Fichtelberg, Gross Clockner (Austria), Kekes Mountain, Noafkopf Peak, Sniezka, Zugspitze
6-Sep-94 (Private trip)
By: Steve Smith
Friends of the Inyo Wilderness Bob Failing, Tom Budlong, Jerry Boggs, Dave Wash, Russ Hunsaker and I joined for an interesting two weeks of fast travel through eight countries in the pursuit of country highpoints. Our goal: climb as many of the highpoints that we didn't have as possible in two weeks. We figured that the maximum would be seven and we ended up reaching five.
Making this a true challenge adventure, none of us took the time to do any research on the routes so we knew it would be even more challenging - and it was. we started from Frankfurt in two rental cars with the Grauspitz (8,076') in Liechtenstein as our first objective. We figured since Liechtenstein was so small and the peak low, it would be straightforward - wrong. Going to a tourist information office, nobody had any idea as to the route. Usually country highpoints have trails or extensive detailed climbing information but not here. Through the language barrier, we finally thought we had it figured out after looking at some poor detail maps. There was the Pfalzer hut on the ridge about one mile west of the summit and everyone seemed to think we could go along the ridge to reach the summit on the second day.
The four mile trail hike up to the hut was spectacular even in this area of lower elevation Alps peaks. Beautiful scenery and a light snow was falling as we reached the hut by late afternoon. As with all the European huts, there was great camaraderie among climbers of different countries, hot food and comfortable bunk beds. Nobody knowledgeable about the route to the Grauspitz could speak English but several seemed to indicate that going up the ridge was the right way. We did learn that we would be going over Noafkopf Peak. Our third day started fine and climbing through a couple of inches of fresh snow, in less than an hour we were to the top Noafkopf with Grauspitz clearly visible across a .5 mile very broken ridgeline. No way were we equipped for it so nothing to do but retreat. A rather inauspicious start but we had a very pleasant two days in this part of the Alps and we would just have to come back with better route details.
On the way to Germany, we stopped for lunch in Liechtenstein's capital city Valduz where we encountered one of our only two disquieting events during our two weeks. As Dave paid the bill with his charge card, we began computing it out in dollars and realized we were being charged about $165 for six sandwiches and a few drinks - which the cashier readily corrected for us. It was hard for us not believe that such an overcharge had not been intentional.
On day four, we regrettably decided to ride the gondola to the top of Germany's highpoint - the Zugspitze (9,777') - in order to save time. There are a number of great trails going up this peak - one I did with my wife Debbie in 1985. A new gondola had been built on the Austrian side since my last visit but the extensive Austrian-German observation platform hadn't changed. Everyone in our group walked over to the German side without any problem except for me. The guard kept me for several minutes and carefully scrutinized my passport and other identification papers. This was several days after the arrest in Europe of "Carlos The Jackal" and so for several days I was known among the group as "Steve The Jackal".
Wasting no time, we were on the autobahn and headed for Austria and the Grossglockner (12,533 ' ). What an interesting evening. Getting near the peak, we stopped at several nice tourist hotels and none of them would take charge cards, travelers checks or U. S. currency. Banks were closed so we retreated to the larger town of Zell-am See. Same thing. While trying to get a currency exchange machine to change some of our currency into Austrian shillings (which we never could get to work), a rather down and out looking fellow came by and invited us to stay at his hotel. His place didn't look like much, but once inside, we were impressed by a roomful of swimming trophys he had won as an Olympic swimmer. He even loaned us some money so we could get dinner that night and then accepted our travelers checks the next day.
Day five, we figured out a route for the Grossglockner - there was plenty of information available this time. We selected a more round about route, going up to the Studl hut from Kals on the southwest side. Fortunately, there were several German climbers at the hut who spoke English and gave us detailed directions for the standard route - they were doing a technical route up the Studl ridge. Next day we traversed a glacier and climbed a steep ridge with steel cables reach the Johann hut at 11,000'. The summit was obvious above the hut but it was steep and an intermittent snowstorm added to the challenge. The final 500' along a knife ridge which was heavily corniced had us using our ropes for protection and keeping good anchors. We passed our German friends near the summit with everyone congratulating each other on our success.
With deteriorating weather, we opted to stay at the Johann hut and enjoyed some inspiring Austrian group singing and yodeling before we each selected one of the 180 available bunk spaces. Day six, we were back to Kals by noon and off for the highpoint of the former East Germany - Fichtelberg (3,945'). Getting into the backcountry south of Dresden, we found a beautiful old hunting lodge which had recently been converted for commercial use. There was no one else there and they were excited to see us. The very comfortable rooms were only $40 for two people with an exceptional and inexpensive dinner.
Fichtelberg is a ski resort and the high point a drive up - which was fortunate since it was a complete whiteout. Walking around in the dense cloud, we found the highpoint marker but saw nothing else. Off to Dresden, we had to turn in the cars and take a train to Prague since we were prohibited from taking the rental cars into Eastern Europe. From what we could discern, this was because too many of the rental cars were being stolen. Staying in Prague that night, we had two more rental cars the next morning at about 2-1/2 times the cost and were off to the Czech highpoint of Sniezka (5,206'). Again, there was ample route information and several nice trails that lead to the summit.
Our hike to the top of Sniezka was memorable for two reasons: first, the last mile was in the fiercest wind I have ever walked in, and second, there is the strangest looking observation building on top. The building is comprised of three circular, interconnected saucer shaped buildings. It looked to me like three UFO's had crashed into each other in their quest to land on the highpoint. Once inside and out of the wind, surprise - we were on the Polish side of the ridge and needed zloty's for a hot sandwich and drink. Fortunately, they were willing to work a deal for our Czech currency.
That evening at a restaurant while celebrating another highpoint, the owner offered rooms at his house to us for $10/person. What a deal! He and his wife explained that under their new capitalistic system, they had purchased the adjacent apartment, put in a connecting door and were converting it into a bed and breakfast. They were terrific hosts and we had a great time hearing about how life had changed for the better with the fall of communism.
Day eleven we were off to Slovakia and Mt. Gerlack (8,737') and the highpoint of Poland (Mt. Rysy (8,199') which can be climbed from the same mountain resort in the Tatra Mountains. Again, route information was plentiful - including information from two high school seniors who were majoring in English and talked to us as long as we were willing to discuss various topics. Unfortunately, the weather turned real bad and we knew we could not do any hiking.
We knew that the highpoint of Hungary - Kekes Mountain (10,989') was a drive up so on day twelve we headed for it and our challenge was negotiating a myriad of seldom signed, backcountry roads. Through trial and error, we finally found it, again in a white out. There was a rustic, very narrow multi-story hotel and a massive, wide concrete television station building disappearing into the clouds at the summit. We couldn't go up to the observation floor at the top of the hotel since they would only take Hungarian currency which we hadn't been able to obtain. Fortunately at the nearby souvenir and snack stands, the local young operators were more than happy to trade their goods for anything we were willing to give up - which for me included a western belt buckle and camping knife.
Back to Slovakia, we spent that night in a typical communist era hotel - no amenities although the price was right. Trying the radio (no TV set here), on the chance there might be an English speaking station, I was amazed to realize there was no tuner. There was only one station you could get on that radio. Out of time to try for any other highpoints, we toured several argonite crystal caves for which Slovokia is famous and a beautiful historic mansion before heading back to Prague.
Checking the map, we decided that with a few extra hours of driving we could go along the southern side of Poland to give each of us other than Bob some time in a new country. So day thirteen ended with us driving along the northern side of the Tatra Mountains and seeing the interesting Polish resort town of Zakopane. A lot of house building and office building renovation was underway in all the eastern European countries but the rural individual family house building was rampant in Poland. The houses were a most attractive design with two or three floors and small side roofs and balconies at each level.
Back in Prague, we turned in the vehicles and prepared to take the train back to Frankfurt when I encountered the second of our two unfortunate run-ins during the trip. While picking up the groups' gear, the cab driver tried to force me to pay double the agreed upon amount - since I had three hours before the train left, I decided not to be forced into it and spent an unpleasant 20 minutes arguing over it before he would accept the originally quoted fare.
It was an interesting and fun trip with a chance to see some beautiful European mountain scenery. It was great to see the changes taking place in the eastern European countries. Food and consumer goods were much more plentiful. But mainly, I noticed the openness and happiness in the people compared to my earlier trips before the fall of communism. I have always been very impressed with the numerous and well kept mountain huts that exist throughout Europe. These huts add a lot of enjoyment to hiking and climbing in the Alps. I think that their mountain lodging and widespread mechanical transport into the backcountry do much for making it possible for Europeans of all ages to get into the outdoors a lot.
The European people seem much more outdoors oriented than Americans because of everyone's being able to more easily do hiking and overnight trips into the high country and alpine wilderness terrain. The camaraderie between people in the huts and mixing of climbers of varying nationalities is certainly a great experience.
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