Escape to the Mountains
26th June. Berchtesgaden, 700m
The German state borders have reopened again after ten weeks of lockdown, so the three of us jumped on a train yesterday from Berlin to Bavaria to spend a few days in the mountains. The plan is to ascend the
Watzmann, a 2713m mountain that spans the German-Austrian border, and clear our heads of tiresome isolation.
From Berchtesgaden it is a muggy and sweaty climb through thick pine forest in the summer heat. We are tormented by tiny flies that follow us in clouds, but thankfully we are alone on the paths as we must look like madmen swatting thin air when they threaten to land on us fang-first.
We have made good progress, almost 800m altitude in two hours, so we sit on an outcrop and take in the view. It is spectacular: a crescent of mountains surrounds us, all with teal pine forests crawling up limestone peaks and ridges capped with pearly snow. A blueish haze hangs in the air that makes you want to rub your eyes to see more clearly.
An elderly couple with strong jawlines approach us steadily along the path and greet us – “Servus” - and then we are alone again.
We have reached Watzmannhaus, our guesthouse for the next two nights. It perches on a cliff-face overlooking Berchtesgaden. Dinner, we are told, is strictly between six and seven. With no food and water within five hours this seems a little cruel.
After dinner we stand on the terrace with the other guests to watch the sunset. The sky changes continually in every direction, but most impressive are the sharp shadows of peaks cast on distant mountainsides and valleys. These shadows rise as the sun sets, creeping up cliff faces and over peaks until the whole vista is put under a blanket.
At ten o’clock the bar area closes, so we play cards in our bedroom. At ten-thirty the owner comes into our room without knocking and tells us to turn the light off and go to sleep. This hospitality would be better suited to a military barracks than a guesthouse, but at least in the military you get paid.
27th June. Watzmann, 2713m
We woke up late and missed breakfast. It is just as well, for we have no appetites following last night’s stew of mystery-meat.
The haze has gone so the vista is pure and crisp as we sit on the terrace to drink our coffee. Below us, small puffs of thick cotton-wool clouds squat here and there between the emerald green foothills below. It is as if someone has changed the colour settings from ‘dramatic’ to ‘vibrant’ overnight.
At 8:30am we are the last ones in the guesthouse. Everyone else left an hour ago: a fact the owner is keen make us aware of as she glowers through the kitchen window.
We ascend to the summit in a world of greys, stare at the ground as we climb. The limestone changes colour in the shifting light and moisture, from to steely blues to rusty reds, as dramatically as cuttlefish skin. Thick cloud whirls around us, but it occasionally clears to reveal little window-like views of the panorama that appear like landscape paintings framed on a white-washed wall.
We reach the peak of the mountain and eat our lunch under a roof created by the two highest rocks in Germany leaning against one another. A couple of choughs have surfed along the ridge winds to join us. They are as cheeky as city sparrows and stand at our feet expecting lunch.
Dark clouds begin to gather around us, and darker ones still race towards us from the direction of the next peak. This must be reached by teetering along a knife-edged ridge with vertiginous thousand-metre drops on either side, but without good weather and proper climbing gear, we turn back.
We reach the hut as the heavy rain hits. Dinner is several hours away, so we must make do with good beer and bad coffee in the meantime. To while away the time we play a boardgame that I have brought in my backpack. A middle-aged German man came over to our table with a puzzled expression, incredulous that someone would bring a boardgame up a mountain:
Man: “But it adds weight to your rucksack! How your rucksack weigh?”
FS: “I don’t know.”
Man: “What do you mean you don’t know? Didn’t you weigh your rucksack? I weighed mine: 12.3kg with water, 11.2 without.”
FS: “I didn’t weigh mine.”
Man, shaking head: “You English are crazy.”
We are joined for dinner by one of the staff members: a student from Nuremberg who spends every summer here. She tells us that it is her sixth summer here but she is still yet to climb the extra 800m to the top of the Watzmann. Instead, she comes up here for simple routine and to get away from city life. She talks without making eye contact and chews her food with as much grace as a duck, shovelling in the food and swallowing it down without chewing. Isolation breeds strange habits. I know this because I have developed some of my own during lockdown.
28th June. Berchtesgaden, 700m.
We are awake in time for breakfast, but it isn’t worth it. We find a few baskets of bread so tough it makes our jaws ache. I see now why the locals have such pronounced jawlines.
After breakfast, we descend back into a sticky and humid Berchtesgaden. We have evidently forgotten how society works, for on the outskirts we try to buy beer from an elderly man wearing lederhosen under the impression that we are in his beer garden. Squinting at his incomprehensible dialect we finally understand that it is his house, that he will not sell his beer to us, and we should get off his property immediately.
In the evening we find ourselves glancing wistfully up at the mountains around us, recalling the serenity of altitude and wilderness. On a promontory near the top of the mountain to the southwest of us we see a tiny light twinkling: Watzmannhaus. Suddenly the light goes dark and we realise it must be ten o’clock. Tomorrow it is back to Berlin and Covid restrictions, but at least there I can choose my own bedtime.