It's halfway through September and most of Europe basks in glorious late summer sunshine. A perfect opportunity to go paragliding without having to fly all the way to Spain. With train and rental car, it's five hours to the foot of the Alpspitze, a distinctive peak in the Wetterstein Massiv right next to the Zugspitze (and connected to it via the famous Jubiläumsgrat, an exposed high-alpine ridge for the sure-footed climber). Feeling rather lazy I take the Alpspitz cable car to the Osterfelder at around 2000m, just a few hundred vertical meters off the actual peak. Although the mountain station is packed with people, there are no pilots (neither on the ground, nor in the air). Not knowing the site, I decide to wait. It's not until half an hour later that a local pilot shows up, guides me to one of the two take-offs and launches himself into a nice thick thermal. I take my time, wait a while for the wind to pick up again and head off for a smooth evening flight down to Garmisch-Partenkirchen.
First flight in the Wetterstein mountains. View towards Garmisch-Partenkirchen.
The next day is expected to get cloudy early, so by 8am I am on the road to another mountain, the Grubigstein near Lermoos on the other side of the Zugspitze. Indeed, the peaks of the Wetterstein mountains are already covered in clouds, and they are threatening to envelop the nearby Grubigstein as well. After a swift ride up with two cable cars, there is a choice between at least six different take-offs, all numbered, well sign-posted and catering to most wind directions. I choose the one slightly below the mountain station as I can see another pilot readying himself for a tandem flight. It turned out that there is another, steeper and less leeward (with wind from the East) take-off within easier reach of the "house thermal". Conditions are still fairly weak, perhaps because of the considerable cloud coverage this morning, so I soon negotiate my way towards the official landing site. And what a site! Not only is it relatively small, it falls off on either side with the village of Lermoos to the North and East, and the cable car to the West. On the mountain side, albeit in a few hundred meters distance, runs a major power line so you cannot hug the mountain side too closely in search for lift. And if that weren't enough, Lermoos is at the confluence of several valleys and the associated valley winds battle for dominance as the day goes on. In short, landing here requires good judgement and a fair amount of luck and bravery skill. I opted for a lift pass that’s valid for two hours, giving me enough time for a second flight and improve my landing skills yet further. This time round, I do catch a thermal but it’s not enough to get me anywhere near the summit. I'll be back on a stronger day. It would be stunning to hop over into the Inn Valley from here, and then continue along the Mieminger Chain.
Talking about the Mieminger Chain... after having spent lavishly on cable cars the previous two days, I decide to do some hike and fly on the third day. My goal was the Hohe Munde at the end of the Mieminger Chain. It turned out to be an adventure of another kind. The route starts innocently enough at the Mundestadl outside of the village of Moos at 1100m, and then leads up a dirt road to the Rauth Hut at 1600m. The Rauth Hut is the last place to stock up on liquids, there is not a drop of water from here on. The climb proper begins shortly after the Rauth Hut. It quickly gets you above the tree line with views extending far into the Inn valley. It’s easy enough for most parts, only a few sections are so steep that you need to climb on all four. As I make progress, I delight in the near-certain knowledge that, unlike everyone else, I won't have to climb it back down. Or would I?
View towards the West summit of the Hohe Munde, another 100m higher.
As I reach the Eastern peak of the Hohe Munde at 2592m two and a half hours later, it slowly dawns on me that things may not be so easy after all. First off, I had run out of water. I had only brought half a liter, and made the mistake of not stocking up at the Rauth Hut. A longer flight was out of the question as was a continuation of the hike to the other peak at 2662m. Next, the ground below the peak was either prohibitively steep, or covered in rocks and rubble of all shapes and sizes, in which the lines of the glider would get caught up no matter what. And lastly, the clouds! Fluffy cumulus clouds they were at first, but they had by now grown substantially, especially upwards. It was entirely possible that within an hour or two they would mature into thunderstorms.
Unhurried but with mounting concerns that my premonition may come to pass, I stretch out the wing as best I can across the sharp rocks. Even sorting the lines proves difficult, and any subsequent attempts to launch fail from the outset.
The launch site that wasn't.
With every try the situation worsens. Robert Musil's Fliegenpapier comes to my mind. With a growing sense of urgency, I scan the mountain face for alternative launch spots, and indeed a few hundred meters down, it looked like the rocks were not piling quite so high. And wasn't there a patch of grass even? Just then as I was pulling together my wing, the outer sole at the heel of one of my hiking boots came off, and my foot tore right through the inner sole. Functionally, the shoe had just turned itself into a flip-flop, with the perfect flapping sound to prove it.
A shoe well worn.
Somewhat alarmed by this mishap, I trundled unsteadily to that new patch, only to discover that even there the rocks were too numerous to get the wing off the ground. All the while the clouds were gathering and the wind was picking up. What seemed unimaginable only an hour before, suddenly became the only sensible thing to do. I resolved, firmly, to retreat on foot. The descent was hard. As a result of my malfunctioning boot, I was no longer able to exert any pressure sideways, which is very difficult not to do when climbing down a steep mountain. And what had started out merely as a sensation of thirst turned more and more into a state of dehydration. I arrive at the Rauth Hut two hours later in a daze, exhausted and relieved, eagerly gulp 1.5l of apple spritzer (that’s apple juice mixed with fizzy water), attend to my various blisters which, because of my flip-flop induced walking style, have sprung up in abundance, and finished off the final leg of the journey in style by hobbling down the grassy slopes of the ski piste, boots in hands, to conclude, after 8 hours, a trip that frankly hadn’t gone as planned. But a little adventure, and a lesson, it surely was.