It’s on a mountain above Berchtesgaden that I learn about Bavarian humour. As I strap into my climbing harness before embarking on a via ferrata – a vertical, cliff-face climbing route aided by steel cables – I notice a wooden plaque engraved with names in black serif letters. “These are the people who didn’t make it,” my guide, Nina Schlesener, whispers solemnly, before her straight face cracks into a grin. “Don’t worry, it’s actually a war memorial,” she laughs. “The route is really safe. This one, anyway.”
I’m reassured, sort of. Either way, I can’t complain; this is what I’ve come for. Three hours east of Munich by train, close to the Austrian border, the southern German town of Berchtesgaden is famous for its emerald-green lake, fairy-tale town centre of cobbles and copper fountain spouts and, of course, the infamous Eagle’s Nest, a wartime retreat for high-ranking Nazis. Still, less well known, I’m told, are the peaks above the valley.
“Of course, locals have been walking and climbing these mountains for hundreds of years,” says Schlesener, whose bleached curls and freckled nose tell of long hours spent on the summits. “But now more and more tourists are seeking the outdoors here, too.”
“I’ve been all over the world. But Bavaria is so beautiful. Why go anywhere else?”
They’ve been a long time coming: Berchtesgaden National Park was established in 1978 and remains Germany’s only Alpine reserve, home to golden eagles, wild chamois goats and the scimitar-horned steinbock, or Alpine ibex. Improved infrastructure and easier access have helped: this summer, the three mountain stations at the base, middle and peak of Jenner Mountain at the north of the park were expanded; the upgraded gondolas can carry up to 3,000 people per day from the valley to the mountain summit’s new, 800-seat restaurant. After a record number of visitors in 2019, some locals wonder about the impact this will have on this remote mountain idyll. Yet most tourists don’t walk far from the Jennerbahn, and cable cars or not, at 210km2, it shouldn’t be hard to lose the crowds in Berchtesgaden National Park.
And so it proves. Just a short hike from the Jennerbahn’s middle station, we tighten our harnesses and begin the via ferrata with not a soul in sight. Meaning “iron way” in Italian, the device has its origins in the Dolomite Mountains of Italy, where metal bolts and cables allowed troops to access and defend the ridges and mountain passes during World War II. Today the cables have been added to climbing routes throughout the Alps to allow those with little or no climbing experience to get high into the mountains. Very high. While Schlesener tells me the route is suitable for children, I’m not so sure. There are definitely enough thrills here for grown-ups: a so-called “flying fox”, for one, a zipwire that shoots us across a rocky cleft; and sections where there’s nothing but a small metal peg between our feet and the valley bottom, hundreds of metres below.
For Schlesener, though, this really is child’s play. Her love of the outdoors started young when her parents took over the Schneibsteinhaus, an Alpine hotel, in 1988. With that came long summers in the mountains and winters in the valley. “Outside the school holidays, I stayed with my grandmother,” she remembers, since there was no school in the mountains where the hotel was. “It was hard sometimes. But I’m glad I had this kind of childhood as it made me independent early on,” she says, as we near the end of route. “I can really say my upbringing was influenced more by nature than by my parents.”
In fact, this self-reliance has served her well: in 2011, aged 27, she became Germany’s youngest mountain guide. She is now one of just 10 female professional mountain guides from the 600-odd in Germany, the author of the definitive guidebook to climbing in Berchtesgaden and a regular on Bavarian TV. Her great grandmother was also the intrepid sort, she says, as we take a slow hike back down the mountain. In long skirts and hobnailed leather boots, Frau Wechslinger would often be found on the peaks and ridges here in the early 1900s, when it was almost unheard of for a woman to venture into the mountains, and even rarer to do so alone.
We arrive back at the Jennerbahn just before five; as the last gondola of the day swings back down to the valley, the peace of the high mountains returns and it’s time to experience the park without the bustle. Tonight we will be staying in one of its Alpine huts. The sky has turned pink by the time we arrive at the Carl-von-Stahl-Haus, just over the border in Austria, so there’s nothing to do but pile into the hut’s little restaurant for venison goulash, dumplings and the Alpine staple Kaiserschmarren, a dinner-plateful of chopped-up pancake served with blood-sugar-boosting dollops of fresh jam. One of our fellow guests, David Schmidtner, is a sustainable-energy consultant from Chiemsee, just 70km west of Berchtesgaden, so he hasn’t had to come far to be here.
“I have travelled to New Zealand; I’ve been all over the world,” he says. “But Bavaria is so beautiful. Why go anywhere else?”
We set off early the next morning as the overnight chill still clings to the rocks and the air is honeyed with morning light. Our goal is the summit of the Hohes Brett, a lump of dove-grey rock hanging in the sky above us. It is a long, leg-burning scramble with a few near-vertical, hand-on-rock sections along the way. But there are welcome distractions, too. Schlesener spots a flock of wild chamois goats on a scree slope and we watch as they half-run, half-fall down a rock face with nonchalant ease. We pause to refuel and a flock of crow-like Alpine choughs swoop and circle around us, snatching our crumbs from mid-air.
My breath is coming in rasps as we reach the top of the 2,341m Hohes Brett, a rounded plateau of rock and snow drifts. The reward is a view across the rolling Bavarian lowlands towards Rosenheim and Munich, and directly across the valley to the looming east face of the Watzmann, which, at 2,713m, is Germany’s third-highest peak. This wall of rock and ice lurks in permanent shadow, and has claimed more lives than the feared north face of the infamous Eiger in Switzerland. It is not hard to see why this setting attracted painters, poets and writers in the 19th century, earning Berchtesgaden a similar place in the national imagination as the Lake District holds for the English or the Empty Quarter for the Middle East.
We descend from the peak to the Schneibsteinhaus, the Alpine hut run by Schlesener’s parents. It is a bittersweet day for her family: after 31 years, her mother and father, Christa and Gottfried, have just been served notice; from next season, the German Alpine Club will take over the hut’s management.
A sad day, but there is an upside, Christa tells me. Now she and her husband Gottfried will have time for the holiday they have long dreamed of: they will load e-bikes into their campervan and set off on a road trip through Europe. But first, there is a send-off from old friends. There’s Hermann Oimhaisl, a rubicund, lederhosen-clad man famous for his schnapps-fuelled nose flute performances, and Helmut Pfitzer, a gnome-like figure with a beard of pure snow. For 38 years, he, too, ran an Alpine hotel (the Stahlhaus, it turns out, the hut we stayed in the previous night), having taken it on when he was just 21.
On an afternoon like this, with sunlight flooding the terrace, the larches bright gold on the slopes and the pils lager flowing freely, it’s not hard to see why. Yet few 21-year-olds opt for this remote life now: today, most hut owners are couples who take early retirement to spend their last working decade living the Alpine dream. Surrounded by these stalwarts of the Berchtesgaden community, the Schleseners’ retirement feels like the end of an era. Or maybe, the dawning of the next – Nina, for one, is not going anywhere. That sensibility, the tug between old and new, is neatly summed up by Christa, who gives me my second lesson in Bavarian humour.
“We have a saying in German,” she says, stirring a vat of soup in the kitchen. “Mit einem weinenden und einem lachenden Auge weggehen. Leaving with one eye laughing and one eye crying.”