Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Becoming an Alpinist

(Here's a link to the map of the ski area I explore in this post and here's a link to the photos of the adventure. I'll post them at the end, too.)

I’m from this Midwest. This means we don’t have a lot of topography back at home. This also means I am not a very accomplished skier. I first learned to ski when I was eleven-ish at Pine Knob Ski Resort in southern Michigan. With Scouts I would go once a year to Perfect North Slopes in Southeastern Indian. Once in college I went to Mad River Slopes outside Columbus. If you’re having a hard time remembering the mountains of Southern Michigan, Indiana, or Central Ohio, that’s because they literally won’t stick out in your mind.

So, when Shane, a chemist Fulbrighter who’s living in Munich, invited me to join him and a guy from his lab on an excursion into the German Alps for some skiing, I was excited but a little apprehensive. Would I be able to take on real mountains with my Midwestern skills? There was only one way to find out.

By the time February 6th rolled around, the excursion had snowballed (Shane’s appropriate metaphor) into a group of 9 that would be gallivanting along the roof of Germany. The group included Marco, a physical chemist Fulbrighter working in Düsseldorf, Chris, a writer Fulbrigher in Berlin, Marty, an aeronautical engineer Fulbrighter in Stuttgart, Shane, his co-worker Robert and two of Robert’s buddies (Australians). Later we would be joined by Glen, a British friend of Shane’s who grew up in Germany. An eclectic group, to say the least, but that’s how it works over here. I work with a Frenchmen, drink with Germans, share a kitchen with a Kenyan and an Iranian, and hope to work with a scientist from China.

Marco and I met in Cologne and shared a ride with an enthusiastic snowboarder from Cologne. He excitedly talked with Marco about his family and impressions of Germany. I couldn’t really hear much of what they were saying from the back seat, but I did get to enjoy rocketing along the Autobahn at 220 km/hr in the little Audi coupe. I can check “taking full advantage of the absent speed limit” off my German experience check-list.

We met the other Fulbrighers at the Munich train station and went out for dinner at one of the best döner kebab places I’ve visited in Germany. My review of Mama’s Kebab might be colored by the fact they had about twenty little bowls lining the counter, each with a different spice or sauce. Any place that offers that many condiments is an A+ in my book.

Eventually we wound our way back to Shane’s apartment, catching up and sharing stories of life in Deutschland along the way. The next morning we were up at 5:30 so we could catch the train to Garmisch-Partenkirchen at 6:30. Everyone but Glen, who was stopped underground on a delayed subway train, was able to convene on the platform. Glen decided to make the journey later in the day and join us on the slopes on Sunday.

As the train chugged towards the Austrian/German border, the sun rose and illuminated the distant mountains. Once we were in their midst, following tracks through an open glacial valley, I couldn’t keep my butt on the seat. I was up at the window staring up at their peaks, excited to soon be part their craggy, snowy profile.

But first we needed to figure out how to get there. Stepping off the train, there was no obvious next step. Chris wisely consulted her guidebook and found the tourist information office in the middle of town. While finding out where we could rent skis, buy lift-tickets, and actually get to the mountain, the morning swiftly waned and everyone was itchy to actually get on the slopes. We found the bus we needed and settled in with the mild panic that always accompanies bus rides in strange cities and towns, “Are we going the right way? Are we looking at the map correctly? Is this the right number? Where should we get off?” Fortunately, it was pretty obvious we were going in the right direction (the mountains were getting closer) and when we should get off (the ski lift appeared in front of the bus). I had tried to do my research before getting to the slopes, but found a morass of websites, none of which detailed prices, but now know that skiing in the Alps is a surprisingly affordable prospect. For two days on the hill you can have a lift-ticket for 50 Euro and quality skis for 40. Perfect North will set you back $66 for one day, and you’re not exactly paying for the view.

Once everyone was outfitted, we stepped up to the lift for the first time. The lift was quintessential German chaos. You shouldered your way into a mass of people and surged towards turnstiles that opened when you swiped your lift ticket by the sensor. Mine didn’t work the first time around, so I had to fight my way upstream to exchange my faulty card.

Once I got through the stiles, I joined a mass of humanity clustered around the entrance to the lifts. Each car was egg shaped with a bench lining the perimeter and room enough for maybe eight people. Then there was room in the middle for your gear, or maybe more passengers. The pods slowly traced the boarding platform. Temporary gates were set up, allowing a first group of people to climb aboard. Once the egg passed the gate’s entry, it moved past a secondary entrance. Another dash ensued and the egg was filled with as many passengers as could fit. There was no line, no order to the boarding procedure. It was every man, woman, and child for his or herself. I was able to dive aboard right before the door swung closed and began a two kilometer ride up the mountain called the Kreuzeck. Soon I would be swooshing.

At the top we assembled and decompressed after the crazy exercise of clamoring into our eggs. The skill levels of the group were pretty mixed, tending toward beginner snowboarders and skiers. The first run before us was an intermediate slope, and the only way to get to the beginner stuff. A different lift would have taken us to the easier hills, but we didn’t realize the scale of the place we were dealing with, and originally thought we would all be able to make it down this first run. The only thing to do was use chair lifts and intermediate runs to get to the bunny hills for the beginners.

After everyone strapped in and Chris and I led the way, finally letting our equipment whip us over the snow. Then Marco crested the hill, struggling to keep his feet beneath him. He had a bit less experience, but he eventually pulled up next to me. Chris waited on the slope for everyone else, but no one popped up. Finally the three of us decided to take the chair lift. Maybe we would be able to find each other with a higher perspective. No dice. Everyone had dispersed. So it was Marco, Chris and I exploring the route to the Bunny slopes. I found I was able to control myself surprisingly well. Maybe because I had become a runner since my last ski trip and had more power for controlling my suddenly-five-foot-long feet? Regardless, there is no feeling quite like the icy wind lashing your face as you careen down slope, surrounded by the towering Alps.

Eventually Chris and I got Marco safely to the smaller, easier slopes so he could practice on smoother, wider runs. As we stood discussing where to meet after the hills closed, something we had forgotten to decide before getting separated. Shane miraculously appeared. Then Marty rode up to our group. Robert was nearby and by dumb luck we were able to arrange a meeting time. Lesson learned: It’s hard to keep everyone together on a ski slope and a cell phone is a pretty useful tool for communicating across the Alps. You just need to bring them.

Chris, Marty, and I then began our quest for the summit. We slowly made our way upwards by riding lifts and searching out trails. After a terrifying two way trail with people clumsily moving up the slope on skis and people descending on boards, we found what we thought was the summit. The valley opened wide below us and the town of Garmischer-Paterskirche lay at our feet while the spine of the range guarded our backs. We snapped triumphant pictures and slid up and down the slope. Then Marty and I looked at the map and realized we could still go up! A side trail dove off to the right and we followed it to the base of the Alpspitze. The peak is not the highest in the range, but it cuts a distinctive, severe profile, the twisted carbonate bedrock rising to a peak then snapping off in mid arch.

We rode a gondola the size of a small bus up to 2050 meters, 1300 m above our starting point that morning. The trail we followed was one of the most amazing runs I’ve ever set skis to (Note: I haven’t set my skis to much, but Chris was really excited about the trail and she’s much more qualified to judge such things after 20 years on skis and snowboard.). The 2.5 km run gradually drops 350 meters, diving through a narrow gap in the mountain where you ski along trail through cliffs of imposing rock. You shoot from this gap onto a looping run that traces the edge of an Alpine bowl filled with snow-frosted trees. You then drop a steep slope and slide back to the Gondola.

For the first time I understood skiing isn’t just an excuse to go really fast in the snow. It’s also an opportunity to enjoy the gifts of nature, to travel over a mountain, up peaks and through forests, covering incredible distances while overwhelming myself with the scale of the mountain underfoot. Exhilarating. Unfortunately my camera ran out of batteries as we rode to the summit, leaving indelible images in my memory that I can’t share with you.

At 4 PM, the final gondola rode to the top. We hopped aboard, watching clouds dock against the mountains around us. We proceeded to ski from 2050 meters to the base of the mountain to meet the rest of the group at 700 meters. As soon as we hit the cloud line, an oppressive fog surrounded us, cutting visibility to a couple dozen meters. It was like skiing into an atmospheric horror movie or a Grimm fairy tale.

With skis in tow, we headed back to the train station and began catching up on everyone’s experiences. The novices were a little worn out after searching in vain for simple, approachable slopes, but were reluctantly game to tackle the Zugspitze the next day where conditions might be a little more forgiving.

Exhausted, we picked up our bags from the main train station and rode on to Mittenwald, a small town further up the valley. It isn’t as close to the slopes as Garmische, so we were able to find a cheaper Pension to say in. It also meant there were precious few tourists in town. With hunger bearing down on us, we found a little Bavarian restaurant that could seat 9 people. It was the perfect place to end the day.

They served the local brew – Mittenwalder Bräu – and traditional Bavarian fare, which basically means pork in various forms with different sauces. While we ate and drank, a band played folk tunes while most of the other diners sang along. Everyone seemed to be over 45 and sporting lederhosen or dirndls for a Saturday night out on the town. The band was gathered around a large table, facing each other instead of the house, giving the impression they were playing for their own pleasure, not their audience. The guitarist – displaying a magnificent handlebar mustache - had a 9-string bass neck attached to a classical acoustic guitar for creating a solid “Oom-Pah” without brass. His neighbor – sporting a full white beard – played a dulcimer, and the final member chimed in every now and then with a fierce spoon solo.

Exhausted and full from hearty food, beer, and debate, we called it a night. The next morning breakfast was served at 7, but I was up at 6 trying to take a shower in a bath with a gabled ceiling. This meant I had to squat down to wash my hair or stand perfectly straight with my head poking into the small skylight to rinse. Really it was a solid stretching routine to start the day before punishing my leg muscles for a second full day.

Slowly everyone gathered for bread and spread (German Breakfast) then we made for the door. The clock was ticking and we had a precise schedule to keep. If we missed the train from Mittenwald, we would have to wait a full hour before getting to Garmisch-Partenkirchen. If the Mittenwald train was running late, we would miss the train to the slopes. We made both connections, but were a little warm from the hustling exertion despite the fresh layer of snow accumulating around us.

The second train we caught is called the Zugspitzbahn. You get free admission to the train with a lift pass. The cog-railway system then runs to each slope near Garmisch-Partenkrchen, terminating at the Zugspitze, the highest point in Germany at around 3000 meters. It’s not the highest Alp by a long shot (Mont Blanc is 4,810 meters), but it’s still a more imposing mountain then I have ever skied before.

The train actually cuts into the mountain, traveling a 4.5 km tunnel up a steep slope, finally expelling you onto the Zugspitzplatte, a small glacier sitting in front of the Zugspitze peak. At the peak, the snow was falling thickly, layering the glacier with several inches of light powder. Visibility was reduced to a couple dozen meters, blending air, horizon, and mountain into a blank white sheet. Marco and Shane found their way to the beginner slopes near the peak while Chris showed me how to revel in freshly fallen powder.

Chris demonstrating the depth of the snow. It could get as high as our thighs as we plowed ahead.

As the day wore on, the fluffy layer accumulated. I was fearless. Why should I worry about falling when the soft snow will absorb the impact? I couldn’t stop laughing, zipping through the stuff, my skis, boots, and legs disappearing into the light surficial layer. I felt like a torpedo cutting just below the surface, spraying a wake of flurries behind me. Red markers lined the trail, guiding us to the next tow or lift. The only drawback was the effort of moving under all that snow sapped a lot of power and we knew by the end of the day we probably wouldn’t walk, but it was worth it.

One of the clearest moments on the Zugspitzplatt. On a clear day you can see Austria to the left and Germany to the right. Us? We could only see a blank sheet of white.

At 1:30, Chris and I caught the Zugspitzbahn back to the Kreuzeck, the area we had skied the previous day, to meet Glen. I also wanted the thrill of sliding down an entire mountain one more time. The ride was about 1.25 hours, so it was also our only break in the day. As we rolled through (cogged through?) the tunnel, Chris examined the map.

At the first stop after the tunnel, a place called Riffelriß, a ski trail seemed to start. It then looped down to the Eibsee, the next station on the railway. According to the schedule, it took 20 minutes for the train to go down the slope. The trail was 5 km long and dropped 650 meters. Could we really ski to the next train station? It would be a race. If we lost, the next train wouldn’t come for another hour, killing the rest of the day. Chris wanted me to commit, I wanted her to commit. Finally I squinted and said, “We’re gonna do it.” We grabbed our equipment and got ready to bolt out the door. While we came to a halt, I tied my shoes together and slung them around my neck. The doors slid wide and we ran. The slope didn’t begin immediately. We had to awkwardly jog/hop a couple of dozen meters to the beginning of the gradient. We threw on our gear, I snapped a picture of Chris taking off, and the race was on.


Chris is a little left of center, shooting down the hill ready to beat technology.

Snow continued to fall, but visibility was the best it had been all day. The wide path plunged into the pine forest with smaller game trails leading from the main run. As I whipped by I noticed deer and boar tracks wandering into the tree line. Adrenaline surged through me as my speed increased and I created a new track on the near-virgin snow. I was closing on Chris as I tucked in to put on more speed. The trail narrowed then began a lazy bend to the right. As I leaned into the turn, the back edge of my left ski caught a drift and I exploded into a spectacular cartwheel of snow.


When I stopped tumbling, I almost felt I had the momentum to roll back onto my feet to keep plunging down slope. Then I noticed I was missing a ski. I organized my limbs and stretched for the missing piece of equipment. I then noticed my boot had been overextended and somehow the ankle guard was outside the main foot straps. I had to wrestle with the plastic as the seconds and minutes ticked away. Finally, the boot was correctly on my foot. I cleared the binding and tried to slam my boot in to lock it on. It bounced out. I tried again and the effort caused the ski to slide away. I grabbed it and slammed my heel in. Finally locked down, I pushed off and the dash continued.


A few kilometers on, a sign pointed to the right with a train station symbol. We followed and suddenly found ourselves on an upwardly sloping hiking trail. Chris popped her foot out of her board’s binding. Impulsively I popped off my skis, flung them on my shoulder and tried to run up the slope. In hindsight, this was a poor plan. In heavy ski boots and fresh snow, you can try to run as fast as the wind, but you won’t move faster than a comfortable stroll. When the trail sloped away again, I popped on my skis and slid to the next trail.


Up the trail went again, and off went my skis. At the crest, a steep hill opened before me with kids sled riding down the slope. I knew I was really close. I dropped by skis and tried to pop them on. Running through the snow had caked snow onto the soles and toes of my boots, making them slippery and difficult to lock. My skis wouldn’t stay upright in the snow and I cussed trying to juggle my poles, skis, and shoes which swung into my face and spewed puffs of snow up my nose.


As I struggled a small boy and his dad climbed the hill with their sled.

“What’s he trying to do, Dad?” the kid asked in German
“It looks like he’s trying to ski.” Dad helpfully replied.

They stood and watched, waiting for me to get my act together so they could slide down without me overtaking them. I waved them on. In a final act of frustration, I slammed by boot down as if I was trying to smash a cockroach to China. Click.

I was off.


Not sure where to go next: “Where’s the train station?”(“Wo ist die Bahnhof?”) I was in such a rush I forgot “Bahnhof” is masculine and I should have said “der Bahnhof.” The helpful sledder pointed up a steep slope. Off came the skis one more time just as my phone started to ring. There was only one reason that would happen. Chris was at the station and the train had arrived. I dug deep and climbed the hill, then started awkwardly speed-walking/ski-boot running through the parking lot. There was the train. There was Chris hanging out of the door. “Chris!” I yelled to let her know I was close. She saw and started jumping with encouragment and worry.


I made it to the closest platform entrance and tried to plow through the gate. It was locked. I ran back down the ramp. “Here, here!” Chris yelled, pointing at a turnstile 25 feet further on. I busted through, flung my skis onto the floor of the train and hauled myself aboard.


We put our equipment in the racks by the door laughing with adrenaline sunk into the same seats we had before we left. Three snowboarders who rode with us from the Zugspitze looked confused, having seen us get off one stop earlier. They didn’t ask what could make us so giddy or why I was shaking snowballs out of the shoes around my neck. Mission accomplished. I can officially ski faster than a speeding locomotive, especially if I can keep my skis under me.

We met Glen after grabbing an apple strudel at the top of the Kreuzeck (we wanted dampfnudel, the traditional skiing desert, but they were out). He was beat and feeling a little queasy after all the Dunkel Mittenwalder the night before. We skied with him to the bottom of the mountain. Here visibility was a bit better, but the snow conditions a little more challenging. Drifts of powder sat on smooth ice faces causing you to slow and suddenly skitter forward over the ice. This was like skiing at home.

Glen called it a day, but Chris and I wanted to make a drive for the peak of the mountain before the lifts closed at four. It would be tight since it was 3:45, but we could do it. The egg lift dropped us and we confidently headed for the two-way slope and the first chair lift. Skiing down the slope to the lift I saw a word that has come to be my German tourist mantra: Geschlossen. It was exactly 4 and they already had the gate up and multiple red poles over the decking. The chairs were still running, but they clearly didn’t want anyone else to go up. Maybe the operator had to go home to be with his family.

Bummed, we hiked up the slope and skied to the foot of the mountain in a final burst of speed and swooshing. We found Marco, Robert, and Shane and traded stories as we made our way into Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Marco and Shane had found the perfect beginner slopes near the top of the Zugspitzplatt and had spent the day gaining confidence and fewer bruises than the day before. Over Haxe (Baked Pork Knuckle, a symbol of Bavaria) and Paulainer Hefeweissen (another symbol of Bavaria) we declared the day exhausting but yet another wonderful romp through Germany.

Some of our Ski Crew on the Zugspitzbahn (Left to Right): Shane, Robert, Chris, and Marco.

I took an overnight train from Munich to Bonn, spending the night in the fetal position over two seats. It didn’t exactly help my aching muscles, but I was able to hobble into the lab the next day with stories to tell about an exciting weekend becoming an Alpinist.

I hope you’ve taken advantage of the gifts of winter, even if they don’t necessarily involve racing trains.

Tschüss (or “Pfüat Di” in Bavaria)

P.S. Photos of the swooshing adventures.

1 comment:

Tim said...

The Alps sound absolutely amazing! You should return to climb some of those peaks when there's less snow :)