It’s over. Life. My lungs are on fire, my legs are breaking off and my rain jacket is wet – inside and out. 3,300 foot of altitude gain in the pouring rain while the temperature hovers around 50 degrees. I’m going crazy. “Can you search for a pair of new knees on Amazon?” I write to my boyfriend, when a tiny signal suddenly flickers on my cell phone in the middle of a fog. The reply takes only a short time. “Knees are only available for people over 35,” he writes back. Very funny!
I’m on my way back from the Schellenberger Ice Cave in the Untersberg mountain in Bavaria. Three and a half hours up to the entrance. One hour exploring the cave, then 3.5 hours back. Unless, out of desperation, you simply plunge vertically into the canyon far below. Then not even 3.5 minutes.
While the excursion into the ice world of death becomes the ultimate challenge, along the trip I also find a fantastic forest where trees grow on boulders as big as houses. There is a gorge with steep sides where mists of spray shoots from the top and in the middle of a greenish-turquoise lake stands a tiny house where the path of wooden planks leading to the door lies underwater. I am Alice and this is my Wonderland. I will take you to Berchtesgaden where I find magical places I would never have suspected belong in Germany, or anywhere else.
At the entrance of the Almbachklamm lurks a colossal salamander. Well, is just a statue. But everything else is real. Over 29 footbridges and catwalks, as well as 320 steps, I follow a raging stream uphill for almost two miles. The gorge through which the river surges is so narrow that I could almost jump to the other side. Except the other side is completely vertical. The creek tries to squeeze through the steep walls at such a furious rate that it looks like when I am boiling pasta: a lot of compression causes the water churn uncontrollably from the high pressure.
The footbridges, covered with a steel grate allowing you to see the water beneath, lead left and right along the side of the gorge. The entire path is an engineering marvel, especially considering the number of visitors walking over it every day. Besides children and dogs. They just fall in. No, wait, they just need special attention.
On the way up, I get so hot (the weather report lied) that I stick my head briefly under one of the small waterfalls tumbling from the top of the vertical walls. Then I almost slip off myself when I become too determined to photograph the Sulzbach Waterfalls at the end of the gorge from the bottom - just to find that down there is a bunch of grass in the way anyway.
Near the gorge entrance is not only the giant salamander, but also Germany’s only marble mill still in existence, which creates round stone balls out of real marble. They start with raw marble chunks and turn them into beautiful, smooth balls using grinders powered by water. When I tell the lady at the shop I had been there 15 years prior and had purchased two marbles, but then lost them, she is so touched that she almost wants to give me the entire shop for free.
Fairytale Forest. This now sounds like a typical slogan to lure tourists to a boring clearing where three trees dance in a circle around while singing their names. But the Fairytale Forest of Ramsau is a magic place you can actually walk through. A huge landslide occurred thousands of years ago leaving behind a rubble-filled valley of rocks ranging in size from knee-high stones to house-sized boulders. With time, nature, undisturbed by man with his algae remover spray, has covered them with a lush, green moss. Wildflowers bloom in the crevices and entire trees claw their way out of the rock slabs with their massive roots. If the boulders would just start to float, it would be as if they came from the easel of René Magritte.
I walk across wooden footbridges through the enchanted forest of Little Red Riding Hood and the Evil Wolf. “Maybe it’s a good thing you bought the blue rain jacket and not the red one,” says my boyfriend, who seems to be familiar with German fairy tales.
“But I have bread with me,” I reply seriously. “I will leave behind a few crumbs now…”
Even though the Corona border closures prevent him from being with me physically, my boyfriend travels everywhere with me on my phone, which I keep in my pocket. Not everything about the 21st century is bad. A few rocks have grown so colorful that I begin to recognize faces. Over there are bulbous noses of gnomes and here is the grisly mustache of an old giant. Next to it, a baby-blue stream rushes by.
Speaking of blue. Or green. Or both. Right next to the Fairytale Forest is the Hintersee, a large lake nestled in the Bavarian Alps. It is so clear that my boyfriend sees the photos but does not see the water covering the rocks. Tree roots and trunks lie circling the lake’s many bays, and the water acts as a magic mirror reflecting their images against the mountains in the background. It is as if the lake is Harry Potter’s magical Pensieve, into which one looks to find the truth of nature.
Everything is still, with no waves rippling the water. Until I find a baby coot. This little critter is not even three inches tall and it has short, red feathers on its head. I freak out completely and storm onto a rock for a better view. Next to me is an old man with a pipe in his mouth and a full beard on his chin, who is probably as tough as Bruce Willis.
“My God, that is so sweet,” he says. Then his wife messes around with the camera on her cell phone. We are soon joined by a family with children and a big hullabaloo begins. Not because the Watzmann, Germany’s second tallest mountain, is beautifully reflected on the lake, but because there is a tiny cootling paddling around in the water. It’s the little things in life. And sometimes they are only three inches tall and have red feathers.
I look out of the car window, where the Watzmann was supposed to be. But the weather forecast lied. There was no trace of the mountain, just heavy rain. I am planning to hike to the Schellenberger ice cave today. It is an eight-hour tour with an elevation change of 3,300 feet from the bottom of the Untersberg up to Germany's largest ice cave. After staring at the evil weather app, I eat a piece of chocolate. Then I dress for the day. Rain jacket, rain pants, rain shoes. I pack the rain cover for my backpack and put a rain banana and two rain sandwiches in my side pocket. Then I drive off.
"Kiss my ass," I say aloud to the wiper as it sweeps across the windshield. I drive to the parking lot at the trailhead in Marktschellenberg. I am climbing up there now. No matter what happens. The raindrops crash on the asphalt and bounce back up again. I am going. After 1,500 feet the water drips off my face. It is a very steep uphill climb and I start to think whether or not I should really do this. Then I realize that in the end we only regret what we did not do. I go on. A small sign tells me I have climbed 330 vertical feet. I still have 3,000 left.
If I thought it was raining heavily down in the valley, I now see what happens as I climb into the clouds. Rain like mad. Yes, the damned mountain weather. The Toni Lenz Hut which is near the entrance to the ice cave is supposed to be somewhere. But where in this fog? I’m at 1650 vertical feet. 1650 to go. I am only halfway up?!
I sweat like a skunk as the rain hits me like sharp darts against my skin. The visibility is only a few feet and streams of water spill towards me on the steep rock steps. Somewhere around 2,500 feet above the trailhead, I can no longer feel my ice-cold, clammy hands, but I do feel my heart hammering against my ribs.
I arrive at the Toni Lenz Hut feeling almost dead after nearly three hours on the mountain. I order hot cocoa here for $7.30. The landlord lives up here at almost 5,000 feet. All the food has to be flown in by helicopter because there is really no other way to get it to the hut other than the endless walk. I wrap myself in a warm blanket and hang my jackets on a heater. The landlord pops a "shot" into my cocoa. I probably look like a half-frozen penguin. My t-shirt sticks to my back. Was it sweat or rain, who knows? In a half-hour, I am ready to go.
It is a 20-minute hike to the ice cave. The guide takes me along with three other women to the cave. Not a big crowd. At the entrance we are issued protective helmets, and then we begin to descend into the icy depths of the cave. Our only light is from our headlamps. We continue downward for 200 feet. Occasionally our guide ignites a magnesium ribbon to illuminate the total darkness. We now see huge chunks of ice, light blue ice walls, and sparkling crystals. It is a fantastic underworld hidden in a terrain that is barely accessible. There are only a few weeks each summer when the cave can be visited. “During the winter, the temperature drops below zero degrees and the entrance is covered with snow,” explains the guide.
Now I must go down the mountain. All the Way. After all, it's just sprinkling. I can feel every bone and muscle in my body as I step. And there seems to be a few that must have developed while I was in the cave. But I did it: I overcame the ultimate challenge.
My last day in Berchtesgaden. The weather app says it's pouring again. I am beside myself with disappointment. I want to go to the Königssee. One of the cleanest lakes in Germany, and also one of the deepest.
Oh, what the hell. If I want something, I just do it. So, I go to the pier. I drift silently into the dark green, deep water on an electric ferry. The steep walls of the surrounding mountains descend directly into the lake. The magical sheer rock walls can echo a sound up to seven times! The captain stops the ferry in the middle of the lake, pulls out a trumpet, points it toward the mountain, and plays a simple orchestral piece. It resounds magnificently, as if there were a classical quartet of angels and spirits hiding up there. Goose bumps.
After a short stop at the famous St. Bartholomew chapel, I continue to the Obersee, another beautiful lake. The most beautiful part of the Königsee area, announces the captain.
Rightly so. The turquoise water spreads into the rock basin. To the right, the Röthbach Falls thunder down silently - because it is so far away - from an almost unbelievable height of 1,500 feet, making it Germany's highest waterfall. At the very back of the lake, the dark brown Fischunkelalm, a small, wooden mountain café, crouches in the light green of the meadows. And the valley doesn't go beyond that. It just comes to a close, surrounded by a sheer rock wall. There is no walk out. Austria begins behind the rock face. There is something absolute and definitive about being in this place. As I walk around the lake, I see a small wooden hut standing in the middle of the water. The footpath to the door is lost under the gentle waves. I have to sit down. It is so wonderful. And it doesn't rain. The weather forecast lied. Again.
On the first part of my road trip through Germany I visited Germany’s highest mountain, the Zugspitze, Neuschwanstein Castle, various hellish valleys, and precarious mountains. The report can be found at The Castle in the Clouds and Tibet in the Alps – Garmisch-Partenkirchen.