Fear and fitness in Bavaria
You'd better be fit and fearless for this holiday in the Bavarian Alps, says Simon Usborne. It's run by former British soldiers
Sunday 14 September 2008
'If you slipped and fell down that side, you'd do a lot of damage but you'd probably survive," says Dave Bunt-ing, pointing at the slightly less precipitous face of the ridge. "But," adds Dave, turning to the 1,000ft drop on the other side, "if you fell down there it'd be curtains."
There's nothing like the fear of death to focus the mind – or turn the legs to jelly. I'm standing on a ribbon of flat rock barely a foot wide, more than 6,500ft up in the Bavarian Alps. I'm wearing a harness, but, on this stretch of the ridge, there's nowhere to attach it. And, if I were to slip and fall into the abyss, my climbing helmet might as well be made of papier mâché for all the good it would do.
Dave, my guide, is introducing me to Klettersteig, a mountain pursuit I haven't come across on regular trips to the other side of the Alps in France and Switzerland. It translates, roughly (and confusingly), as "climb climb" but is better described by its Italian name, vie ferrate, or "iron ways". Hidden high in the Alps, along ridges and cliff faces, a network of wire ropes and steel ladders has been bolted to ridges and precipices to allow mortals like me to clamber where, previously, only expert climbers could tread.
We're tackling the Hindelanger Klettersteig, which stretches for more than two miles along a frequently knife-like ridge from the top of the Nebelhorn cable car, which whisks adventurers up from the market town of Oberstdorf. At the hairiest sections, where the path stops in front of sheer faces and drops, or narrows to the width of a walking boot as it skirts chunks of rock as big as houses, cables appear like steel lifelines.
To clip on, you use two quick-release carabiners, or clips, at the end of nylon straps fixed to your harness, which then slide along the wire as you move. The trouble is, there are long sections of the Hindelanger where there is no cable. I've trusted ropes and harnesses to help me bungee jump, tandem parachute and abseil off the tallest building in, er, Lewisham (a charity event), but when I have only my brain and four limbs as a safety net, I tend to crawl like a drunken baboon.
At least I'm not the first grown man to have wobbled on ridges like this one. The Hindelanger was built in the late 1970s but klettersteiging dates back more than 90 years. In the First World War, Austrian and Italian troops locked in combat in the fearsome Dolomites, a section of the Alps in Italy, would frequently be killed in falls, so cables and ladders were suspended across the range. When the fighting stopped, Alpine clubs moved in and vie ferrate took off in a big way. New routes are still being added across the Alps to cater for everyone from the serious to the amateur rockhopper.
My inebriated monkey impression reveals me to be an amateur, but at least Dave is here. There are few men more qualified to show me the ropes; for him, today's adventure is no more challenging than a circumnavigation of Sainsbury's. He found his head for heights in the hills of Derbyshire, where he grew up, and quickly got into mountaineering when he joined the Army more than 20 years ago.
In 2006, he planned and led an army expedition to Everest, where he, his friend and ex-SAS man, John Doyle, along with 22 other army climbers, attempted to become the first Britons to conquer the world's highest peak via its notorious West Ridge. Dangerous snow conditions stopped the assault tantalis-ingly short of summit. When they got home, John and Dave, who was awarded an MBE for his efforts, decided to share their passion for all things mountainous with civilians.
My Peak Potential, the company the men set up with two other army pals, is now barely a year old. Based in a former Alpine hotel, the Alpenrose, high in the Gunzesried valley in the Allgäu region, a few miles from the Austrian border, its setting could not be more picturesque. Even under the clouds that persist for much of my stay, the rolling, impossibly green hills seem to glow and the air is as fresh as the water tinkling down stream beds from the jagged peaks on the horizon. Dave and John, who run the place with their respective (and lovely) partners, Jo and Sue, hope their German idyll will lure British holidaymakers from the overrun resorts in France and Switzerland to this relatively neglected jewel in the Alps.
Lured they should be – apart from the stunning scenery and comfortable accommodation (some more art on the walls will inject some Alpine charm into what is still a rather stark living space), the whole area teems with activity. Everyone, it seems, is breaking a sweat doing something, be it mountain biking, running or sailing on the Alpsee lake down in the valley.
To induct me into the exhausting pace of life, John decides to take me on the direct route from Friedrichshafen, the tiny airport a little more than an hour's flight from Stansted. Rather than drive round the mountains that stand between the airport and the Alpenrose, we hitch a ride on a cable car and hike over the ridge. Passing nonchalant cows and their bearded Bavarian herders, we reach the mountain bikes John has cached earlier in the day and speed down mountain roads to the Alpenrose, where a welcome glass of local beer awaits. It should be the only way to arrive.
After a fitful night's sleep getting used to the deathly silence, which is broken only by the sound of a hundred distant cowbells at dawn, it's off to Oberstdorf, the most southerly town in Germany. Away from the quaint square and quiet roads, the biggest landmark here is the ski jump. And who knew you could do an Eddie the Eagle in summer? As we arrive, the Russian national team is practising on the artificial surface that does for snow. The arena also serves as a Hochseil, or high ropes park. Suspended between the enormous concrete columns that support the ski jump's ramp is a course of ropes, bridges, ladders, swings and zip lines. The only way to navigate it without falling into one's ball-achingly tight harness is to work as a team.
Team-building courses are My Peak Potential's speciality. Dave and John draw on their experience in the Army and on the mountain to offer corporate groups a break from their desks to bond in the great outdoors. The Alpenrose doubles as a briefing centre complete with flip-charts but, for part of the year, the MPP team packs away the projectors and offers the same kinds of activities (without corporate speak) to families, groups or individuals keen to feel the rush of adrenalin and explore the mountains. It's potentially tough to please both audiences, but they're doing a fine job.
In winter there's skiing of all types, including cross country, which is an obsession here. The list of summer pursuits is almost endless. On Day 2, I go canoeing down the pretty Iller river, which meanders north towards the Danube. Then, after a quick lunch, it's off to the river behind the hotel for a bit of gorge scrambling, which involves abseiling and more zip lines. But all the action is a warm up to the Klettersteig, which Dave and John have planned for the morning before my short flight home.
Several hours of constant rain have left a grey mist that clings to the mountains when dawn breaks, but it quickly lifts to reveal the sun and, by the time we take the three cable cars from Oberstdorf to the top of the Nebelhorn, the scene is spectacular. Four hundred mountains are supposed to be visible from here, including the Zugspitze, Germany's highest, but the air is so clear and the sun so bright that it feels as if we can see every peak in the Alps. The rain lower down has fallen here as a sprinkling of rare August snow, which sets off the dark rock beginning to warm in the sun and the lush green of the valley.
An hour or so later, on the Hindelanger, we have reached the trickiest section of the route. The cable has stopped at a place where the ground on which I must unclip my lifeline is narrow and inclined towards a sheer drop. The only way I can move without falling is to lean into the rockface and hug it for dear life. Then, reaching with a left arm to feel for a handhold, I shift my rigid body round to safer ground.
It's with a mixture of relief and disappointment that we get off the ridge halfway along to head back to the airport. It has been a walk in the park for Dave and he's still drinking in his surroundings and grinning from ear to ear. Doesn't he get bored guiding novices like me? "The whole reason we're doing this is because we love being out here and sharing it with people," he says.
Looking around at the glorious view, with a journey back home ahead of me, I'm only sorry we can't share it a bit longer.
How to get there
My Peak Potential (00 49 8321 788 4854; my-peak potential.com) offers Klettersteig weeks for €650 (£522), multi-activity weeks that can be tailored to the group for €795 (£640), and mountain biking weeks for €695 (£560). All trips include five nights' full board, including packed lunches, and the use of specialist equipment. A variety of corporate trips is also available. Accommodation only can be booked from €50 (£40) per person per night for half board. Ryanair runs a twice-daily service to Friedrichshafen airport, with fares starting at £60 return (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com).
Insurefor.com has just launched a timely travel insurance product to protect against airlines going bust, cancellation of flights or delays of more than 12 hours. Pay £4 for a single trip or an £8 annual fee to get up to £5,000 towards another flight.
The Pop-up Bubble cot by Koo-di (koo-di.co.uk), part of Samsonite, offers a compact, lightweight bedtime solution for baby travellers. Suitable for use from birth to 18 months, it has a padded mattress and integrated zip-up mosquito net. Price £39.99.
Out on Wednesday, a new book from Trailblazer for the more serious cyclist. 'Himalaya by bike' offers a two-wheeled guide to the mountains, including descriptions of routes, maps, distance and height information and general travel facts. Price £16.99.
To mark the opening of its fourth hotel in London, easyhotel (easyhotel.com) is offering rooms for £25 a night for advance bookings at its latest location, Paddington. A few minutes from the railway station, the hotel has 47 rooms with en-suite showers.
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