Tuesday 12 July 2016 – Trin, Switzerland
I had crossed Germany west to east and back by hitchhiking on numerous
occasions before Over The Top. It has always been a very swift traverse,
sometimes stopping overnight in a city of interest, often just pushing
through to my next destination, be it Salzburg, Poznan or Prague. I had no
reason to believe crossing the country north to south would be any more
cumbersome than my previous experiences in what I found was the most
hitchhiker-friendly country so far. I was wrong. After we had picked up our
luggage at the Copenhagen airport, we were headed for southern
Germany to attempt the summit of Zugspitze, a respectable 2962 meter
mountain hanging over the town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, on the border
with Austria. Quite soon after catching a ride from the airport we had to
split up. Yannick and I left Andreas behind and tried to make it down south
as fast as possible. A couple of rides later we found ourselves at a gas
station near Schleswig, some 50 kilometres past the Danish border.
Although it was getting dark, there was still quite some traffic but all
seemed to be local, since the gas station was not directly on the freeway.
I had intended to make it to Kassel, about halfway through Germany on this
first day, to visit Sarah, an old friend I hadn’t seen in a couple of years. With
over 400 kilometres to go and the cities of Hamburg and Hannover to
cross, it was unlikely we’d make it tonight. So Yannick and I decided to look
for a convenient spot to set up our tent at the back of the service station,
sleep for a couple of hours and catch a ride in the early morning. The night
did not seem to change a lot to the situation: full cars, locals or rides going
the wrong direction made up the majority of our attempts at catching a
ride down south. And of course, the obligatory ‘I’d love to give you a ride,
but this is a company car…’. After some time eventually, a dutch couple
came by with a mobil-home for clichés sake.
They helped us on our way before dropping us off at yet another gas
station, where the waiting was about to begin once again. Same old story:
no space in the car, company car, not the right direction… this was going to
be a long day. A very nice young woman (pretty good looking too) could
take only one of us past Kassel, so Yannick and I tossed a coin for it and
moments later he was on his way down south. I wasn’t too bummed about
it because it meant I might stay at Sarah’s place in Kassel tonight. It took
me another couple of hours to get there and I was surprised at the slow
average I was moving at. But meeting up with Sarah after all this time was
The next day I set out early in the morning to make sure to reach the Alps.
Andreas and Yannick were both a little further down the road and we had
agreed to meet at Garmisch-Partenkirchen in the evening. Another day,
another gas station, another couple of hours before catching a good ride.
This was getting annoying and I was getting a bit irritated at this turn of
events. I met with Sabine after a while, a lively woman who didn’t know too
well what lays on her route, but she was happy to accept me as a
co-pilot. On our way to Frankfurt, which is already a bit of a detour
but I was keen on just moving, suddenly the motor of her car started
sputtering and a light on the dashboard urged her to stop. We barely made
it to a rest stop along the freeway before calling the roadside assistance.
Poor Sabine was visibly high-strung and I was split between staying with
her until the assistance came by and trying to move on, as I still had quite a
stretch to hitchhike. Only after she urged me to continue alone, because
assistance was on its way, did I stretch my thumb again. Hoping for better
luck! It came quickly and finally I was on my way to the Alps, over Stuttgart
and Ulm. I met with a delightful priest from Graubunden, the Romansh-
speaking part of Switzerland. Odd encounter though, he was sitting quietly
in his car at a gas station near Stuttgart as I approached him. He looked
exactly like Walter Sobchak, the Dude’s bowling team mate in The Big
Lebowski, only less ill-tempered. As I solicited a ride, he asked for a
moment to pull himself together and go to the bathroom. I suspected he
was under the influence of… whatever it was. “I got stung by a bee”, he
announced in the most fragile of ways after coming back from the
bathroom. The following hour or so we had an interesting conversation on
languages, religion, Switzerland, literature and many more. In German, only
a second or third language to both of us. I find those encounters of the
most interest to me, as it always ends up with the basic will to understand
each other. I left Adam, aka Walter, with the promise of writing him soon.
Two rides later, I was finally en route to Garmisch. It was already past
bedtime when I got in the car with a very talkative German. I explained the
Over The Top project and appreciated his keen interest in the project. He
asked if I had had dinner. I said no and knew from experience what this
means. Moments later, in between his monologues on the work-ethics
in the military and the psychology of hierarchy, he stopped at a
pizzeria and came back with three huge pizzas, before dropping me off at
the camping where Yannick and Andreas had made friends with some
Norwegians in front of a tv-set, just to see Germany go down against
France at the Eurocup semi-finals. We set up our tents in the dark
and caught some sleep, before stocking up on some food for the road and
hitchhiking to the base of the Zugspitze. A concerned mother-type
picked us up and warned us that we were setting off a bit too late to try
and make it to the top today. We ignored her advice and hiked to through
the magnificent Partnachklamm, an intimidating gorge cut out by the clear
blue water of the Rein-river.
The temperature upon coming out of the gorge was already pretty intense,
but for some reason I felt incredibly light and ready for a solid hike. After
moving through the stunning Reintal scenery, I told Yannick and Andreas I
was feeling really good and would move up a bit faster, waiting for them at
the next hut to eat together. It felt so good because when I had my first
hiking experiences with my group of boyscouts in Ireland, Corsica and
Sweden, over ten years ago, I was consistently part of the slower guys.
This time I felt like flying up the path and I even ran a couple of hundred
meters once in a while, feeling in complete harmony with my surroundings.
The setback came at the Reintalanglerhütte, where we shared a quick
meal only to come to the realisation that our lift-giver
this morning was right: we would not make it to the summit of Zugspitze
before 6 pm, one hour and a half after the last cable-car goes down.
Staying in one of the huts was not an option since we left our bags with our
Norwegian friends at the camping and had no idea when they would
leave. The only option was to go back, pick up our stuff and wake up very
early the next morning to make a second attempt at the summit. We took it
as a bit of a terrain exploration, a reconnaissance before doing the real
We were at the Partnachklamm at 6 am the next morning, still pretty rigid
after our 34 kilometres exploration of yesterday. We made passed the
Reintalanglerhütte, our previous turnback point, before 10 am. Well on
schedule. Our calves were suffering as the actual ascent was about to
begin. Steep terrain and rapidly changing surroundings announced doing
this climb in one day was not for the faint-hearted.
We reached the next hut by noon, had a quick bite and moved on rapidly
towards rocky terrain. Where we often felt alone in the Reintal, past this hut
the stretch to the summit looked more like a highway of varied hikers.
Some a bit naïve maybe found themselves crossing the snowpatches and
scrambling over the loose boulderfields in nothing more than sweatpants
and a pair of open sneakers. Others were fully-equipped with crampons
and a via-ferrata set.
Yesterday’s heat made way for a cloudy day and a chilly wind. We
considered ourselves very lucky for that, because the steep slopes of
Zugspitze proved to be an exhausting test of our thighs and calves and we
found ourselves out of breath and with a bonking heart more than once. It
had already been a long and strenuous day by then and Yannick and I
laughed at each other for just about having it. There was not too much
enjoyment of the wonderful environment we were in, just the desire to get
on with it and reaching the summit once and for all. Another steep ascent
along a sort of via-ferrata track separated us from the clouds,
in which we occasionally guessed the contours of the summit. But first
there was a slope of very loose rocks to overcome. This was by far the
most exhausting part of the climb: every step we took we found our feet
sinking into the gravel-like terrain, barely moving up at all.
With one final push we reached the beginning of the via-ferrata climb,
a fun scrambling into the clouds and up to the Zugspitze platform, where
we were greeted by hordes of tourists who took the cable car up.
However, this was not yet the summit which demanded another
snowpatch to be climbed up before knuckling under to us. Summit #2 on
this adventure, no easy day.