Add Heading HereSolo winter-traverse of the Estergebirge from Eschenlohe to Garmisch-Partenkirchen with snowshoes from 3rd to 5th February 2004
The mountain range “Estergebirge” norht-east of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Bavaria is always a bit in the shade of its two bigger neighbours: The Karwendel and the Wetterstein mountain ranges. The latter being home to Germany’s highest mountain, the Zugspitze. Yet there are some qualities which make the Estergebirge an attractive destination for hiking, ski- and snowshoe tours. There is only one single chairlift on the whole mountain range and this one is switched off in the winter season. This absence of chairlifts and cogwheel trains stands in stark contrast to the Wetterstein range which is “blessed” in abundance with those facilities. Also in winter only one hut is open in the whole range, so at least in that season the Estergebirge is not plastered with infrastructure and people. One can find peaceful winter landscapes here, forest covered slopes as well as rocky peaks. Because of its relatively untouched character it is used by German Army helicopters as an exercise playground. A fact that will play a role in this report.
After two successless tries to traverse solo the whole range in winter, which had to be called quit because of avalanche danger I was determined to make it this time, in February 2004. I planned to traverse it from the North-East to the South-West and to summit the easternmost peak: Simmetsberg, the westernmost: Wank and the highest peak of that range: Krottenkopf with 2088 metres. The route was easy, the weather forecast and the avalanche situation were good, so I expected a peaceful and quiet snowshoe tour. What did I know…
Taking the train, I departed in Eschenlohe and began my tour there. First by foot and later on snowshoes I went up to the summit of Simmetsberg, which I reached just before sunset. The summit was not suitable for a bivouac, so I descended 150 metres down to its shoulder and prepared for the night.
It was relatively warm, around –4°C, since there was Foehn wind blowing (which is a similar wind pattern as the Chinook in the Rocky mountains). As I laid down to sleep I heard the sound of an approaching helicopter. It came closer and closer and made a short touchdown 100 metres beside me behind a little bump on the shoulder. It circled and repeated the manoeuvre three or four times. It was a dark night and the Bell UH 1 D flew without floodlight. When it approached the first time I switched off my headlamp, since I did not want to give the impression that I am in trouble. Surely the sight of a person being alone on a mountain in wintertime at night could make them think that I would need help. So I just laid down flat and hoped they would disappear. Yet, the opposite was going to happen. The chopper came back and this time it was approaching my position. I couldn’t believe my eyes and my ears, when the Bell began to descend almost right above me. The threatening silhouette of a helicopter coming down on you at night is an unforgettable sight. Lighter pieces of my gear began to fly away and I began to panic a little bit. I just couldn’t understand what was going on as I was sure that they must have seen me by now. Finally I switched on my headlamp and waved hectically and angrily at the roaring machine. Immediately the helicopter stopped its descent, turned to its left and hovered away. My heart was racing and I started to re-collect myself and my gear. After spending the day totally alone in the peace and tranquillity of the winter mountains, this was an incredible invasion of noise. The helicopter returned and it landed 50 metres away from me. I was wondering what will happen next. After a few seconds I saw a person emerging from the machine: One of the two pilots in combat uniform, with helmet and mounted night vision. He came towards me and to my big surprise he excused himself and explained to me that they actually hadn’t seen me until my headlamp was lightened. He even offered to me that they would hover over the area, this time with floodlight, to help me find my gear. I replied that I am fine and that I’ve found everything already. We said goodbye to each other and I am sure for both of us it was probably the strangest encounter we’ve ever had in the mountains. How was it possible that they didn’t see me? My only guess is that they did not expect at all somebody up there at this time of the year and this time of the day. I didn’t move and there were many pieces of rock and pine brush scattered over the snow covered shoulder, so my bivouac probably was just another dark spot for the pilots. I had an unrestful night and every time I heard the helicopter in the distance my heart started to beat faster.
The next morning after breakfast I descended down from Simmetsberg to head towards Krottenkopf, my second destination. On the way I made a detour down to the lake Wildsee There I hacked a hole through the ice surface to refill my water supplies. I did not have a stove at that time, so on this tour I relied mainly on cold water and semi frozen energy bars. After filling my two 1.5 liters bottles I went up to the Michelfeld, a flat plateau in the heart of the Estergebirge. I crossed it and had to make a diagonal traverse up to the col between Krottenkopf and Kareck. There on 1955 meters is the Weilheimer hut, which is closed in winter time. I put down my gear and made the final ascent to the summit of Krottenkopf, enjoying an impressive sunset with an amazing illumination caused by the Foehn winds.
When I came back to the col I erected my bivouac on the luv side of the hut in a trench between the wall of the hut and the pile of snow mounted by the wind around the hut, I realized that the wind was getting ever stronger. After another cold meal I crawled into my two sleeping bags. The wind was pretty strong by now and spindrift was blowing around. I fell asleep and awoke some hours later by the sound of a helicopter! “Not again!”, I thought. This one was flying with the floodlight on and also over my position but at least didn’t try to land on my. Since it approached the col at almost the same altitude as the hut, the whole surroundings where flooded by his light for some time. So the crew saw me for sure. After it passed I tried to sleep, but somehow the memory of the night before and the ever stronger wind which rattled around me, did not let me fall asleep again. I was lying awake for some time and finally decided to look for a better place which would be more wind protected. I got up and put two heavy pieces of rock on my sleeping bags. Took my ice axe and roamed around the cluster of buildings which constituted the Weilheimer hut. I found an entrance which had to be only cleared of snow and ice to be opened. Using my hands and my ice axe this was done in a few minutes. When I opened the door it gave way to a small entrance area, one to two metres, just right for me to rest in there. The door from there to the building itself was locked. I returned to my bivouac place to get my sleeping bags. Coming around the corner my heart stopped for a moment when I saw: Nothing! No sleeping bags anymore. The two boulders I put on them had both the size of a small melon. The wind must have gone into the sleeping bags, filling them with air like a sail and then slowly pulling them out under the stones. Ten metres away there was the dark emptiness of the steep slopes going down to the Michelfeld. Somewhere down there the wind must have blown my sleeping bags. Great! Three o’clock at night, in the winter on the mountains, alone and the sleeping bags where gone. Strangely enough I was more angry than worried. I put on my crampons and started to descend carefully the ice crusted wind blown surface with my face towards the slope. After half an hour I found one of my two sleeping bags. Not willing to take any further risks for the second one, I went up and into the new found shelter. After laying down I immediately fell into a deep sleep. The next morning I went down the slope again and retrieved the second one. Everything did not look so steep anymore as in the night before. It was a beautiful sunny winter morning. Another rock hard energy bar and some ice water made a delicious breakfast – good that I have a stove now.
After two days without warm food or drinks and with rather “exciting” nights, I decided to finish this trip with a meal on the Wank hut. I descended down from Krottenkopf, crossed the plains of the Esterbergalm and ascended the final 500 metres up to the summit of Wank from where one has a fabulous view over Garmisch-Partenkirchen, the Wetterstein range, the Karwendel and the Ammergauer mountains. Coming to the hut I saw the first people again since I left Eschenlohe (except for the pilot). I spent three hours there, sitting in the sun and enjoying human company and a lot of food. Then I made the final descent down to Garmisch where I arrived in the evening at the train station. Late at night I was back at my apartment in Munich.