The Bavarian Forest is a perfect place for snowshoeing, along with the eerie figures of the “Arber-Mandl”. Between the peaks of Großer Arber and Brotjacklriegel, winter sports enthusiasts can find plenty of options for downhill and cross country skiing too. Text: Barbara Grüssinger. Photos: Thomas Linkel
On "big foot" through the woods
Finding the way is a piece of cake for Peter. Moving swiftly, his red backpack stands out between the sugar-coated trees. He ploughs through the snowy slope as if there was no snow at all. “Keep going, Thomas!”, he calls. The photographer gasps for breath and plants his poles. There’s nothing like bringing up the rear!
Like little monster teeth, the metal spikes of our snow shoes dig into the crunchy snow, leaving dinosaur-like footprints in the soft surface. It’s an ungainly feeling, like wearing oversized flip-flops over your boots. You advance one flap at a time. The smaller your steps, the easier it goes. “Just walk” we were told - but it takes some getting used to.
It’s not long before we unzip our jackets, despite the minus temperatures. Our heads get too warm inside our hats. Our breath condenses in small clouds in the cold air.
Through the ancient forest in snow shoes
Out of respect for nature, we march along marked routes, only going off piste for short stretches. Whenever you sink into the snow, you come to a sudden halt. Peter leads us under ice-glazed branches, past rocks and bushes that look as if they have been wrapped in cotton wool. Just fifteen minutes’ drive away in Zenting, the fields were still green. Now you can’t see a single blade of grass.
“The snow increases the higher you go; you can really see it changing,” says Peter Maier, as we head towards the summit of the Brotjacklriegel. There is usually snow here from November to the end of March, sometimes up to three metres. “You really don’t need to drive to the Alps,” grins the expert, shaking snow crystals from a branch. This mountain guide knows his forest.
The “Woid”, a region for forest aficionados
The Mittelgebirge, or Low Mountains, stretch for 100 kilometres to the Czech border. Together with the Bohemian Forest, the Bavarian Forest forms the largest contiguous area of woodland in Europe.
For its inhabitants, the “Woid”, or forest, runs all the way to the border. Peter is a dyed-in-the-wool forest lover, who has been guiding visitors through the Bavarian Forest on ski and snow shoe tours for more than 20 years. He was born in the mountaineering village of Thurmansbang, just 30 kilometres north of Passau, where he now sits on the council.
“The Bavarian Forest is not for fitness nuts. It’s for genuine forest aficionados.”
He has also spent time in Rosenheim and Munich. And conquered summits in Tibet, South America, the Alps and Alaska. When he tells tales of tours with his climbing companions, you wonder how the Bavarian Forest can compete. “The Bavarian Forest is not for fitness nuts. It’s for genuine forest aficionados.”
Peter walks up the Brotjacklriegel almost every evening. A quick trip on snow shoes up to 1,016 metres then back down again. “It’s super, isn’t it?” he asks, leaning on his sticks. A short breather after a 270-metre climb. The forest shines like sugar icing; the tracks of a deer disappear between the trees next to our path. We decide to save the stop in the “Turm-Stüberl” on the summit for our planned night tour, hoping for a clear, starry sky above the 35-metre high viewing tower.
Deep snow on the Almberg
Pumped full of oxygen from my snow shoe tour, I spend the late afternoon on the ski pistes of Mitterfirmiansreut. Even though the Almberg is just 1139 metres high, I find the perfect conditions. I particularly enjoy the downhill section below the Almberg chairlift, with powder snow on the edges of the piste, and I keep finding new areas of pristine snow for carving my turns.
After a descent of around 300 metres my thighs are starting to burn, so I’m happy to sink back into the chairlift and swing my legs. When it gets dark, I move to the other side of the mountain and carve away under the floodlights, looking down at the houses of Mitterfirmiansreut, until it is time to swap my skis for snow shoes and meet Peter again to climb the Brotjacklriegel a second time.
Night walking with Bärwurz
“I used to come here as a small boy,” explains Ingo Müller, when we reach the “Turm-Stüberl”. We had climbed up using headtorches to light our path, past the Du-Stein - a rock that traditionally allows you to greet your fellow walkers in an informal way when you pass the 1000 metre mark. This is a mountain that brings people together. Although you soon strike up friendships here anyway. It gets snug on the benches in this wood-panelled room. At night you seem to meet snow shoe walkers and skiers that you don’t see at any other time.
Müller reigns supreme behind the bar. You have to get past him to climb up to the tower’s viewing platform. The doorway groans under the weight of snow - and stays firmly shut. It doesn’t matter, it’s getting windy and horribly cold. It’s much cosier inside, amongst the red-and-white checked cushions. People from all over Germany are made welcome here, even just as a good excuse to praise the blue-and-white souls of Bavaria.
Arber: skiing and snow shoe walking
The next morning, Peter appears at the breakfast table shortly after eight o’clock: “Off we go” on a day of advanced snow fun. We head north, past Grafenau and Spiegelau and leave the car up above Bodenmais. “You’ll love it up there,” predicts Peter. The plan is to climb up to 1,456 metres. The Große Arber is the highest peak in the Bavarian Forest and also perfect for skiing.
The pistes run through the dense mountain forest, with powdery sections for those who enjoy a deep snow skiing experience. If the gentle incline of the “Schmugglerweg” is too easy, you can switch to the black Osthangpiste, which has a drop of 342 metres and is steep enough to delight even expert skiers.
The air is clear, the brain switches off
But right now we have snow shoes on our feet. It is starting to snow and there are no lifts in sight. We have a good 700 metre climb ahead of us. Meltwater trickles over our path, our snow shoes scratch their way over gravel and slippery pine needles. Then the ground becomes firmer and suddenly we find ourselves in a white winter wonderland. The Kleiner Arbersee lake is frozen.
The powdery layer on top of the ice is finer than anything a baker could sieve. The path gets fainter with every metre we climb, with just the grinding snow shoe trail of the person in front guiding our way. The air is clear, our brains switch off, there’s no mobile reception at all.
Arber-Mandl show the way
Slowly but surely we make our way up the slope and now the forest disappears, leaving bare stumps jutting up from the ground. A storm cut a swathe of devastation through the trees and even now, the wind is whistling across this unprotected gap in the mountain. “Nearly there”, says Peter, pushing us on. The summit of the Kleine Arber, the last stop before our final destination, is packed in ice. The pine trees are arranged in neat horizontal rows like feathers. The east wind freezes the snow in the air, and that’s exactly how it feels too.
“We’ll take a short cut,” decides Peter, pointing into the white nothingness. Our shins tilt towards our feet, our belly buttons towards the ground. Wow, it’s steep! But at least nothing can go wrong. “There’s no risk of avalanche here,” says Peter. “They are rare in the forest.”
We stomp on into the wind, with visibility decreasing all the time. Then suddenly, the Arber-Mandl loom out of the mist. Like a line of pilgrims, they point the last few metres up to the summit. Giant figures in thick, white robes. These trees, contorted by the wind and covered in snow, have frozen into the shape of mountain figures.
Between them, the snow turns the ground and its secrets into an eerie lunar landscape. At the top, the snow has settled on our eyebrows and eyelashes. “Hail the mountain!” exclaims Peter, shaking our hands. We’ve made it.
Pitstop in the organic hotel
The next day, we drive through the 24,000 hectare ancient forest past Mitterfirmiansreut to Grainet. There the wind has whipped the snowflakes into a thick curtain. On the surrounding slopes towards Haidel-Berg there are many kilometres of cross country skiing and show shoe trails. “It’s coming down,” is Helmut Paster’s relaxed comment about the driving snow.
The landlord of the “Bergdorf Hüttenhof” picks up up in his 4-by-4 - our car had struggled, despite the winter tyres. The road up to the massive wooden chalets is steep. The Paster family has built genuine forest houses on the slope, with stone foundations, wooden cladding and small windows.
Ending the day with a hot tub and tiled stove
In the “Wastl Haus” the wood crackles in the stove and there are pans on every hob in the open-plan kitchen. Bettina Windorfer is happy to cook for guests in the huts: bread soup, smoked meats, dumplings, Bavarian cabbage and Bauernkrapfen (doughnuts).
We pull on our snow shoes for the last time. We could do this in our sleep by now. We glide up the Haidel-Berg, marvelling at how easy it feels: are we now in such good shape, and is that to do with the Bavarian food or the snow? Either way, it’s great fun. We prance through the snow, leave the summit behind and leap down the slope. Then the sun comes out. “Super”, as Peter would say.