September 4, 2013
BERCHTESGADEN, Germany -- We were a baker's dozen; a motley crew of U.S. Army Garrison Grafenwoehr civilian employees determined to tame the Alps.
For four days, we hiked, crawled, stumbled and traversed our way through the lush and sometimes stark scenery of Southern Germany, fueled solely by determination and sweat.
Though it wasn't easy, the hike was well worth the effort.
We arrived bright and early the first morning at St. Bartholomew in the Berchtesgadener Land district of Bavaria to begin the journey.
For the next five hours we climbed 10 kilometers of steep switchbacks, gaining more than 1,200 meters with 30 pounds of gear strapped to our backs.
After finally reaching the top and unloading our packs, we realized we had earned every awe-inspiring view -- not to mention the cold beverages and hot meals that came later.
The scenery was nothing less than breathtaking. Tucked away in a verdant valley, the Kaerlingerhaus, the first mountain hut on our route, offered a panoramic view of the Alps.
Mountain ridges peeked from behind the clouds and the ocean-blue sky glistened as a perfect backdrop for photographs. The bleating of mountain goats and the clanking of the bells around their necks echoed in the valley, creating a mini orchestra to complement the view.
Mountain huts abound in the Berchtesgaden. They offer minimalist accommodations - a single bed in a room with fellow travelers, complete with pillow and warm blankets.
They serve food and drinks and an offer a warm shower for an additional cost (usually three euros for three minutes). The huts are only accessible on foot, so the other travelers you meet are often on a similar journey.
Day two was relatively easy. We left behind the lush greenery and bouldered over a moonscape of sizable white rocks for seven kilometers and arrived at the second hut in less than three hours.
The group naturally split into different levels of speed and expertise, but the one thing everyone agreed on was that while living and working in such a unique environment, exploration was a necessity.
I consider myself an "outdoor person." I've journeyed on long hikes, I've camped, and I appreciate what Mother Nature has to offer -- but not everyone in our group could say the same.
And that's the beauty of it. You don't have to be a mountain man to enjoy nature, and experiencing the outdoors doesn't require that much effort. Many of our rag-tag team tipped their hats to Outdoor Recreation for showing them the ropes.
In addition to leading numerous outdoor activities and adventures, they also have all the necessary gear for maximum success.
Having the proper gear is essential. With any hike or outdoor adventure, you have to prepare yourself for the worst. And day three of our hike was just that.
We awoke to torrential downpour. Our next hut was 7.4 kilometers away and we would gain more than 950 meters in altitude on the trail, which was a barren landscape of slippery rocks.
Bundled under warm layers and rain gear, we eked our way along the trail -- slow, steady and safe, arriving at the Ingolstaedterhaus in a modest three and a half hours.
We celebrated our small victory with hot chocolate and a jamboree. Two of the hikers lugged their ukuleles along (a luxury at best, but well worth it), and we sat in a circle singing Johnny Cash songs and serenading the room with a loud, off-key version of "Country Roads."
Even the locals sang along. If there was ever a way to win over a room full of Germans, John Denver is a good start.
Waking up Monday morning was bittersweet as our adventure wound down and we faced a 1,900-meter descent.
Walking downhill may not be as physically taxing, but it does a number on your knees. It took more than five hours to reach to our original destination and we arrived collectively sore and exhausted.
The hike was a great experience for many reasons - the scenery, the feeling of accomplishment, the exercise, but most of all, the company.
Hiking in close quarters with someone really solidifies a relationship. Everyone had a unique personality and brought a different worldview to the table. We came from different places, with different backgrounds, but we all appreciate the travel opportunities this assignment offers.
So I leave you with advice: Explore your own backyard, take trips, climb mountains, challenge yourself and look to ODR for suggestions or assistance. They are there to help.
And who knows, maybe next year you can join our motley crew.