The Großer Krottenkopf is the highest mountain in the Allgäu Alps, which straddle the boundary between Germany and Austria to the northwest of the Lech River valley. The mountain stands in a dense network of hiking trails, including the E5 (which goes from the western coast of France to the Mediterranean coast in Italy) and the Heilbronner Weg (a 2-3 day round trip in the Allgäu Alps). Accordingly, there are several ways to get to and from the mountain.
After my Ruitelspitze adventure, I reconsidered my “by fair means” ambitions, especially because there was – ach, the shame! – a chairlift on my route to the Großer Krottenkopf. And given the chance to lop off about 300 m / 1,000 ft of ascent, I thought, yes, it must be. But don’t worry, because I still managed to blow myself up, although for completely different – and unexpected – reasons.
Before I left, I showed Clair the routes that I was considering, depending on the weather and how I was feeling. I had three options: (1) up to the Krottenkopf, then retrace my steps and take the lift down; (2) Krottenkopf, then down to the west into the Höhenbachtal valley and back to Holzgau; or (3) the longest way, heading east to the Hermann-von-Barth Hütte and then down to Elbigenalp. I told her I would text her when I knew what I was going to do.
I was the first passenger on the Jöchelspitzbahn in Bach that morning. Clair and Emil drove me up to the valley lift station, where I hope Emil was impressed that I headed into the clouds to scale monumental precipices. Or maybe he just saw his papa hop into a chair and be escorted into the sky.
Upon exiting the lift at the foot of the Jöchelspitze (2,226 m / 7,303 ft), I decided to assuage my wounded masculinity by charging up the grassy slopes to the summit. There’s a well-worn trail to the top, and it felt good to be on solid ground and ascending quickly. I felt even stronger after recovering from the Ruitelspitze, and I fell into rhythm quickly.
After a quick snack on the Jöchelspitze, I headed down into a meadow-like saddle that led north to the Krottenkopf. The path was extremely well-marked, which after the route-finding debacle(s) on the Ruitelspitze was a big relief. The hiking was very pleasant, and I was pretty much alone except for one couple and a small herd of bleating sheep. There were a couple of sections that led over steep broken rock, and there was some cabling that provided a limited sense of security. I say that because I tugged on one cable to see how tight it was, and the anchor bolt had come out below, so it was kind of swinging over a serious drop.
Fog began to waft down from the peaks as I passed by small pools of crystal-clear alpine water surrounded by flowers and mosses. It was absolutely quiet except for the wind, which was slowly gaining force. From time to time, the fog would pull apart and I could see massive peaks rearing up to the east. One of them was the Großer Krottenkopf.
The trail headed north into a bowl, with the great bulk of the Ramstallspitze looming up to the east.
A sign indicated the way east to the Krottenkopfscharte (the notch or gap between the Großer Krottenkopf and the Ramstallspitze, located at 2,350 m / 7,710 ft). The trail led steeply upwards into ever-thicker fog, and the wind was really blowing down from the gap now.
I reached the Krottenkopfscharte in very good time, and the landscape began to take on the lunar feel of an alpine peak: talus and scree, paths increasingly difficult to discern. As if in response to my underdeveloped route-finding skills, there were red dots painted every few feet on the rock, indicating which way to go. I have to say that I was offended at first that there were so many markings – this is a mountain, not a game of connect-the-dots – but as the fog really closed in, I was grateful for them because the path became anything but obvious.
I put my rain jacket on as the damp wind really began to blow, and started up the western shoulder of the Großer Krottenkopf. The light was very strange, as if the sun were really trying to break through the clouds and fog, giving the ambient air an orange-yellowish tint that flickered as if lit by a fire.
Finally the path began to even out, and the clouds lifted for a dramatic moment. The summit cross seemed to appear out of nowhere just ahead of me, with a slab of rock between me and the top. The slab was smooth, tilting down toward the right, with a small crack running along the upper left side. The lower end of the slab gave way to nothingness, like a plank extending out over a 300 m / 1,000 ft drop. I took a deep breath and stepped carefully out onto the top edge, every nerve on high alert as I placed one foot near the crack for purchase, then the next. Toward the end I lowered myself into a waddle so that my center of gravity would be lower. And then I was there.
I sat on the summit for a while, enjoying the solitude, the wind, and the tendrils of cloud racing by. The hike from 1,754 m to 2,656 m had only taken 2.5 hours, my maximum heart rate up to now had been 158 bpm, and I was feeling good. I shot a lot of photos, made a video, and used a rare moment with a cellular signal to send a triumphal message to Clair. And because I felt good, I decided to go with route (3): eastwards to the Hermann-von-Barth Hütte and down to Elbigenalp. I typed in the message, hit send, and stuffed my phone in my pocket.
On the way down I saw a few hikers headed up. I waved to them and talked about the route a bit, and then kept moving. I was already dreaming of beer and sausages at the Hermann-von-Barth Hütte.
So I headed down the 432 hiking path, saw the beautiful Hermannskarsee, took out my phone to take a picture, and that’s when I saw two things: my message to Clair had not been delivered, and my battery was in the red.
This was very annoying and extraordinarily distracting. I was a bit miffed that soon my data collection was going to stop – no more mapping, elevation tracking, pace, heart rate, photos, etc. – but I was far more concerned that Clair, who was quite pregnant and also had the rambunctious Emil on her hands, didn’t know yet whether I had made it to the Krottenkopf, or what my further plans were. I was carrying a charging cable, so I hoped that the hut would let me plug it in. I tightened my backpack up and went off as fast as I could.
The trail led eastwards over rough terrain, up and down, with lots of exposure to the south. There was nobody around. Finally, after what seemed like a very long time – maybe two or three hours – I descended to the Hermann-von-Barth Hütte. The manager of the hut was very gracious about me plugging in my phone, and while it was charging up I had two beers and a gigantic plate of sausages, sauerkraut, and potatoes. Still, I felt good, even though I was really worried at this point what Clair might be thinking after almost six hours of radio silence on my part.
After signing the Hüttenbuch (the hut register) and retrieving my charged phone, I set off at a strong pace, hoping to find a mobile signal. By this time, I was also increasingly pissed off at my dependence on technology; I wanted to be enjoying a day in the mountains, not worrying about battery levels and signal strength. But I also felt the weight of responsibility: I had to find a way to get in touch with Clair, and fast.
I charged down the trail, taking every fork that seemed to offer the fastest way down, with my priority being to keep moving until the village of Elbigenalp came into view. Then I crashed out of the woods onto the shiny gravel of a newly built road and wondered, where the hell am I? There were no signs, no trail markings, nothing, and I kind of felt a sense of dread: was I about to repeat my aimless wandering from the Ruitelspitze and its new, unmarked road? I told myself to just head down the road, because I could move faster on it and it definitely went down to Elbigenalp.
Two more hours had gone by during the descent, and I was getting a bit frantic. Clair would certainly be freaking out by now. I kept checking my phone for a signal, but still, nothing! I began jogging, which was clumsy with my backpack but I didn’t care.
Even when I saw the Alpenrose hotel below me, which has a free WiFi signal you can get from outside the building, I still couldn’t get any signal. I kept moving until I was standing on the street in ‘downtown’ Elbigenalp, and then in a moment of frustration – I really wanted to throw the damn phone into a rushing mountain stream – I just turned it off. I went into a bank to get some more cash so I could get a bus ride home. I came back outside, turned my phone on, and for some reason I was again connected to the digital world.
I quickly called Clair, and she was hugely relieved, as was I. She agreed to pick me up in Elbigenalp, and I headed over to the grocery store, where I splurged on Almdudler (kind of like ginger ale), beer (I managed to drop a bottle while standing in line – unwelcome attention), peanut M&Ms and a few candy bars. When she pulled into the parking lot, I gave her a big hug and felt like a bit of an idiot.
First, the good parts. I think I covered about 24 km in about six hours, with about 1,000 m / 3,280 ft of ascent and 1,600 m / 5,249 ft of descent. The ascent was fun. The traverse over to the Hermann-von-Barth Hütte was very beautiful. The descent blew because by that time I was fully distracted by my effing phone.
Second, lessons learned:
(1) If you’re going to rely on technology for whatever reason, be it route finding or communication, carry some backup power that doesn’t involve a power connection. But definitely bring a power cable along.
(2) In the future, if I have multiple options on a hike or climb, I’ll set a deadline for communication, after which it’s time to call the mountain rescue service. That at least gives the person waiting at home a target to keep in mind, rather than worrying the whole time about why I haven’t called.
(3) After my second solo hike on this trip, I have to confess that hiking alone kind of sucks. There is a point at which the silence and the novelty of being alone wear off, and then I begin to feel like a castaway on an island, looking for human companionship.
In my next posts – I know this one was a long time coming, but we did have a baby on November 7 and I started a new job at the University of Potsdam on November 16 – I’ll write about what I learned this year from the New Alpinism program, and what I want to do next year in terms of climbing and mountaineering.