Last weekend, woke up at eight, pulled on my softshells and crept out of the bedroom to eat a typically large bowl of muesli and yogurt. After that and a cup of tea, I quietly kissed Solen goodbye, picked up my sack and headed out. A 30 minute drive brought me to Koenigsee car park in Berchtesgaten, in the eastern Bavarian Alps, the starting place for my plan to solo the Watzmann Ostwand. On the forty minute boat ride down Koenigsee to St. Bartholoma I made eye contact with the only two other people on the boat who were obviously climbers. I went over and said hello; Peter and Matt were both planning on going for the same route as me… the Berchtesgatner Weg.
This climb has 1800 meter of vertical elevation from the bottom of the face to the summit (summit is 2713m), but due to the weaving nature of the route, 3000m of ground is covered. The face is big and sprawling, but the climbing is pretty easy: UIAA grade I and II for the most part with a couple of sections of III+. This essentially translates into a 3000m grade 3 scramble with a few bits of Diff/VDiff. I had packed a 25m 7.5mm rope, 5 assorted nuts/hexes, 3 extendable quickdraws, 2 slings and another, wider sling to use as a harness. All this stuff was of the ultralight variety. I climbed in big boots, took an axe and some aluminium crampons, a helmet, a day’s worth of food and no bivouac gear. I intended to climb the face in the day and descend in the night.
That plan was off to a bad start, as when I arrived at the ferry pier, the departure of the first boat was put back to 10:00: not what you’d call an alpine start! It turned out that Matt and Peter had tried the face 3 weeks ago in snow and ice conditions. They bivied at the base of the wall, woke up at 4am, climbed all day, got terribly lost halfway up the face and descended. They took 10 hours to descend back to the base. But today, they kindly said that I could climb (solo) alongside them if I liked. They knew the lower part of the face very well now (!) and could help me with the tricky route-finding at the start. The approach to the wall is about 40/45 minutes of easygoing, slightly uphill path. A very good warm up. At the base of the rock, I put on my helmet, tightened my boots, tied my harness-sling around my waist and coiled the rope over my shoulder, ready to be used just in case. Go.
The lower 400 meters are mostly steep walking up rubble gullies, 60 degree grass and vague ridges. This leads to the first snowfield (just a scree slope these days). Here, I said bye to my new friends and moved up fast. The climbing got harder, requiring one or two hands on the rock now. I passed old pitons and crampon scratches. At 800 meters up, comes the crux: a seemingly smooth 70 degrees slab for 30 meters. I spent about 15 minutes pissing about here, trying this way and that, going up a little, then abseiling down again. I couldn’t see the bolts, the rock was both smooth and loose, and the crampon scratches were gone (this is a waterfall in summer). I looked at the time: 2pm. I calculated that I wouldn’t make it to the summit by nightfall, and might be forced to bivouac somewhere nasty. I clipped a ‘biner onto an old bolt, clipped to rope in and started abseiling down the face…
After 2 abseils, Peter and Matt appeared, on their way up. I told them I would try to make it down to catch the last boat at 4pm. They told me that the tiny bivouac shelter on the face, 300m from the top had sleeping bags in there. They also said they were planning on sleeping there for the night and had brought way too much food with them. They kindly offered to share some of their dinner with me. I was convinced. I pulled my abseil rope down and climbed up with them again to the slab.
We all roped up together on the slab. Between the three of us, we found the way and located the bolts up this section. We were now at the huge left to right diagonal ramp. We were now a team of three. We now had 700 meters of grade II to get to the bivouac shelter. After 2 hours of this, it got dark. The ramp had now turned into a low angled chimney and at this altitude it was filled in with hard snow. The crampons and axes came out and we soloed the gully, now moving much faster, even by headlamp. We kept to the snow wherever possible, me in the front, scoping the way with my more powerful headlamp. The aluminium crampons were really getting pushed with sections of easy rock climbing in them, but they held up just fine.
Finally, at 6:30, I spotted the huge overhang and the orange bivi hut hiding underneath it. Precariously standing outside the hut, we hung up our hardware on a sling attached to the hut and crawled through the small door. Inside, as promised were 6 brand new Salewa sleeping bags, several roll mats, a candle, a first aid box and just enough space for us to lie down. I’d almost exhausted my water supply (3 litres) by this point, but the guys generously shared their flask of still hot tea with me (Tip: Primus make extremely good thermos flasks: still very hot after 12 hours!). They also shared their dinner of bread and cream cheese with me. I went to sleep feeling happy, warm and a bit thirsty.
We woke at 6am to a fantastic sunrise. After a slice of bread and a swig of tea, we crawled out of our little box and strapped on crampons. 100 meters of easy snow climbing (easy, but exposed!) brought us to a an tricky step. We crawled into a small cave beside the step and roped up, belaying from the cave. Once this step was passed, it was just 250 meters of grade II to the summit. Only the ‘8 meter wall’ (II+) slowed us down. At 9am, I summited, the others joining shortly after. After several “Bergheil!”s, I said bye to my new friends. Guidebook time for getting back to the carpark from the Sudspitze (the south summit where many of the climbs finish) was around 8 hours. I only had two very small cereal bars, a stick of candy and no water left.
The Watzmann traverse is classic. It’s brilliant: an exposed ridgeline, half grade A or B via ferrata (klettersteig in this part of the world), half scrambling, with an 1800m drop on either side of you. The summits are Sudspitze (where I topped out), Mitterspitze (1 meter higher than the south summit: the main summit) and Hocheck to the north. The easiest descent is to the south via the Wimbachgries (a long walk!), but I didn’t want to miss out on the traverse, even though I had no water and next to no food. I stormed along the ridge and quickly ran out of energy: I ate the remaining cereal bars in quick succession and kept moving. The view and quality of the ridge was brilliant, but I wasn’t thinking about that. I was already dreaming of food and drink down in the valley. After the traverse comes the 700m scree slope down to the Watzmannhaus, the main hut for the mountain. I ran down this – sometimes glissading on the snow – and made it to the Watzmannhaus in exactly 2 hours (guidebook time is over 4 hours for this I think).
I was now out of the high alpine and about to enter the forests. I took off my helmet and sling-harness and slipped my ice axe into my pack. My remaining food was a stick of Pez (you know… the tiny candy pellets that can be put into a dispenser for kids), but I was really disheartened to see the signpost say three and a half hours to the car park (with 1300m of downhill). I was ravenously hungry and running on what felt like zero calories. The hunger was worse than the thirst for some reason, but I tightened my rucksack straps and started running downhill. Unfortunately I missed a turning and added on an extra 2km to the end… stupid, but not surprising given my tiredness! The soles of my feet were now very painful in my Scarpa Phantom Lite boots and the only thing keeping my going was the prospect of another two tiny Pez candies every fifteen minutes. I kept on worrying about a gruesome story an Army friend told me once (skip to the next paragraph if you’re squeamish!): A couple of her troops went out for a very long run one morning. One of the guys started getting really sore soles of his feet. When he got back home, he painfully took off his shoe and then pulled off his sock. The entire sole of his foot came off with the sock, leaving, well, nothing. Urgh! I have nightmares about this all the time…
An hour of forest running and I hit the road for the 2km back to the car. I stuck my thumb out to try to catch a ride with someone, but luck wasn’t on my side. I hobbled on and reached the car, 4 hours after leaving the Sudspitze summit. I immediately went to McDonalds, and ordered two Supersize meals and a couple of desserts, but they wouldn’t take my card. Disheartened, I went to the petrol station across the street and bought 20 euros of drinks and junkfood. Half an hour later I got home and collapsed into bed.
Overall, an incredible route that I’d really recommend to anyone up to it. You need to be ok climbing without a rope on grade 3 scrambles and Diff routes, because even though a lot of the climbing is easy, the possibilities for protection are not that great. There can be a lot of rockfall on the face, especially in summer when there can be many other people on the route. The bivi hut is great, but again, it might have too many people in it in summer. The Ostwand would make a great full winter objective on good snow/low avalanche conditions. The conditions we climbed it in (half summer, half winter conditions) were ideal, but the hours of daylight were not. Please comment if you’d like any more information – i’d be happy to help!
Joe Williams ©