalm (restaurant). No sooner have we sat down than owner Marion brings us glasses of wheat beer. And a little later, we're served with spinach dumplings with sage. Don't let anyone say ski touring is an extreme sport …
About the author: That fact that his mother took him ski touring at the age of 12 didn't stop Christian Thiele becoming a passionate ski tourer himself. His favourite spots are the Ammergau Alps in the Wetterstein mountains, and the Lechtal Alps. Raised in Füssen, he spent several years in Munich before moving to Garmisch-Partenkirchen where he lives today. And now he is trying – with varying degrees of success – to get his own two children passionate about ski touring. He is behind '101 Dinge, die ein Skitourengeher wissen muss' (100 Things a Ski Tourer Needs to Know, published in Germany by Bruckmann-Verlag).
The foothills of the Munich Alps are an excellent place to start ski touring. Before you start, however, you should definitely familiarise yourself with equipment and avalanche awareness.
The ski tour at Aberg in the Chiemgau Alps leads through a fairytale landscape with wide meadows and forests. The small and easy tour rewards winter sports enthusiasts with a wonderful view of Lake Chiemsee. The tour starts at the Lederstube hikers' car park near Frasdorf.
Level of difficulty: easy
Ascent time: 2 to 2.5 hours
Tour data: 850 metres altitude difference
Further information and the exact route can be found here. (german)
On Munich's local mountain, the Rotwand, you can experience a ski tour with tradition. The round tour at Spitzingsee is a classic among ski tours. In addition to several downhill options, two huts invite you to stop for a break. The starting point is the Wurzhütte restaurant at the southern end of the Spitzingsee. You can park above the church.
Level of difficulty: easy
Ascent time: 2 hours to Rotwandhaus + 2.5 hours to the summit
Tour data: 1300 metres altitude difference
Further information about the tour can be found here. (german)
Another ski tour at the Spitzingsee is the ski tour at the Brecherspitz. This tour is one of the easier tours and offers a great summit slope. Winter sports enthusiasts will also find a nice place to stop at the Obere Firstalm. The route starts at the Kurvenlift car park at Spitzingsee.
Level of difficulty: easy
Ascent time: 1.25 hours
Tour data: 500 metres altitude difference
The route and all further information about the tour can be found here. (german)
The Munich foothills of the Alps also offer many different routes and levels of difficulty for experienced ski tour enthusiasts.
The Hirschberg is a classic among the ski tours in Munich's local mountains. Once you reach the summit, you have a breathtaking view of the Tegernsee area and a cool downhill run at the end. This tour can be started at the valley station at the Hirschbergliften car park in the village of Point.
Level of difficulty: medium
Ascent time: 2.5 hours
Tour data: 900 metres altitude difference
Further information about this tour can be found here. (german)
On a ski tour on the Heimgarten in the Bavarian Pre-Alps, you can enjoy a picturesque view of Lake Kochel and Lake Walchen. In the upper northern part, there are some challenging downhill variants, but the cirque on the shady side often offers good powder snow. Starting point is the car park at the Kreut-Alm in Großweil.
Level of difficulty: medium to demanding
Ascent time: 3 hours
Tour data: 1050 metres altitude difference
All informations about this ski tour can be found here. (german)
Please note that both newcomers and experts should familiarise themselves with the correct equipment and avalanche awareness beforehand.