Tuesday, 3 March 2009

100k ski tour to farewell Europe

It's been a while since the last blog entry. Things have been pretty hectic lately and I've been too busy doing things to spend time writing about what it is I've been doing.

This morning I packed up all my things, somehow managing to get everything back in my various bags in about a tenth of the time I spent back in Melbourne three months ago. Martin gave me a hand with a troublesome bolt on my pannier rack and then my bike (or at least the various parts of it) too was packed away in its protective case. And that was it, I was ready to go. I bade goodbye to the people who had become like a surrogate family to me and set off on the journey back to Frankfurt.

Luke had given me his German-rail pass, which still had four days left on it. I was taking a risk using it because it's registered with his passport and states clearly that it is non-transferable, but in all the journeys we'd taken so far, neither of us had ever had a ticket inspector ask for our passport and a thirty seven euro saving is rather attractive. Sure enough, the Deutsche-Bahn employee who came through the carriage just before we got to Frankfurt barely glanced at the ticket, not even noticing that I hadn't filled in the date (so it still had three days of travel left on it:P). Assisted by helpful Mitreiser (it happened at every stop actually), I dragged my bags off the train, down the platform to lift to the underground network, took the subway to Konstablerwache and then started the long haul to the youth hostel. It was only 500m, but with 60kg of luggage including a bike bag that only had one working wheel, it was extremely hard work. Watched on by curious motorists, I struggled for an hour, stubbornly resisting the urge to flag down a taxi (I probably wouldn't have fitted in one anyway). Hilariously, I was tailed by a police car as I crossed a bridge over the Main. They strolled over and after I told them what I had in the bag, they sheepishly admitted that they had thought I was planning to parachute off the bridge. Considering it was about 10m down to the water, I found their concern rather comical. Any BASE-jumping attempt from that height would surely result in the jumper receiving a Darwin-award for their swift death by drowning (I'm pretty sure even Michael Phelps couldn't swim to safety if he was entangled in a net of parachute silk).

Right now I'm lying on my bed in the Frankfurt Youth Hostel munching on what will probably be my last Riesenbrezel for a while (probably a good thing – the number of Pretzels and associated Laugen products I've eaten over the last few days is surely not healthy!) and waiting for Luke to show up. Tomorrow we're going to have to drag our vast array of baggage to the train station, drag it on and off a few trains, drag it through the airport terminal and then hopefully drop it off at the counter without having to pay any excess luggage fees. The thirty six hours of jet hopping to follow will be blissfully unencumbered with the baggage dragging duties transferred to various baggage handlers and mechanical lifting aids. If all goes well, I'll be back in Melbourne by 10am on Monday for my first day back at uni in what I'm told will be sweltering heat (gah! I much prefer the comfortable -2C average I've been having here).

So that's what's happening next but what has been happening? Let's rewind a little bit, shall we? I left my Ferienwohnung (holiday apartment) on the 20th Feb and caught a train or three back to Bad Teinach, riding my laden bike up the obscenely steep road to the Dietrich's house. The next morning, Martin, Franz (Martin's son) and I drove to some destination, whose exact name or location I am not sure of because I managed to sleep the whole way in spite of the ski poles poking into the side of my head. There we met Gregor, a friend of Martin, who was coming along for the ski trip too. Because the trail we were going to follow on our skis was of the point to point variety (from Schonach to Belchen – two towns in the north part of the Black Forest), we needed to have a car at both ends, so we then drove to Belchen, parked Martin's car and then crammed ourselves into Gregor's car for the drive back to the start.

I was still feeling quite groggy from the travel and the sleeping and the big breakfast I'd consumed and was strongly suspecting that I was going to be the weak link in the chain that would slow down the rest of the gang, but thankfully the pace was very reasonable and I had no problems keeping up. The skies were grey and overcast, but the ubiquituous Fir trees of the Black Forest still made for a charming backdrop for the well groomed trail. The terrain wasn't at all challenging with only gentle ascents and descents and I found myself really enjoying the experience. The others were still finding their skiing legs, which meant I had plenty of time to get over my grogginess as I waited at the bottom of the hills for them to catch up ('Voll Kamikaze' is the only way I know to approach a downhill:P). There were still more breaks for reviving cups of tea from Thermoses. All in all, it was a very different style of skiing to what I had done over the previous two weeks. Alone, I generally don't take any breaks at all (excluding the occasional venture into the trees to empty my bladder), but I was perfectly content to take it easy for a change.

I think it took us about six hours to do the eighteen km to our stop for the night: a Naturfreundehaus ('Nature friends house'). It was situated right on the trail, so we barely had to go fifty metres to get out of the cold. While the others relaxed inside, I swapped my skis for running shoes and went for a jog on the ice and snow covered road, much to the bemusement of the families returning from the toboggan slopes ('Did you lose your skis or something?').

Dinner that night was in the house restaurant, which being a shining beacon of traditional German cuisine, had very little to offer for vegans. I settled for the tried and true option: Pommes frites (two plates worth) and salad. Not very nutritious, but oh well. Very tired, I was ready to go to bed but the witches would have none of that on Fasnat! Fasching had come to the Naturfreundehaus in the form of several men dressed up in cloaks and hideous masks, carrying inflated calf bladders, with which they playfully bashed patrons of the restaurant over the head while cackling gleefully.

Fasching is a Catholic tradition that dates back to the middle ages in Germany. To celebrate the end of Winter, people dress up in colourful costumes, which are different in each region; parade through city streets, grabbing on-lookers and shutting them in cages; and generally have a jolly old time (often assisted by imbibing large amounts of alcohol). The festivities last several weeks, shifting from city to city each weekend. We left for the skiing trip at the height of the celebrations when children (and many adults) get a week off school.

The next day I took full advantage of the breakfast buffet; eating bowl after bowl of muesli until the proprietors declined to set out any more and then stuffing my face with delicious rye bread. I'd estimate I ate around four times as much as the average guest:P That would teach them to not have a decent dinner menu for people of my dietary persuasion! Well fueled for the twenty eight km scheduled for the day, I headed down to the ski room to pick up my means of propulsion over the snow only to discover that some terrible person had made off with my (rented) stocks! I was left with a similar looking pair that was a good 40cm too short for me. Martin joked that he wished it had happened to him – one of his plastic retainers had broken off completely leaving a rather pathetic looking stick.

It had snowed the previous night, only stopping about an hour before we set off, which meant that the trail was no longer groomed. Ordinarily this would spell hard work as we'd have to gouge out our own track into the snow, but happily, a group of seven fellow Rucksackläufer had already done the hard work for us. We made solid progress, going much faster than the day before even though there were quite a few hills in the mix. Gregor was really struggling though. His backpack weighed probably twice as much as mine and he admitted that he hadn't done any training whatsoever for the trek. Martin and Franz hadn't spent much time on skis either, but they're both pretty active and had no problems. After fifteen km, we stopped at a tavern for lunch (chips were the only option for me again) and Gregor decided he'd had enough for the day. He'd catch a bus and meet us at the farm where we were going to spend the night.

It was definitely the right decision because by the time we reached our destination, I was completely exhausted and so were Martin and Franz. Gregor definitely wouldn't have made it and it probably would have been dark by the time we got there if he had come with us. Going for a run wasn't an attractive option at all but I forced myself back out into the frigid air and surprisingly felt better for the slow four km I managed before it got too dark to continue.

After all that exercise, my appetite was taking on colossal proportions. Carbs were needed in great quantities, but I was a bit apprehensive about eating dinner. The farmer's wife had kindly agreed to make dinner for us, but it was pretty clear that vegans and even vegetarians were a foreign concept to her. I gingerly picked out fried potatoes from the side of the dish, trying to avoid the juices from the sausages and meatballs she'd plonked on top. If it hadn't been for the bottle of beer she brought down too, it would have been a very sad meal indeed.

Breakfast the next morning was a much better affair. Home made bread and jam were present in great quantities and went down well with a pot of coffee that I had to myself thanks to the tea drinking tendencies of the rest of the group. Retrieving my skis from the garage, I discovered a pile of bread rolls and pretzels that had presumably been collected from a bakery at some point to feed to the pigs. Trying a pretzel, I was delighted to discover that it was still quite edible and stuffed my pockets full:P

Despite a fairly early start, we didn't actually start skiing until around 10.30 because it wasn't quite clear how to get back on the trail. After walking with our skis for about two kms, we asked some fellow skiers who were heading to Feldberg for a spot of downhill, and they pointed out the trail down below. Instead of walking back down the road, we opted to ski down over the snow covered fields. There must have been over a metre of snow, but the frozen crust meant we didn't sink into the drift like I expected and actually built up a bit of speed. Martin made it to the trail first despite my best efforts. His waxed skis gave him at least twice as much glide as mine with their scales to provide 'inbuilt braking' (of course the scales also mean that one doesn't have to stop halfway through the day, cursing as first the cigarette lighter and then the matches fail to ignite the portable propane blow torch necessary to melt wax onto the skis as the snow conditions change:P).

The weather was especially overcast that day and since we were up around 1300m, the clouds were all around us. Visibility was down to about twenty metres and all I could see was Franz's bright blue jacket set against a rather lovely field of whiteness. Downhills came as a surprise and I abandoned my kamikaze tactics to avoid flying out onto a road or some other such intractable obstacle. It was a relief when the trail went back into the forest and the fog subsided a little bit.

After eight km we reached Hinterzarten and since it was a pretty short day, we decided to stop for lunch even though no-one was really hungry. Like the day before, Gregor decided he wouldn't be able to make it all the way. His boots were digging into his toes making every stride painful and he just wasn't enjoying it anymore. So we called up the Jägerheim lodge where we'd be staying that night and told them to expect one less person. He'd take the train back to Schonach.

So we were down to three people. The group of seven who were also following the trail were doing even worse. Four of them walked into the pub where we were eating lunch and told us that one of their members had suffered a knee injury and had had to be taken to hospital. I was disappointed to see that it wasn't the fellow who had stolen my stocks. The day before, we'd gone past them and I noticed immediately that this guy was using my fine carbon fibre beauties. I was all ready to go up to him and politely ask him to swap back, when I spotted an enormous bend in the shaft that would perhaps be suited to slalom skis but certainly not for cross country. He could keep them:P

We arrived at the lodge without incident and were welcomed by the very gregarious Dutch family who had been running the newly renovated Jägerheim for the previous six months or so. They were most accommodating of my veganism and served up quite a good dinner including the best tomato soup I've ever had. Service was rather slow though (three hours for a three course meal!): we overheard some French guests remarking that it was 'manger comme en France' (like eating in France):P

I was a bit apprehensive about the final day. There were still thirty three km to the finish line and considering it had taken us almost all day to do 27km, I was envisioning a race against the dipping sun. It turned out quite the opposite. After a very steep climb to the summit of Mt Feldberg (we didn't actually bother going all the way up to the summit because it was too foggy to see anything), it was basically downhill for the rest of the day. I was infused with energy, probably because I'd drunk four cups of coffee with breakfast, and really went for it. We passed the group of five with whom we'd enjoyed a healthy rivalry since the start of the trail. That morning, Franz and I were waiting outside for Martin when they skiied past and called out 'Aha, waiting for us to groom the trail for you again, you slackers!'. Franz put on a show of running up the stairs and yelling to Martin 'Dad, the groomers are here, we can go now!' I was doubled over laughing and so was everyone else:P

It was going so well that we didn't even bother stopping for lunch, but just kept skiing steadily. Martin (who had picked up a cold) and Franz were starting to flag a little towards the end, but with the aid of a few shortcuts, we made it back to the car park by 3:30PM: the earliest finish of the whole tour! Some scumbag Belgian woman had parked in front of us, so we couldn't actually leave. I started shovelling away the snow that had almost buried the car after four days of neglect and luckily she did end up arriving just as I was finishing off the job. Driving back in the rain was very relaxing.

Overall, I really enjoyed the experience and can't wait to do it again. There's actually a race that takes place every year over the same course. The only difference is that they do it in one day, not four! I'd really like to give it a crack next time I'm in Germany. With skating skis, I think it would be possible.


I got back to Melbourne on Monday after a marathon 36hr journey. It's good to be home, but I do miss Germany, especially the cold temperatures! I'm writing this at 4am in the morning: I thought I was back in Aussie time, but woke up after two hours and couldn't get back to sleep.

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