The morning light hangs like a diaphanous curtain dangling loosely from the sky, between the peaks of the Bavarian Alps and the Olympic ski jump in Oberstdorf, Germany. We want to hike from the valley to the top of the Nebelhorn mountain. More than six miles, 5 hours, and a 4,600-foot change in altitude according to our map app. Well, that's no evening stroll along the Riviera, but neither is it a reason to panic.
Or so we thought.
Three hours later, we are sitting in scorching heat on a mountain ridge that is only as wide as a human foot in some places. Exactly one foot.
Just like the foot my boyfriend twisted when the side of the path crumbled, and his foot slipped over the edge of the mountain. Halfway on the hike, of course. Over three miles back or forward. To both our left and right, an abyss plunges down steep edges for many hundreds of feet into the valley far below. When I accidentally kick a rock over the edge, it falls, and falls, and falls, breaking into tiny little splinters along the way. There is no shelter, no other hikers, and not even a cell phone signal. I wonder how we ever got on this trail that had looked so doable on the map.
And suddenly it happens: panic.
Hot, it's supposed to get. "Heat warning from German Weather Bureau," my boyfriend reads from his cell phone in
his cute American accent. So, it's a good thing we want to hike up through woods to a mountain peak where the forecast says it will only be 68F.
The ascent to the summit of the 7,100-foot Nebelhorn is possible in several ways. Two lead first
through valleys and then turn into steep switchbacks. A valley, blah! Anyone can do that! Instead, my eye latches onto a third hiking trail, which first shoots up 2,300 feet in
altitude in less than two miles and then runs nicely on a flat-looking high-altitude trail with viewpoints before it leads to the final summit.
“There must be great views all the time!” I call out as we trudge into the cool forest on the first portion of the trail.
At first, though, we don't see anything because of all the trees. Not even the forest, haha. And the 2,300-foot climb starts immediately. The path is narrow, extremely steep, and littered with thick roots. I grudgingly sit down several times and catch my breath. That rarely happens to me. But soon we will be on the plateau, where it goes pretty much flat for 3 miles. A thought that pushes the pain of my burning lungs into the background.
We reach the first small peak, the Schattenberg. There the plateau should begin. We take selfies at a summit cross, and I dive deeply into my water bottle. I would love to pour a whole bottle over my scarlet face and head, but we do have to manage our water supply, despite having several liters in our packs. Too little water on a hike can cost you dearly. Dehydration is real. So, I conserve.
Strangely enough, the trail isn’t flat from here, but continues up and up. Then down again, then up again. The already narrow hiking trail begins to taper further to the size of a string. I look around. Mega views, no question. But also, mega abysses. And so close. And so steep. And the shade cover of the tree line is now behind us. The evil sun burns down on us like a weed-killing flamethrower.
Then it happens. My boyfriend running behind me gives a strange shout. If we were in the Rocky Mountains, I'd think he saw a bear. As I turn, he pulls his foot away from the edge of the drop-off in an unpleasant way.
"It's bad," he merely says and sits down. My boyfriend never sits down. He always wanders more earnestly than Moses in the desert. If he stumbles, he just keeps walking. My heart beats faster. I look at the ultra-steep slopes descending hundreds of feet into the valley far below.
"I don't know if I can keep walking," he says.
Dude, what are you talking about! All of a sudden, I think of the helicopters we saw hovering so often in the mountains during our trip through Bavaria. The helicopters that people call in when they are in distress in the mountains. I look at my cell phone. No signal.
Just below the Nebelhorn summit, there is a cable car that can take us back down to Oberstdorf. It's a three mile and 1,000 vertical feet hike up from here to the cable car station. Or three miles and 2,500 feet down on foot from here back to the valley. Shit.
We decide to keep walking uphill. My boyfriend is limping. We can see the cable car station from here. So close and yet so far. On the other side of the deeply cut valley. I think about sending SOS signals over there using sun reflections from my cell phone display. Suddenly, I want to cry. Sweat and sunscreen burn my eyes.
Because we can only walk slowly now, we are in the heat much longer than we anticipated and we use much more water than expected. When we come to a place where the path becomes almost vertical for a drop of about 10 feet and we are forced to go down rock-climbing-style holding on with our hands, I panic. I would like to scream and be gone. Down in the village. In a cool room with sixteen liters of apple juice. Without the accident.
Somehow, we keep going. Mainly, because we can't stop. There is nobody but us. The other hikers probably went
through the blah valleys, which I didn't want to do because this trail looked so much more exciting. But this is a way more exciting than I signed up for.
It feels like a thousand hours have passed in sweltering heat when we finally reach the Seeköpfle, a particularly high spot on the ridge with another summit cross. From here, I look down and completely freak out!
There is a small, blue lake, more beautiful than on any postcard, lying in a green alpine meadow on the edge of a deep gorge. The Seealpsee. A view I didn't expect until much later on the trail.
Yet suddenly it is there. I slap my hand over my mouth and tears begin to form in my eyes. Everything is confused. Fear, panic, exhaustion, excitement, adrenaline, and one of the most beautiful views I've ever seen. For minutes we just stand there. Wow!
Unfortunately, the ridge walk doesn't end there. Three more small peaks and well over a mile still lie ahead of us. Two of the peaks are overhanging the abyss. How my boyfriend does it with his foot—no idea. But he does it. We have hardly any water left, and my skin feels as if it is about to burst like the casing of a hot dog that is heated too much.
Then we lose the path for a short time and try to climb back up to the ridge up a scree drainage. At one point there is nothing in front of me except an almost vertical piece of meadow. The rocks beneath my feet begin to crumble.
"Okay, grass," I say quietly. "I know this isn't a good idea, but just hold me now, okay?" I close my eyes and grab as many blades of grass as I can with both hands. Then I pull myself up.
I crawl back up to the lost ridge trail on my hands and knees.
After almost eight hours, we arrive at the mountain cable car station like zombies. We don't make it to the summit. But that doesn't matter at all now. We’re still alive. With all our limbs. Somehow.
I stagger past women in sandals with straw hats who are just getting off the cable car. Screeching children run around a playground. A couple of seniors chill as they sip beer under a parasol at a beer garden. I feel as strange here as if I've just crashed onto the moon on Apollo 13.
When the waiter at the bar asks me what I want, it takes at least three tries before I am really understand the letters on the slate menu describing the drinks. Then I'm almost crying again. When he sets out a pint of currant juice for me, I start drinking before he can swipe my card through the reader to pay. Absolutely everything in that moment is surreal.
An hour later, we take the cable car back down to the valley. My head is still swirling.
The next day we go to the doctor. Luckily nothing in the foot is broken, but it will take several weeks for the foot to heal.
I look up at the Nebelhorn. "I'll be back," I say, meaning the next few years. "Then we'll go
through the Blah Valley (which is really called Oy Valley) and all the way up to the big summit. We're not done here yet."
Find out what other adventures we ran into on our alpine trip to Bavaria: Paragliding: Into the Sky and back – with Fear of Flying.