Sunday, April 9, 2017

My Zugspitze Story

This is probably one of those stories which ought to be a 300-page book, but I'll try to weave this story into a simple forty line piece.

If you've never been to Germany....let me introduce you to the Zugspitze.  It's the highest point in Germany....right at the bottom of any map you drag up of the nation.  It's about 20 kilometers SW of Garmisch.  

Typically, most visitors to the mountain go up in the winter period and do some ski activity.  If you go up in the summer....snow will still be around but melting. In the summer are just there to gaze off into the distance, admire the scenery, sip some beer, and have a decent Schnitzel plate. 

There are three ways to reach the top.  First, by cable car.  Second, by train (yeah, those Germans actually dug through the mountain and built a railway to the top).  This is typically the way that I suggest that you go and visit.  Then, you have the third walk or hike to the top.  It's 2,962 meters above sea-level, and it's a far hike.  It'd typically take you eight hours....figure in a couple of stops, and a decent pace (nothing fast).  The trail is marked out and fairly simple to figure.....with lots of hearty Germans making the hike each year.  

So, this is how my story unfolds.  

In the region around the Zugsspitze....there is this extreme endurance race....called the Zugspitz-Extremberglauf.  It's a run of roughly 20 kilometers.  You start at the bottom of the mountain and run up the trail.  It takes an average of two hours for the better runners to make it to the top.

One of the odd features of the mountain is that weather fronts move in and out of the region on an hourly basis.  You could start the race on a completely sunny day, and find in one hour a fairly storm and cold front has moved in.  Even in July, it can be below freezing on some occasions.

So in 2008....on 13 July....the race started.  The weather change occurred, and the temperature became a problem.  The runners?  It's hard to say if they really noticed it or understood just how big a problem it was to become.  At the bottom of the mountain....the temperature was near 20C....but at the top and an hour was near 0C (freezing). Some snow was falling.

By mid-afternoon....two of the runners were dead.  Seven others were in bad shape and needed a helicopter to get them off the side of the mountain.  With snow falling, it was a miserable mess for the rescue teams to move in and help those affected.  

Lot of anger and frustration by the families of the dead.  Court action occurred, and the head guy of the event was given some guilty situation.  Appeals occurred, and by the end....a judge finally said that a fair amount of warning was given in the literature and this guy could not be held responsible.  In the US.....the families would have sued the event....but in Germany, that's the not the accepted procedure.

We sat and discussed this event in my office the next day.  As one guy noted, this was a demonstration of tough Germans....they weren't going to stop or discontinue their participation in such a race.  You would have had to stand up in the middle of the course and just order the event 'finished'.  I kinda agreed with that perception..

What surprised me is that the trails weren't closed off or some warning device installed to prevent hikers from making the same mistake again.  You can go up and walk this trail 365 days out of the year (I wouldn't advise it).  

Stopping the event entirely?  No.  It continued on for 2009.  Oddly....close to 20 inches of snow fell the day prior to that race on the Zugspitze in they went to a plan B course instead.  

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