Climbing Zugspitze || The Hanwag Alpine Experience 2017

Arrival Day

The Hanwag Alpine Experience – an event where like-minded, mountain loving people come from all over the world to join together for a few days to gallivant up the Bavarian Alps to the summit of Zugspitze. Standing at 2962m, the Zugspitze is Germany’s highest peak. The Hanwag experience aims to take 48 adventurers to the summit – there is a choice of 4 routes, however, due to difficult weather conditions (heavy snow and -10°C), two of the routes had been closed off. We were left with two choices – The Riental, the longer of the two routes but the least technical. Lots of beautiful walking and some protected walking to reach the summit; and the Stopselziehier, considerably shorter in distance but much more technical. This entails big sections of via ferrata and very exposed ridges and paths.

That was my kinda jam.

I was so ready. On Sunday 17th September I woke up in Heathrow’s Premier Inn 15 minutes before my alarm – that never happens. Andy and I made great conversation on our journey, but I will admit that half my brain was away with the fairies – picturing over and over again what I thought the mountain might look like the first time I saw it. The transfer from Munich took a little over an hour, but it felt far longer. We shared a bus with 7 others, and whilst everyone power napped, my eyes were glued to the horizon, waiting very impatiently for the first signs of protruding rock. They started small at first – rounded little bubbles of hills dotted with tall evergreens. As we drove on this quickly changed, and suddenly we were plunged into the dramatic Bavarian mountainous landscape. The rounded hills turned to sheer, jagged limestone ridges, darkening as the climbed – until they became so tall the clouds covered their tops. As the clouds started to break you could make out the veiny detail in the limestone, emphasised by the fresh settling of crisp snow. Every ridge, peak and cliff above about 2000m was covered in it – this was exactly what I’d been hoping for.

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The hotel was nestled at the very base of the Zugspitze on the very large, very clear, very beautiful Lake Eibsee. One we had checked in, met Christian Wittig (the brains behind the adventure) and hastily dropped our kit off in our allotted rooms, we were straight back outside – our eyes eager to soak up more and our legs, now stiffening from a long morning of travelling, eager to stretch out. Andy and I shared a short walk by the lake – this gave our bodies some time to relax and breathe into the cooler, fresher mountain air.

Once we’d returned to base the last of the guests had arrived – the hotel lobby was electric with the excited chatter and laughter that filled up every person that was there. We all became acquainted over coffee, pretzels and embarrassing tales from the great outdoors.

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1800hrs – briefing time. We finally got to meet all the incredible minds that had come together to organise this trip, along with our mountain guides who, over the next two days, would safely lead us up to the summit. Following that, all 48 participants were fitted in to a wide range of Hanwag alpine boots – as I met my new mountaineering boots (the Makra Combi’s) any fear I had quickly turned to pure, unrefined, excitement. In them , my walking felt precise, every step felt calculated and intentional and I felt like I may be able to conquer just about anything in them. They were surprisingly light on my feet. I knew that they would not be too severe for the forest paths but they were stiff enough to take a crampon with ease. After I’d been allowed the time to prance around in my new boots, my kit was checked to ensure I hadn’t forgotten anything, and we were kitted out with the remaining hardware (crampons, helmets, via ferrata sets, harnesses and spare carabiners). Upon being given approval from my mountain guide, I slinked away back to my room so I could lay all my kit out on my bed and figure out how to fit it all in a 32L backpack.

We ate gloriously that evening – traditional Bavarian food in the huge hotel dining room. We sat in tables of 8, most people we hadn’t met yet, but the impending excitement of adventure was contagious – and we all talked like old friends. The rich food meant I was in bed very early – but my heart was just as full as my tummy.

 

First Trekking Day

7:00am Alarm

8:00am Breakfast

10:30am Check out

11:00am Off we go!

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We were all still full on rye bread and eggs from breakfast, but I could still feel those excited flurries in my tummy as we set off. We started by following the path that Andy and I had taken the day prior along the river – but we quickly cut up off the main path into the tall, damp, dense forests. The ground underfoot was uneven and rooty but we were gaining altitude quite quickly.

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This weird thing happens when no one is talking to you on a hike. After about 20 minutes you crawl into your own head space and you forget. You forget about bills, about appointments, about that weird noise your car makes, about the hassles in your job, about the troubles at home – you forget everything except what’s here and now. Listening to the noises in the forest, listening to your body, feeling your muscles move and wake up, feel the life all around you and smelling the new forests for the first time.

 

After about an hour and a half of steady paced walking we broke out of the tree line and on to the rocky scree slope. It was here that we took the opportunity to replenish our energy stores with tiny chocolate bars and bananas. For the last mile or two I’d had the nagging sensation on the back of my left heel. You know the one. The one that you know will turn into a blister if you leave it. Fortunately a quick lace re-tie seemed to do the trick before any compeed was needed. This was the first time we’d been able to see any views since we’d set off, and it was magnificent. Our immediate surroundings were a mass of thick evergreen forests which all seemed to taper down the valley into Lake Eibsee. The sun was over the lake, and for the first time you could really see just how clear it was.

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The next section of path traversed us along the scree slope for about half an hour – the ground was very loose, to the point where my walking poles were more of a burden than any help, so I put them away – I just had to keep my focus and watch my footing. At the end of the traverse we were greeted by a huge wall of rock – our eyes desperately scanning it to try to work out where the path went. The ground either side of the path had patches of snow and ice now – however my body was still running hot, and I hadn’t yet noticed the dip in temperature. The guides led us up to our first section of ‘protected’ walking (this meant that the paths, because they had gotten considerably tougher and steeper, now had wire railings so we had something to hold on to as we climbed – this wasn’t the via ferrata section yet though!). Our guide Valentin was very good at prepping us for tricky patches (it was a kind of “This bit’s hard, hold on, watch your feet, don’t fall.”).

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As the path eased of, the snow got deeper. At first, it was only a bit of slightly irritating slush on the path, but before long we were having to chip our boots into the snow to get traction. The snowflakes were coming down now – slow and big (probably bigger then the pad of my thumb). I closed my eyes and just listened to the sound of them falling on top of my helmet and back pack. It was so peaceful and so calming.

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The temperature had dropped again, now to about -1°C, although due to there being very little wind I was quite comfortable in just my mid-weight fleece. The snowflakes were starting to freeze in my hair and eyelashes and after a couple more miles I decided it was time to get a hard-shell on.

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After what seemed like hours (it certainly wasn’t that long) of near white out conditions the clouds cleared. Very slowly at first – the sun just teasing over the peaks of the mountains in front of us; and then all of a sudden, the clouds below and around us all cleared at once and we were left with the most incredible view – all the way down the valley, over the lake and right back to the peaks behind the hotel. For the first time I was having to catch my breath, not because of all the effort of the trek, but because it was so beautiful.

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I was overwhelmed with emotions and as we were stood looking down this incredible piece of mother nature I felt the tiny sting of tears in the back of my eyes until *thud* was… that? A snowball? *thud* We’d reached the mountain hut and we hadn’t even realised it. It was tucked just out of view above the next ridge, and our team mates who were already there were now launching snowballs in our direction!

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We raced up the last section to the hut and were greeted by bright eyes, smiling faces and big bottles of sparkling apple juice. I threw my bag down outside the hut and pranced to the edge of the ridge to catch the view one last time before the clouds rolled over again. There is no better feeling then whatever that was. I wish I could bottle it and share it with you for a second – it will make you want to chase that feeling for the rest of your life.

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The mountain hut was more than I’d ever expected – for some reason, I expected a small stone building barely big enough to fit our group in. Instead what I was greeted with was a large cosy dining room with large dining tables and a large wood burner in the corner – it was very warm, and the excited chatter filled the entire building. Everyone was so overwhelmed by the conditions of the trek and utterly relieved to be inside a warm building.

As I entered was greeted immediately by the guardian of the hut – he was a plump, rosy-cheeked, middle-aged gentleman with the kindest eyes I’d ever seen. He was already busy preparing dinner for us (which smelled AMAZING), and seemed to be just as excited as we were. He passed me some slippers, asked me to take off my boots and pointed me in the direction of my room for the night. Again, not what I expected – Instead of a massive shared sleeping space, the upstairs section of the hut was divided into double and triple rooms, with more than enough space to hang up and soggy kit that we had.

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After everyone had settled and found a bed for the night we put on our boots and harnesses and had a quick via ferrata crash course. Usually this would have been done first thing in the morning, but due to the weather conditions looking less than favourable, the guides thought it best to get it over and done with now. We raced through the safety briefing surprisingly quickly – it was getting late and we were starting to feel the cold now. On top of that, the smells from the kitchen were so good that they were actually distracting – it was very difficult to stay focused when your imagination was going wild over what could be cooking in the pots.

We scuttled back inside and warmed our hands on big mugs of coffee whilst we laughed and talked about everything that crossed our minds – retail, blogging, boys, coconuts, the mountains, salty liquorice sweets (I’ll do you a favour and NEVER bring these back to the UK, I promise) – we had no limits and no distractions. We had no phone signal so we weren’t distracted by emails and messages from the outside world, we had each other’s full attention – it was refreshing. Between snippets of conversation, I noticed the watchful eyes of the mountain guides; their eyes glued out the windows up towards the summit – we were predicted a further 20-30cm of fresh snow overnight (on top of the knee-high amount we had already) and it had already started to come down fast. They were like shepherds keeping an eye on their flock – knowing that they were watching and judging the conditions made me feel safe and totally at ease. Just before dinner was served a couple of the guides headed out to scout out tomorrows route and make sure it was looking good.

And then dinner was served! We ate lots of pasta with chicken in a creamy sauce – It was a gloriously simple mix of carbs, salt and protein. Exactly what our bodies were asking for (so much so that I ended up eating 3 helpings – don’t judge me!).  We topped it all off with a luxurious helping of chocolate wafers and a cup of tea – perfect! After dinner the guitars came out and the evening turned into a warm room full to the brim of music and singing and beer and eager conversation about what tomorrow might bring. I will admit, that even though it was only 9pm, three helpings of heavy carbs had knocked me for six – I had to do it, I had to be the first person to sneak off to bed (I’m not even mad. Sleep is a battle not worth fighting). I high 5’ed my mountain guide, thanked Christian (again) and hugged my new friends.

As I fell asleep, I let the sound of the guitar and the chatter sit lightly in my ears. The last thing I remember listening to was Matt belting out ‘Sweet Caroline’ – I’m pretty sure this is as happy as it gets.

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Summit Day

“4:12am… Why on earth am I wide awake at 4:12am?! I was just asl… what was that noise? Is that what’s woken me up?!”

What I was listening to was the scratching of tiny feet on the wooden floorboards underneath me. I lay there for about 20 minutes listening to them scuttle around – what I couldn’t work out was if he was directly underneath my bed or if he was under the floorboards. My eyes had slightly adjusted to the darkness by this point – there was a little strip of light poking its way under our door from the hallway; it was just enough for me to see the silhouette of my back pack next to my bed. He must have found a way into our room because after a little while the scratching of feet was accompanied by a new sound – the distinct rustle of a foil packet. The little bugger was trying to get to my emergency turkey sandwich (I always carry an emergency sandwich). That was it, I was not fighting this battle alone. Luckily all the rustling had woken my roommate too – Eliska and I readied ourselves. She grabbed the door as my hands searched in the darkness for something useful… Gaiters? No… Crampons? A bit harsh… Walking poles? Perfect! I flicked on my head-torch and flung my head over the edge of the bed – nothing? I guess in all the commotion he’d scurried off. Eliska and I laughed, lowered our weapons and snuggled back under the massive blankets.

 

6:08am – That’s more like it! The blue-tinted early morning light was sneaking into our room now – it wasn’t quite sunrise yet, but judging by the conditions we wouldn’t be seeing the sun all day. I got dressed, popped my knotted bundle of hair into a beanie and repacked my bag – this time keeping my hardware separate as I knew we’d be starting in these. I trotted downstairs, layered up to the brim – the fire was no longer burning and the cabin had gotten very cold overnight. Even though it was about 20 minutes earlier than planned, breakfast was already being served – Huge baskets of rye bread accompanied by plates of cold hams, cheese, fruit jams and Nutella (With LOTS of tea and coffee of course!).

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The weather was set to be very difficult today – we had already had about 20cm of fresh snow overnight with more bad weather due late morning. This meant that even though the first groups were due to leave at 9am, by 7:30 they were geared up and already on the move. At the same time I was simultaneously shovelling Nutella into my mouth and pulling on my harness. I didn’t know these conditions at all and I was incredibly nervous. I kept focusing on the next job rather than the bigger picture – mouthful, harness, sip coffee, carabiners, mouthful, helmet, sip coffee, tighten boots, one foot in front of the other, gather kit, turn on go pro, let’s go.

As soon as I walked out the cabin the atmosphere was different – it was a complete white out but there wasn’t a breath of wind. Nobody was saying anything – they were just going through the motions of checking their kit before we set off. I quickly found Valentin and my other two team mates – our job was just to walk together and watch each other’s back as Valentin led us.

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Once we started walking we were instantly in knee-deep snow – luckily because we weren’t the first group to head out, there were already foot prints trodden in. It was about -9°C but the air was still – after about 6 minutes of walking I was already too hot – I now had on my merino base layers (top and bottom), two pairs of socks, a pair of softshell trousers, a mid-weight fleece, a down jacket and a hard shell on top (as well as a beanie and a pair of leather palmed gloves). Even though I was boiling up I didn’t want to stop. Luckily, it was only another 15 minutes or so to the bottom of the via ferrata section where we had to stop anyway to put on our crampons. As well as our crampons we also all tied in to a walking rope for safety – Valentin at the front, Alex at the back and Matt and I in the middle. This is where the route took a turn for the scary.

The piece of rock that lay ahead of us was steep, almost vertical. It was shaped a bit like a slightly open clam shell, and we were climbing right through the middle of it. There was a rope out to our left for support and a few big pegs drilled into the rock, but the main face of the rock was covered in ice from where the snow had been melting and refreezing. The crampons provided the support – we kicked into the ice with the front of our boots to get traction. All this whilst dodging the giant icicles that hung from the roof of the rock. As we climbed the space got smaller – my backpack kept catching on the roof throwing me off-balance.

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After a tough scramble and a few close calls with Matt’s crampons the route opened up again – If we weren’t in a white out then this part of the route may have felt the most exposed – I could see when the slop went but only for about 50m – the rest was left up to my imagination. How far down might we have been able to see had it been clear?

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Honestly, the next couple of hours were a blur. Looking back on it, it probably wasn’t all that far; but up there, time had no real meaning. I had no idea how far we’d gone or how far we had left to go. I couldn’t see much beyond our group of 4 – I had no perception how close the other groups were. I just had to focus on where I was stepping and my breathing (which had now gotten considerably heavier). We were still tied together so we worked on feeling each other’s chemistry and getting into a rhythm. Our feet all moved at the same pace, taking the place in the hole of the person in front of us. Oddly I don’t remember feeling the cold – my fingers would get a bit chilly holding the metal ropes after a while, but the rest of me was absolutely fine.

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After what seemed like half a day (in actual fact it was probably about 1.5/2 hours) we reached the old cable car station. It hadn’t been demolished when the other had been built. You could tell there was no life in it – no electricity, running water or warmth and there hadn’t been for a while. What was left of the old stone building was now frozen over – dramatic ice crystals were forming on the front and right hand side of the building (they must have had some strong winds here). It was eerie and unnatural; it felt strange for a man-made building to be so high up. As I was starting up at the small stone building I noticed that my eyelashes had all frozen. I looked down and the tips of my hair and my gloves had frozen too – how had I not noticed that? I curled my hands into a fist and watched the thin layer of ice crack along the back of my hand – this was the first time I realised that my hands were now getting quite cold – how long to the top?

That was when we first heard it; the sound of the cable car. Did this mean we were close? It was faint but it was there – it gave us the push we needed to keep on heading up. For the first time that day the walking poles had to come out – there was no more via ferrata due but the snow was very deep now and I needed the extra support. Throughout the whole walk Valentin had been the calmest human I’ve ever seen. He told us how to walk, what to watch out for and when to hold on.

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The slog up to the shoulder of the mountain was tough, but not long – maybe only 20 minutes from the old cable car station. However, this was the first time all day that the wind picked up. By the time we got to the shoulder the wind chill was down to -18°C and we were feeling it. Matt decided to sing his way to the summit (which was exactly what was needed), but no matter how much I wanted to join in I couldn’t catch my breath. The snow, now mid-thigh height at some points had a similar consistency to a sand dune, which meant for every two steps we took, we slide back down one. This was by far the toughest part for me. Thankfully it didn’t stay that way for very long – the shoulder led to a steep zig zag path up to the huts and towers at the summit and before I knew it I was clumping up the metal steps to the cable car station.

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So picture this now – we get to the top – the man made floor a relief from the soft powder. We still had our crampons on, our faces red and frozen, the relief roaring out of our bodies – hi5’s all round and we turn around to see a lovely group of tourists in shorts, hoodies and Nike trainers – we must have looked crazy (well, they looked crazy to us!).

 

Well, unfortunately it wasn’t quite over for us. The Summit was on the other side of the hut; so we trudged past the hut that smelled like soup and coffee (almost in tears), down three flights of stairs, across a dodgy rocky path and up the steep frozen metal ladder to the summit. Here was the problem. My hands were very very cold now. The ladder didn’t make it any better. On top of that, for safety reasons we were stood around in the -18°C wind waiting for people to descend from the summit. We waited patiently as we helped other people down the steep traverse round from the summit and eventually we made it round ourselves! The summit was a total white out, no views, but the sudden rush of fire in every tiny vein in my body was like nothing I’d ever felt. Two days and we were finally here. All the work, all the nerves, all the inner monologue of pep talks, all for this moment. I hoped to my very core that everyone who’d reached the summit today felt the same way – it was electric.

High on life (and altitude) we hopped down off the summit and raced our way into the hut. The smell of hot food hit me first, then the warmth. The relief and excitement were loud – you could feel those kinds of vibes omitting from everyone in that room. We were here, alive, safe and finished. ALL of us.

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That night we caught up with the group from the Riental Route; we ate, drank and laughed into the early hours of the morning (well, they did… I was in bed by 10 o’clock!). I was surrounded by people who I’d only known for a couple of days, but we talked like old friends. In the group of over 50 people there wasn’t a soul who I wasn’t comfortable talking to. To go from strangers to that ‘kind’ of friendship in less than 48 hours is mind-blowing to me.

As I sat on my bed at the end of the night I contemplated what I thought adventure entailed and what I’d deprived my soul of because I was scared. Sub-zero temperatures and white out conditions always scared me so I avoided them (I am an African girl after all) – but this trip changed everything I thought I understood. I am so grateful that I was afforded that opportunity.

Thank You Hanwag.

Thank you Christian.

Thank you Trekitt.

Until the next adventure!

P.S.

If you wanna keep reading then let’s talk about my kit list! I only took a 32L backpack so I worked hard on keeping it light. I wore the same top, trousers, socks, bra, fleece and waterproof jacket for the two days. On top of that I packed –

Hardwear

  • Crampons
  • Helmet
  • Harness and via ferrata set
  • Spare carabiners
  • Walking poles

Shoes

  • Hanwag Makra Combi

The Clothes

  • Arcteryx Gamma LT trousers
  • Icebreaker Oasis leggings and long sleeve top
  • 2 x Darn Tough socks
  • Mountain Equipment Lantern fleece
  • Arcteryx Thorium AR
  • Mountain Equipment Odyssey Jacket (and trousers although I didn’t end up needing them)
  • Icebraker sports bra
  • 2 x pairs of pants
  • Beanie
  • Buff
  • 2 x gloves (one leather palmed for via ferrata stages and one lining glove)

The Rest

  • Gaiters
  • 40L waterproof lining bag
  • 2L water bladder
  • Trekitt bottle
  • Suncream
  • Sunglasses
  • Mountain Equipment Helium 250 sleeping bag (for extra warmth in the hut)
  • Head torch
  •  Tablets
  • Coconut Oil
  • Toothbrush
  • GoPro

See you soon!

H

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