It was one of these all too rare occurences these days; a child-free day alone to explore the dramatic Bavarian Alps in solitude and tranquility. Martina, my partner, had offered to look after our 2 young children and I was allowed out; unleashed to rediscover the once all too familiar world of mountains, lakes and valleys.
Like a captive bird, unexpectedly released from its cage, I dawdled somewhat hesitantly in my newfound freedom. I pulled on my walking boots and pontificated over what provisions to take before heading out the door, slowly at first, but then with a growing sense of purpose as I realised that the Bavarian Alps were mine, all mine, for the day.
The course was set. From the picturesque mountain resort of Krün, under the flanks of the spectacular Karwendal Alps, I headed up through a scented forest of spruce and pine towards my objective; the crystal clear Soiern Seen lakes nestling (at 1616m) below a dramatic circle of mountain summits.
The Soiern Seen were once a haunt of King Ludwig II, the legendary Bavarian monarch famed for his eccentric building projects which, most famously, included the remarkable fairytale castle of Neuschwanstein. Ludwig’s Soiernhaus was a much more modest affair in comparison, a simple hunting lodge where royal guests were entertained. Whilst Ludwig had no personal interest in hunting, he made pilgrimages to surrounding mountain summits such as the Schöttelkarspitze (2050m) where he even had a pavilion constructed to enjoy mountain panoramas in blissful contemplation.
Following Ludwig’s footsteps and now gaining momentum, I pushed ahead up the steep path through the forest, the villages of Krün and Wallgau receding into the distance below and fresh mountain vistas opening up all around. I soon reached the first objective of Fischbachalm at 1400m. Here the forest opened out and cows grazed placidly in a sunny alpine meadow.
Against a cheerful chorus of cowbells I sat down at a small Alm hut serving Bavarian specialities (including dumplings, cheeses and goulash soup) and enjoyed a well-earned break. A portly Bavarian lady brought me a much appreciated “Apfelschöle” to quench my thirst.
Refreshed and ready to go I set off on my way again, somewhat casually selecting the seemingly more direct route to the Soierenhaus in contrast to the longer “Tourist Path”. The direct route appeared to contour around the valley slopes in preference to the main path which followed the valley bottom before zigzagging steeply up to the lakes.
The smaller path was a delight at first with dramatic views of soaring peaks, rocky cliffs and cascading waterfalls opening out at every turn. However it wasn’t long before things started to get steeper, the path narrower and more exposed. “Only a short section like this surely”, I comforted myself, “…then things will be easier”. I was wrong. The route became progressively more demanding and seemingly life-threatening with each unfolding view.
Some sections of the path had crumbled away completely. I gingerly negotiated these, trying hard to blank out the drops below and images of my corpse being discovered years later. Some parts of the route were protected by an old (although much welcome) rusty metal cable. Hanging on to this gave an illusion of modest security, though just how strong it was I wasn’t sure. Periodically the metal cable would come to an end just when it was most needed, leaving unprotected drops into an ever steepening abyss below. I was not enjoying my day of freedom quite so much now !
Confident that this could not continue, I picked my way along becoming increasingly aware of my own mortality; “All things must come to an end..”, I thought to myself somewhat ironically.”..soon I’ll be back on easier terrain”. I was by now about two-thirds of the way to my destination which I could see in front of me, tantalizingly close, at the end of the valley. The thought of a beer at the Soiernhaus kept me going. “Almost home and dry”, I imagined.
But it was not to be. Around the next corner lay a particularly narrow and exposed section of path offering little or no protection. “All in the mind”, I tried to convince myself, but to no avail. I warily tested out the tricky section of path three times (with a sandwich break for personal reflection in between). No matter how hard I tried I just could not bring myself to negotiate this narrow section of path without being swamped by fears of vertigo and of tumbling unseen into the abyss below.
Stifling feelings of disappointment and personal failure I made my way back down the tortuous path and over the tricky sections again which I had previously negotiated. To add insult to injury, I was passed on the way down by a cheerful Bavarian family with three small children who had just traversed the tricky sections of the path without so much as the blink of an eye. Had I been too long away from the mountains ? Had becoming a Daddy and living in the flat lands made me finally lose my nerve and all head for heights ? Should I be applying for membership of the nearest bowling club instead of wandering the mountains as a listless nervous wreck ?
Back at the Fischbachalm hut I consoled myself with a litre of elderflower juice (in preference to something stronger) and determined to find out more about the history of the “interesting” mountain route I had just discovered. As it turned out, it proved to be a most interesting history lesson indeed.
It transpired that the route was known as the “Lakaiensteig” or “Lackies” route. My online dictionary describes a lackie as meaning; “Someone who does things for you on command in fear that they will get a severe beating from their master”. A somewhat apt description it seems as the path had originally been created by order of King Ludwig II to get his servants up to the Soiernhaus by the most direct route possible, in time to get the table set for His Royal Highness.
The principle interest of Ludwig was clearly not the welfare of the servants but instead to make sure that his dinner arrived on time and that a nice hot bath awaited his arrival at the Soiernhaus. Since the route was originally constructed in the 1800s, there has been considerable deterioration of the path. However, even then it must have been quite a challenge for heavily laden servants of the King to keep their balance on the precipitous slopes. In the meantime Ludwig would go the safe route with his royal entourage (travelling often at night and in a gold adorned sledge through the winter snows).
Not to be completely defeated, I opted to climb a lesser known ridge on the other side of the Fischbachalm as compensation for my defeated attempt on the Soiern Seen. I found a little used path threading its way up through alpine meadows and montane forest, climbing ever higher up the mountain slopes to the crest of the ridge above. Although steep, the path did not have quite the same life threatening potential for me as the Lakaiensteig. Soon I was walking through a lost world of meadows high and looking down from high above on the valley of the Isar.
I rounded a corner and the view unexpectedly opened up. To the North, the sun glinted off the turquoise waters of the Walchensee surrounded by the distinctive peaks of Herzogstand and Heimgarten (also favourites of Ludwig II). Far in the distance I could see the dusty plains towards Munich where the Alps abruptly ended and the flat lands began. Here, away from the more popular mountain routes, there was no sound and the air was still. A profound silence engulfed me, inviting me into the mountain’s secret heart.
I stood in awe of the unaccustomed silence for a short time before making my way back down the hill, passing the Fischbachalm hut before plunging deep into the forest again and down towards the valley settlements below. Did I imagine it or could I already hear my children already screaming in the village below ?
The pleasures of the Soiern Seen would have to wait for another day. But I knew that, like Ludwig II, I wouldn’t be following the Lakaiensteig next time (perhaps the time after that…).