Monday, 30 January 2012

A hike through Western Europe: The route

Right now I am planning the longest continouos hiking trip I have ever done: Inspired by a book by Nicholas Crane called "Clear waters rising" I want to hike across the whole length of Europe from West to East, a hike of about 10,000 km. Nicholas Crane hiked from Cabo Finisterre to Istanbul across the three big European mountain ranges Pyrenees, Alps and Carpathian mountains. But he was not an experienced ultralight hiker and miscalculated his route: He ended up in the Alps in winter and had to detour a lot to lower altitudes.

I want to avoid Crane's mistakes and decided to hike in 2 seasons: I will start with Western Europe one year and hike Eastern Europe another year splitting the route into two 5,000 km trips. But even with this trick it turned out to be very difficult to hike the whole length of the Alps and Pyrenees in one season: You cannot really start hiking in high alpine terrain before mid June and the season finishes already by end of September. I therefore decided to skip the Alps (which merit a trip alone anyways) and concentrate on an interesting route for the rest of trip incorporating the whole length of the Pyrenees. I also decided to hike from East to West one year and starting at the same point the other year but hiking East then. And because the map situation for Eastern Europe is still a bit dire I decided to start hiking in Western Europe - the longer I wait the more maps and information will be available for Eastern Europe.

Although I am still working on the details of my route this is already a rough outline linking together existing long-distance trails in Germany, France and Spain. My emphasis is on creating an interesting and very varied route visiting areas I have not hiked in before. And of course this being Europe and want to incorporate some cultural sightseeing once in a while. I will start in Altenberg at the German/Czech border and finish in Cabo Finisterre, the "end of the world".
  • Kammweg Erzgebirge: a new Premium German long-distance trail: 286 km
  • Rennsteig: the oldest German long-distance trail finishing in Eisenach: 168 km
  • Elisabethpfad: a pilgrimage trail honouring St. Elisabeth: 167 km
  • Lahn-Dill-Bergland-Pfad: 83 km
  • Westerwaldsteig: 241 km
  • Rheinhoehenweg und Ahr-Venn-Weg: to cross from the Rhine to the Eifel: 91 km
  • Eifelsteig: home of the famous Eifel crime thrillers: 228 km
  • Saar-Hunsruecksteig: 66 km
  • Saarlandrundweg: 66 km
  • Pfalz: a short stretch on a pilgrimage trail and some free style: 75 km
  • GR 53: through the Vosges: 126 km
  • GR 5: through the Jura: 486 km
  • GR 9: from Geneve to Grenoble: 283 km
  • GR 91: through the Vercors: 204 km
  • GR 4: an old friend I have already hiked: 127 km
  • GR 44 and GR 72: into the Cevennes: 44 km
  • GR 7: from the Cevennes to Languedoc: 266 km
  • GR 36: from Languedoc to the Pyrenees via Carcasonne: 301 km
  • GR 11: the whole length of the Pyrenees: 591 km
  • Camino del Norte: a less travelled alternative to the Camino Frances: 475 km
  • Camino Primitivo: a "wild" camino alternative: 373 km
  • Cabo Finisterre: The grand finale from Santiago to Finisterre: 90 km
  • Total distance: 4.837 km

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Winter trip in Franconia: Fraenkischer Gebirgsweg

I had to leave Berlin to attend my parents wedding anniversary and decided to combine that trip with another winter test hike. This time I chose one of the new certified long-distance trails in Franconia called "Fraenkischer Gebirgsweg" (Franconian mountain trail). Don't take the "mountain" trail too literally - the trail just rises over 1,000 meters only a couple of times. But that suited me right as snow fall had been predicted and I did not want to carry around snow shoes. As I visited parents and friends and did a lot of sightseeing before my hike I did not want to carry any cumbersome gear at all and therefore left my trekking poles and an extra cell foam mat at home. Temperatures were supposed to be cold, too and therefore I decided to hike only three days and two nights. I might sound like a wuss but I am renting this nice and warm room in Berlin now - why should I then stay outside and freeze my ass off in my tent?

Anyways, my short hike started in Pegnitz and ended in Bayreuth from where I took the train back to Berlin. I stepped out of the train in Pegnitz at 7.30 in the morning just before sunrise - and immediately started freezing. Stupidly enough I had brought my Platypus bottle with a drinking hose and within half an hour of hiking the water in the hose was frozen solid... On the positive side though the weather was brilliant: very cold, but blue sky with even the sun shining. I hiked into a glorious sunrise and a solidly frozen forest. Everything was icicled - even my nose....

The trail was nice enough - usually well marked, nice views and little attractions like show caves, castles and museums, but of course everything was closed now in the middle of winter. At least there was some open air modern art sculpture exhibition in the middle of nowhere. I made good progress but night was approaching too soon and I had to find a campsite. One of the downsides of hiking in Franconia is the lack of shelters. In the Black Forest there had been shelters almost everywhere and it had been relatively easy to plan an overnight stop there in bad weather. But no such luck on the Gebirgsweg - I had to camp in the forest which was no problem as it wasn't raining or snowing or windy. Still the night seemed endless. It gets completely dark at 5.30 pm and even with setting up camp, dinking around and cooking you are done with everything by 7 pm. As it was so cold I had no choice but to crawl into my sleeping bag and try to sleep - until 6.30 next morning... This is a long time in a tent at - 10 C.

I started hiking next morning with the first daylight at 7.30 am. The light was fantastic and I enjoyed a great sunrise again - but I would have enjoyed it even more if it had been 10 degrees warmer. The cold was getting to me, especially since I had planned to spend 3 long days completely outside without any warming break in civilisation. As long as I was moving things were not too bad, but as soon as I took a break I started shivering. I sort of started dreading my second cold night out... I had planned my next campsite ahead in a nice big forested area. Well, the area was nice and forested but I had not taken into consideration that the motorway 2 km away sounded like next door. Also I had overlooked the fact that there was a busy train line going through that forest with train traffic till 1 am in the morning. I had to hike much further in the pitch dark before I found a quieter camp site in the woods and thank God for ear plugs.

Again I was lying inside my sleeping bag at 7 pm looking forward to a long night. At least I did not get sleep deprived on that trip. Although I had brought a very adequate winter sleeping bag for that trip, a Western Mountaineering Puma, it was just about warm enough. I always seem to have the same problem: After a couple of days of use the down gets damp and starts clumping, especially on the back of the sleeping bag where there is less down to start with. Lucky are those you can sleep on their backs because it will not bother them, but I am a side sleeper and as soon as I turn around to go to sleep I wake up again because my back gets cold. To make things worse I woke up and realised that the upper front side of my sleeping bag was almost soaking wet. First I suspected I had been drooling in my sleep, but then it dawned on me that this was condensation from my breath. Sleeping in a fetal position brings a lot of problems....

I was happy about the prospect to spend the next night in my warm bed in Berlin again! My tent was frozen solid when I packed it up as was my water bottle. Ice cold muesli with ice cold water for breakfast - what a treat! But I only had to hike half a day to Bayreuth where I would do some sightseeing and thawing before I took the train back to Berlin. Unfortunately I visited the unheated and ice cold castle of Bayreuth - so much for thawing out. Still it had been a nice trip. Due to the cold but sunny weather I had enjoyed some brilliant views. But I also had to find out that my winter equipment needs some more improving...

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Winter trip in the Black Forest: The hike

Ursula and I set off hiking after visiting the fantastic bathroom museum in Schiltach. She would accompany me for only one night and one day whereas I would continue northward on the Mittelweg up to Pforzheim and then back southward on the Ostweg. We had just one hour of daylight left and made it to a nice stealth campsite even with a little table, a bench and a spring next to it. These accessories were really important as we had brought Swiss cheese fondue and a little bottle of red wine for dinner. And then we sat there at freezing temperatures in the complete dark in the Black forest and enjoyed our sumptuous dinner.

Next morning we set off early and arrived on top of a mountain just in time for a glorious sun rise above a lake of fog in the valleys. Absolutely fantastic view! But the day turned out to be slower than expected.... There was much more snow than we had thought.... We arrived much later in Freudenstadt than planned. Ursula went back home and I rushed to Aldi's to do more shopping. I eventually hiked out of Freudenstadt in the dark. I had to camp close to civilisation and despite the winter weather there were still people out jogging making stealth camping a bit risky... but nobody detected my tent.

Unfortunately I had not realised that a storm warning had been issued for the next night. I had planned to camp in or next to a shelter that was indicated on my maps but when I arrived there in the last rays of daylight I found out that it was more a house than a shelter and telling from the smoke coming out of the chimney people were actually staying there! I did not have much choice but hiking on which brought me on top of a 900 m mountain - very exposed, but luckily there was an open shelter. I deliberated whether I should set up my tent inside the huge shelter and luckily decided for it! During the night the weather got worse and worse: I could hear the wind howling with storm force and saw to my great horror that my tent started to get covered in snow - inside the shelter!!!! When I woke up in the morning everything inside the shelter was covered with about 5 cm of snow and outside there was at least 30 cm of fresh powder snow with the storm still going on.

The storm turned into a thunderstorm and I must admit that I have never experienced thunder and lightning in a snow storm before. When the whiteout had disappeared I hiked in a beautiful and untouched winter land scape but the snow slowed down my progress and in the end I had to take a train for the last km into Pforzheim. In Pforzheim all three long-distance routes through the Black Forest converge: Westweg, Mittelweg and Ostweg. Pforzheim has been completely destroyed in WWII and is now about one of the ugliest German cities I have ever seen. I lacks any charm and the only interesting thing to see there is the jewellery museum. But this was my one and only day in a bed on this trip.Unfortunately, couchsurfing has failed me in Pforzheim and therefore I had booked myself into a B&B.

The next day was the 31st of December and I definitely wanted to avoid the noise of the fireworks by camping in the forest which turned out to be more difficult than expected. I was still very close to Pforzheim and although I was at least 2 km from the next village I was still woken up by the noise of the fireworks at midnight. Happy new year then! Lighting the fireworks must have been a big problem that night as the weather had changed dramatically from subfreezing temperatures and snow to 14 degrees Celsius and rain!!! Of course my rain jacket had failed me again and I had arrived soaking wet at my shelter. This drastic temperature change led to a complete snow melt and turned the trails into mud pools - and flooded the rivers. I started 2012 with hiking in spring like temperatures....

Mark stone
The rest of my hike on the Ostweg was a wet and damp affair - luckily I could camp a lot inside shelters which reduced condensation in the tent and made packing in the morning so much more comfortable. But I came across a last highlight in Calw: The Hermann Hesse Museum. Although I am not the biggest fan of this author I learnt a lot and really enjoyed this informative little museum that kept me busy for almost 2 hours! I spent my last night in a shelter again because there was another storm warning. The wind was blowing my tent around even inside the shelter! When I broke camp in the morning before sunrise I was nearly caught by a logging truck but luckily the forest workers had probably not expected a lunatic camping in the storm and I could escape undetected. At least the train trip back to Berlin turned out to be uneventful...

This trip had been a test trip for an extended winter camping trip in the Southern Appalachian Mountains in the US. And unfortunately I had to realise that my gear set up is not to this challenge: My winter sleeping bag and a new cell foam mat are so bulky that I had to switch to an old, very big backpack in order to even fit everything in. My new Integral Designs rain jacket had leaked like a sieve and does not even deserve the name rain jacket! I do not understand why it has gotten so many positive reviews. And on top of that all my WM Puma sleeping bag which is rated down to almost arctic temperatures was just about adequate because all the dampness reduced its warming capacities. I have to think about some serious gear adjustments before I can tackle months long winter trips...

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Winter trip in the Black Forest: A surprise beginning

Ursula and Alfred
I do hate Christmas and I do hate New Year - especially the noise of fireworks that scares the shit out of me. So for many years now I have always tried to spend those days in the middle of nowhere on my own. But this year I have had a very nice invitation to spend Christmas with my old hiking friend Ursula aka Fritz in the Black Forest which I could easily combine with some winter hiking and camping. Ursula is not only the only other German female Triple Crowner, but she has done a tremendous amount of hiking, paddling and cycling. She has not only paddled the Yukon, but also the Mississippi which is another river high on my list. So I was looking forward to some fantastic Christmas food, lots of paddling advice and an interesting winter trip.

Train evacuation
Alas, things did not start smoothly. I had booked a train ticket with efficient Deutsche Bahn to Ursula's town, a journey that would take about 7 hours. Unfortunately, it would take me more than 12 hours.... Just one hour after leaving Berlin I suddenly smelt something burnt like hot metal. I must admit that I started to worry what was going on when the train slowed down more and more and eventually came to a full stop in the middle of nowhere. As this was the main track between Berlin and Hannover it was definitely not a good place to stop: Something must be awfully wrong. Sure enough after a couple of minutes we learnt that a wheel had overheated (therefore the burnt smell) and could not be repaired: the train would have to be evacuated! This sounded easier than it was because we are not talking about a dinky little tshu-tshu train but a ultramodern high speed ICE on a busy electrified and fenced in track First .of all another train big enough for 240 passengers had to come (which took 2 hours) and stop alongside our train thus blocking the route completely. Tremendous delays for all following trains were the result. Then firemen would put ladders between the two trains on which passengers could pass from one train to another. And eventually 240 passengers including all their luggage had to get into the evacuation train on only two ladders... The whole operation took 215 minutes and of course I missed all connecting trains and arrived 5 hours late - and all this on the 24th of December! It was indeed a merry Christmas for me.... (Germans celebrate Christmas on the evening of the 24th).

The tractor and me
But as if to compensate for all that hassle the weather turned really nice once I had arrived and I experienced the first white Christmas in decades! I devoured a whole Black Forest cake and tons of fantastic Christmas biscuit. We went for short hikes with dog Leika who loved the snow but was shit scared of wind turbines... Ursula's partner Alfred collects old tractors and he insisted that I should test drive one. I was very much afraid to start with, but hey - I had just come back from the UK where I had been steering a 18 meter long narrow boat. Driving a tractor could not be much worse - and it was not. It was great fun instead and an unforgettable experience. But before I set off with Ursula on a winter hike we had some interesting sightseeing experience: Hans Grohe is a global manufacturer of designer bathroom fittings and its headquarters are in Schiltach which is smack bang on my Black Forest hiking trail. Integrated in the factory complex is the Aquademie, a water experience centre with a bathroom museum, design exhibition and a life shower experience. I had hoped it would be nice but it exceeded my expectations by far: First of all the whole thing is free. That includes free entry to a fantastic little museum with bathrooms from 5 centuries, a posh designer area, an audio guide to all that and a free drink. If you reserve ahead you can even experience the shower world where you can "test shower" HansGrohe products. Everything is supplied from towels to shower gels and body lotions. Unfortunately this was the start of my hike; elsewise this would have been the perfect opportunity for a dirty hiker to get a luxury shower. Honestly: this is a fantastic secret tip: If you hike the Mittelweg in the Black Forest, try to visit HansGrohe - it is definitely worth it.