SCHÖNAU AM KÖNIGSSEE, Germany — At 23 minutes before midnight, at 1,703 meters (5,600 feet) above sea level, the pouring rain and raging winds outside the dark dormitory prompted two questions in my head: will the roof of this hut be ripped off in the middle of the night? Will I be able to continue my ridge hike to my next destination on the German-Austrian border the next day?
Several sleepless hours later, the answers emerged: 1) No, these are not just mountain huts and 2) yes, this is typical alpine weather in southern Bavaria.
And so at dawn I set out on foot, through the dark clouds.
The reward was the majesty of the Bavarian Alps, glorifying those willing to hit serious trails and perhaps endure copious amounts of apricot schnapps in the company of hearty German hikers.
This is Berchtesgaden, a national park in southeastern Germany, wedged into an inch of land that sinks into Austria. The Alps cut the sky, in jagged granite and knife drops in sudden valleys.
Berchtesgaden huts are serious structures. Supplies are transported by helicopter or loaded onto cable cars. They range from huge – Watzmannhaus has 200 sleeping places – to small – Wasserhalm has a few dozen. Some are concrete and steel; others have simple wooden roofs and beams. All serve serious meals: soups, stews, beef and dumplings. And lots of beer and wine.
Spend your days hiking steep trails and meeting random people. Then swap stories of hiking and life, then you drink beer and schnapps, then you grope through the languages and stories of life, then, in the light off, you hug, toast, laugh and cry.
Hiking in Berchtesgaden is easiest from the northern tip of Konigssee, an incredibly turquoise lake 8 kilometers long (5 miles). The town at the tip is a tourist mess: ice cream, T-shirts, lederhosen and zip lines. Private electric boats cruise the lake up and down seasonally, providing access to Germany’s tallest waterfall or the stoic Lakeside Church of St. Bartholomew.
Many visitors forgo the hike and instead ride the year-round Jennerbahn Cable Car up the 1,874-meter (6,200-foot) Jenner Mountain, where there is a huge restaurant and spectacular views.
For hikers, it takes about 15 minutes to leave the crowds behind for quieter wooded trails. Some are rough trails; others allow service vehicles to provide a few smaller huts that dot the hills and provide meals for day hikers. Not far from Koenigsbachalm, you can put your head in a tiny distillery where schnapps is made from mountain waters.
At the eastern end of Berchtesgaden is the Austrian border and Carl von Stahl Haus, where I spent the night. I ate lentil stew and drank German pilsner in the evening, until the storm whipped us with marble-sized hail and high winds. At midnight, the winds opened the dormitory windows.
At dawn, the cloud soup gave many of us doubts. But after climbing further on a soggy trail, I peaked at Schneibstein (2,276 meters or 7,467 feet) in brilliant skies. Clouds below shrouded all but the highest peaks.
The trails are well marked. They include degrees of difficulty, similar to ski slopes. They also don’t include mileage, but estimated ride times.
Once I realized the times were VERY conservative, I worried less about getting to my destination on time and instead walked in hypnotic awe.
Wasseralm in der Röth (1,423 meters or 4,469 feet), my next destination, was a group of three modest buildings bent into a hollow surrounded by sub-peaks. Torrents of rain in the evening and night sent a raucous stream rushing out of its banks and almost turned the buildings into islands.
It also allowed for a wet dinner conversation over vegetable stew and stacks of dark rye bread. The other hikers and I huddled under dripping eaves before retreating to a common room, where a wood-burning stove dried wet clothes and warmed bodies. White wine, beer and schnapps kept the conversation going until 10 p.m. off – a strict hut rule.
Those of us leaving the next morning had to ford the creek – with or without shoes, which was a great conversation starter. Being an American backpacking alone also made for a great conversation starter, and I ran into two German guys and a woman from a separate group as we were climbing.
Surprisingly for a German national park the trails were in some places poorly maintained and not for the faint hearted. In some places we had to smash our way through scree fields and cling onto steel cables bolted to the side of the hill. The wooden ladders were broken or rotten, the rain slippery. The peat bridges were under water.
Kärlingerhaus am Funtensee (1,638 metres, 5,374 feet), the next stop, was perched above a small lake, in a bowl surrounded by ridges that caught the next morning’s sun like the facets of a jewel. On the other side of the lake, two low-rise wooden buildings were for distillers who made schnapps from the local waters. There was also a shepherd who, I was told, was paid by the farmers in the valley to herd their flocks in the summer and harvest the wool and milk for the cheese.
Alas, we had neither that rainy evening.
We had tureens of chicken broth and heaps of sliced beef and potato dumplings dipped in gravy, and dark rye bread – or pasta and tomato sauce for vegetarians.
We drank marillenschnapps – an apricot infusion commonly associated with north-central Austria – and again the presence of a lone American sparked some fun conversation, not to mention the complimentary schnapps. Lights out: 10 p.m.
Did I mention the shoe drying room? An essential part of German huts: rows of heated metal bars to hang and dry your boots. If you’ve ever woken up with soaking wet boots, the joy of the boot drying room is immeasurable. Equally overwhelming is the smell of dozens of wet hiking boots drying in a room overnight.
Back at the lake, to meet a boat back to my car, the trail cuts deep between two ridges, wrapping the trail in cool morning shade. An Alpine chamois – a kind of goat-antelope – climbed through the grass as I turned a corner. She appeared indifferent to a lone hiker and grazed for several minutes as we looked at each other, before jumping over a rock, out of sight.
When I finally reached the shore of Königssee, it was impossible not to consider going for a swim. I didn’t have a bathing suit, however.
Moments later a group of older German men showed up and without hesitation dropped their bags, dropped their clothes and jumped into the glistening waters full monty.
Is not it?