It was Kim’s 50th birthday. She wanted to go the Alps. A trip was born that brought six friends together for a tour around Munich, revelry at Oktoberfest and epic hikes/bikes in the Bavarian Alps on the German/Austrian border. Looking back, the adventure revolved around two themes: SPACE AND CHOICES. Germany is a country about the size of the state of Montana. Conversely, the USA is so vast, do we take our space for granted? And, with all our space, there are endless choices to consider. This trip, I discovered that I was perfectly happy with less space and fewer choices.
Beer & Food
While at Oktoberfest in the Hacker Festzelt tent and at most restaurants, the beer choices were simple, typically three options. Normal (loosely translated as a lager or Marzen), a Radler (beer with fruit juice or lemonade) or a Weiss/Dunkel option. It makes ordering easy and I trust German precision when it comes to beer making. Compare that with a craft brewery list that would have ten plus options. And when ordering a Bavarian meal, minus the long list of dressing choices: Ranch, blue cheese, raspberry vinaigrette, honey mustard, Greek, zesty Italian, French, sweet onion, Caesar…. ordering a salad is a snap. The waitstaff will not ask what you like. Rather, the salad shows up with the house made, which is always some amazing concoction.
Continuing on the less choice is more theme, gas and convenient stores are few. With most compact cars running on clean diesel, a tank can take you over 700 kilometers (that’s 450 miles). As we drove around the country on one tank of fuel, we marveled at the near perfect roads, devoid of potholes even in the mountainous regions. From my backseat perch, I watched snow capped peaks glint in the sun, sheep and goats grazing and immaculate rows of stacked wood at every farm. Germans and Austrians have less land and space but they use it with precision. Firewood, parking spaces, apartment buildings and city shops, every nook is maximized.
Traveling in the offseason also makes for easy choices and less sharing space with tourists. Our host in Saalbach, Lisa, explained, “Walk down to the village and you will find the two restaurants that are open.” There’s no need to study TripAdvisor or Yelp reviews…you eat where the sign says OPEN! As for menu choices, try the roasted chicken, Wiener Schnitzel or the cheese spatzle.
The only activity where fewer choices became a negative was the biking scene. Our fault, we missed biking season by a mere two days. At the Sept. 30 mark many of Saalbach’s gondolas close to ready for approaching ski season. This also means, the large fleet of rental bikes gets sold to bargain hunters. So, arriving on Oct. 2 proved problematic. Rentals were scarce and the top downhill flow trails were off limits. Mother Nature also chimed in with a rain day. We were left with a single choice: one sunny half day to ride.
Thankfully, Bike-n-Soul at the base of Reiterkogel Gondola had bikes for four and the appropriate gear (helmets, knee pads and elbow guards). Blue Line was open, labeled as a beginner downhill course dotted with berms, banks, wooden bridges and jumps. Nervous at the top, I followed the daredevils down, butt-clenching the whole way. I chose to go only once and remain out of the Austrian healthcare system. Josh, Steve and Kim rode it again then we decided to follow the bike shop’s advice and pedal up 300 meters to a long downhill on Hochalm Trail. Either 300 meters is a long way, we suck at metric conversions or as Steve suggested, “Our guy was a lying liar who lies!” We pedaled then walked our bikes up steep switchbacks for an hour plus. We roasted in our extra gear and lost the will to live at least twice at exceptionally steep sections. The reward was a breathtaking summit with 360 views. Thankfully, the promised downhill materialized beginning with rocky single track that transitioned to two-track road. My choice was to ride the brakes, keeping plenty of space between my two wheels and the ridgeline.
Hike to the King’s House
Should we go all the way to the top? There was much discussion about 1500 meters of elevation gain and the strenuous trail rating. In a group of six, there are always varying levels of fitness. The beginning was a spectacular gorge (Partnach) with icy blue water ripping through the tight canyon. A narrow walkway led us through the dripping walls and through tunnels back into the sunlight. A sign displaying Kalbersteig Trail pointed up. This trail is a mountain version of a stair-master where you are the motor. It went up, way up, more stairs, roots and heavy breathing. It tested us all. Since it was my idea the universe rewarded me with two heel blisters.
In the end, we all chose (succumbed for some) to go to the top. Schachen House, King Ludwig’s hunting lodge was perched on Alpspitze peak next to a lodge that served beer, sandwiches and more cheesey spatzle. Zugspitze and the neighboring peaks provided an ideal backdrop and visual reward for our strenuous ascent. After eight hours of hiking (add time for breaks, snacks and a detour down an easy mountain road), we returned to the base of the gorge thoroughly spent.
For a bunch of flat-landers, pushing limits, hiking 15 miles at elevation in one day might seem like a bad choice. Back at our Garmisch apartment, we tore into pizza and Italian red wine, lamenting sore legs, feet and backs. I looked over at Kim. The birthday girl seemed pleased even saddled with a healthy dose of tired. So we sipped and found space in our thoughts for the magic of the Alps and the accomplishment of choosing to complete a quest.