Traveled from Berlin out to Schöneck (Vogtland) today with high hopes, a pulka, and gear for five days in the snow. I was travelling with a fellow outdoor nerd, Roberto, whom I had met on a white kayaking course earlier in the year. We were gambling. There had only been a few small dumps of snow to start the season. When we arrived, the base was thin but enough. We rigged up the gear after carrying it across town and discovered for the first time that our map was written by some sort of malevolent child. Shortly after we got under way, we discovered that the trail markings in the forest were made by a separate malevolent child. Nothing matched or made sense.
We were making this trip on Backcountry cross country skis. That is, normal cross country skis with steel edges so that you can fight bears or something, either way, we were rigged up to be hardcore. I am pretty competent on normal alpine skis; on cross country skis I am totally useless. A drooling idiot. I kept hearing an ethereal ski instructor shouting "PIZZA" - "FRENCH FRIES", but for some reason I tried the new configuration called "X Marks the spot" which usually marked where I would bail in a complete mess.
On the first tiny descent, I managed to bin it completely and ended up in what I like to call "upside-down squiggle fuck" position. For those unfamiliar with the terminology, it somewhat resembles someone being unwillingly caught in the loving embrace of an octopus. It took some ski pole yoga, but I managed to eventually extricate myself from the mess I had got myself in. My hands were drenched from a puddle which rendered them nearly useless. I thought of my polar hero Mike Stroud and recalled that he fell through the ice and was completely submersed a number of times. I only dunked my hands and it burned, yikes it burned. With some luck (and perhaps some prayers to Odin) I survived the afternoon without being taken out by the pulka or my own prowess.
We rolled into a likely campsite and started setting up. This part of the day was a little bit of a race against time. We were warm from the skiing but even though it was mild at -5°C, that wouldn't last long. We unpacked the pulka, put on some extra clothes and then set about constructing the tent and cooking dinner. Cooking dinner was an interesting experience. We used Roberto's fancy multi-fuel cooker which can burn pertol, white gas, or even baby panda teeth if you so choose. Unfortunately, we had a remaining canister of Diesel, which tends to gum up the burner's injector. So we had to melt our water ration using a burner with a bad case of the black lung.
The menu tonight was a No Holds Barred affair. If there is one thing I do in the outdoors well, it’s cooking good food! Tonight’s menu was Chilli-Con(sin)-Carne "Scott Jurek" Style. The recipe calls for plenty of dried vegetables, mushrooms, some canned kidney beans along with half a cup of Buckwheat to imitate the missing mince meat. I was surprised how well the spices fried up with simple tomato paste replacing canned tomatoes. The chilli was great. Served along instant mash, it was outdoor heaven. We paused and enjoyed the stillness of the forest.
After screwing around with my camera to do some light painting, we headed to bed. In the distance, we could hear the staccato fireworks from Schöneck. They were celebrating New Year’s Eve. The distant popping made it feel like a bad action film, except that I am not Brad Pitt. It was warm in the sleeping bag, a good start to the night. A cup of tea and a block of Ritter Sport chocolate was our New Year’s celebration. It wasn't even 9:00PM. Happy New Year everyone!
I woke up dry and warm. Miracle! Checking the GPS this morning showed that we were still disgracefully close to Schöneck. It's hard to judge distances on the skis, but I knew some creative directions cost us kilometers. We cooked up our water supply for the day and finished off the diesel. By the time we had completed the morning routine it was already noon. But you can't go without water.
We got pretty lost again with help from the map and the signs in the area. We ended up navigating by dead reckoning. We pulled out the compass, put away the map and just started heading south east. We had to cross some small creeks and haul through the forest undergrowth, but it was damn fun.
After a small stop for lunch in a village, it was my turn to haul the Pulka. I was surprised that the extra drag and weight wasn't that dramatic, but the sweating and puffing on the up hills told a different story. We made good time after lunch. We were both in our rhythm and made some good kilometres, finally. That is until we got to Klingental.
The map strikes again! The "ski" trail was directed onto ploughed and gravelled roads. No chance of the skis or the pulka sliding on that. After some cryptic directions from a local with a heavy accent, we headed off vaguely in the wrong direction. But either way, we had to cross town carrying the fully loaded pulka. We bitched, we moaned, but we eventually conquered. So we took the most likely path and got ourselves lost into the forest again. It was a steep haul and it was already dark. We were both joking that the next corner would reveal a warmly lit farmhouse complete with a wood fire, hot tea, and some sympathetic country girls who happened to be physiotherapy students who needed to practice their massaging techniques.
Instead of this rather agreeable daydream, we found a small clearing in the forest and set up camp. Tonight, dinner was lentils and dried veggie curry served with couscous. The powdered coconut cream from the Asian supermarket was a treat but had an unsettling nuclear whiteness about it. In the end, it tasted great and we had more than our fill. So we finished the night preparation (by that I mean "putting the chocolate in the fridge"), checked the maps, bitched about the maps, and went to bed.
Woke up today to the sound of little elves dancing on the roof . . . . Rain . . . .
Roberto and I didn't speak for about an hour. We just continually rolled over and tried to block out the reality with dreams of sympathetic farm girls. We told ourselves it could be snow; it could get colder later.
Not a chance. A quick text message to our logistics angel Svenja told us that it was rain and it would be the same for the next three days. The forecast had shifted about 3-4 degrees warmer than expected. I went out in the rain to "shake hands with the president" and tested out the snow. Slushy as hell. It was going to be a wet day.
We procrastinated for another hour, read a rather dark children's story from Svenja via text message about Lincoln the llama, ate some beef jerky and then finally packed up. We were bee-lining it for the nearest train station. It sounds rather lame from the comfort of the keyboard, but for a range of reasons, it was the right decision.
We got back into Klingenthal and waited for the bus. It’s a strange town, this place. It’s a lovely little valley with lots of old brick houses and steep pitched roofs. We started getting the feeling after a while that the farmers daughters we were dreaming about didn't find us because they were already married to their cousins. People literally held aside curtains to stare at us coldy as we passed. We knocked meekly on a few doors to ask for a refill of hot water for our Thermos and got turned down, which is unusual because I am adorable. There were some helpful people, but it had that feeling that the Sheriff would turn up in his pick-up truck and warn us that the forest is dangerous this time of year and we shouldn't go in there and that this is a quiet town where not much happens and that we best be on our way because folks here weren't used to strangers, especially strangers with cameras . . . .
It’s like we had found the Utah of Germany. Resisting the curiosity of investigating whether this town was hiding some man-beast like all the good horror movies, we got on the train. We were defeated but happy to have slept in the snow!
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