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A rare patch of green on trail back to Kärlinger Haus
A rare patch of green on trail back to Kärlinger Haus

In the Steinernes Meer: A three-day hike through Berchtesgaden National Park in the Bavarian Alps

While researching the new edition of their guide Walking in the Bavarian Alps, Grant Bourne and his wife and co-author Sabine had the opportunity to revisit this magnificent walk. In the following article they meet a selfie-obsessed Chinese tourist, experience a sweaty climb through the Saugasse and walk through a sea of stone.

A lake cruise to St Bartholomä

It was early morning and the electric-powered launch glided soundlessly over Königsee's pristine waters towards St Bartholomä. As one of the crew commented, electric powered boats have been in use since 1909, thus helping to ensure that water from the lake is drinkable to this day. But for us, and the other passengers, what was even more remarkable was the stunning landscape reflected in those waters. Rising steeply on both sides were forested slopes, now brushed by the first faint tones of approaching autumn. On the left they rose to the Hagengebirge mountain range, on the right to the imposing bulk of the Watzmann. A more striking start to a walking tour is hard to imagine.

Enthralled by all this alpine grandeur, the young Chinese man sitting opposite never ceased taking selfies the entire trip, stopping only briefly when we reached the 'Echo Wall'. At this spot, near steeply rising cliffs, one of the crew blew a few notes on a trumpet; the resulting echo produced cries of delight from all on board as it was, in this case, certainly more tuneful than the original.

After around 35 minutes we approached our destination.

Strikingly situated on a small peninsula, with the imposing bulk of the Watzmann's east face in the background, was the pilgrimage church of St Bartholomä.

With its red cupolas and two onion domed towers it is a favourite photo motif, so everybody was in a rush to get a shot before we docked. Most of us left the boat here, although some carried on to Salet Alm, from where it is possible to walk to a much smaller lake known as Obersee.

As we knew we had a steep climb ahead of us we did not want to tarry, although a nearby restaurant did tempt me to grab a quick coffee. Fortunately, Sabine reminded me of our thermos and of the many more secluded places for a drink along the way. So, following the sign near the pier, we heaved on our backpacks before marching off along the shore. The last we saw of our young Chinese friend was near St Bartholomä, a selfie-stick stretching from his hand so as to get in as much of himself and the church as possible.

The climb to Kärlinger Haus

The first short section of the trail along the lake shore is very easy going. At a point where the Schrainbach stream issues into the lake the steep ascent begins. This was also where Sabine admonished me that I was not to get too far ahead and that she and the dog needed frequent rests. Nodding sheepishly in agreement, I continued on at a pace slower than my norm, all of us grateful that this part of the climb was pleasantly shaded.

After climbing awhile, we reached a wooden hut at a place called Holzstube. This is a popular spot for a break as the clearing nearby is picturesquely located close to a stream. A group of hikers had arrived before us and were already devouring the contents of their lunchboxes. We decided to have an early lunch too and I finally got to sip a cup of hot coffee from the thermos.

Replenished, we continued towards Kärlinger Haus. Our trail kept climbing through the woods for some time, but eventually the trees dwindled until only low vegetation poked up between the rock. Before us lay the Saugasse, a steep trough through which the track snaked its way upwards. To our relief it was still in shadow, although we knew from experience that we would be drenched in sweat by the time we got to the top.

Khampa's usually curled tail was hanging dejectedly as we left the Saugasse for the final stretch to the hut. Slightly red-faced we continued climbing. Luckily, the trail was no longer quite so steep, and after passing the junction to a small lake known as Grünsee, the last short section to the hut was easy going. What a feeling of joy when it finally appeared!

The thought of a cold lager quickening our steps, it was not long before we had dropped our packs and were seated at an outdoor table. The first sips always taste the best – a simple reward for the exertions of a tiring day.

The next day an early morning mist hung above Funtensee, a tarn a short distance below the hut. Despite this, the day promised plenty of sunshine, so we were eager to get going. Our plan was to do a circuit via Riemann Haus and then branch off the trail to Ingolstädter Haus for a second night at Kärlinger Haus. The normal route would have meant an overnight stay at Ingolstädter Haus, a smaller hut than Kärlinger. However, as it did not have a winter room, and dogs are not allowed to sleep in the main hut, we had to adapt our plans. As all huts on both routes offer meals there is no need to carry much in way of supplies, although it is always wise to take a few snacks and plenty to drink.

Through the Stone Sea

Our route took us past Funtensee until, after some steep climbing, it crossed into Austria. We now entered a bizarre, desolate karst landscape of grey limestone rock. Although the area around Kärlinger Haus is part of this landscape, it is here that the Steinernes Meer (Stone Sea) takes on its most characteristic form. Great expanses of fissured rock cover what constitutes a rugged plateau.

In some places it looks as though some giant hand has dragged a huge fork down the slopes, creating long parallel scars.

Sparsely vegetated, only the hardiest plants push up through some cracks in the limestone. With its rises, dips and scattered islands of dwarf pines, one can imagine it as a choppy sea frozen in time.

On our way through this fascinating terrain we passed a tarn known as Schwarze Lache, one of the few bodies of water in an otherwise arid world of limestone. A few hours later we arrived at Riemann Haus, which enjoys a great position overlooking Austria's Saalach Valley. Here we stopped for a brief lunch and then continued in a northeasterly direction through the Steinernes Meer along the Eichstätter Trail. This we followed as far as Wegscheid, a point marked by a cross. Our route now left the Eichstätter Trail, which continued to Ingolstädter Haus, some 1½hrs away.

Instead, our path now turned north towards the German border. It went through a comparatively lonely area of the Steinernes Meer. Although we had sporadically met small groups of walkers on the previous section of the trail, we encountered only a single pair here. Just before we crossed the border we passed the Zirbenmartel; a small shrine carved into the trunk of an ancient cembral pine. It is a beautiful place for a short break, although we decided to press on as it was getting late.

Sabine's legs were now starting to feel the strain of walking over the rugged terrain; even Khampa had noticeably slowed his pace. Fortunately, the trail had finally turned east in the direction of Kärlinger Haus and I breathed a sigh of relief as the track started to descend and the hut eventually came into view. It had been a wonderful day, but we all looked forward to a warm meal and our bunks.

How to take a shower: don't forget your coins!

Before the evening meal I decided to wash the sweat off my body, so I headed for the men's shower. The previous night I was forced to endure freezing cold water as the coin operated automat had not functioned properly. Judging from the steam that emanated from the room it was working today. As the hut was full there was quite a queue for the single shower. I took my place in a line of naked, or partly naked, men and awaited my turn. As soon as somebody finished, the next in line gave his coin to whoever was still reasonably clothed, who then went out into the corridor and popped it in the machine. The person under the shower enjoyed his three or four minutes of warm water and then dashed out before it changed to an arctic deluge. When my turn came I had everything ready and got myself clean in record time. The poor fellow who was next had forgotten his small change and though he claimed he did not mind cold water, he was in like a rocket when I announced it was still warm if he was quick. The women had it better; they had two showers and there were far fewer of them at the hut.

Once again, we were underway early the next morning. It was going to be another warm, sunny day, but we knew that there was a lot of ground to cover before we reached the goal of today's walk, Wimbachgries Hut. On the first short section we retraced our steps from yesterday's outing as far as the junction to Zirbenmarterl. Sabine was still feeling a little tired from the day before. The walking was, however, not too strenuous up to the point where our trail met the path from Ingolstädter Haus. Here we stopped for a rest, as the spot also marked the start of the steep, tiring climb over the Hundstodgatterl pass.

Finale: Over the Hundstodgatterl to Wimbachgries Hut

While resting in what little shade there was, we were overtaken by two men. They stopped for a brief chat, informing us that they too were heading towards Wimbachgries Hut. On taking their leave one cried over his shoulder that they would have a couple of cold beers waiting for us when we arrived. Soon, and at a pace Sabine found disheartening, they were no more than small specks clambering over rocks and boulders towards the pass.

Although we would have enjoyed resting a little longer I decided, a short while later, that it was time for us to shoulder our packs and begin the climb. It was tough going in the heat and at one point I had to carry the dog under my arm, as the crevices in the limestone were often quite wide, and he had difficulty jumping them uphill. Eventually we made it to the top, where we stopped for another rest. A cool breeze was blowing, while water from our flasks further refreshed us.

On the long descent to the hut we had, for much of the way, a fantastic view towards the mighty Watzmann.

Just over halfway down we encountered a small herd of chamois. Otherwise, the descent was breathtakingly scenic, but uneventful. Sabine, especially, was pleased to see the hut, as she was feeling a bit exhausted after yesterday's efforts and the strenuous climb today. Khampa, for his part, quickened his pace at the smell of food wafting from Wimbachgries Hut.

We had hardly entered the hut grounds when we were hailed from one of the long tables outside. The two men we had met earlier waved us over to where they were sitting. They had ordered beer when they saw us coming, so we obligingly took our places next to them and when the frothing mugs arrived we all toasted the successful conclusion to a day's walking. In the course of conversation, we learned that they were going to attempt the ambitious Watzmann Crossing tomorrow. This also seemed to be the goal of another group of very fit looking mountaineers opposite us.

Our goal for the next day was much more modest; an easy walk down the Wimbach Valley. As this trail requires only a few hours, it would have been possible to do it without an overnight stay. But we were in no hurry and neither Sabine nor the dog had the energy to do more. I too felt loathe to leave the mountains that surrounded us. Raising my mug to our new-found friends I wished them all the best for tomorrow and started dreaming of our own future adventures in the Bavarian Alps.