Monday, 23 April 2012

Kammweg Erzgebirge

Snow right from the start
I knew I would have a cold start, both physically and weather wise. Before my start date I had studied webcams in the Erzgebirge and had watched how the snow was slowly melting. Ski season in the Erzgebirge had only been finished 2 weeks before I started…. I had also studied weather forecasts and realized that spring was still very far away. It would be cold, unusually cold and too cold for my summer gear. I had the choice of either changing gear and carrying a warmer sleeping bag for the beginning of my trip or just layer up with clothes. I wanted to avoid the hassle of mailing gear back and forth and decided to carry the summer gear I had planned and just layer up with warmer old clothes that I could just throw away when the weather got warmer. Unfortunately, already three weeks into my hike the weather has still not gotten much better….

German Czech border
But let me start at the beginning. I took the train to Geising in the Erzgebirge on April 1st and realized already in the train that I had committed a gear mistake. I always carry a waterproof document pouch for valuables and electronics and this time I had taken an old one that I wanted to “use up”. But even for good German Ortlieb gear ten years is too much of a life expectancy – the glue had dried up completely and the velcro closures had come off. The same evening I also discovered that I had taken an old set of Aquamira bottles that would not let any drops out and on day four I broke a tent pole (which I could fix with a repair sleeve). So here I was at the start of a trail with already three gear failures, but luckily a quick phone call to the next outdoor shop en route revealed that I could replace all of those items within 3 weeks.

Start at Zinnwald
I also should have experimented more with my new smartphone and camera because I had a hard time taking pictures of myself at the official start of the trip at the border crossing at Zinnwald – and discovered only afterwards that I had taken black and white photos only! I must have looked rather ridiculous standing there for half an hour in the freezing wind with my camera trying to take auto portraits under a “Federal Republic of Germany” signpost.

Not a happy hiker in a snow storm
As the weather forecast had predicted it was cold which is not a good thing at the start of a trip. I was hopelessly out of shape after four months of sedentary life in Berlin. Usually this is not a big problem: You just take it easy for the first couple of days and get in shape while hiking. But it is difficult to take it easy when the temps hardly rise above freezing even during the day and you freeze your butt off during every little break. I could not take many rests and just had to keep hiking to stay warm. Also getting up early in sub freezing temps in not an easy thing and therefore I started hiking at 8 am or even later. At least my sleeping set up worked better than expected: Although I did not feel exactly cosy at night and was not shivering from cold. My BPL quilt worked extremely well. It helped a lot that the Erzgebirge is a popular region for cross country skiing and therefore lots of shelters had been constructed along the trails. Those were great for resting and occasionally sleeping in at night.

The first couple of days snow had not been an issue and I had not expected snow to be much of a problem. But I was wrong… The Kammweg goes over the Fichtelberg, with 1,200 m the highest mountain in the Erzgebirge and approaching it I realized that everything above 900 m was still completely snow covered. I tried to walk around the Fichtelberg instead of going over it but I still had to hike over 1,000 m and started postholing. To make things worse there was thick fog everywhere and I could hardly see 50 m. Soon any trails disappeared and I had to traverse steep ski slopes. Of course there was no more skiing, but the slopes were still covered with snow and ice. Everything was so compacted that it was impossible to cut steps. I started to wonder whether I could kill myself on a ski slope in the Erzgebirge and when my corpse would be found in that fog! As you can see I survived…., but the amount of snow made progress very difficult.

View out of my tent on Easter
On Easter Saturday I woke up in my tent in a shelter and overnight 10 cm of new powder snow had covered everything. It looked really pretty but made progress even more difficult . I had not expected to be hiking through a snow storm at Easter in Germany! To sum it up: I was a bit fed up with the cold and the snow and decided to treat myself with a night in a youth hostel in Schoeneck. This huge place was more or less empty: Other than I only a family of four was staying there. The warden told me that April is the Erzgebirge “mud” season with very little visitors. Now I know why. The whole place was geared towards school groups and looked like 100 young pioneers would come around the corner any minute. In the communal bathrooms 20 wash basins where next to each other and there was even a “club” room. Almost all the furniture was definitely still made in GDR, but at least the central heating was working. I slept like a rock despite the fact that I could hardly squeeze myself into the tiny bed. Halfway refreshed I tackled the rest of the Kammweg the next morning – after a nice breakfast that was even included in the price.

Old border installations
The route through the Erzgebirge would have been really pleasant if I had not encountered so much cold and snow. Lots of forest and fantastic views plus several sightseeing attractions like the German-German museum at Moedlareuth. Moedlareuth is a tiny village with 70 inhabitants that was called “Little Berlin” because the German-German border went right through it. You can still visit the old border installations and a great exhibition and video about the daily life at the border. A fascinating place and the Kammweg goes right through the place and continues on the “Kolonnenweg” which was used by GDR border patrol to secure the wall. Because this was no man’s land until 1989 nature is still very much intact there and an interesting hiking experience.

Kolonnenweg with "death strip"
But as much as a liked the nature the towns were a bit of a disappointment. Erzgebirge is still the “Wild East” of Germany and if I had to film a remake of “Deliverance” in Germany I would do it here. People were very friendly, but almost all the towns looked pretty desolate. Almost everything was closed and despite all my previous research two supermarkets I wanted to re-supply in were shut. Locals directed me to other grocery stores but most of them looked still original “GDR” – expect for the Western brands. And there were other unpleasant “GDR” symptoms: There were very few churches and those were all closed! Very bad when you count on them for shelter and recharging your smartphone. Of course some of these places were tourist towns like Seiffen, which is a regional centre for wood carving, but beside the tacky tourist stuff the town looked very unwelcoming and maybe I am just pissed because they even charged money for public toilets which I needed for water resupply. Or maybe the places look better in sunshine…. I don’t know.

Correct trail marker
 Navigation was pretty easy expect for the snowy bits in whiteout conditions, but the trail marking can be a bit confusing. The Kammweg is marked with a blue strip on white and the word "Kamm". Unfortunately there are other trails with blue on white without "Kamm" and also a ski cross country trail called "Kamm" in blue on white... Several times I did not pay full attention and ended up on the wrong blue on white. Bottom line: The Kammweg is a nice and interesting hiking trail, but the trail towns are pretty desolate (but interesting for GDR aficionados).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am impressed by your survival using summer gear in the snow!