I was passing through Germany on a business trip, and given that there was no additional charge for a layover – and that the skiing around Washinton DC sucked – I decided to visit Garmisch- Partenkirchen, the biggest of the German ski resorts. I considered other attractive alternatives, such as the Austrian and Swiss resorts that were reachable by train from Munich, but they were all a lot farther (ie, about 3-4 additional hours each way) and more expensive to reach than Garmisch (which cost about US$25 each way). Also, non-stop trains run to Garmisch from Munich’s central station every hour, whereas getting to any of the other resorts was not only longer, but the schedule was much less flexible. On-line reviews were pretty much unanimous in their opinions that Garmisch doesn’t hold a whole lot of interest for serious skiers -- little in the way of steeps and ungroomed. But I enjoy fast cruising on blue groomers as much as the next guy. So in the end, convenience won out, and Garmisch it was.
I think the reports are pretty much right that there’s not anything here to give an adrenaline rush to anyone who regularly skis blacks in the US, with the exception of some sections of the Kandahar run, one of the 2 slopes called blacks here. The Kandahar was used for the downhill event of the Olympics held here, is used every year for some World Cup event, and will be used in 2011, when Garmisch hosts the FIS Alpine World Ski Championship. This run is groomed (as are all the trails, as far as I can tell), and so isn’t a huge challenge to just ski without wiping out, but if you like skiing steep groomed runs for speed, this one will let you get up a good head of steam. It’s 3200 m. in length, with a drop of over 900 m. and the record time is under 2 minutes. (That’s right at 60 MPH if you do the math.) Since there’s a section near the finish that’s got a double-black slope, I suspect they must give the racers a pretty long run-out!
For those who like to go off-piste, there are some good areas, where one can see tracks in steeps, chutes, and trees. The tracks are few, however, and I saw almost no one actually skiing off-piste, leading me to think that this is probably a place where you could find untracked for a long time after a storm. But given the topography, unless you know where you’re going, I think there’s a chance you’d find yourself suddenly looking over the edge of a 300-foot cliff (or, worse, looking over your shoulder at the edge you just went over!) unless you knew the territory well or had a guide.
My first day was close to perfect in terms of conditions. There had been around 8 inches of fresh snow over the last few days, with sub-freezing temps and cloudy weather to preserve the surface conditions. The day itself was a bluebird day to end all bluebird days, with sun, no wind, and very pleasant temps, which actually got close to unpleasantly hot in the afternoon for those of us who had dressed according to the forecast of continued sub-freezing temps. I enjoyed that fresh powder a lot. Unfortunately (from my selfish perspective) so did about half of Bavaria. The lift lines turned out to be, while not totally outrageous, still worse than what I’m accustomed to. Until they shrank late in the afternoon, I think I almost always waited in line 10- 15 minutes. Notwithstanding the sun and spring-like temps, the surface conditions remained great all day on the runs near the top, and some runs – including the top section of Kandahar – started mogulling up as a bonus. But by afternoon, the lower runs were starting to get soft, although they never reached that mashed potatoes consistency that seems to characterize spring conditions in my part of the world, around Washington DC. Still, I wondered what the next day would bring, following a sub-zero (C.) night to re-freeze that stuff.
The next day was – contrary to the “cloudy” forecast -- another bluebird day, and apparently even warmer than the first. (At the end of the day, someone told me it had reached 13 C., although I had a hard time believing it was really THAT warm.) Surface conditions in the morning were – shall we say – highly variable, with some very hard and some quite soft stuff near the bottom. But I have to say that the groomers did a pretty good job considering what they had to work with, so most runs had a nice surface – no ice. A pleasant surprise was that the surface on the upper runs was still packed powder in the morning, and remained that way pretty much throughout the day, underscoring the value of altitude. So that’s where I spent pretty much all my time – skiing runs off the Hochalmbahn and Kreuzjochbahn. The one time in the afternoon that I skied to the bottom just to check out what it was like down there, I regretted it. Mashed potatoes, big time! I understand that low altitude is kind of an Achilles heel of many resorts in the Alps. In the “classic area” in Garmisch, you’re skiing between around 2050 and 700 meters. The Zugspitz is higher by maybe 500 meters -- still low by Western US standards.
A word about getting around the mountain: The lift system seemed unusual to me in that it relies heavily on gondolas and surface lifts. There are only 4 chairlifts, and 3 of them are 2-seaters. The gondolas are pretty impressive, especially the 80-seater Alpspitzbahn, which takes you all the way to from bottom to top in one go. This one is not for those with acrophobia or agoraphobia, since you’re both WAY high and packed in like a sardine. But what a view! Don’t miss it. I don’t much like surface lifts, but you pretty much have to deal with them here at some time or another, although most of the best runs are serviced by gondolas or chairs. The other problem with this place is that they rely a lot on cat walks (ie, narrow, relatively flat trails that run across the mountain) to move people around. Some of these aren’t bad, but some are very narrow, littered with snow-plowing kids, and running along very nasty cliffs. So, skiing these is both boring and a bit nerve-wracking. And it requires a lot of poling. You know you’ve been poling too much when your triceps hurt more than your quads the next day. Mine did.
The mountain has an impressive array of sit-down restaurants, bars and cafes scattered all over. I doubt that you’re ever more than 1 run from chow when hunger strikes. And it’s reasonably priced by American resort standards. The first day I wandered into a sit-down restaurant, and had a Hochalmhaus Curry Wurst. (This was about the only thing on the German menu I could understand, and since it had both the name of the restaurant and “curry” in the name, I figured I couldn’t go too far wrong.) I also had a half liter of beer (I think by law that’s the minimum quantity of beer sold in this part of the world , and the whole thing set me back about euro 10. The second day, I ended up eating outside at “Onkel Toms Hutte”, wondering how many of its patrons had any idea of the significance of the name, and watching some enterprising snowboarders build their own mini- park. I had a very satisfying and delicious bowl of goulash and a half-liter of beer for about euro 7.
And while we’re on the economics: The price for a lift ticket was about euro 31 per day – quite a bargain by US standards. You can get lower multi-day rates. Rental gear was likewise a bargain – euro 52 for 2 days of K2 Apache Recon skis and Nordica One boots. They have 3 rental categories and this is the high end; the lowest was I think around 30% cheaper. They were very accommodating. I originally rented the equipment for only 1 day for euro 31, but liked it and extended the rental to 2 days, and they gave me the 2-day price. Getting to the slopes is cheap and easy. To get to the Hausberg lift, you can catch the skibus, which leaves from a point close to the train station and makes a few other stops in town, for free. From there, you take a gondola up, and from there can ski to the Kreuczek area of the mountain, where 2 other big gondolas are based. Together the Hausberg and Kreuscek areas are known as the “classic” area.
Finally, I should mention the other mountain at Garmisch – the Zugspitz. This is a separate area, considerably higher, where you can ski on a glacier. There is a separate system to access the area (either a cog-wheel train that goes through a tunnel, or a very long gondola ride from the base), and it requires a separate lift ticket. The view is reputed to be fantastic (if there aren’t clouds), but the skiing is all intermediate level and almost all is accessible only on tow lifts. My one other experience skiing on a glacier was not all that much fun, and I liked the “classic area” my first day, so I ended up not going to Zugspitz.
All said and done, Garmisch is a very nice place to do some cruising (in the skiing sense!) and enjoy the unforgettable scenery. Clearly, if one were in the US planning a ski vacation in Europe, this wouldn’t be the right choice for serious skiers. But if you’re in the neighborhood for a couple of days and the conditions are good, it’s a lot of fun.