The year 2011 brought a wet and rather cold summer in the Alps and September / October saw an early winter with about 1 meter of fresh snow on the summits. Not a good sign for autumn hikes I thought.
How I was wrong.
Mid-October set up a central high pressure area which - with some minor variations - is still active while I write these lines and which brought back a late summer to the alpine mountains. 24 degrees centigrade end of october in the Tirol valleys is more than unusual for our region and the warm and gentle Föhn, this southern comfort wind, melted away most of the winter traces - with the execption of the high mountains and the north and west faces.
This was the situation when my colleague Reinhard had the idea to tackle the Watzmann traverse on the long holiday weekend around 1st of November. I took a day off and we planned to have a go on Sunday 30th and Monday, 31st of October. Having done this traverse with wintry condition before, Reinhard about four times and me one time, we had a good prospect of what this will mean. It was clear that despite of this late “summer outbreak”, the Watzmann ridge will still be covered in snow and maybe some ice, too.
The real good Berchtesgaden mountaineers do the traverse in one day. The all-time-record is - I think - a bit more than 5 hours. I hardly can imagine how this works: in five hours you ascend and descend 2.200 m of altitude difference, traverse the whole Watzmann ridge and hike / jog at least 7 km through the Wimbach valley back to the trailhead. Lovely!
We needed, to tell you right away, about 12 hours in 1,5 days.
1,5 days require an overnight stay. This is at Watzmannhaus, more precisely at the winter shack of Watzmannhaus. Huge Watzmannhaus with its 250 sleeping posts (!!) - I rather like not to imagine the crowds during summer - closes down in mid-October but there is a little basic winter hut some steps away from Watzmannhaus with 10 sleeping posts, two rooms, a rather good stove - and no water (if there is no snow) !
This last item needed some planning about our dinner and of course about the amount of our thirst as we needed water for the ascent to the house, the evening, the breakfast and the whole day until we would get back to the valley ground.
As Watzmannhaus is about 3 hours up from Ramsau / Wimbachbrücke, the trailhead for the traverse, the first half day is rather short. It is the second day, the day of the traverse, which can be a long and demanding one, depending on the conditions on the ridge. In summer the Watzmann traverse is not too difficult for the experienced mountaineer. Secured with steel ropes in some parts, the ridge is a highly enjoyable and easy climb, sometimes on the very exposed ridge crest, sometimes on narrow ledges on the west or east side of the ridge, reaching Mittelspitze and Südspitze through narrow and steep chutes.
In autumn and winter snow and ice lingers on the ledges, makes the ridge crest slippery and covers sometimes the fixed ropes completely. The last (and first) time I did the traverse we were first after some snowfall and we had to tackle the fresh snow, had no fixed ropes as they were buried below snow and ice and we needed crampons and an ice axe to get through all that savely. The traverse lasts much longer under such conditions and is more difficult and demanding.
But you get your rewards: No people around, clear blue skies, breathtaking views from an incredibly high and exposed ridge.
Are you longing for more? NO !
The first day always is an easygoing one. We started at Munich at noon which meant: getting up late (wonderful), packing after a good breakfast (relaxing), queuing up in the usual traffic jams on the highway Munich - Salzburg (annoying). It still was a very warm day, the sun was shining from a cloudless sky and half of the inhabitants of Munich must have chosen Tegernsee valley as their aim; we imagined thousand people standing in a line and waiting for their go for the lakes promenade.
After Chiemsee there were less cars on the highway and our journey had no more obstacles. After having left the highway and passed Inzell, the first high Berchtesgaden peaks get within sight and they were still very white.
After Schwarzbachwacht there is the first good glimpse on Watzmann: at a parking area you have a good overlook of Ramsau valley and the whole Watzmann ridge. We had a break on a bench in the warm, not to say hot, sun, ate something and studied the Watzmann conditions.
“Not too much snow”, said Reinhard, who has more experience with Watzmann. “And with the good weather there must be already a good foot track in the snow parts so it will be easier this time”, he added. “Hard and icy in some parts, though.”
“And there seems to be no snow at the Watzmann hut”, I added, “which means to carry up all the water we need”.
The parking area at Wimbachbrücke still had some free parking lots and we sacrificed the required sum of money to the merciful god of the parking areas. It is always the same: the car stays for 1,5 days but you have to pay for two whole days.
I really do not like the first half of the ascent to Watzmannhaus. It is a northern ascent and you use an old forest road up to Stubenalm which crosses dense, cold, damp and dark woods. I was happy when we arrived at
Stubenalm were a first good view to Berchtesgaden, Untersberg and Lattengebirge is possible.
Oh yes, the water problem! Reinhard questioned almost everybody we met whether the spring at Mitterkaser Alm was still running - but nobody seemed to have passed by that Alm. So we discussed during a short break whether to fill up our many bottles here and carry this extra weight 400 more meters of altitude difference or to push our luck and hope for that spring 400 meters higher still delivering water.
We chose the heavy weight training option and filled the bottles at the fountain in front of us.
What a good and appropriate decision this was: 400 meters up we saw a dried out spring at Mitterkaser Alm, which is some steps above the supply cablecar station for Watzmannhaus.
At a meteorologic monitoring station the old forest road ends and a trail zigzags up to Falz Alm where we had the first view of Watzmann cirque with the peaks of Watzmann wife and her Watzmann children. At this point Hagengebirge with Schneibstein and Fagstein, Hohes Brett and Hoher Göll show their best side, too. As dawn was approaching all these mountains were nicely illuminated by an already low sun.
The last 300 meters up to Watzmannhaus were quickened by a man telling us that the stove was already lit and there was some spare beer from the last summer season waiting at the winter hut. Ahhhh, what good news!
We arrived at Watzmannhaus on a perfect evening with a beautiful alpenglow illuminating Schneibstein and Hoher Göll. There was only one lonely mountaineer sitting in the hut, so we hade plenty of room. We made us comfortable and had a nice candlelight dinner with Weißbier while the light outside faded away.
Later in the evening we visited the north terrace of Watzmannhaus with a great view down to Berchtesgaden with its thousands and thousands of glittering lights and with millions and millions of stars in the sky. The milkyway was clearly visible and within five minutes two shooting stars crossed the skies.
What a good omen for the next day!
Up to Hocheck
The next day saw a clear and bright morning. Some fog was covering parts of Berchtesgaden deep down below. Burning red skies announced the ascending sun. We had a quick candlelight breakfast with some hot tea prepared the evening before and stowed away in thermos flasks.
Our third man was all in a nervous state. He wasn´t secure if he was up to the task and left the hut in a hurry. My guess: to be in front of us and get some help in case some difficult situation occurs. During our breakfast he came back: he had forgotten to pay for the night and the beers. We, too, fed the chained iron box with the necessary amount of money and went out in the clear and cold morning.
As Watzmannhaus is erected on the north side of Watzmann, the place does not see much sun during autumn and winter. But every morning the first rays of the ascending sun hit the mountain hut before disappearing behind huge Watzmann / Hocheck.
There was still some fog around Berchtesgaden and neighbouring Hochkalter was illuminated brightly when we ascended the trail in the direction to our first aim: Hocheck. This is the hiking and skiing summit of Watzmann. The trail zigzags up the north slopes of Hocheck until it reaches steeper rocks below the north ridge. This is the “most difficult” part of the ascent to Hocheck: some easy rock scramble and some fixed iron ropes, helping you up to the north ridge. We there had the first hard and icy snow to tackle.
We soon reached the top of the rocks and followed the scree trail on the north ridge to Hocheck. Now there was more snow and the scenery got more and more winterly. Great views to the east (Dachstein, Hoher Göll, Hagengebirge, Totes Gebirge) and to the west (Hochkalter, Hocheisspitze, Wimbachgries, Leoganger Steinberge) were fueling our spirits.
Arriving at Hocheck our lonely mountaineer was already sitting there in the warm sun and greeting us happily. The first 360 degree view, only blocked a bit by the dark and menacing looking Mittelspitze of Watzmann, was just overwhelming. The views to the east were now even showing far away Gesäuse and to the west the eyes reached Stubai and some Ötztal summits. Deep down below Königsee and the famous Sankt Bartholomä chapel were still lying in deep shadows.
As I said already Watzmann Mittelspitze looks rather horrible when viewed from Hocheck: steep, narrow and exposed ridges, a dark and cold looking north face. Many, I think, who intended to do the traverse were discouraged by this aspect. I remembered my first traverse about 15 years ago which was my first time on Hocheck summit: I, too, was intimidated by this view and I asked myself: how will you get on the top of that next summit?
Our lonely mountaineer had the same question, visibly impressed by the prospect of the traverse to Mittelspitze. We showed him the route and calmed him down a bit by telling him that it looks much worse than it is. He put on his via ferrata harness and left Hocheck, again in a hurry.
Just a few words to the necessary gear: For a snow / winter traverse of Watzmann you need crampons, an ice axe and maybe gaiters. A helmet can be useful, too, as rock fall can be a menace in some parts of the traverse. As the ropes may be covered under snow and large parts of the traverse are not secured with ropes at all a via ferrata harness is not too useful. At least in some parts of the traverse you can belay yourself.
We took our time (half an hour) to rest and drink a bit before starting the adventure.
Across the ridge to Mittelspitze
Besides the fierce look of Mittelspitze the first part of the ridge can be intimidating, too. Some steep rocks and then a “knifes edge arete” with 1.800 meters of air right and left of you is the first part of the traverse. I think this is a good test to hold back less experienced. With wintry conditions on the Watzmann ridge this first part is a good test, too, whether the southern exposed parts of the ridge are dry or snow covered. This is very important because some only partly secured rock faces of the traverse have a southern exposition. We were lucky: the south looking rocks were in excellent condition.
Carefully we descended the mixed terrain: good, dry and warm rocks with southern exposition, cold, iced and snow covered rock on the north sides. The steel ropes were a good help and as the weather was excellent for many days before there was a good track visible in the snow covered parts.
Reaching the lowest point between Hocheck and Mittelgipfel there was a second test about the snow condition: the ascent of some snow covered steep slabs with northern exposition. We decided not to put our crampons on. The first part was some iced rocks then there was hard snow with good steps in it. The steel rope was a help there too. This part ends at a small notch and the route enters the west face of the summit block of Mittelspitze, descending steeply down to a small and shadowy ledge. We passed by a rock window and carefully climbed down an exposed and iced crag, finally arriving at the above mentioned ledge.
This ledge is leading you steeply up to the summit of Mittelgipfel. It is steep and it is narrow and it is exposed and, as it is situated on the west face, it is cold and forbidding in the morning. We again tried this section without crampons; the snow was partly hard, partly like sugar, the boots had small grips on chips of rock sticking out of snow and ice and the main work was done by the arms: we hoisted ourselves up with the help of the fixed rope. I know, not elegant but very efficient and speedy.
There again was our lonely mountaineer waiting for us and making some fotos (“stop, just stay like this, this really looks cool”) while we arrived at Mittelspitze summit; a very small and narrow rock arete with a small summit cross and awesome views on a nearly endless parade of peaks and mountains, down to Wimbachgries and Königsee and on the fierce looking ridge between Mittelspitze and Südspitze, our next aim. This part looks even less inviting and more intimidating as the part from Hocheck to Mittelspitze. On the plus side: it is about three times as long as the Hocheck - Mittelspitze journey.
Our lonely mountaineer gave up. He just wanted to go back to the safety of Hocheck and was happy about having reached Mittelspitze. So he bade us good bye and good luck for the traverse and we in return wished him a safe journey back to civilisation.
As we intended to have our lunch break on Südspitze we only stayed long enough to take some pictures and then went on with our journey.
Right, right, left, right, or the traverse to Südspitze
We knew that from now on the secured parts will be reduced to the necessary. This means: the first part of the descent from Mittelspitze is the mostly unsecured south face of this highest point of Watzmann ridge. Thank god this part was dry and nearly snow free. The route winds itself down steep ridge parts, some short rock steps, little chimneys and chutes, traverses on short ledges back to the ridge and leaves it again to gain some narrow notches in front of fierce and wild looking rock spires, making it impossible for non-climbers to continue on the ridge crest.
There again you ask yourself how the route may continue to bypass this major obstacle. Left and right of the spires the terrain looks airy, unfriendly and difficult.
But the relieving fact about this traverse is: there always is a way through.
We now have reached the first long western (and for us right-hand) bypass of the difficult obstacles which are lined up on the ridge crest between Mittelspitze and Südspitze. This meant descending again steeply to the west face of the mountain which still was in deep shadows and heavily snow covered. A steep and hard snow field with icy steps was leading down to some snow covered, unsecured rocks and to the beginning of the traverse on ledges and steep scree and snow covered slabs. It was there when we decided to finally put on our crampons.
For the first 20 meters this was the right decision because the snow was rock-hard and slippery and the ledge was about one foot large. The view goes down from 2.700 m to the Wimbachschloß inn at 900 meters in just one endless drop. Charming place!
After that narrow and airy part the ledges get larger and the snow got soft and powdery but we scrambled on with the crampons on until we reached another narrow notch back at the ridge crest and in the warm sun. We stowed the crampons away and continued the route which was now near or directly on the ridge crest for a while. Again the terrain was a mixed one: snow - dry rock - snow again. We then reached the next obstacle in the ridge and the next right-hand traverse leading us again in the cold and icy west face.
This traverse was ways easier than the first one as there is a large scree filled ledge bypassing the difficult rocks of the ridge crest and leading you back to a next notch from where you continue on the ridge crest again.
A third and last rock obstacle forces the route to the east face (left now) where a very exposed and not secured but short traverse has to be made on narrow ledges in steep terrain. We feared this section to have lots of snow because the east face of Südspitze was extremely snow packed due to heavy snow drift. Thank god only the last part of the bypass had snow, a steep ascent back to the ridge and the snow was, due to the intense sun on the east face, soft and had good steps. Puhh.
Now there was only the summit block of Südspitze left. This meant: welcome back to the cold and icy west face. A steep and again very exposed system of ledges and short rock chimneys was leading up to Südspitze summit. The looks down to Wimbachgries really were intimidating and there it happened: while climbing up a last steep chute the rock, where I put my left foot on to get some hold, broke out and tumbled down the steep west face - and so nearly did I. What a shock only a few meters below Südspitze and only some steps away from the end of the traverse. I get hold of another rock above me and clung to it like mad while my feet searched frantically for another hold. They didn´t found any because this chute was full of ice, too.
Somehow I managed to hoist me up to secure terrain and calmed me down again. Reinhard was already on top of Südspitze, out of sight, and did not notice that near - accident. After a short while I was calm enough to throw one last look to that wicked chute and to walk the last few meters to the large and roomy summit.
Down and out
Done! What a great traverse. And now we were sitting alone on top of Watzmann and having a well deserved break. No more is needed.
Südspitze is a broad summit with enough room to sit down in the sun and savour the extraordinary views. The whole karst plateau of Steinernes Meer is stretching in front of you. Nearly all of “Große Reibn”, the 2 ½ day ski tour around Königsee and Watzmann can be studied in detail. Hohe Tauern, Reichenspitzgruppe and Zillertal Alps are lined up at the horizon.
The look back to Mittelspitze is quite puzzling: When viewed from the south the Watzmann ridge looks much easier than it is in fact. This is due to the oblique lying limestone beds which are dipping steeply to the north. This makes the northern aspect of the ridge much more intimidating than the southern one.
Südspitze is the end of the ridge traverse but not the end of the whole tour. Now the descent to Wimbachgries was waiting for us.
This descent is about 1.200 meters of altitude difference. I do not know many descents where from the first to the very last step you have to pay attention to the terrain. The first third are steep gullys and chutes with rather loose and bad rock and lots of scree. Carefully we went down and were happy about being alone: man made rock fall is inevitable in this part of the descent. In comparison to the ridge traverse this scrambling is not very amusing. On the minus side were some obstructing snow fields in small chutes and gullies with which we had to deal very carefully.
A last steep gully led us down to a steep scree field. At first it looks very promising for boot skiing down, but what a mess: a rock-hard slope below a thin layer of scree and we skidded awkwardly down to steep meadows where the trail soon disappears in even steeper mixed rock and meadow terrain. This again needed carefully scrambling as the limestones where withered, polished and sometimes sharp-edged by karst erosion.
At last we arrived on another meadow where a short detour leads you to the only spring with water supply for nearly the whole way back to the trailhead! If you are thirsty (and I bed you will be) don´t miss that opportunity to refill your water bottle.
We had another short break there, lying in the still warm sunlight and rinking some of the cold and fresh water. But soon enough the sun was disappearing behind the steep rock faces of Palfelhörner, framing the huge Wimbachgries valley. At once the air got cold and uncomfortable.
We soon continued our descent and we came out of the zone of Dachsteinkalk, the mostly solid limestone of Watzmann, and entered the zone of Ramsau dolomite, a dolomite stone, frail and crumbly, building up very steep and slippery slopes and - where it builds up real rock faces - no go zones.
Immediately the trail got steep again, crossed innumerable little creek gullies, circles around frail rock features and started to dip into the dwarf pine zone. Within this zone the trail just run down even steeper rock chutes, secured with heavy chains, which are in fact so heavy that you nearly cannot handle them. Down, down, down and down again it went, gully after gully, traverse after traverse and at last we reached rather exhausted the very upper part of huge Wimbachgries.
Touchdown at last. A look back showed a fantastic alpenglow, the last rays of sun were lying warm on the southwest face of Watzmann Südspitze, a great last greeting of “our” Watzmann ridge traverse.
Wimbachgries was already gloomy looking and cold. This fascinating alpine valley (see the excellent page of user EricChu) stretches for 7 km from the western end of Steinernes Meer between the huge rock faces of Watzmann (to the east) and Hochkalter (to the west) down to Wimbachbrücke trailhead near Ramsau and Berchtesgaden. There are several huge scree fans building the valley floor which has in parts no vegetation at all and which sees nearly every year inundations, scree slides and heavy rock fall. End of October parts of the valley see no sun at all and so we met thick layers or rime on the rocks and the sparse growing grass.
The trail first winds down to Wimbachgries Hütte, an attractive alpine club hut erected in the last third of the valley. It grew dark very fast now and with the last twilight we reached the shut down hut and put out our headlamps.
Now there is a supply road down to the trailhead, interrupted two times by fresh scree fans. In the dark every walk lasts longer than you imagine. Walking on I really grew tired as I just recently recovered from a heavy cold. The feet started to burn and there still was 1 ½ hours to go. We started to fantasize about our dinner and counted off the restaurants which surely would be already closed during this low tourism period. I remembered a special one near the trailhead, which is not bad at all and we agreed upon trying our luck there.
But still it was a long time to go. Reinhard told me about a bivouac night in Wimbachgries in an open forest hut with nothing more to eat than two or three hard and old power bars because Wimbachgrieshütte was closed. We made jokes about that night and - as we passed by that hut - about having at least running cold water (there was a spring beneath that hut). But still we had to amble on.
At last we arrived at Wimbachschloss, a nice mountain inn, half an hour away from the trailhead. We had a short break there, watching the star adorned skies above us and went on. A little further on there are the Wimbach springs; all the water running in the thick layers of scree comes to surface here and rushes then through Wimbachklamm, a short and beautiful canyon before the creek flows into Ramsauer Ache.
The supply road passes by high above that canyon and descends at last down to the trailhead and the parking area, where our beautiful traverse ended after more than 9 hours of walking
AftermathThank god the restaurant I mentioned to try was open and golden light was glowing behind the windows. With really aching feet I hobbled out of the car and into the warm dining room. A huge plate of roasted deer soothed the pain and made me fit for the ride back to Munich.
In fact Reinhard talked to me all the time so not to get sleepy from heavy digestion; that saved both our lives! And will give us the chance to come back another year to do this great traverse again.