It seems no matter where I am, I end up focusing more on writing about exotic, abroad travels than about where I am locally. In retrospect, while this year has been a busy travel year, I was able to romp around in my own backyard pretty often. We had a brilliant summer in general, and stable weather on weekends meant a good amount of mileage into the higher surrounds of Kempten.
May already offered a teaser of the summer weather to come. I went up to Rothenburg ob der Tauber to meet up with a friend who was heading around Germany on a business trip. Temperatures were positively balmy, so much so that we ended up choosing a table in the shade for lunch to escape the warmth of the sun’s rays.
Apart from being on the Romantic Road, Rothenburg was also a filming location for Harry Potter. Kempten, not on the Romantic Road and not a setpiece of any fantastical blockbuster, isn’t as well known internationally, but seeing how crowded it could get in Rothenburg made me appreciate the relative quiet of the Allgäu.
My list of visited German cities started and stopped this year with Rothenburg, as the rest of the summer was spent mostly in the mountains. Taking advantage of another nice weekend, I took the other expats up toward the Rubihorn early in the summer, when the water from recent snowmelt was still flowing strong. We didn’t go past the Gaisalpesee, stopping there for a snack and watching clouds build.
Not summiting proved a good idea. During our final descent toward the huts, rain lashed us for a few minutes. Though this summer was characterized by mild weather in general, afternoon thundershowers were pretty common. This one, like most this summer, didn’t last long, and the ground was barely wet before the sun came back out.
The cycle of sunshine, shower, sunshine continued for the rest of the summer, and with each new series, I felt even more fortunate that the days spent in Switzerland didn’t have any crazy weather while on exposed sections of the Europaweg. Toward sunset one day, I caught a glimpse of darkening clouds outside my kitchen window.
A week later, as I was getting ready for bed, some bright flashing outside attracted my attention. It was exciting enough that I ended up setting up my tripod to try to get some wisps of lightning — we don’t often get crazy lightning storms in the Allgäu, it seems, and I was kind of thrilled just to hear how close the storm sounded. Even with the sky glowing every minute or so, in maybe fifty frames I only managed to get one with a clear bolt. I was more impressed by just how bright the lightning was behind the clouds than by one little arc, though, so the shot here only shows the angry texure in the clouds beyond. There were no cloud-to-ground streaks the whole night so I called it quits as the storm continued its track northward.
I thought it might be some tourist custom to summit the Grünten each year I was in Germany, but last year never ended up doing so. We headed up on a warm afternoon to the standard views and fields of grass and hay left brilliantly green from recent storms. Our plant here might be the only large Bosch location (top center of first photo) that’s visible from a mountain less than 10 km from office to trailhead.
It was a busy afternoon at the summit and along the summit ridge. We spotted paragliders from time to time on what turned out to be a really pleasant afternoon.
As we began our descent back to the car, we were swarmed by even more paragliders. It looked like they had come in from the Tannheim valley — I had never seen this many in one group before!
Paragliders weren’t the only new phenomenon on our trek back; a 22° halo also greeted us as we set off toward the parking lot.
A few weeks later, we ended up heading to Faistenoy for another go at the Guggersee. I can’t stop mentioning how nice the weather was this year, but it was a marked improvement over last year’s conditions and didn’t have the relentless heat that came in 2015. Even so, it didn’t make the trudge up to the lake any easier for the group, especially since it was almost everyone’s first hike of the year and one of the expats carried his 16 month-old daughter up in a backpack.
There were a fair number of groups that we met along the way or who also hiked to the lake. Despite this, the small lake is rather unknown, even in the Allgäu, as it’s nowhere near as large or as accessible as the more popular choices. We didn’t cross any snow, but the higher elevations got enough snow last winter that even in late June not everything above 2100 m was down to bare rock and flora. The Rappenseehütte flickered in and out of shadow as the clouds passed overhead.
While we were walking back to the car, in true fashion the skies started to darken. We ducked the raindrops, managing to escape dry this hike.
I wanted to get more elevation in before going to Switzerland in August, and after my excursion to the Dolomites in July, I only had one more chance to train. I’ve mentioned before that a lot of the trails in the Allgäu seem steeper than other trails I’ve hiked, but while gradient gets easier over time, comfort with exposure hasn’t seemed to. Even the Burgbergerhörnle, which I’ve been up nearly a dozen times now, still makes me uncomfortable due to a section where a (rakety) steel cable is outfitted above a ridge that drops 300 m. My criteria of a hike with lots of elevation change but limited exposure therefore conflicted, and after long deliberation I finally decided on the Fiderepasshütte, an alpine hut right on the Austrian-German border. Wanting as much elevation gain as possible, I started from Faistenoy rather from Mittelberg, planning to reach the hut below the signposted 4.5 hours but not expecting to make in the 2:15 it took me. Once at the hut, I ate as much of the cheese and salami plate as I could — I didn’t get a picture of it, but the portion size was the biggest I’ve ever seen — and, of course, it began to drizzle as I headed down. In less than five minutes, whatever moisture was in the air had disappeared, and I was left in constant sunshine for the rest of my return. My training successful, I was fine with the fickle weather; by this point, the change from sunshine to sprinkle had become predictable.
To celebrate a fellow expat’s birthday we hiked the Walmendinger Horn, a well-known peak that’s actually in Austria. Across the valley is the Ifen, but from the trail en route to the Walmendinger Horn, the normally stately neighbor isn’t nearly as photogenic. The summit of the Walmendinger Horn is a viewing platform, and the entire upper area is served by a cable car (it’s a ski area in winter). We were down one expat for illness, but it was the only time — and quite possibly the last time — the majority of us would hike together, since two of the five expats will return back to Charleston before summer 2019.
After I got back from Scotland, I would only do one more big hike in the Allgäu. The Aggenstein is in Germany, but just barely; the Bad Kissinger Hut, visible from the summit, is actually in Austria. I typically describe where I live now as being two hours southwest of Munich, but more accurate might be that I live 45 minutes north of the Austrian border. The day that I was at the Aggenstein was clear enough that the Grünten was completely visible.
A group of climbers appeared to be practicing on a nearby peak, coming across the ridge to the Aggenstein in small groups throughout the afternoon.
While I have been on plenty of good hikes, and many on days with good weather, I don’t remember hiking often on days as perfect as this one was. The temperature wasn’t too warm while ascending, but sitting in a tee-shirt and shorts was still comfortable, and it was remarkably free from afternoon thunderstorms. I thought it might be the precursor to a beautiful autumn. Hundreds of others evidently had the same impression, so the trail up to the summit was full the whole time, traffic starting and stopping as people found their way along the cable-guided path.
And then that was it. Autumn didn’t really turn out to be quite like the one from 2015, where temperatures stayed summer-like into November. The first snows fell on the high summits in October, and until the beginning of December at least never fully melted. Thinking conditions one evening looked ripe for a fiery sunset, I drove out to the Riedberger Horn and booked it up its slopes with my tripod. It was incredibly windy, and I never attempted to shout above it to meet the girl who shared the summit for about twenty minutes. I made a few long exposures (the opening photograph of this blog one of them), but when the only color appeared briefly over the Bodensee, I decided to head back to Kempten, my last hike of the year now complete.
This was probably my biggest hiking year since I’ve been in the Allgäu; I put in over 10,000 m of elevation gain from May until October. As such, it seems almost unfathomable that next year it’ll all end, that 2019 is the year I’ll leave behind all the mountains and head back to Charleston, where in the three years I lived there I probably didn’t manage 10,000 feet of elevation change. 2018 rivaled 2016 for travel, too; my hiking ended by October, but between weekend hikes I was lucky to get in some trips as well.
More than anything, then, 2018 has shown me the seductive but unattractive veneer of privilege — not the kind that people are born into, necessarily, or the type that is stratified with racial pretension, but the kind that is almost ironically immodest: going on trips is fine, but then coming back to write about it feels arguably antithesis to what I feel is my ethos, particularly when I lump so much of what I’ve been up to in a single post that seems to smirk, “Has anyone else had this sort of opportunity fall into their lap?”
In 2018, I’m not sure how to reconcile that, other than to acknowledge that I’ve been indescribably fortunate for having been here the last three summers. Others in the same situation probably could have made more of their time here, but I won’t shortchange how lucky I’ve been to have experienced this. 2019, on the other hand, begins a return to reality that is bound to be turbulent at times, one where I’ll almost certainly come back to this blog to recall a freedom I’m increasingly convinced only being in the mountains can provide.